Nipissing University

History 2425 -- Medieval England

The Deposition of Edward II

Steve Muhlberger

At his death in 1307 Edward I left his son Edward II three burdensome bequests.

Edward I had been peculiarly well-suited to be a medieval king, but had not had an easy time of it. Edward II, by contrast, was the worst politician ever to be King of England, and he had a very rough ride indeed.

Edward II's main fault was his inordinate attachment to a few favorites. A few select men, men not of the first rank in society, were loaded with estates, offices, and other rich gifts. They also enjoyed his full confidence and he often acted after consulting only them. It is possible that some of these favorites were the king's lovers. Whether or no, he could scarcely have been more enamored of them.

Edward ignored everyone else most of the time, alienating the aristocracy with astonishing speed. Some of the great earls with fairly general support responded by asserting their right to take part in and even control the royal government. The result of this conflict of interests was not one, but three episodes of civil war, the degeneration of orderly government into near-anarchy, and the humiliating defeat of English might by the Scots under Robert Brus. It ended only with Edward's deposition and death.

I will break the political conflict into five stages.

Stage One includes the first six years of Edward's reign, in which the king provoked his earls into armed resistance. Once again, the speed with which he did this is rather astonishing.  Edward was popular at first (people were tired of the old man), but very quickly his friendship with an obscure Gascon squire named Piers Gaveston became an issue. Piers Gaveston had already been banished once by Edward I as a bad influence on his son. The new king immediately summoned him back and installed him as one of his most trusted and best rewarded companions.

By 1310-1311, a united baronial opposition forced Edward not only to send Gaveston away -- they had already done this once, without lasting success -- but also to accept baronial control of his government. A group of Lords Ordainers was assembled to write Ordinances than would regulate the king's officers and the king's spending. The Ordainers themselves would act as a committee to oversee the great and lesser officers. In essence, this was a revival of the baronial program of 1258.

Edward II took these restraints in no better spirit than had Henry III. England. In 1312 there was a short, sharp outbreak of fighting, during which Edward revoked the Ordinances and Gaveston, who had returned to England in defiance of those Ordinances, was captured and executed by some of the barons.

This event inaugurated Stage Two of the struggle. The killing of the king's favorite split the opposition. Some of them were shocked and began to cooperate with the king. The result was an uneasy peace between Edward and his earls. Those who had killed Gaveston were pardoned, but the Ordinances were not restored.

At this point, in 1313, the business of Scotland pressed on the English political class. The feuding in England had allowed Robert Brus to take control of most of Scotland and raid.  deeply into northern England, pillaging and looting or extracting protection money from the inhabitants.

Edward had paid little attention to these problems. Now, however, the last important English garrison in Scotland, the one holding Stirling Castle, had agreed with its besiegers to surrender by a Midsummer Day 1314. In the meantime the seige would be raised. This was a challenge to English prestige that could not be ignored.

Edward assembled a vast force to relieve Stirling and reassert his authority in the north. Edward's force met the army of Robert Brus on June 23, 1314, and was crushed. Apparently the defeat was caused entirely by bad generalship.  Many important English lords were killed, and Edward fled to England ignominiously.

The battle had important consequences in both kingdoms. It confirmed in the eyes of Europe that Scotland did exist as a separate country for England, and vindicated Robert's claim to be its king. He, with the unwilling help of Edward I, had founded the Scottish sense of common nationhood.

For England, it was the beginning of Stage Three in the struggle between king and baronage. Edward, with his prestige shattered, was at the mercy of his opponents. The chief of these was Thomas Earl of Lancaster, Edward's cousin and the second wealthiest man in the kingdom. He led the movement to restore the Ordinances, and quickly made himself the arbiter over the king's council. Lancaster refused to take responsibility for that government's policies, but he reserved the right to veto any measure the king's officers might take, if they seemed suspect. As you can imagine, the government was paralyzed.

