King Edward II of England (1284 – 1327) was the anti-knight and the opposite of the chivalric ideal. He stood in jarring contrast to his father Edward I, one of England’s greatest monarchs. A weak and flighty monarch, Edward II raised favorites who misgoverned the kingdom in his name. To compound the problem, he did little to counter the perception that those favorites were his male lovers. Poor government and perceived effeteness in a homophobic age were a toxic mix. It earned Edward the contempt of his barons and subjects, and brought him grief in the end. Early in his reign, he enraged his barons when he made an earl out of Piers Gaveston, a frivolous favorite and his rumored lover. The barons demanded that the king banish Gaveston and assent to a document that limited royal power over appointments and finances.
Edward caved in and banished Gaveston, but soon thereafter allowed him to return. In response, the barons seized and executed the royal favorite. In 1314, Edward led an army into Scotland, but was decisively defeated at the Battle of Bannockburn. At a stroke, he lost all the hard-won gains his father had made with years of great effort and expense to assert English control of Scotland. Humiliated, he was unable to resist his magnates when they formed a baronial committee that sidelined Edward and ruled the realm. It lasted until the king found another favorite and rumored lover, Hugh Despenser, and raised him. As with Gaveston, the barons demanded that Edward banish Despenser. This time, however, the king fought back, and with the Despenser family’s support, defeated the barons and regained his authority in 1322.
Unfortunately for Edward II, his public displays of affection for his new male lover, Hugh Despenser, humiliated and alienated his wife, Queen Isabella. While on a diplomatic mission to Paris in 1325, she became the mistress of Roger Mortimer, an exiled baronial opponent of the king. In 1326, the couple invaded England, executed the Despensers and deposed Edward II. He was replaced with his fourteen-year-old son, who was crowned Edward III in January 1327, with Mortimer as regent. That April, Mortimer heard of plots to rescue the deposed monarch. So he had him relocated to a more secure site. Reports of fresh plots to free Edward caused Mortimer to order him to move to various locations in the spring and summer of 1327.
Eventually, the fear that one of the numerous plots might finally succeed led Mortimer to decide to end the problem once and for all. He would put the deposed monarch beyond the possibility of rescue by having him disposed of. The perpetrators did not wish to leave marks of violence on the body. Contemptuous of Edward and his perceived effeminacy and gay reputation, they held him down and shoved a red hot poker up his rectum to burn his bowels from the inside. Another version has it that a tube was first inserted in his rectum, then a red hot metal bolt was dropped down the tube into his bowels. Either way, it was reported that his death screams were heard for miles around.
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading