"I do not remember to have heard that one man so loved another. Jonathan cherished David, Achilles loved Patroclus. But we do not read that they were immoderate. Our King, however, was incapable of moderate favour, and on account of Piers was said to forget himself, and so Piers was accounted a sorcerer." (Vita Edwardi Secundi)
I suppose most people have heard of Piers Gaveston, whose life and career have often been used as a warning against royal favourites. Originally I'd intended to write a post on his political life, his three exiles from England, execution, and so on, but then I thought that this is easily available to read elsewhere - for example, his Wikipedia page, Everything, and this article. There are also a couple of biographies of him, by J. S. Hamilton and Pierre Chaplais. So I decided I'd rather concentrate on more personal issues, which are not so well-known.
Piers is often described as French, but that's not strictly true; he came from Gascony, ruled back then by the English crown, and more specifically, from the area of Bearn. His family came from the tiny village of Gabaston (also called Gavaston). In English documents of the early fourteenth century, Piers was called 'Pieres de Gavaston'.
Piers' date of birth is unknown. However, Edward I granted him the wardship of Roger Mortimer in July 1304, after Roger's father Edmund died; Piers must have been at least twenty-one, so he was born in the summer of 1283 at the latest. As he was described as Edward II's contemporary, and Edward was born in April 1284, Piers was probably not born before 1281. His paternal grandfather was named Garsie; his father was Arnaud de Gabaston, first mentioned in 1269 and one of the leading barons of Béarn. Arnaud married, sometime before 30 June 1272, Claramonde (or Claramunde) de Marsan, whose father Arnaud Guillaume de Marsan and brother Fortaner de Lescun were major landholders in Gascony. Claramonde's sister Miramonde married Pierre Caillau de la Rue Neuve, of Bordeaux; it's possible that Piers Gaveston was named after this uncle, as the name 'Piers' doesn't appear to be a Gabaston/Gavaston family name.
Arnaud and Claramonde had several children. The eldest son was Arnaud-Guillaume, who used his mother's surname of de Marsan and fathered four sons. Piers was the second son, and there were apparently two others, Gerard and Raimond-Arnaud, about whom nothing is known. There were at least two sisters, who married in 1286 and 1291, so were evidently older than Piers. According to the Vita Edwardi Secundi, Piers' sister Amie accompanied him when he was besieged at Scarborough Castle in 1312, and his illegitimate daughter was presumably named after this sister (see my post about Amie). Arnaud de Gabaston also had an illegitimate son named Guillaume-Arnaud de Gabaston (all these Arnauds get confusing, don't they?)
Piers' mother Claramonde died in 1287, when he was no more than six - this gave him something in common with Edward II, who was also six when his mother died. There were rumours that Claramonde was burned as a witch; she wasn't, but it seems that many of Piers' contemporaries believed it, and it may be the origin of the Vita's comment that he was 'a sorcerer'.
Arnaud de Gabaston, heavily involved in Gascon politics and several times a hostage to Philip IV of France, fled to England in 1297. His son Piers first appears in English records this year, accompanying Edward I's army to Flanders. He was probably somewhere between fourteen and sixteen, and received a wage of twelve pence a day, a standard sum for a man-at-arms. He fought in Scotland in the late 1290s, when he was a member of the king's retinue. By late 1300, he had made the fateful move that has made his name famous (or infamous) even seven centuries later: he transferred into the young Lord Edward's household.
Piers was one of the ten pueri in custodia, royal wards, who were Edward's companions; he was the only one not accompanied by a magister, which probably means that he was the eldest. As his biographer points out, it's somewhat ironic that he was apparently intended as a role model for the Lord Edward (who became Prince of Wales in early 1301) - he was a little older and also militarily experienced. In August 1303, Piers is described in Edward's household records as the Prince's socius (companion), not his scutifer (squire) - apparently, he had already found favour with the young prince.
The first real sign that their relationship was a very close one comes in the summer of 1305. Prince Edward had a falling-out with his elderly and hot-tempered father, which lasted several months. King Edward I ordered a reduction in the size of his son's household, and also ordered some of his companions away from him. One was Piers, another was Gilbert de Clare (not Edward's nephew, the future earl of Gloucester, but Gloucester's cousin, the Lord of Thomond). On 4 August 1305, the twenty-one-year-old Prince Edward wrote a letter to his sister Elizabeth, asking her to persuade their stepmother Queen Marguerite to intercede with the king (he also wrote to Marguerite directly).
