The question is of course anachronistic; considering that he was born in 1284, ascended the throne in 1307, and was deposed and imprisoned in 1327, I think we can assume that old Ed is well and truly dead. But when did he die?
After he was deposed by his wife Isabella and her lover Roger Mortimer and Isabella’s and Edward’s son Edward III placed on the throne as a puppet for Mortimer, Edward was imprisoned, and reported dead by the end of the year – rumour having it that he was murdered. However, rumour persists that he survived. So, which is right?
A note on the deaths of Edward II
There is no doubt that Edward II was a controversial monarch. In character and deed he was a disappointment to many of his contemporaries, not just his father. He ‘loved’ Piers Gaveston more dearly than most kings were expected to ‘love’ their subjects, and even adopted him as his brother. He was accused of sodomy by his political enemies in 1326 and has been portrayed as a homosexual by some modern writers and even as a gay icon. He was forced to accept a series of ordinances limiting royal authority, was forced to accept reform of his household, and eventually reacted by taking military action and legal proceedings against many members of the nobility and gentry. He was probably cuckolded by his wife, lost the confidence of his people, and wrote threatening letters to his son and heir. As is well known, his reign ended in ignominy, with parliament being cajoled into an agreement to depose him. Subsequently he was forced to abdicate the throne. However, despite all these points of discussion and debate, one aspect of his life stands out as being historically more contentious than any other. His death.
Understanding the questions raised by accounts of Edward’s death – and, indeed, understanding any contentious historical subject – requires a great deal of care and attention to detail. There are no simple answers. We cannot say that it was ‘more likely’ that Edward was murdered or not on the strength of our perceptions of his suspected murderers’ motives. A historical fact cannot be determined on the basis of motive any more than a modern suspect may be found guilty of murder by a policeman’s hunch. And this applies no matter who you are. The educated guess of a professor of history may be more educated than that of the man in the street but it is still a guess. A more rigorous approach is necessary.
You would have thought this would not be problematic, it is so obvious. But a number of people still have difficulty understanding both the methods and the implications of my work into the fake death of Edward II, and his real death. A glance at some of the customers’ reviews of The Perfect King written on amazon.co.uk show that, even having read a synopsis of my peer-refereed research in this area, some readers still think my work is based on speculation. Others prefer to work along the lines of the traditional narrative because they feel it is ‘more probable’. I am the first to admit that the survival of Edward II is an improbable story; when beginning The Greatest Traitor I had no doubt that Roger Mortimer had both killed the king and slept with the queen: ‘the Freudian double’ as I described it to my agent and publisher. But the traditional narrative is simply not tenable on information grounds, and that is the only test which counts. This essay is an attempt to explain why, in as straightforward a way as possible.
All contentious history – academic and scholarly research as well as amateur sleuthing and popular writing – is built on shaky foundations. This is because all the evidence underpinning it is open to question. Very often one piece of evidence conflicts with another. For example, there is evidence that Edward died in Berkeley Castle and there is evidence that he was still alive in 1330. Nor can one prefer one version of events as ‘more plausible’ without bringing one’s own prejudices regarding plausibility to bear on the debate. Even though every single extant chronicle of the period states that Edward II died in 1327, that does not prove anything. Three hundred of those chronicles are varying copies of a single continuation of the chronicle called The Brut, and the copyists had no more information than the original compiler. In determining the certainty of political events one cannot depend on the weight of evidence, for weight alone proves nothing about quality. What we really need to study, in order to determine what actually happened, is not so much the evidence but the information underlying it, the links between evidence and reality.
This point about information is absolutely crucial to any approach to a difficult historical question. All written evidence was written down by someone on the basis of something they had seen or heard – it does not directly relate to the event in question. Very simply, events can’t write. Everything we read about the past – all the information we have about it except the archaeological record – has been filtered through scribes. In the medieval period, most of the scribes were not witnesses to the events in question. They received information from intermediaries. A witness told someone, who told someone, who told a scribe – with perhaps many more intermediaries. Thus there are a number of stages preceding the creation of any piece of evidence. The process is like a stream of information flowing from the event itself to the record of the event: an information stream altering with every retelling of the facts.
Academics do not normally teach this in universities. In theoretical terms it is so obvious it does not need to be said. In practical terms it rarely matters; one does not normally gain anything by differentiating between the event itself and the evidence. If Henry IV’s accounts show that he bought a recorder in 1387, then there is no advantage in working out how the information about the payment was passed to his treasurer’s clerk; to do this in every case would make history a tedious and pedantic exercise. Nor is there any good reason to doubt that he really made the purchase. But in contentious matters we have no option but to be tedious and pedantic – if we wish to arrive at a position of certainty rather than prejudice.
The use of the word ‘certainty’ brings us to the question of proof. Often one reads that there is ‘no proof’ that Edward II survived the Berkeley Castle plot of 1327. To this one may respond that there is ‘no proof’ that he died in 1327 either. The very statement shows that the speaker has misunderstand the nature of proof in history. On the whole it is safest to presume that a specific historical question (e.g. did Edward II die in Berkeley Castle? Did Harold get an arrow in the eye at Hastings? Was I born in 1967? etc) is like a scientific theory in that it is ‘always provisional, in the sense that it is only a hypothesis: you can never prove it. No matter how many times the results of experiments agree with some theory, you can never be sure that the next time the result will not contradict the theory’ (Stephen Hawking, A Brief History of Time: from the Big Bang to Black Holes (Bantam edition, 1989), p. 11). In history it is possible to prove something beyond reasonable doubt, and thus arrive at a position of certainty, but that is not the same thing as proving something absolutely, for it is a question of personal opinion what ‘reasonable doubt’ is in each case. Before the discovery of the Fieschi letter in the 1870s, no one doubted that Edward II died in Berkeley Castle and thus it was a fact ‘proven beyond reasonable doubt’. Nevertheless the matter could not have been considered proven absolutely as it was always possible that some evidence would come to light to show that he did not die there.
To illustrate this important point further, consider the death of Queen Victoria. One cannot prove that she died on 22 January 1901. One may consider it proven beyond reasonable doubt – for one may prove absolutely that news of her death had been received by such people as the editor of The Times by the following day. But the news is not the same thing as the event (‘events can’t write’). In this case, it is technically possible that a false report about the death was circulated. Eye-witness accounts could also have been falsified. So one cannot prove an event absolutely. However that does not mean our knowledge is weak. There are degrees of reliability which are universally acceptable as forms of ‘proof’ or certainty. In the case of Queen Victoria, the eye-witness accounts, the dissemination of the news, and the well-reported condition of the elderly queen’s health all mean that the likelihood that she died on that day tends to one hundred per cent, for it is so difficult to see how such reports could have been created without leaving a secondary information trail relating to a false report. Hence we may be certain she died on that day even if logic imposes on us the obligation to admit the death itself cannot be proven absolutely.
If even the death of Queen Victoria cannot be proved absolutely, is it possible to prove what happened to Edward II? To this there are two answers. With regard to absolute proof, one has to say ‘no’, on the same theoretical grounds as for Victoria’s death: a historical conclusion is always provisional, like a scientific theory. But with regard to proving the matter beyond reasonable doubt, or certainty, we can be much more positive. One can arrive at a position of certainty by demonstrating that the alternative narrative is false. In the specific case of Edward II’s death, one may prove beyond reasonable doubt that he was alive by showing that the evidence for his death is based on an unreliable source while that for his survival is based on a reliable one. Or – even better – more than one.
To recapitulate, before proceeding with the arguments about Edward II’s death, it is important to be clear on two points.
- We are not studying evidence at the usual, superficial level. We are studying it at a deeper level – looking at the information which was used to make that evidence, which existed before the evidence was written. We are looking at the connectedness of the evidence with reality, if you like, having cut away all superfluous and circumstantial evidence liable to lead to speculation.
- We are not trying to ‘prove’ something did happen but testing two alternative theories: a survival theory and a death theory. Each of these is a different side of the same coin – one cannot be partly dead. So we may be certain that only one of these theories is true. Either
Edward II = dead in 1327, or
Edward II = alive at end of 1327.Both of these are supported by contemporary evidence, and thus our task has to be more thorough than simply quoting evidence. To arrive at a position of certainty we must do two things. We must show that the evidence for one theory is questionable, being based on unreliable information or information flowing from an unreliable source. In addition we need to show how the information underpinning the evidence for the other theory is reliable. Only in this way can we eliminate personal opinions, all our preconceived ideas about what is likely or not likely, and all contemporary propaganda. We are testing for falsehood, not likelihood.
