Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1695
Article abstract: Edward’s ineffectual leadership and weakness of character furthered the growth of representative government in England.
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.
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...
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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, however, proved even more objectionable than the king’s earlier favorites, and the barons deeply resented the many favors bestowed upon them. The Despensers had many enemies, such as Thomas of Lancaster and the Mortimers, a family of Welsh lords from whom they had taken much territory. In 1321, the barons attempted to banish the Despensers, but Edward, displaying unusual vigor, gathered an army and routed the rebels in the decisive Battle of Boroughbridge. Lancaster was captured and executed.
For the next five years, the Despensers would rule the kingdom. One of the most significant events of this period occurred in 1322 when a parliament was held at York and revoked the ordinances of 1311 which had been implemented by the barons alone. From this point forward, no statute was considered valid unless it was ratified by the House of Commons. This was a major step in the direction of a more representative government.
In the meantime, the Despensers’ growing arrogance and greed brought them new problems. Lord Roger Mortimer, imprisoned after the Battle of Boroughbridge, had not forgotten their depredations in the Welsh Marches. In 1323, he escaped from the Tower of London and took refuge in France. Two years later, he was joined by the queen, Isabella of France, who had gone to the French court with her son on business. While there, she became Mortimer’s mistress and refused to return to England while the Despensers controlled the government. In September, 1326, Isabella, accompanied by Mortimer and the young Edward, invaded England and captured and imprisoned the king. Both Despensers were captured, tried, and beheaded for their many crimes. A few months later, in January, 1327, a parliament deposed the king, whereupon he was succeeded by his fourteen-year-old son, Edward III. That, however, was not enough for Edward’s enemies. He was forced to abdicate and placed in prison, where he was tortured and eventually murdered.
Edward II was probably the weakest English king since the Norman Conquest. His father had achieved fame as a warrior, crusader, and administrator. Since there was some physical resemblance between father and son, there was some hope for a strong monarchy. Unfortunately, Edward II was not emotionally capable of duplicating or even maintaining his father’s achievements. He was humiliated on the battlefield where Robert I, “the Bruce,” and the Scots won their independence in one decisive battle, while at home he was dominated within the government by friends and enemies alike. Even his queen, Isabella of France, betrayed him and later took up arms against him. He lost his family, his throne, and eventually his life.
Edward should not be blamed, however, for all of England’s woes at this time. In fact, many of the problems had carried over from his father’s reign. It was during Edward I’s day that Parliament first became a truly representative body. The barons had come to expect at least a voice, and could hope for a personal hand, in governing the kingdom. This was a gain which they would not easily surrender. When it became obvious that the first Prince of Wales was much weaker than his father, the barons set about the business of increasing their power. During his coronation, Edward II was forced to agree to abide by the laws set forth by the community of the realm. Edward found this difficult to do, and the result was two decades of strife, hatred, and intermittent civil war. Nor could Edward ever hope to solve the Scottish problem. Even a great soldier such as Edward I had found it virtually impossible to hold the Scots in check, and storm clouds were gathering again when the old king died in 1307.
What then was Edward II’s legacy? It is easy to speak of his failures and much more difficult to find positive accomplishments. In fact, the most significant accomplishment of his reign came about as a result of the king’s weakness—the continued growth of representative government. His willingness to trust friends and his interest in nonregal activities also contributed to the narrowing gap between Crown and community.
Davies, James. The Baronial Opposition to Edward II. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1918. Davies’ study is old but still very useful. The emphasis is on the barons’ attack against the royal system of administration. The book will appeal to the more educated reader.
Fryde, Natalie. The Tyranny and Fall of Edward II, 1321-1326. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979. Fryde’s work is a very critical study of an incompetent king and his evil ministers, the Despensers. It is written primarily for the more advanced student.
Johnstone, Hilda. “Edward I and Edward II.” In The Cambridge Medieval History, edited by J. R. Tanner, et al., vol. 7. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1949. This is a chapter from one of the best multivolume surveys of the period. It is a well-balanced presentation.
McKisack, May. The Fourteenth Century, 1307-1399. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1959. This is the fifth volume in the Oxford History of England series. It is one of the most comprehensive studies of the period. Approximately one-fifth of the book details the political events of Edward II’s reign.
Myers, A. R. England in the Late Middle Ages, 1307-1536. Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1952, 8th ed. 1971. The author has covered almost 230 years in this work. Edward II figures prominently in the first two chapters, in which Myers discusses the waning power of the monarchy and the growing influence of the community of the realm.
Prestwich, Michael. The Three Edwards: War and State in England, 1272-1377. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1980. Although the book covers much ground, it is not intended to be a comprehensive history. Select subjects are considered, and Prestwich does provide a good, short biography of Edward II. Useful for the general reader.
Tout, T. F. The Place of the Reign of Edward II in English History. Manchester: Manchester University Publications, 1914. This is an old biography, but Tout’s views are not incompatible with those of more recent historians. Edward’s reign, he argues, is important for the development of parliamentary and administrative reform.