The painful fact of Edward II

As Simon Schama must have reckoned

Is no amount of calming unguent

Damped that ramrod up his fundament.

Edward II was King of England from 1307 to 1327. Although not over-blessed with leadership talent, he entered a long, hopeless campaign of authority over his powerful barons.

He acceded to the throne in 1307 on the death of his father, Edward I, granting the highest offices to his predecessor’s most active opponents. He was hated by the barons on assigning the earldom of Cornwall to Piers Gaveston, who was possibly his lover. In 1311 a baronial committee drew up a document called the Ordinances. It demanded Gaveston’s banishment and restraint on the king’s powers over finances and appointments. Edward affected to meet these demands, sending Gaveston out of the country, though he was soon allowed to return. The barons reacted by seizing Gaveston and putting him to death, in 1312.

In 1314 Edward led an army into Scotland when the Scottish king Robert the Bruce was agitating against English over-lordship. He was defeated by Bruce at Bannockburn, which secured Scotland’s independence. Now Edward was at the mercy of Thomas Lancaster and his group of barons. By 1315 Lancaster had made himself virtual master of England, but proved to be incompetent. By 1318 Aymer de Valence, Earl of Pembroke, with his group of moderates, had assumed arbitration between Lancaster and Edward. Edward found two new favourites, Hugh le Despenser and his son, also Hugh. The king showed his support for the younger Hugh’s ambitions in Wales, at which point Lancaster banished both Despensers. Edward took up arms on their behalf. His opponents fell out among themselves, enabling him to defeat and capture Lancaster, and have him executed.

Free of baronial control, Edward annulled the Ordinances, avenging Gaveston’s death. But too heavy reliance on the Despensers stirred up resentment with his queen, Isabella, who on a mission to Paris became Roger Mortimer’s mistress. Mortimer was one of Edward’s exiled barons. In September 1326 Roger and Isabella invaded England, executed the Despensers, and deposed Edward, whose son, Edward III, was crowned King. Edward II was imprisoned, and according to Simon Schama (and other historians, as well as Christopher Marlowe), was tortured to death, probably with a red-hot poker thrust up his anus.