The first death of Edward II in Berkeley Castle
The theory that Edward II died in Berkeley Castle rests on a large body of evidence created by a number of writers. Basically one can divide them into two sorts: those who wrote as a result of a private initiative, and those who wrote as a result of a duty to the royal family. The former include all the chroniclers and creators of unofficial documents which mention the death. The latter include the clerks of the royal household and other households concerned with the safe-keeping of the ex-king, from keepers of accounts for his maintenance at Berkeley to royal clerks noting the death in letters. It also includes later official accounts, such as payments made by royal clerks on the anniversary of the ex-king’s death. There is a great deal of this information – too much for it all to be listed here.
As stated above, evidence is never ‘written by the event’ (except in the metaphorical sense of events ‘writing’ or resulting in archaeological evidence). Information about the death circulated in a large number of ways, via many different people, and for a wide range of purposes. For this reason there is a great range of descriptions of the death in the contemporary and near-contemporary chronicles. Details are listed in full in Medieval Intrigue but, in short, the earliest chronicles state that Edward II died of a grief-induced illness. Those written after 1330 state that he was murdered, strangled or suffocated. Between 1332 and 1337 the chroniclers start to state that the murderers were Thomas Gurney and John Maltravers (even though John Maltravers had never been accused officially of the crime but was tried for a different one in 1330). Around 1340 chronicles start to repeat the story of a piece of metal being inserted through his anus; at first this is described as a copper rod, then an iron one, and finally an iron poker. The chronicles are inconsistent on whether it was hot or not (most that relate the story say that it was). Some express doubt about the mode of killing, some later ones insist the death was natural, and one interesting lay writer refuses to accept what is rumoured. A variety of dates for the death are given too: from 20th to 22nd September, with most settling on the official date, the 21st.
Obviously a wide variety of intermediaries were at work in supplying information to all these writers. Many simply copied each other. One of the originals, the chronicle continuation written by Adam Murimuth first issued in 1337, openly states that his story about the murder, in which Maltravers and Gurney suffocated the ex-king, was merely ‘common rumour’. Given the time at which he wrote this, the ‘common rumour’ was no doubt influenced by the proceedings against Maltravers and Gurney in the parliament of November 1330 (both of them having fled the country). Other chroniclers followed Murimuth in repeating the guilt of these men as a matter of fact (although Edward III was quietly in correspondence with Maltravers from 1334, and employed him at a salary of £100 per year from 1339). Another original, the shorter continuation of The Brut – the earliest chronicle to mention the death – states that it was officially announced at Lincoln, and that the ex-king had died of a ‘grief-induced illness’. As so many chronicles were based on these two originals, we have clear signals as to where their information originally came from. Only one writer, Geoffrey le Baker, in his second chronicle (his Chronicon), written in the 1350s, claims to have spoken to an eye-witness, William Bishop. But Bishop was not a witness to the supposed murder, as le Baker makes clear; he only witnessed the lamentable treatment of Edward II when being taken back to Berkeley after one of his ‘escapes’ earlier in 1327. For his account of the murder, le Baker relied on the longer continuation of The Brut.
Turning to the official records, we have a huge mass of evidence that Edward II died in 1327. There are the accounts of Edward II’s keepers, published in the nineteenth century, which tally with the ex-king’s death on 21 September (Stuart Moore, ‘ Documents relating to the Death and Burial of King Edward II’, Archaeologia, L (1887 ), p. 217). There are the accounts of Edward II’s funeral. There are many wardrobe accounts from the 1330s and 1340s which show that the royal family commemorated Edward II’s death by giving out pittances to paupers on 21 or 22 September (e.g. National Archives: E 101/388/5, mem. 14, dated 1337; E 36/204 fol. 76r, dated 1341-4; and E 101/392/12, fol. 35v, dated 1353). However, although these are all regarded traditionally as ‘primary sources’ the information they contain is not ‘primary’ at all. They are all evidence of the earlier acceptance within the household of 21 September 1327 as the date of Edward II’s death. Thus we must turn to how this date was reported, and how both official and unofficial sources came to be informed.
