18 October, 2013

Appearance of Edward II (2)

I've decided to update this old post a little as I still sometimes see people online claiming that Edward II was some kind of feeble court fop, and wanted to set the record straight (again).

Here are how fourteenth-century chroniclers described Edward II's appearance:

"Tall and strong, a fine figure of a handsome man."  From the Vita Edwardi Secundi, written during Edward II's reign by a very well-informed royal clerk who must have seen Edward often.  The writer expressed a wish when Edward's son Edward III was born in November 1312 that the boy would grow up to "remind us of the physical strength and comeliness of his father."

"Physically he was one of the strongest men in the realm."  Written some decades later in the Scalacronica by Sir Thomas Gray, whose father of the same name was captured fighting for Edward II at Bannockburn and who later served in the retinue of the Despensers.

"Of a well-formed and handsome person."  A description of Edward aged sixteen at the siege of Caerlaverock in 1300, by a poet who presumably saw him in person.

" A handsome man, strong of body and limb."  Anonimalle, 1330s.

"Elegant, of outstanding strength."  Probably 1330s, from the Bridlington chronicle Gesta Edwardi de Carnarvon (Deeds of Edward of Caernarfon).

"Fair of body and great of strength."  From the Polychronicon of c. 1350.

There are no physical descriptions of Edward II which contradict the picture given here, that he was tall, enormously strong and good-looking.  I don't see why there's any reason to doubt that he was indeed tall, enormously strong and good-looking.  The remains of his father Edward I ('Longshanks') were examined in 1774, and he was found to have been six feet two inches.  I'm virtually certain that Edward II was also at least six feet tall.

What do we know otherwise about his appearance?  Sadly there is no detailed description of his hair and eye colour, complexion and so on.  Looking at the illustrations of him below, however, I  think it's reasonable to assume that he had long, wavy or curly fair hair which he wore parted in the middle and framing his face, falling to chin level or thereabouts, perhaps almost to his shoulders.  Later in life, at least, he had a beard.  (Edward II Fact of the Day: his barber in the mid-1320s and probably earlier was called Henry. There's a nice record of the two men playing cross and pile together in 1326; Edward had to borrow five shillings from Henry in order to play, which he later reimbursed.)

Probably Edward II, from a manuscript dating to his time; a king dining alone.

Edward II's effigy at Gloucester Cathedral.

Edward II, from a manuscript of 1326/27.

Edward II, from a manuscript illustration where his father gives him the crown.

I've also written a couple of posts here and here about Edward II's eccentric hobbies and interests, to wit, swimming and rowing, hedging, thatching roofs, digging ditches, shoeing horses and working with wrought iron.  More conventionally, he loved hunting, but not jousting; I don't know of any record where he ever did so, though his son and half-brothers loved it.  I don't know why, but would speculate that as for a long time he was his father's only surviving son and heir, and as jousting killed several noblemen in Edward's childhood - the earl of Surrey's son in 1286, Duke John I of Brabant in 1294, father-in-law of Edward's sister Margaret - his father forbade him from competing on the grounds that it was too dangerous.  What would happen to England if the king's only son were killed?  Disaster.  And then when Edward was older, he'd never be able to compete properly against men who had been practising for many years.  Just speculation, but otherwise it seems odd for Edward not to have enjoyed the universal pastime of men of his class.  His love of eccentric (for the time) hobbies is borne out by chroniclers, Edward's own accounts and the statement at his deposition that his willingness to "give himself up always to improper works and occupations" had led him to neglect the business of running his kingdom.

The one thing you notice about Edward's hobbies is that most of them took place outdoors, and many of them involved manual labour, and an amount of skill and dexterity.  The king spent an entire month out of doors in the autumn of 1315, swimming and rowing with a large group of his subjects.  Combine this love of demanding physical exercise with the descriptions of Edward's enormous strength, above - a strength which seems to have been widely known about in his own lifetime and afterwards - and a picture builds up of what Edward really looked like, the kind of person he really was.  A big tall strong man who enjoyed using his own body, perhaps enjoyed pushing himself to his physical limits, perhaps revelled in his own remarkable physical abilities.  Such a man is the absolute antithesis of the utterly feeble, camp little fop claimed to be 'Edward, prince of Wales' in a certain popular and influential Hollywood film of nearly twenty years ago, no?  And I really do have to wonder where on earth the writer of a book published in 2006 gets the notion that Isabella "had known only the smooth girlish hands of Edward upon her; in their most intimate joining her husband must have fantasized that he was actually making love to Piers Gaveston.  And now this heated warrior [Roger Mortimer] took her, roughly at first, then tenderly.  And he never, ever imagined she was a man."  (Bold mine.)

