The Queer Theory of Doomed InheritanceFri 19 Jan
The reign of Edward II lasted less than twenty years but it is one of the most divisive for historians and biographers. Some say it was a failure due to the king's essential character. Others say he was doomed from the start. Some of the less favourable views of Edward can be attributed to his sexual orientation. In the distant past homophobia caused Edward to be reviled and ridiculed. Even academics have supported the view of Edward as a weak and degenerate sop. Representations of Edward, his lover Piers Gaveston, his wife Isabella of France, and her lover Roger Mortimer, are legion. For a 14th century king, Edward’s life raises a lot of very modern “issues”. More recent historians have tended to concentrate on the constitutional and administrative innovations brought in by Edward, sometimes under duress – the struggle between the offices of the state and the king’s personal domain; between a baronial carve-up of territory and power and monarchical prerogative, by which the king was answerable to no one. Now biographers are moving away from constitutional issues to the personal.
Edward’s latest biographer, Stephen Spinks, rehabilitates Edward II by sticking to the facts, the dates, the personnel and the events. First of all, and in a nutshell: Edward was indeed doomed from the start. Anyone in his position would have struggled to keep the throne. His father, nicknamed the Hammer of the Scots, left a tense and bloody mess for Edward to mop up. Secondly, England’s barons had a lust for power that could not be satisfied by Edward’s preferential treatment of his favourites.
In his comprehensive coverage Spinks spotlights the behaviour that alienated those around Edward. It started early. While still the Prince of Wales, he insulted his father the king's principal adviser. His father, Edward I, was furious and shamed him in public for cheeking his principal adviser. One can sense Edward Junior chafing at the bit, waiting to take his father’s place on the throne or to be taken seriously. Next, Edward I brought a young French knight to court as companion for his only son. But the young Piers Gaveston was similarly prone to off-the-cuff, tactless remarks. Soon it became clear that the relationship between Gaveston and the young prince was becoming too close for the court's comfort.
Spinks details the significance of Gaveston in terms of the antagonism he engendered among the leaders of the English nobility. Once Edward was king he promoted Gaveston to Earl of Cornwall. The French-born Gaveston responded by becoming ever more provocative in his dealings with the English barons. After his ex-judicial killing his influence continued in the bitter enmity his death created between Edward II and the Duke of Lancaster, the man responsible for Gaveston’s death. Those facts, whether they are explained on the basis of sexual orientation or on the control of royal patronage go far to expalin the maelstrom of fury that surrounded Edward's throne. In the midst of this were the constitutional issues and problems inherited by Edward II from the reign of his father.
Edward’s unlucky reign ended when his wife, Isabella of France, together with her lover Roger Mortimer, forced Edward to abdicate in favour of his son, Edward III. Whether they used his relationship with Gaveston or not is a moot point. It is worth noting that even Richard the Lionheart was a self-confessed homosexual who slept with the King of France and was married to his wife in name only. Edward II died in mysterious circumstances. For centuries the red-hot poker theory of his death passed down the generations. In 1908 the Board of Education decreed that in history lessons the story of Edward II be “passed over in discreet silence”. Each shift in the narration of his life and death is revealing not so much of Edward’s reign but of prevalent attitudes towards sex. Suggestive, euphemistic allusions to same-sex desire or ostentatious discretion that fuelled prurient attention. Spinks makes the commonsense point that Edward’s murderers would have been sure to kill the king discreetly rather than causing his screams to be heard for miles around. More controversially he puts forward the theory that Edward was not murdered at all.
Historically it is the tension between Edward, Gaveston and the English nobility that carries most resonance. Piers, the “upstart favourite” who was gifted lands and properties at the expense of home-grown barons: this is the conventional view of Gaveston. It is probable that he did indulge in “rude witticisms and sarcasms at the expense of the English nobles” while the “silly king laughed at this wretched wit”. But the echoes of this laughter conjure two men united in a subversive and inflammatory stance. It was inevitable that the “suspicion of vices” should become insupportable to “a manly nation”. These quotes come from Charles Knight’s The Pictorial History of England, published in 1837. By the way, Knight defined the “People of England” as Celtic and Germanic in origin. Gaveston, of course, was French.
For the playwright Christopher Marlowe, writing in 1594, the relationship between king and courtier was inflammatory on every level. It was bad enough that Gaveston was the King’s lover, but he, like Marlowe, was of humble origin. His love, Edward, was also an outsider. The more virulent the opposition to his friend, the more Edward wanted him.
“Why should you love him whom the world hates so?” the nobles ask the King.
“Because he loves me more than all the world,” is Edward’s reply.
Spinks concludes of Edward that:
He was intensely curious; it is difficult to communicate just how unconventional all this was for a medieval king. The familiarity with his common subjects singled Edward out for accusations of degeneracy. Today he would be seen as a ‘man of the people’.
Review by Lilian Pizzichini, editor of The Revisionist