Almost all the chronicles state that Edward II died in Berkeley Castle. The few that do not either fail to mention an alternative or give Corfe Castle as the place – a result of a lined missed out in a copy of a longer continuation of The Brut, which was itself copied widely in the late fourteenth century. Official sources leave no doubt that the king was maintained and supposedly died at Berkeley Castle. The account of Lord Berkeley’s expenses for 1327 (Berkeley Castle Select Roll 39) shows that he sent Thomas Gurney with letters about the death of Edward II to Edward III and Queen Isabella ‘at Nottingham’ (although they were actually at Lincoln at the time). Another official source indicates precisely when he delivered those letters. This is an original letter from Edward III to the earl of Hereford, his cousin, dated at Lincoln on 24 September 1327 (National Archives: DL 10/253): it states that the king had heard of his father’s death the previous night. This supports the shorter Brut continuation’s claim that it was at Lincoln that the news of the death was announced.
On this basis we can reconstruct the first stages in the dissemination of the news of the death. On 21 September Lord Berkeley sent the news via Gurney to the king and his mother at Lincoln. Gurney arrived in the night of the 23rd/24th, and the fourteen-year-old Edward started spreading the information the very next day. A few days later (before the 29th) the king had left Lincoln, by which time he had announced to the departing members of parliament (which finished sitting on the 23rd) that Edward II was dead. From there the news spread across the country, carried by messengers, merchants, servants and members of parliament returning to their boroughs, counties, monasteries and dioceses.
The important thing here is that there was just one information source for all this evidence. All the chronicles and royal accounts – all the official sources and unofficial ones – were dependent on Lord Berkeley’s announcement of the death. It could not have been independently verified before the king started circulating the news. That Edward III and his officials started telling people the very next day proves this – Berkeley Castle is considerably more than a hundred miles from Lincoln, so Edward III’s letter to his cousin of 24 September is proof that he accepted the news at face value and started repeating it straightaway. Thus all the evidence that Edward II died in Berkeley Castle in 1327 – even the evidence for his funeral trappings – is ultimately dependent on one message, from Thomas Berkeley, Lord Mortimer’s son-in-law, to Edward III and his mother, Lord Mortimer’s mistress.
Three years later, on 26 November 1330, the parliament rolls record that Lord Berkeley ‘came before the lord king in his full aforesaid parliament, and spoke of this, that since the Lord Edward late king of England, the father of the present lord king, was lately delivered into the safekeeping of Thomas and of a certain John Maltravers to be kept in the castle of Thomas at Berkeley in the county of Gloucester, and was murdered and killed in the same castle in the keeping of Thomas and John, he wishes to acquit himself of the death of the same king, and says that he was never an accomplice, a helper or a procurer in his death, nor did he ever know of his death until this present parliament.’ (National Archives C 65/2 (Parliament Roll, Nov. 1330), item 16).
There has been much discussion about what was meant by ‘nor did he ever know of his death until this present parliament’ (‘nec unquam scivit de morte sua usque in presenti parliamento isto’). A few traditionalists have insisted that it means he did not know the cause of the death (i.e. he had not heard of the accusation of murder). That can hardly be the case, as the possibility of murder had been discussed by Henry of Lancaster since 1328, but even if it is, such commentators are missing the point. Lord Berkeley was Edward III’s sole informant – the letters telling the king and his mother about Edward II’s death had come from Lord Berkeley himself, as Lord Berkeley’s own accounts show. For him to say he did not know about the manner of the death when he himself announced it is an admission of ignorance, whether or not the ex-king was actually dead. And the possibility that he meant that he had not yet heard of the king’s death – the literal meaning of these words – is certainly a line of enquiry which only a prejudiced commentator would fail to follow.