And this book pretends to be non-fiction.  The mind boggles.  There is so much wrong there I don't even know where to start.  As we've seen in this post, if ever a human being is vanishingly unlikely to have had 'smooth girlish hands', it's Edward II, and this portrayal owes everything to stereotypes relating to sexuality and nothing at all to reality.  It derives from the same mentality as the statement in a 2005 book that Roger Mortimer "was everything that Edward II was not: strong, manly, unequivocally heterosexual, virile, courageous, audacious and decisive."  Here, yet again, we see Roger Mortimer presented on minimal evidence as the anti-Edward II, as though the two men existed not as complex human beings but as cardboard cutouts fit only to be squeezed into false, silly, meaningless, contrived - not to mention highly offensive - dichotomies like this.  We do not and cannot know that Edward did not enjoy making love with Isabella, or even, for that matter, that Roger did.  How on earth can anyone write a book in the twenty-first century and say that Edward II was not strong?  And what do 'manly' and 'virile' really mean anyway?  Let's face it, they're two words only ever applied to straight men, or men assumed to be straight.  Edward II fathered children with two women, was hugely strong, far more so than Roger Mortimer, it seems safe to assume, yet no-one ever calls him 'manly and virile' because, it seems safe to assume, he wasn't straight.  Always interesting to see how some writers allow their prejudices and outdated assumptions to colour their narrative.  The makers of the Hollywood film did the same thing, of course, turning Edward into a caricature, and so have many novels, even when it flies in the face of a wealth of historical evidence to the contrary.  Shame on you all, perpetuators of cruel stereotypes.


Sami Parkkonen said...

What does not sees to amaze me is that so many americans can not imagine gay or more propely bisexual man as a strong and butch. And yet, in USA, there has been several NFL players who have been gay. There have been gay boxers, weightlifters, quite few gay body builders etc.

Also, if a guy does all those past time hobbies with his hands like Edward did, no matter who he is, his hands will be rough, hard, as anyone who has dug ditches etc. can tell.

Despite the fact that we do not even know if Edwards love for Piers was even physical, for all we know it could have been platonic, and that we know he did have sex with women (he had children with them), some writers just twist their heads around the fact that this man was according to the people who lived in his life time big and strong and looked good.

If a writer during his lifetime says he was tall, handsome and strong, how we can think he was not? If he was remembered decades after his passing as tall and strong, how can anyone say centuries later that he was not?

Only those in whose minds the most ridicilous stereotypes of gays are alive and well, can make such claims against the historical evidence.

It is like with the stories about famous gunfighters of the west. Doc Holliday was around 175 cm tall, not even 6 feet. He was so weak physically that Bat Masterson, another gun man who knew Doc well, said that a teenage girl could have beaten him up. He weighted only around 50-60 kilos.

So not the dashing figure we have seen in all those movies. He was not dark haired but had a dull sand blond hair, nor his eyes were dark but quite pale grey.

Anonymous said...

Great post. I believe that one of the so-called 2005 "non-fiction" works you refer to is Alison Weir's book on Isabella, but I am curious as to the 2006 book you refer to as saying Edward fantasized about Piers when in bed with Isabella. IIRC, it wasn't Piers that sent Isabella into rebellion; it was Despenser.


MRats said...

Thank you for posting the contemporary accounts of Edward's strength and magnificent appearance. As you know, I just left a comment on your blog about "The She Wolf of France", decrying Druon's cruel and utterly inaccurate description of Edward. How wonderful to read the truth instead!

I also enjoyed the display of images. I noticed in the manuscript illustration that Edward is robed in the style of the German Codex Manesse, which Wikipedia dates at circa 1304. Styles can vary from one country to the next, as poor Anne of Cleves learned when her splendid finery was mocked by the court of Henry VIII. However, according to the resources I found while researching the subject, costume in the early 1300s remained largely unchanged from the last years of the previous century. That would closely resemble the fashion in the Codex. (Although many fiction writers, who evidently don't look into it too carefully, bedeck Edward in the more flamboyant mode of a much later time.) I think Edward's attire in the illumination indicates that it is, indeed, a genuine likeness.