Edward self-pityingly described his 'suffering' over being deprived of his friends: "If we had those two [Piers and Gilbert], along with the others whom we have, we would be greatly relieved of the anguish which we have endured and from which we continue to suffer from one day to the next." ["si nous eussoms ceux deux, ove les autres que nous avoms, nous serrioms molt alleggez del anguisse que nous avoms endure, e suffroms uncor de iour en autre".]
Incidentally, William Wallace of Braveheart fame was captured on 5 August, the day after Edward wrote this letter, and was executed on 22 August. Edward was not reconciled to Edward I till they jointly held a banquet on 13 October, and thus had nothing to do with Wallace's death.
In May 1306, Prince Edward, Piers Gaveston and 265 others were knighted at Westminster. Some months later, on 26 February 1307, Edward I banished Piers from England. The odd thing is that it doesn't seem to have been intended punitively; the king decreed that the exile wouldn't begin until 30 April, awarded Piers an annual salary of a hundred marks (sixty-six pounds), and mentioned that Piers should 'await his recall'. Perhaps Edward I was concerned about the closeness of his son's relationship with the handsome Gascon. Prince Edward accompanied Piers to Dover, and showered him with money and gifts: the vast sum of £260, five horses, no fewer than sixteen tapestries in diverse colours [what was he supposed to do with them in exile?!], and two quilted tunics. A little later, Edward sent on two jousting outfits, one of green velvet decorated with pearls and gold, and silver piping, and the other of green sindon. His dearest friend would not be embarrassed on the jousting field by a lack of luxurious clothes.
Edward I died at about 3pm on 7 July 1307, near Carlisle. The new king, who was in or close to London, heard the news on the 11th - thanks to the royal express messengers, who travelled approximately 315 miles in four days. Recalling Piers Gaveston from exile was almost certainly the first act that Edward II made as king. Piers was back in England within about ten days. That year, Edward made him earl of Cornwall, married him to his (Edward's!) niece Margaret de Clare, and awarded him one of the highest incomes in England - around £4000 a year. Edward, now twenty-three, and Piers spent the first Christmas of his reign together in Wye, Kent, a manor of the Abbey of Battle. In early 1308, Piers acted as Regent of England for two weeks, while Edward went to France to marry Isabella. Perhaps surprisingly, he did nothing at all controversial during his tenure (apart from making the earls who remained in England kneel to him), and his biographer Hamilton postulates that, without Edward, he was uncomfortable and out of his depth.
Piers played a huge role at the coronation of Edward and Isabella at Westminster Abbey on 25 February 1308. All the other English earls wore cloth-of-gold, as they had the right to do in the king's presence, but Piers dressed in regal purple trimmed with pearls. To the great annoyance of just about everyone present - including Queen Isabella, I imagine - Piers took last and most important place in the procession into the Abbey, just in front of Edward and Isabella themselves. He carried the crown of St Edward and fastened on one of Edward's spurs - both highly symbolic and significant acts. At the banquet afterwards, Edward II offended everyone by ignoring his young wife and her family and focusing all his attention on Piers. The royal favourite was responsible for the organisation of the banquet, and it went badly wrong - the food wasn't served until after dark, was badly cooked, and the service was also poor. Strangely, Edward had ordered tapestries for the occasion, at a cost of five pounds, bearing his own arms and Piers' - not Isabella's. If Edward was intending to insult his wife specifically, and the French in general, he certainly succeeded in a very public fashion.
A further exile followed in the summer of 1308, thanks to Edward and Piers' alienation of most of the barons. Edward hit on the brilliant idea of making Piers his Lieutenant of Ireland, to the annoyance of Piers' enemies, who'd hoped to see him leave England in disgrace. Piers, perhaps surprisingly, performed his duties as military adminstrator extremely satisfactorily. While there, it's almost certain that he went on campaign with Roger Mortimer. Readers familiar with later events may be surprised to learn that Roger was a close friend and companion of Edward II and Piers Gaveston in the early 1300s.
Edward II exerted all his abilities - of which he had plenty, when he chose to exercise them - and got Piers' exile overturned in the summer of 1309. Unfortunately, Piers had learnt neither tact nor the importance of not alienating the powerful English barons. It was in the period 1309-1311 that he gave them insulting nicknames: the earl of Warwick was 'the mad dog of Arden', the earl of Pembroke was 'Joseph the Jew', the earl of Lancaster 'the churl', the earl of Lincoln 'Mister Burst-Belly' or Monsieur Boele-Crevée, and Piers' brother-in-law the earl of Gloucester 'cuckoo's bird' or, cruelly, 'whoreson' (filz a puteyne). I wonder if Edward II was offended by this unkind reference to his favourite sister Joan of Acre. At least the nicknames give us an indication of what Lincoln and Pembroke, at least, must have looked like.
