Edward II

(History of the World: The Middle Ages)

Article abstract: Edward’s ineffectual leadership and weakness of character furthered the growth of representative government in England.

Early Life

Edward II of Caernarvon was born at Caernarvon Castle on April 25, 1284, the fourth son of Edward I by his first wife, Eleanor of Castile. He was only a few months old when the last of his brothers died in August and he became his father’s heir to the throne. His father did not neglect Edward’s royal education. He was given a palatial residence of his own at an early age and efforts were made to find a queen for him. In 1301, he became the first Prince of Wales as a concession to a conquered people, and in 1302, he attended his first parliament.

As he approached twenty years of age, Edward physically resembled his father—tall, handsome, and very strong. On the other hand, there were significant differences between the two. Although the younger Edward regularly accompanied his father into battle against the Scots, he was not a warrior. In years to come, he would go out of his way to avoid battle. Instead, to the old king’s great disappointment, Edward had already begun to exhibit certain irresponsible traits. He frequently lost large sums of money gambling and preferred pedestrian amusements such as amateur theatricals, rowing, digging, and thatching houses. His greatest fault, however, the one which would prove his undoing, was his blind dependence on nefarious advisers such as the Gascon knight Piers Gaveston. The king so greatly resented Gaveston’s debilitating influence that he drove him into exile.

Life’s Work

At first, observers could hope that the prince’s faults were the natural byproducts of adolescence. Unfortunately, age did not improve Edward’s character. When his father died on July 7, 1307, Edward’s first act was to recall his friend Gaveston. Gaveston’s influence became so great that he served as regent when Edward went to France to marry Isabella, daughter of Philip the Fair, on January 25, 1308. Most of the barons did not share the king’s high opinion of Gaveston. In 1311, these barons, led by the king’s cousin Thomas, Earl of Lancaster, insisted that Gaveston be banished again and that the king submit to a number of restrictions. The king could not prevent a baronial committee of twenty-one lords ordainers from taking control of the government. The effect was to enhance the powers of the Great Council while further diminishing those of the monarchy. The new ordinances, however, could not be enforced, and Gaveston returned before the end of the year. This touched off a rebellion led by Lancaster’s faction. Gaveston was captured and executed, and additional restrictions were imposed on the Crown. For the next few years, Lancaster was the real power behind the throne.

In the meantime, Edward’s problems with the Scots had grown worse. Robert Bruce had taken a number of fortresses and had laid siege to Stirling. Even the lethargic Edward recognized the danger of this situation. In June, 1314, the king led an army into Scotland but was decisively defeated in the Battle of Bannockburn, which effectively undid all that his father had accomplished in the north. The Scots had, for all practical purposes, achieved their independence, and it was not until 1323 that Edward was able to work out an acceptable peace treaty. Edward’s humiliating defeat at Bannockburn would make him more dependent than ever on the barons.

The king, however, was not the only one with problems. Although Lancaster was wealthy and powerful, he could not gain the confidence of most of the barons. In 1318, a more moderate group of barons came to power headed by Aymer of Valence, Earl of Pembroke. Ostensibly, the purpose of this group was to free the king from Lancaster’s influence. Yet the king disliked Pembroke as much as Lancaster, and so he turned for advice to Hugh le Despenser, another great baronial leader. Despenser’s son, Hugh Despenser the Younger, quickly won a place in the king’s heart similar to that which Gaveston had occupied in earlier years. The Despensers,...

(The entire section is 1695 words.)