You mentioned that, "We do not and cannot know that Edward did not enjoy making love with Isabella". I agree! In fact I believe there's evidence that he did. You wrote that during their visit to France in 1313 Edward missed a meeting with Philip IV because he and Isabella overslept. "The amused chronicler Geoffrey of Paris gives their night-time 'dalliance' as the reason, and says that it was hardly a wonder if Edward desired his wife, as Isabella was "the fairest of the fair" (c'est des belles la plus belle). Wouldn't you think though that someone might have woken them up?" Perhaps no one dared for fear of interrupting more than slumber. And the fact that the chronicler wrote such a positive assessment of the situation may imply that he observed hints of a romantic relationship to support his assumption. To me it even suggests the royal couple may have fallen in love. You noted last month that Isabella was Edward's "dear heart" and she called him 'my very sweet heart". Who can say it wasn't sincere?

A note to Sami, if you're out there: Doc Holiday is one of my favorite's, too! Also, you mentioned in a previous comment that you didn't feel novels portrayed Edward as "normal" enough. In at least a few of the books Kathryn reviews, we find Edward enjoying some of his favorite rustic pursuits. In Chris Hunt's "Gaveston" Edward thatches, and in Juliet Dymoke's "The Lion of Mortimer" Edward rows. There is also a novel called "The Fourteenth Duchess" by Mollie Aghadjian where Edward helps Venetian glaziers install windows at Langley manor. (I don't recommend the book, but I enjoyed the fact that the author depicts Edward as intensely masculine.) And I'm sure there are a variety of human aspects Edward exhibits in other works as well. What are you searching for that you're not finding? If you'd like to share it, I'm truly curious.

Which brings us back to Edward's appearance and manly attributes! Another wonderful post, Kathryn!

Kathryn Warner said...

Sami, thanks for the great comment! Yeah, apparently a lot of modern writers think they know better than people who saw Edward in the flesh what he really looked like. Prejudice masquerading as insight.

Esther, it's Eleanor Herman's Sex with the Queen. Sometimes entertaining but utterly ridiculous.

Kathryn Warner said...

MRats, sorry, I totally missed your great comment here somehow! :/ Thank you for the fab info about the Codex; I didn't know that!

Kathryn Warner said...

And thanks too for mentioning The Fourteenth Duchess, which is totally new to me, yay!

What kind of annoys me is the way that almost every time I've suggested here or on Edward's Facebook page that maybe, just maybe, there was mutual affection between Edward and Isabella and that their relationship was rather more complex than is generally thought, someone will always pop up to say Oh no no noooo, I've always read that their marriage was a total disaster from start to finish and they hated each other, anything which suggests otherwise must be wrong. Grrr.

Sami Parkkonen said...

I meant usually and in general. The image of Edward is so ingrained in general thought: "he was a weak king, gay, and so he must have been weak physically also etc". I'm glad to hear that some novelist depict him in more real way. I mean by normal as a normal man, not exceptional or weird etc. Just a man.

Doc Holliday was pretty strange fella indeed. Very few know that the writer of Gone with the Wind was a distant relative and created his Rhett Butler based on what she imagined Doc had been. Also in real life Doc was in love with his cousin who became a nun after he left to west and this girl was the bases for Melanie in Gone with the Wind. Doc and his cousin wrote letters till the end but she burned them all after he died.

Sami Parkkonen said...

About Isabella and Edward...

What I always wonder is this: if she hated him so much all the time, why she wrote those affectional letters to him after he had been imprisoned? Why they did show affection many times in public?

And most of all: why was Edward not killed once he was dethroned? Why he was kept locked up and in prison? Why he was allowed to live if she hated him so much from the get go?

Isabella knew that it would have been terrible mistake because of their son, but why Mortimer did not kill him? Who coul have stopped him from doing so? Right, Isabella. Why she did it?

Out of fear of her own son? Yes, but that is only part of it. I think she also had feelings for him, after all the mess.

MRats said...


I agree. Fiction often reduces Edward to a "gay stereotype". But his contemporaries admitted that he was a physically powerful man who enjoyed masculine activities. It's only the nature of his interests that they found difficult to accept. You mentioned that, "The way he got along with ordinary people tells us that it was easy for him to talk and be in contact with mere mortals." Though the chroniclers and peers of the fourteenth century criticized him for it, today many of us find these down-to-earth qualities endearing, human, and most certainly "normal".

