Main content

The death of Edward II - the Welsh connections

Phil Carradice

Tagged with:

The death of King Edward II of England is a relatively well known story - the time was that every schoolboy in the country would happily tell you he was murdered by having a red-hot poker thrust into a very painful part of his anatomy!

Edward II and Hugh Despenser sought refuge in Caerphilly castle

Whether or not that story is true remains a matter of some conjecture. But what is certainly true is the fact that Wales played a hugely important part in the king's downfall.

On 16 November 1326 Edward and his close friend (and probable lover) Hugh Despenser the Younger were captured by forces loyal to Queen Isabella, the king's own wife, whilst they were making their way from Neath Abbey towards Caerphilly Castle. The story of the king's journey from glory to ignominious failure in south Wales is both tortuous and compelling.

Edward's reign had been nothing short of disastrous. Succeeding his father, Edward I, in 1307, it seemed at first that he had all the kingly attributes.

Tall, strong and physically attractive, he had been born at Caernarfon castle. The story that Edward Longshanks presented his infant son to the Welsh leaders who had demanded a prince who could speak no English is patently untrue, like many of the stories surrounding this most ambiguous of men.

In 1308 he married Isabella of France but almost from the start the marriage was doomed. Edward was probably homosexual, and certainly bisexual. His preference for young men over his queen led him, first, to an intense friendship with Piers Gaveston and then with Hugh Despenser.

Military disasters like defeat in 1314 at the Battle of Bannockburn - arguably the greatest English defeat since the Battle of Hastings - and quarrels with his barons ensured that the king was enormously unpopular and mistrusted, both by the aristocracy and by ordinary people.

However, if the king was unpopular, the autocratic and greedy Despenser family were hated. As the rift between Edward and his queen grew ever wider, it seemed as though the Despensers (Hugh and his father, also called Hugh) became richer and more powerful every day.

Isabella fled to France for a while, returning on 24 September 1326 with her lover and ally Roger de Mortimer in an attempt to sweep Edward from the throne. Her army was small, consisting of barely 1,500 mercenaries, but as she and Mortimer marched on London supporters flocked to her banner and the king realised that he had to leave the city in order to ensure his own safety. He left with the Great Seal of England and something in the region of £30,000.

He fled westwards, towards Wales where Despenser held lands and, more importantly, the powerful fortress of Caerphilly Castle. However, arriving at the inland port of Chepstow, Edward and Despenser decided to take a boat. Whether they were intending to go to Lundy island - another Despenser possession - or to Ireland to gather support is not known. In the event the wind was against them and they spent five days pitching and tossing uselessly in the Bristol Channel.

By now Isabella had issued a proclamation saying that she had come to rid the land of the evil of the Despensers. As a result many Despenser properties were looted or burned and the king and his increasingly desperate friend realised that Caerphilly Castle offered their best chance of survival. Caerphilly was a massive and powerful structure, one that would withstand siege for many months, and it was here that the fugitives first went.

News soon reached them that Bristol Castle, held by the elder Hugh Despenser, had fallen to Isabella's forces and Despenser had been hung. For some strange reason, one that has never been fully explained, Edward and Despenser now left the safety of Caerphilly Castle and rode for Neath Abbey. They arrived on 6 November and remained there for two weeks.

Whether or not Edward thought the religious nature of the house would protect him has never been made clear but from the abbey Edward tried to negotiate peace, sending the abbot and Edward de Boun to his queen to parley and seek a compromise. When the delegates returned with a straightforward message - No! - Edward knew he had to return to the security of Caerphilly Castle.

He and his party had reached Llantrisant when they were surprised by forces led by Henry, Earl of Lancaster. Edward was detained overnight in Llantrisant Castle, already separated from his beloved Hugh Despenser. The end was now in sight.

The king was soon moved to Berkeley Castle across the border in England and was still imprisoned there when the announcement of his Deposition, quickly and easily passed by parliament, was made. His son, Edward III, was proclaimed king in his place on 25 January 1327.

After that the vengeance of Isabella was swift and decisive. Once she had Edward and Hugh Despenser in her power their lives were hanging by a thread and Despenser was quickly condemned. Stripped naked and with messages of hatred scrawled across his body, he was hanged, drawn and quartered. His head was then displayed on London Bridge.

Edward lingered, briefly, in Berkeley Castle. There were two attempts to rescue him by forces loyal to his name but in September 1327 it was announced that he was dead. It has never been totally clear how he died but it is certain that his life was ended on the orders of Queen Isabella.

He may have been strangled, possibly suffocated, but popular opinion will always tend to the view that his death came as a result of a red-hot poker inserted into his anus. Some people say that his screams could be heard for five miles around the castle. It does not bear too much thought.

Tagged with:

More Posts