King Edward II of England was born in Caernarfon, North Wales on 25 April 1284, as at least the fourteenth, and the youngest, child of King Edward I and his first, Spanish queen Eleanor of Castile. At the time of his birth, Edward I was almost forty-five and had been king of England for eleven and a half years since the death of his father Henry III, and Queen Eleanor was probably forty-two. Eleanor, who died in 1290 when her son was only six, was the twelfth of the fifteen children of Fernando or Ferdinand III, king of Castile and Leon, made a saint of the Catholic Church (San Fernando) in 1671. Edward of Caernarfon’s three older brothers John, Henry, and Alfonso of Bayonne – named after Queen Eleanor’s brother Alfonso X of Castile – died in childhood, leaving Edward to become heir to his father’s throne when he was four months old, in August 1284. Five older sisters, Eleanor, Joan, Margaret, Mary and Elizabeth, also survived into adulthood, with at least another five who did not. Edward of Caernarfon is one of only two English monarchs in history with a Spanish parent, the other being Katherine of Aragon’s daughter Mary Tudor, and one of only three born in Wales (the others are Henry V and Henry VII, neither of whom was in the direct line of succession at the time of their births).
Edward of Caernarfon succeeded to the English throne as King Edward II on the death of his father on 7 July 1307, when he was twenty-three. Although he may not yet have realised it, Edward I had left him a very difficult legacy, which even a man better suited to his position might have struggled to fulfil: an unwinnable war in Scotland, hostile relations with France, restless magnates, empty coffers and debts of £200,000 (billions in modern terms). And as time would tell, Edward II was not at all suited to the role he had been born into. Utterly unconventional, he liked to dig ditches, thatch roofs and go swimming, and much preferred the company of his lowborn subjects to his magnates. In 1315, he even went on a month’s holiday rowing in the Fens with a “large concourse of common people.”
On 25 January 1308, Edward married Isabella, twelve-year-old daughter of Philip IV of France, and they were crowned king and queen of England together at Westminster exactly a month later. Edward was already involved in a passionate and intense relationship with the Béarnais knight Piers Gaveston, and contemporaries complained that there were two kings in England and that Edward revered Gaveston as if he were a god. The young king’s excessive favour towards his beloved Piers, and the many lands and gifts he showered on him at the expense of others, almost brought him to war with his magnates in 1308. War was avoided, but Gaveston was exiled, and although Edward brought him back in 1309, he was exiled for a third time in 1311 and beheaded in June 1312. A furious and grieving Edward II swore revenge on those responsible.
The birth of Edward and Isabella of France’s eldest child the future Edward III in November 1312 came at just the right moment to avert war between the king and Gaveston’s killers. Despite some modern speculation to the contrary, and the impossible story in the Hollywood film Braveheart that Isabella had an affair with William Wallace (who was executed in 1305 when she was nine or ten and still in France), there is no doubt at all that Edward II was the father of Edward III and of Isabella’s three younger children John, Eleanor and Joan, born in 1316, 1318 and 1321. Edward and Isabella’s relationship was for many years a reasonably successful one, but when it went wrong, it went badly wrong.
Edward II’s reign of just under twenty years also went badly wrong. He did not have the temperament or abilities to be a ruler or a war leader, and suffered a humiliating defeat to Robert Bruce, king of Scots, at the battle of Bannockburn in June 1314. At home, things also went from bad to worse as Edward lurched from one crisis with his barons to the next, crises mostly of his own making. In about 1318 he fell for another male ‘favourite’, Hugh Despenser the Younger, an ambitious and ruthless young nobleman whom Queen Isabella and almost everyone else detested. Despenser’s greed and the king’s favouritism led to a rebellion against them in 1321, and Despenser’s exile for a few months.
On Despenser’s return, king and favourite defeated the rebels, whom they called the Contrariants, in a clever military campaign. Success went to Edward and Despenser’s heads and their subsequent regime became a tyranny, and any popularity the king had once enjoyed completely evaporated. In 1323 their most dangerous enemy, Roger Mortimer, escaped from the Tower of London and fled to the Continent. Edward II also irrevocably alienated his queen, Isabella, and when he sent her to France in 1325 to negotiate a peace treaty with her brother Charles IV, she began a relationship with Mortimer. With her son the king’s heir under her control, Isabella invaded England with an army of mercenaries. Edward II’s unpopular regime collapsed, and Hugh Despenser and other allies of the king were brutally executed. In January 1327, Edward was forced to abdicate his throne in favour of his fourteen-year-old son Edward III, and was incarcerated at Berkeley Castle in Gloucestershire. The forty-three-year-old former king died there on 21 September 1327, and some later chroniclers claimed he had a red-hot poker inserted inside him.
This story is, however, almost certainly a myth. It may well be that Edward II did not die at Berkeley Castle at all, and if he did, it was most likely by suffocation. His friend the archbishop of York told the mayor of London in January 1330 that Edward was alive and healthy, over two years after his funeral. In March that year, Edward’s half-brother the earl of Kent was executed for trying to free him from captivity. Later in the 1330s, an Italian priest, the future bishop of Vercelli, sent Edward III a long letter explaining how his father had escaped from Berkeley Castle, and Edward III met and spent time with a man in Germany in 1338 “who says he is the king’s father.” It is entirely typical of Edward II, one of the most unconventional and eccentric men who ever sat on the English throne, that we can’t say for certain how or even when or where he died…