I believe one of the many purposes of Kathryn's Blog is to share that information with the world. It would be wonderful to find the same honesty about Edward in novels.

On another note, the facts you wrote about Doc Holliday are fascinating! In the film, "Tombstone" Doc mentions his love for his cousin, but so much is fictionalized in the film that I wasn't sure if it was true or not. (But that doesn't mean I don't love the movie! It veers from known fact from time to time but it's no "Braveheart"!) I didn't know Margaret Mitchell was Doc's distant relative or that he and his cousin inspired the characters Rhett and Melanie, but looking back, I can see it now! I found a biography about him called "The Frontier World of Doc Holliday" by Pat Jahns. I'm anxious to read it! Have you ever been to Tombstone? I went there when I was a child and my father took pictures of me standing by the statues that mark the site of the famous "shoot out". (I've since heard that it didn't actually take place at the OK Corral, but only nearby. Is that true?) If you know of a website where we can blog about this, I'm in! Please let me know.

But if I'm not careful, Kathryn is going to need to rein me in the way she did the bloggers on her first post about Edward's son, Adam. And truly, I understand why she had to do it! By the time I was halfway through the comments I'd forgotten the subject and had to return to the top of the page to look it up!

You're right about your assessment of Edward and Isabella. As more and more myths about them are dispelled, we learn that their relationship is a virtual "blank slate". Just because Edward waited to consummate the marriage does not mean he didn't keep Isabella at his side and bestow upon her all the honor befitting a queen. It's even possible that Isabella may have been fond of Piers! We now know it's only a legend that she complained to her father about Piers keeping Edward from her bed. She certainly assisted Edward in his attempts to rally support from the nobility on Piers' behalf years later. (The only absolute fact I know about their interaction with one another is an entry I found in a volume of her household accounts which says she gave Piers a small loan.)

I also agree with your belief that Isabella influenced the decision to keep Edward alive. Even in Druon's novel, "The She Wolf of France", Mortimer becomes furious with her at the execution of Hugh the younger because he feels that she wouldn't be enjoying it so much if she hadn't truly loved her husband.

Sami Parkkonen said...

we can continue on Doc and wild west on some other way elsewhere. I read two good books about him and Tombstone and actually wrote one about it.

Yes, Edward was weirdo for his peers but from our perspective he would be brilliant. Think if the king of England today would be a good looking guy perhaps 190 cm tall with broad shoulders and actually one of the strongest weightlifters around.

He would go check out the West end shows, sometimes hop on the stage himself, he would do roadwork and work in building sites etc. He would be known for North Sea fishermen and Shetland fishers, since he would hang around them and go out to the sea with them.

Sometimes he would just appear in some pub and sit with the folks, laughing out loud for good jokes with a pint in his hand. And he would give few thousand pounds for the best joker just like that.

He would hike and hunt in the wild and still would have academic education and all the other aspects in store. Now, would that king be popular or what?

Anerje said...

Wow - great discussions here. First of all, the portrayal of Edward II as some weak-chinned, puny flouncing fop is totally the opposite of what he was. He must have been in fine, physical shape, and clearly loved outdoor pursuits - had he not failed in ruling the country, he may well have been lauded. We hear so often how athletic Henry VIII was - playing tennis, dancing, wrestling - and he's always praised for it. It's awful how he has suffered from homophobic stereo-typing. Likewise Piers, who was a champion at the joust and was said to look like the God Mars at Edward's coronation.

Sami - I am a huge fan of Doc Holliday - even went to Tombstone on his trail. He certainly was slight in build, with salt and pepper hair. Don't forget though he was ravaged by TB and literally drank himself to death. His reputation was not so much as a muscular, handsome character - but rather a sickly man with a death wish - he was amazed to be dying in a Colorado hotel in bed. Facing someone who doesn't care if they live or die must have been intimidating. Doc was always portrayed as the bad man redeemed by his friendship with Wyatt Earp - who certainly had a very dark side. Val Kilmer's portrayal of Doc is by far the best I've seen. It's also the best film of the story - the most faithful. It's certainly seen as such by the Tombstone Old Timers. Wyatt Earp was very cagey in his description of what really happened. The gunfight actually took place by Fly's photo studio, near the OK Coral. I so wish Sister Mattie hadn't burned those letters! Apparently Big Nose Kate survived until the 1930s.

Sorry Kathryn to hi-jack Edward's blog.

