In profile: King Edward II

As part of our Kings and Queens series, medieval historian Kathryn Warner tells you everything you need to know about Edward II, king of England and lord of Ireland

Edward II. (Photo by Popperfoto/Getty Images)

Born: 25 April 1284, at Caernarfon Castle in north Wales

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Died: 21 September 1327, at Berkeley Castle (but some believed that he lived on after this time)

Ruled: July 1307–January 1327

Family: the youngest child of Edward I (1239–1307) and his first wife, Eleanor of Castile (1241–90)

Successor: his 14-year-old son, who became Edward III

Remembered for: his defeat to Robert the Bruce at the battle of Bannockburn on 24 June 1314, and for being overthrown by his wife in favour of his son

Life: Edward II was born in Caernarfon, north Wales on 25 April 1284, as at least the 14th (possibly 16th) and youngest child of Edward I and his first wife, Spanish queen Eleanor of Castile.

His three older brothers John, Henry and Alfonso died in childhood, and Edward succeeded his father as king of England in July 1307, when he was 23.

His reign was a disaster. He was unsuited to the position into which he was born, and had been left a very difficult legacy by his father – enormous debts, an unwinnable war in Scotland, dissatisfied magnates, and hostile relations with powerful France.

Consequently, Edward’s reign lurched from one crisis to another: endless conflict with his barons, constant threats of civil war, and failed military campaigns in Scotland.

A notable feature of his reign is his reliance on male ‘favourites’, most famously Piers Gaveston, whom Edward made Earl of Cornwall and who was executed in 1312 by a group of English earls.

Edward’s dedication to his last and most powerful favourite, Hugh Despenser the Younger, brought both of them down in 1326 after they alienated Edward’s queen, Isabella of France. She invaded her husband’s kingdom with the help of her own favourite, the English baron Roger Mortimer.

Edward was forced to abdicate his throne to his 14-year-old son Edward III in January 1327 – it was the first time this had ever happened in England.

Edward II is best known for his humiliating defeat to Robert Bruce at the battle of Bannockburn on 24 June 1314, and for the alleged manner of his murder at Berkeley Castle on 21 September 1327 – by having a red-hot poker inserted into his anus.

This story is, however, a myth, as is the tale invented in the Hollywood film Braveheart that Edward’s queen, Isabella, had an affair with William Wallace, who was the real father of Edward’s son. Wallace was executed two-and-a-half-years before 12-year-old Isabella even arrived in England, and there is no doubt whatsoever that Edward II was the father of all of Isabella’s four children.

There is evidence to indicate that Edward was not killed at Berkeley Castle in 1327 at all, but survived for years afterwards, perhaps in Italy. Utterly implausible as this sounds, many influential people – including the archbishop of York; the bishop and mayor of London; earls, lords, sheriffs and numerous others, firmly believed that Edward was still alive.

Edward is often considered to be one of England’s worst kings, and given that he was the first one forced to abdicate, this is not an unfair judgment. He was entirely unconventional by the standards of his time. He is said to have enjoyed the company of his lowborn subjects and their pursuits; dug ditches and thatched roofs; and swum in the company of carpenters, fishermen and ditchers.

Edward’s 19-year reign was inglorious, yet he and his era have their fascinations. He is one of only a handful of people throughout history to found colleges at both Oxford and Cambridge, something he should perhaps be better remembered for.

Kathryn’s biography of Edward II, Edward II: The Unconventional King, was published by Amberley in October 2014 and is available to buy now.

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 This article was first published on History Extra in May 2014