Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1240
King Edward II recalls his favorite, Pierce de Gaveston, from exile; Gaveston joyfully returns to England. While hurrying to Westminster to rejoin his monarch, he comes upon the king talking to his courtiers. Secretively, he hides from the royal assemblage and overhears the noblemen discussing his repatriation.
They discuss how Edward, an immature and weak-minded yet stubborn man, nourished for Gaveston an unwholesome and unyielding love, in spite of the fact that Edward’s father originally banished the man. The noblemen of England, sworn to uphold the decree of exile, hate the royal favorite. Most passionate in his fury is young Mortimer. Others are not far behind Mortimer in their antipathy, and they threaten the king with revolt if Gaveston remains in England. None but the king’s brother Edmund will harbor Gaveston. The fiery discussion ends; the nobles stalk off in haughty displeasure.
Gaveston, still in hiding, rejoices in his knowledge of the king’s love, for Edward reveals his pettiness by his unconcern for the welfare of his kingdom as weighed against his desire to clasp Gaveston to his bosom once more. When Gaveston reveals his presence, Edward ecstatically rewards him with a series of titles and honors, the scope of which causes even Edmund to comment wryly that Edward outdid himself. Gaveston claims with a smirk that all he desires is to be near his monarch. To add salt to the kingdom’s wounds, Edward sentences the Bishop of Coventry, the instigator of Gaveston’s exile, to die in the Tower of London.
This action, coupled with the titles and estates lavishly bestowed upon Gaveston, so incenses the rebellious nobility that under the leadership of the two Mortimers, Warwick, and Lancaster, they plot to kill Gaveston. The Archbishop of Canterbury, protesting the damage inflicted upon the Church by the king’s folly, allies himself with the plot. Queen Isabella, who professes to love her lord dearly, complains to the noblemen that since Gaveston’s return Edward snubs her beyond endurance. She agrees that Gaveston must be done away with, but she cautions the angry noblemen not to injure Edward.
When the rebellious nobility seize Gaveston, Edward, yielding to the archbishop’s threat to enforce his papal powers against the king, can do nothing but stand by and allow his beloved friend to be carried off. A bitter exchange of words between the king and his lords is tempered by the gentle sentiments of Gaveston as he bids Edward farewell. Driven by childish anger, perhaps incensed by an intuitive knowledge, Gaveston attacks the queen and accuses her of a clandestine association with the younger Mortimer, a charge that she denies. Sensing his advantage, Edward seizes upon the accusation as a wedge to undermine his enemies, and he compels the queen to use her influence to save Gaveston. The queen, because of her love for Edward and her hopes for a reconciliation, resolves to mend the rift by abetting her husband.
At first the nobles disdainfully refuse to hear her entreaties. Then, having prevailed upon young Mortimer’s sympathy, she discloses to him a plot whereby Gaveston could be overthrown and the king obeyed at the same time. Mortimer then convinces the other nobles that if Gaveston is allowed to remain in England, he will become so unpopular that the common people will rise in protest and kill him. There is peace in England once more. Edward affects renewed love for his queen and the lords humbly repledge their fealty to Edward. An undercurrent of meanness prevails, however, in the bosom of young Mortimer, whose sense of justice is outraged at the fact that Edward chose such a baseborn villain as his minion. He still believes that it would be a service to his country to unseat Gaveston, and thus he plots secretly.
At the ceremonial in honor of Gaveston’s return, the lords cannot stomach the presence of the king’s minion. Bitter sarcasm showers upon Gaveston, and young Mortimer tries to stab him. Edward is so outraged at this show of independence by his peers that he vows vengeance for his dear Gaveston’s sake. Even the loyal Edmund cannot brook this display of pettiness on the part of his brother; he deserts Edward to join the nobles.
Edward renews the smoldering accusation against Isabella that she is Mortimer’s lover. Defeated in battle, the king’s forces, with Gaveston in flight, are split up to confuse the enemy. Warwick, Lancaster, and others succeed in capturing the king’s minion and order his death, but Arundel, a messenger from Edward, pleads that Gaveston be allowed to say farewell to the king. One of the nobles, unable to scorn the king’s wishes, arranges to escort Gaveston to Edward. With a servant in charge, Gaveston is conducted to a hiding place to spend the night. Warwick, driven by blind hatred and an irrational patriotism, kidnaps the prisoner.
Meanwhile Valois, king of France and Isabella’s brother, takes advantage of the revolt in England and seizes Normandy. Edward, displaying the corruption of his statesmanship, dispatches his son, Prince Edward, and Isabella to negotiate a parley with Valois. Arundel reports to Edward that Warwick beheaded Gaveston. Edward, in a wild rage against his lords, swears to sack their lands and to destroy their families. Characteristically, losing his beloved friend, he also declares that henceforth young Spencer will be his favorite. He continues to resist the rebels, and before long Warwick, Lancaster, and Edmund are captured and sentenced to death.
In France, the earl of Gloucester suspects that Isabella is gathering forces to place her son upon the throne. Isabella, in the meantime, is rejected by Valois. Sir John of Hainault rescues the queen and prince by offering to keep the pair at his estate in Flanders until Edward matures sufficiently to rule England. The young prince is already showing signs of royal character and a depth and a magnitude of personality that promise to make him a suitable monarch.
The condemned Mortimer and Edmund escape to France, where Sir John agrees to help them in levying forces to aid Isabella and the prince. Landing at Harwich, the forces of Mortimer and Edmund rout the king, who flees toward Ireland. Stalwart, sincere, and intellectually honest, Edmund, who broke with his brother only after the king drove him too far, relents in his feelings against Edward; he is further disturbed by a suspicion that Isabella is in love with Mortimer. Mortimer becomes a despot in his triumph. Edward is captured and sent to Kenilworth Castle, a prisoner. There he is prevailed upon to surrender his crown to the prince.
With the queen’s consent, Mortimer outlines a crafty scheme to kill Edward. He draws up an ambiguous note that orders the king’s death in one sense and abjures it in another. When Prince Edward, Isabella, Edmund, and Mortimer argue fiercely to decide upon the prince’s protector, the prince reveals his distrust of Mortimer. Edmund, fearing greater disunion, resolves to rescue the imprisoned king. His attempt fails.
Prince Edward is crowned by the Archbishop of Canterbury. Shortly after the coronation the deposed Edward, tortured cruelly in a dungeon, is murdered by Mortimer’s hireling, and Edmund is beheaded. Thereupon Edward III, now monarch, orders Mortimer to be hanged and Isabella, suspected of being the nobleman’s accomplice in plotting her husband’s death, to be taken to the Tower of London.