To recapitulate: there was one sole information source for the death, Lord Berkeley, and the information contained in his letters was not sent in good faith. He himself denied knowledge of this same information three years later. If anyone should have known about it, it was him. His denial undermines the entire concept that Edward II died in Berkeley Castle in 1327. It doesn’t disprove it (bearing in mind the nature of historical proof stated above), but it does prove that those who believe Edward II died in Berkeley Castle are doing so on the basis of an unsubstantiated message sent in bad faith.
The survival of Edward II to 1330
The poor-quality of the information underpinning the evidence for the death is only half the story. It undermines the theory that “Edward II = dead in 1327”. It does not automatically mean that we can justify the alternative theory, that “Edward II = alive at the end of 1327”. For a belt-and-braces approach, we have to examine the evidence for his survival beyond 1327 separately.
Before discussing the evidence, it is necessary to say something about how the ex-king’s ‘survival’ was possible, considering that a royal funeral took place in December 1327. Edward II’s face was not exhibited to the public in any way, and there is no evidence that anyone sought to confirm his identity after the announcement of his death. A corpse was covered entirely in cerecloth and taken to Gloucester in a lead coffin, and buried three months later after much show but no exposure of the face. Murimuth is the only chronicler who refers to the ex-king’s lying-in-state, and he mentions that his body was seen only ‘superficially’ by the people of Bristol and Gloucestershire. Obviously the royal hearse, covered in painted carvings, armour and candles, confirmed to people that Edward II was dead, and a wooden effigy of the king was clothed in royal garments and displayed above the coffin. But no one actually saw the corpse. Some of those present at the funeral later believed he was still alive in 1330. (This aspect is fully discussed on pages 1182-3 of my article in the English Historical Review, reprinted in Medieval Intrigue).
The evidence that Edward II was still alive in 1330 consists of nine documents, which may be specifically listed:
- The accusation, trial and judgment of the earl of Kent in the parliament of March 1330, overseen by the coroner of the king’s household. The earl was told he was guilty of being ‘about to have delivered the person of that worshipful knight Sir Edward, sometime king of England, your brother, and to help him that he should have been king again and govern his people as he was wont [to do] before’ (F. W. D. Brie (ed.), The Brut (2 vols, 1906-8), i, page 267. He was executed for this crime on 19 March 1330. This judgement no longer exists in the original (official) version – the roll for that parliament is no longer extant – but it appears in a number of the contemporary chronicles, most notably the many copies of the longer continuations of the Brut and Murimuth’s chronicle (p. 60).
- The letter from the earl of Kent to his brother, Edward II, the beginning of which was cited by the continuator of the longer Brut (see Brie (ed.), The Brut, i, page 265. The chronicler appears to have based his account on a newsletter from an eyewitness at the parliament, as shown by the references to observable details such as the revealing of this letter in parliament, the judgment, and the execution.
- The confession of the earl of Kent (British Library, Cotton MS Claudius E viii fol 224r-v, published in Edward Maunde Thompson (ed), Adae Murimuth Continuatio Chronicarum, Rolls Series (1889), page 253, pages 254-5, pages 256-7).
- The order for the arrest, and confiscation of the lands, of Sir John Pecche, previously constable of Corfe Castle, as an adherent of the earl of Kent in 1330 (published in Calendar of Patent Rolls 1327-30, p. 565; Calendar of Close Rolls 1330-33, p. p.52; Calendar of Fine Fine Rolls, iv, p. 169). This is important in conjunction with the confession, as explained below.
- The testimony of Lord Berkeley, who declared in the parliament of November 1330 that he had not heard about the death of Edward II until entering that parliament (mentioned above).
- The inconsistent accusations against the ex-king’s keepers for failing to keep him safely, made in that same parliament.
- ‘The Melton Letter’: Archbishop William Melton’s letter to Simon Swanland, c.1330, in which he declared he had received ‘certain news’ that Edward II was still alive, and asking him to assist William de Clif in supplying materials for the king’s rescue (Warwickshire County Record Office: CR 136/C/2027).
- The official royal wardrobe account of William Norwell, which notes that one ‘William le Galeys’ who claimed to be the king’s father, was brought at royal expense to Edward III at Cologne in October 1338 and maintained for three weeks at royal expense in December that year (National Archives: E36/203, 178-9. This has been published in Bryce Lyon et al. (eds), The Wardrobe Book of William Norwell, 1338-1340 (Brussels, 1983), pp. 212, 214).