MRats said...

Kathryn, please don't thank me yet for mentioning "The Fourteenth Duchess". You might even want to kick me off the blog! It's a 1978 "bodice ripper" with two fictional main characters. Edward enters into it quite a bit, and even Piers appears a few times--as a blonde. (That's difficult for me to imagine.) And right after Piers' death, Edward squares his shoulders, stretches, and all of a sudden, "the king's mourning (is) over". Could anything be farther from the truth? As you once wrote, "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."

Though I enjoyed Mollie Aghadjian's manly portrayal of Edward, the novel is very unkind to Isabella, and it takes your most despised slander to the next level. (I hope that doesn't give too much away.) The two protagonists aren't even real, for Heaven's sake! You'll see what I mean.

And I've come to the realization that I owe you a debt of gratitude. Until I started reading your posts, I never liked Isabella. But now I view her in such a different light that I feel a genuine fondness for her. I believe that she actually loved her husband. In the past I always thought she resented him from the start, plotted with his enemies and lived for the moment she could exact her revenge. The inaccurate resources of the time only worsened my opinion of her. But thanks to your diligent research, I've changed my mind.

One last note: when you have a moment, you might want to take a look at the images from the Codex Manesse on the Internet. The colors are as brilliant as a plate glass window and the costumes are displayed in intricate detail. They closely resemble Edward's attire in the manuscript illustration, and they date back precisely to his time!

Anerje said...

Sami - did you say you wrote a book ? I have a huge collection on Tombstone - maybe I have it? What 's it called please?

Kathryn - I am truly shocked that the quote about Ed's 'girlish hands' etc is from a non-fiction book - UNBELIEVABLE !

Sami Parkkonen said...

Isabella, just like Edward, has had her bad press indeed. Sometimes I wonder have the modern writers really thoughed about who she really was and how things were back then?

She was only 12 when she moved from her home country to England and married much older guy, she was surrounded by men she did not know and a court she did not know and yet she had to act like a queen. Not an easy job at all.

I also wonder why an earth so many writers do not understand the fact that she also was a humanbeing with normal feelings, emotions and ambitions, doubts and fears.

Yes, I wrote a book about those guys and that gun fight but it is in finnish. I try to get it published but we will see.

According to the nurse who was with Doc when he died the last words were: This is funny. The doctor said there were no last words. And he contracted the TB from his first job, his first boss died from it. But it was also in his family, so we never know.

Sorry K about that last part of my comment. From now on I'll stick with Eddie.

MRats said...


Now THAT'S Edward! I love it! You translated his medieval pastimes into modern day activities. And he truly would be the "The People's King". I understand and agree with your definition of "normal human being".

And I want to read your book about Tombstone, too! I'm sorry it isn't published yet. Please work on it. You're keeping us waiting!

Anerje said...

Thanks Sami - hope you do get it published. And yes, I know about Doc's alleged last words - it's been misinterpreted that he died in a sanitarium, but it was actually a hotel. His descendent Karen Holliday Tanner has written a good book, as has Gary L Roberts. Ok, enough now!

chris y said...

You translated his medieval pastimes into modern day activities.

Yes, but if he carried on like that the aristocracy would have regarded it as unacceptable even if he'd been the most aggressively heterosexual guy in the kingdom. Subverting the scala naturae, they would have said. And if he actually paid any attention to the opinions of the trawlermen over those of the nobility, they would have alled it tyranny.

He couldn't win.

Sami Parkkonen said...

And that is what happened in real life too.

Unknown said...

I have to admit my impression of Edward II comes from Thomas B. Costain's "The Three Edwards"

Much of what Thomas says backs you up 100%. But he really does just cover the tip of the iceberg.

One thing about Costain...he is careful to point out that the "popular opinion" is what changes history, not necessarily the truth about the people involved. His sympathy for the many maligned people of history approaches yours.

Kathryn Warner said...

I like Costain's Three Edwards book, but much of it is fiction. I opened it up at a random page just now and read part of his account of Edward's daughter Eleanor of Woodstock (pp. 188-189). She wasn't a 'princess'. We have no way of knowing the colour of her hair and eyes so Costain's statement that she had blue eyes and golden hair is invented, and it's rather silly to say that we know she was 'gentle' because she took the failure of her betrothal to Alfonso X with 'equanimity'. We have no idea how she took the news, and how else was she going to take it anyway?