England was helpless in the face of Scots aggression. Edward refused to recognize that Robert Brus, who had humiliated England, was actually king of Scotland, but no strong measures were taken against him. So the Scots continued to bleed northern England white, and Robert Brus sent his brother Edward to Ireland, in the hopes of making him king of that country. One of the few pieces of good news for England in this period was Edward Brus's defeat and death in October 1318.

Eventually this situation discredited Thomas of Lancaster.

Edward had acquired new favorites: two men, father and son, named Hugh Despenser. They were English and had some government experience, and were not quite the total liability that Piers Gaveston had been. In 1322, Edward was able to isolate Thomas of Lancaster politically, defeat him militarily, and execute him as a traitor.

The execution of Thomas of Lancaster ushered in Stage Four in the struggle. King Edward was in charge once more. The Despensers, who had been widely unpopular before, were soon hated for their unbounded greed and their monopoly of the king's friendship. Thomas of Lancaster quickly became an underground saint, a martyr, and people swarmed to his grave and the site of his death to honor him.

The regime of the Despensers made him look very good. They used kidnapping, imprisonment, and other nefarious means to rob noble men and women of their inheritances. They did manage a long truce with the Scots, but even this must have been unpopular with some.

Stage Five of the struggle was the overthrow of Edward. After so many battles with his barons, his most dangerous enemy turned out to be his wife, Isabelle of France. Edward had married her when she was twelve, at the very beginning of the reign, and always shown her outward respect. Frenchmen present at the wedding had said that Edward loved Piers Gaveston better than Isabelle, but that was a long time ago. More important in alienating her was the determination of the Despensers to keep the king and queen apart.

Eventually Isabelle used a diplomatic mission to her brother the King of France to escape from the English court. In 1325 she went to Paris and arranged a good treaty between her husband and her brother. The Despensers discouraged Edward from going in person; his son and heir was sent as an acceptable substitute.

Once young prince Edward was in her care, Isabelle planted herself in Paris. She showed no desire to return to her husband, and started to plot against him. Soon she had taken a lover, Roger Mortimer, a marcher lord who had been imprisoned by the Despensers and had escaped to France. The affair eventually became a scandal, and Isabelle and prince Edward went with Mortimer to the Netherlands.

It was from there, in 1326, with the help of the count of Holland and Hainault, that Isabelle and Roger Mortimer launched a small invasion of England. Her company -- the term is more appropriate than army -- numbered only 700 men. Isabelle's coup was a brilliant success. Edward knew they were coming, but his sailors refused to sail against her fleet because of their hatred for the Despensers. Once landed, Isabelle was joined by many important people, and no one was willing to stand by the king.

Edward fled London to the West Country (Wessex), and thence to Wales. He and his party were planning an escape to Ireland when they were captured. The Despensers and other royal officers were hunted down and executed as traitors.

With the king in custody, the questions the rebels had to face was, what next? No one was willing to allow the king to return to power. He had proved incompetent, extravagant and unreliable. He was a dangerous man. In the early days of the coup, there was an obvious pretext for running the king's government in his absence. In October, when Edward II was in flight, the magnates of the realm recognized the prince as keeper of the realm. Writs summoning a parliament were immediately sent out.

When the king was captured, things became more complicated. Isabelle, Mortimer, and their allies had to pretend that the king had delegated his power to his son.

The upcoming parliament posed another challenge. Parliament was scarcely yet an institution. It was rather an occasion when various great men and representatives of local communities met with the king to consult with him, to assent to the measures he proposed (though perhaps after some debate), and to agree to implement his will. Parliament, as then conceived of, could hardly happen without the king. It was his court of parliament, not a body representing the kingdom independently of him.