- ‘The Fieschi Letter’ (Archives départementales d’Hérault, G 1123, fol. 86r). Transcribed below.
The first thing to observe is that this body of information was not recorded by a bunch of politically unimportant malcontents. The above list represents the views of, respectively:
- The coroner of the royal household, acting in accordance with the government in March 1330 (led by Lord Mortimer).
- The earl of Kent
- The earl of Kent
- The government in March 1330 (led by Lord Mortimer)
- Lord Berkeley, custodian of the ex-king
- The government in November 1330 (led by Edward III)
- The archbishop of York, shortly to be made treasurer of England by Edward III
- The keeper of the royal wardrobe in 1338
- A notary acting on behalf of a recently deceased cardinal (Luca Fieschi) and/or Pope Benedict XII
The people named above represent the main political players of the period, on both sides of the political divide. Therefore we have multiple sources for Edward’s survival to set against one demonstrably bad source for thinking he died in Berkeley Castle.
Of course, we need to observe that Lord Mortimer has been accused of deliberately falsifying the news of the ex-king’s survival, in order to lure Lord Kent to his death. Such a narrative – which arises with the longer continuation of The Brut in the 1330s – was speculative, being an attempt to reconcile apprently irreconcilable problems of evidence. What is indisputable about the earl of Kent’s involvement is that he was found guilty and executed for the ‘crime’ of trying to release a supposedly dead man from prison, to make him king again. Historians gloss over this, saying Kent was ‘stupid’ to believe his half-brother was still alive. How stupid do you have to be to try and remove your nephew from the throne and replace him with a dead man? Mentally subnormal. You would not put a man like that in charge of the royal army, or appoint him to head a diplomatic delegation, would you? Kent was given both of these responsibilities in the 1320s. His contemporaries certainly did not see him as ‘stupid’. This explanation for his belief in Edward II’s survival is simply facile – a case of scissors-and-paste history – the selection of a contemporary chronicler’s explanation and treating it as good evidence.
The argument that Kent was ‘stupid’ to believe that his half-brother was alive in 1330 does not wash for a secnod reason. His confession (see pages 254-5, pages 256-7 for a translation) shows that he was not acting alone in trying to rescue Edward II from Corfe Castle. It names the archbishop of York, the bishop of London, William de Clif, William de la Zouche, Hugh Despenser, Ingelram Berengar, John Gymmynges, John Pecche and several others. As Kathryn Warner has recently shown in an article in The English Historical Review he had the support of dozens of other individuals. All this is supported by the Melton Letter, which shows from Archbishop Melton’s own point of view that he believed Edward II still to be alive, and was actively trying to procure his release with the help of William de Clif and Simon Swanland, mayor of London. Clearly, if Kent was ‘stupid’ so were many of the leading clergy and aristocracy – including men trusted by Edward III. No. The whole ‘stupidity’ argument is an unevidenced piece of contemporary speculation or disinformation designed to defuse a dangerous situation.
There is one name in that above list which needs to be singled out for special notice – that of John Pecche. According to Kent, Pecche told Ingelram de Berengar about the ex-king’s survival. The reason why this is so important is because John Pecche was the official constable of Corfe Castle until 1329 – the very period when Kent believed his brother to be ‘in prison’ there. If news that Edward II was still alive and at Corfe in 1328 was known to both Kent and Pecche, then either Kent told Pecche or Pecche told Kent or there were two completely separate information streams. As Kent believed his brother to be alive before October 1328, this means Kent was circulating information about the ex-king’s survival when Pecche was still constable of Corfe. Quite simply, John Pecche could have checked to see whether it was true. Although not continually in residence at Corfe, he was not replaced as constable until the autumn of 1329, by which time the Kent plot was well underway (as revealed by Kent’s visit to the pope that summer). So Pecche had every opportunity to check to see whether the plot was a wild goose chase. That he joined Kent proves that he believed that Edward II was genuinely at Corfe. He was arrested and lost his lands along with Ingleram de Berengar, John Gymmynges and various other Kent adherents in the area.