Piers Gaveston was exiled for the third and last time in November 1311. The difference this time was that his wife Margaret was about six months pregnant, and it's not even clear that he ever left England; the barons sent men to look for him in Cornwall. When exactly he returned to court is not clear, as the chronicles are very confused, but he was with Edward II and Margaret in York in early 1312. It may be that he returned, despite the personal danger to him, for the birth of his child.
Margaret gave birth to his daughter Joan in January, and after her churching in February Edward II threw a very expensive party to celebrate the birth. He paid his minstrel 'King' Robert forty marks for entertaining them. Queen Isabella joined them, and she and Edward II conceived Edward III at this time. [I know I've written this a few times, but as a lot of people still parrot the stupid notion that Edward II wasn't Edward III's father, including a novel published last year, I think it bears repeating.]
Piers was executed, or murdered, on Blacklow Hill, Warwickshire, on 19 June 1312. He was run through with a sword and beheaded, then left lying in the road by the earls of Lancaster, Hereford and Arundel (the earl of Warwick, who'd abducted him, didn't even have the nerve to attend the execution, or rather murder). They at least gave him the honour of beheading, the nobleman's death, because he was the brother-in-law of the earl of Gloucester. His body was taken to the Dominicans at Oxford, who sewed his head back on and embalmed him. Edward II's reaction to news of his beloved's death can only be imagined. Although many people had hated Piers, the sympathies of most of the country swung violently towards the king, and civil war seemed likely.
Piers and Edward II had been forced to leave Piers' possessions behind at Newcastle, when the earl of Lancaster almost captured the two. These possessions were later catalogued and - reluctantly - returned to Edward. It's fascinating to see the kind of things Piers owned: pages and pages of jewels, buckles, clasps, more than sixty horses, pots, tapestries, cloaks, curtains, chasubles, cups, basins, carts....
Just a handful (out of a few hundred) examples:
"a buckle of gold with two emeralds, two rubies, two sapphires, and eleven pearls";
"a golden piece of jewellery with nine emeralds and nine garnets"
"another belt of lion skin, decorated in gold with a cameo, worth £166"
"one hundred silver shields, marked with an eagle"
" a fur-backed altar frontal of green cloth, decorated with gold birds and fishes"
A ruby worth the staggering sum of £1000 - perhaps a million or two in modern money - was found on Piers' body after his death. He was also famous for owning silver forks, for eating pears. Let it never be said that the man was lacking in style.
Piers Gaveston - only about thirty at the time of his death - was by no means a vicious or cruel man. He was handsome, athletic, bright, flamboyant, arrogant, and supremely confident (over-confident). He gave Edward the confidence that the young king lacked. In later centuries, Piers was often used as a salutary warning against kings' favourites, which has tended to obscure his own personality. He was about as far from the stereotypical image of him as an effeminate, perfumed court fop as it's possible to be: he was a very successful military leader in Ireland, King of the Joust, who could knock any man off his horse almost at will, a soldier as early as 1297 when he might only have been fourteen, or probably sixteen at the most.
It's difficult to see what he did to merit the death penalty, and I find it easy to imagine that the men who killed him were horrified by later events, when Piers was replaced in Edward's affections by men who were far worse.
Edward II, to his great credit, never forgot Piers Gaveston. He had his friend buried at Langley Priory, which Edward himself had founded in 1308, in early January 1315 (Piers was excommunicated at the time of his death and thus couldn't be buried in consecrated ground. Even after Edward managed to get this lifted, he was evidently hugely reluctant to bury his friend.) The funeral was vastly expensive and obviously a very emotional occasion for Edward. He paid £300 for three cloths of gold to dress Piers' embalmed body for burial and ordered 23 tuns of wine (something like 22,000 litres, or 5800 gallons). Edward later endowed Langley with 500 marks per year. He was deeply concerned with the well-being of Piers' soul and bodily remains: between October 1315 and October 1316 he ordered every Augustinian house in England and Ireland to celebrate a daily mass for Piers' soul; in 1319 he paid for a Turkish cloth to be placed over the tomb, which was replaced later by gold cloth; in 1324 he sent his confessor to Langley to mark the anniversary of Piers' death, and in 1325 he sent a man there with 100 shillings to give to each friar, so they would remember Piers. In 1326, the last year of his reign, he made provision for numerous clerks at numerous houses to pray for the soul of his lost love.
Piers Gaveston, earl of Cornwall, royal favourite par extraordinaire, born Béarn 1281/83, died Warwickshire 19 June 1312.