Everyone knows how Edward II died. He was murdered at Berkeley Castle, Gloucestershire on 21 September 1327 by being held down and having a red-hot poker inserted inside his anus, and his screams could be heard miles away. This cruel torture was most probably devised as punishment for his presumed sexual acts with men. Right? Wrong. Edward II’s murder by red-hot poker is one of those things in history that most people think they know, but it melts away into almost nothing when you look at the evidence. In fact, it is very possible that Edward did not die in 1327 at all.
On 24 September 1327, the young king Edward III (not yet fifteen) sent a letter to his cousin the earl of Hereford telling him that his father, forced to abdicate his throne in January 1327 and held in captivity at Berkeley Castle, had been ‘commanded to God’. The former King Edward II’s death was duly announced to parliament in Lincoln, and his funeral was held at St Peter’s Abbey in Gloucester, now Gloucester Cathedral, three months later. At the Westminster parliament of November 1330, the first one held after the downfall of Edward III’s mother Queen Isabella and her paramour Roger Mortimer who had been ruling the country in the underage king’s name, the cause of Edward II’s death was given as murder for the first time. The murderers were named as Sir Thomas Gurney, who fled to Spain and died there in 1333, and the man-at-arms William Ockley, who was never heard of again.
The method of murder was never stated officially and the men involved in it never spoke about it publicly, and fourteenth-century chroniclers rushed to fill the gap with their own ideas. Some say merely that Edward II died at Berkeley without saying how, others that he died of natural causes, one that he was alive in the morning and dead in the evening, one that he died of illness, another that he died of sorrow and yet another that he was murdered ‘by a trick’. Suffocation, strangulation and ‘either a natural death or by the violence of others’ are also given. Some contemporary or near-contemporary chronicles, written between the 1330s and the 1350s, give the infamous red-hot poker story, including the Brut, Geoffrey le Baker and Ranulph Higden’s Polychronicon. The Scalacronica, written by the son of a man who knew Edward II very well, says rather movingly that Edward died ‘by what manner was not known, but God knows it.’ Chroniclers of the later fourteenth century, with no way of knowing what had really happened, simply copied earlier chronicles, and the lurid red-hot poker tale became widely spread and is still often repeated as certain ‘fact’ even today.
On 14 January 1330, William Melton, archbishop of York and formerly a close friend and ally of Edward II, told his kinsman the mayor of London that Edward was ‘alive and in good health of body’, and ordered money and numerous provisions to be sent to the former king, who he also said was ‘in a safe place by his own wish’. On 19 March 1330, Edward II’s half-brother Edmund of Woodstock, earl of Kent (grandfather of Richard II) was beheaded after attempting to free Edward from captivity at Corfe Castle in Dorset. Many dozens of men at the very least in England, Wales, Scotland and on the continent aided his plot. Kent had certainly attended Edward’s funeral over two years previously, but came to believe that his brother was still alive, and made plans to free him from Corfe and take him by boat to his Sussex castle of Arundel. Sometime in the late 1330s, an Italian bishop wrote a long letter to Edward III telling him how his father had escaped from Berkeley Castle and travelled to Corfe Castle, Ireland, Avignon to visit the pope, Germany, and finally Italy, where he lived in the hermitage of Cecima in the diocese of Pavia. And in 1338 when Edward III was in Koblenz, Germany, his Wardrobe account records that he had a man ‘who says he is the king’s father’ brought to him. This man, who called himself William the Welshman – Edward II was born in Caernarfon, North Wales – was not executed, as royal pretenders almost invariably were, but spent time with Edward III at the king’s expense.
So on the one hand, we have every fourteenth-century chronicler stating that Edward II died at Berkeley Castle in September 1327, even if the wide variation in the causes of death they give indicates that few or any of them really knew what had happened, and the parliament of November 1330 presided over by Edward III himself stating that his father had been murdered. On the other, we have a large group of men, including the archbishop of York, the bishop and mayor of London, several earls, sheriffs and lords, who believed that Edward II had survived past 1327 and attempted to help and to release him, and a detailed letter explaining how Edward had escaped from Berkeley and ended up in Italy. (It has long been believed in Italy that Edward II died in that country.) So what is the truth? What really happened to Edward in 1327? This is and forever will be a matter for debate; some people will be convinced that the story of his murder is the correct one, even if the red-hot poker is almost certainly a myth, and others that there is a lot more to Edward’s fate than meets the eye. Edward II was the most unconventional of kings, and it somehow seems appropriate that the date, location and circumstances of his death are shrouded in mystery.
Kathryn Warner is a historian and author. Her book Edward II: The Unconventional King is published by Amberley Publishing and released on 28 October 2014. Buy a copy HERE. To visit Kathryn’s website about Edward II, go HERE.