Nevertheless,  the parliament went ahead in London in early January, 1327, and the only business before the assembly was how to get rid of the king. Some apparently were reluctant -- some of the bishops had to be convinced to do the deed. After some argument, a deputation of two bishops was sent to King Edward's place of confinement, asking him to meet with the parliament. He made everyone's task easier by refusing, and calling the emissaries traitors. When this answer was heard in London, it caused a public uproar. The citizens of the town asked the magnates of the kingdom to swear with them to uphold the cause of Queen Isabelle and her son, and to depose the king in favor of his heir.

On the 15th of January, the archbishop of Canterbury announced that the magnates, clerics, and people of the kingdom had decided that King Edward was deposed, and that all had agreed to the succession of Edward III. A new deputation was appointed to take the decision of the nation to the king. But before they reached him, the bishops who had visited him before went to Edward II and convinced him to abdicate by threatening to disregard his children's claims if he did not do so. Edward III was proclaimed king on January 25th. Only a few months later, Edward II was murdered under obscure circumstances, following two attempts to rescue him from prison.

This revolution of 1326-27 was an important moment in the evolution of the post-Conquest political system. It was a victory for the great earls, who held the balance of power between Isabelle and her husband. The entire struggle had made the earls and great barons conscious of themselves as being a group of peers, more important than the average royal vassal, with special rights and privileges.

But their privileges were dangerous ones. If they fell dangerously out of favor, they might find themselves executed without any opportunity to answer charges against them. To be tried without right of reply was the fate of Lancaster and Mortimer and several others I have not named. The importance of the magnates increased, then, but led to no new constitutional arrangements.

There was constitutional development of a sort in the role of parliament. Over the past century parliament had developed into the highest court in the land, where the king did, or should do, all his most important business. When the country determined that it must depose its lawful king, a meeting of parliament was the only means that suggested itself. Only a parliament including the estates of the realm, bishops, secular lords, clergy and commons, thus representing all the legitimate interests of the realm as a whole, could discuss and deal with this matter. The success of the revolution guaranteed the increased prestige of parliament as representing the estates or classes and thus the realm as a whole. The need for the various parties to appeal to the country at large for legitimacy led to the permanent inclusion of representatives of the boroughs and the counties in parliament.

Indeed, it was Edward II in 1322 who, when he was trying to discredit the Ordainers and Ordinances, established that all statutes had to be approved by a parliament of prelates, earls and barons, and the commonalty of the realm. In other words, the consent of the aristocracy alone was not enough to make law.

We have gone through five stages, from Edward's coronation until his deposition and death. There was in addition, a sixth stage, constituting the first three years of Edward III's reign. The revolution of 1326-27 got rid of a bad king, but did nothing to restore stable government. For that, a strong king was necessary. Edward III, who was fourteen at his accession, did not control his own government at first. Rather his mother and her lover, Roger Mortimer, were in charge. The kingdom was back where it had started, with a government dominated by an unsuitable favorite. Mortimer's  position at the top was anomalous, and was doomed from the start.

What finally finished him was another unsuccessful war with Scotland. It was a blow to the new government. Once again the king had been shown unable to defend his northern borders. Mortimer took the only sensible step -- he arranged a treaty of peace recognizing Robert Brus's title as king, something Edward II had always been unwilling to do, in exchange for a large payment. But although the move made good sense, Mortimer got pinned with the blame for English humiliation -- and for profiting from it.

When, in 1330, Mortimer and Isabelle executed one of their critics, the Earl of Kent, on a trumped up charge, the rest in fear for their lives got to the young king and with his support launched a coup. Mortimer was captured, tried before parliament as a traitor, and executed. Isabelle was allowed to retire, and she survived until 1358.

After this, the young Edward III, seventeen years old, assumed real power. Like his grandfather, he was personable, popular, warlike, and competent. With a king all could respect, many of the worst political problems simply disappeared. The system could work without the distraction of a constant struggle for power. It was a welcome respite for the political class.

What did Edward do with his undisputed power? Like his grandfather, he led his country into war, war with France -- a war at first profitable, but ultimately debilitating.


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Copyright (C) 1998, Steven Muhlberger.