Finally we come to the original argument as to why we can be certain that Edward III believed in November 1330 that his father might still be alive. As I put it in Greatest Traitor (p. 250), ‘The records of the trials in the Parliamentary Rolls show that Maltravers and Berkeley were acknowledged to have been jointly and equally liable for the safe-keeping of the ex-king… Maltravers was not charged with murder or with failing in his responsibility to keep the ex-king safely, whereas Berkeley was, on both accounts. As only one of the two men equally liable was charged, either the charges which ought to have been brought against both of them lacked substance or the king was protecting one man, Maltravers. That Edward III was not protecting him is clear in the full traitor’s death sentence passed on him for the lesser crime of being an accessory in the plot against Kent. It follows that the charges of murder and of failing to prevent Edward II’s death, brought successively against Berkeley, were groundless.’ What I should have made clearer in this analysis is that the groundlessness of Edward III’s accusations do not just tie-in with Berkeley’s own protest of ignorance in November 1330 (that he did not know of the death); they also were made after Edward III had met the woman who had embalmed the corpse that was buried as that of his father. In other words, in November 1330 Edward III was in a very good position to know the truth of the matter. In addition, I should have pointed out that the excuse Lord Berkeley gave to get himself off this false accusation of murder – that he was not at Berkeley at the time – was a lie, and that Edward III knew it was a lie (as Lord Berkeley’s letters about the death had been sent from Berkeley), and yet he accepted that lie. So, not only was the accusation false, so too was the response. And Edward III was fully aware of what was going on. The whole trial was a piece of propaganda designed to make people believe that Edward II really was dead and that he would not be a threat to the legitimacy of Edward III.
Putting all this together, the following are historical certainties – matters of information, not opinion, speculation or mere likelihood. Furthermore, as historical certainties, they cannot be ignored or set aside in any discussion of the death of Edward II in Berkeley Castle. An explanation which fails to take them into account can only be a partial one.
- With respect to the theory ‘Edward = dead in September 1327’, there is only one information stream with a first-hand source suggesting that Edward II was dead in 1327. This flows from Lord Berkeley’s letters of 21 September 1327. Although he was the sole source of the news of the death of the ex-king in his custody, he later told parliament three years later that he had not known of the death until then. All the later evidence for the death is a consequence of those misleading letters.
- With respect to the opposite theory, ‘Edward = alive at the end of 1327’, there are several information streams that support this:
- The first originates with the woman who embalmed the body buried as that of Edward II in 1327. We do not know what she said to Edward III when she was taken to him after the funeral of his supposed father in December 1327 but we can establish what he concluded afterwards. His failure in November 1330 to bring charges of not keeping the ex-king safely against one of the official keepers, and his conscious acceptance of a demonstrably false alibi from the other in respect of this specific charge, indicate twice-over that she said nothing to make him think that his father had been murdered in their care. She may have suggested a natural death or she may have told him that the corpse was not his father’s at all. However, had the death been natural, there would have been no need for the whole charade of the charges against Berkeley. A process of elimination leaves us no option but to conclude she told him that the corpse she had embalmed was not that of Edward II.
- The second originates with John Pecche. The fact that the erstwhile custodian of Corfe Castle took part in disseminating information that Edward II was at Corfe Castle is first-hand testimony that the king was indeed alive there. The only alternative is that Pecche was an agent provocateur, and his information was deliberately false. His arrest in 1330 along with Kent’s adherents, together with the confiscation of this lands, show he was not acting in this capacity.
- The third originates with Lord Berkeley. He was in a position to know the truth, even if he did not issue a truthful letter in September 1327, and so his statement that he had not heard about the death in 1330 is a first-hand account that Edward II did not die in Berkeley Castle.
On top of these there are at least two other information streams which follow from news that Edward II was alive after 21 September 1327. Although their first-hand sources cannot be positively identified, they are also important, for either they support the integrity of the three known first-hand sources above or they originate in first-hand sources of their own.
- The information circulated to Kent and Melton and their adherents, which may have been based on Pecche’s information or may have been based on information provided by the Dominican friar mentioned in Kent’s confession (in which case Pecche’s first-hand information was merely confirmation).
- Mortimer’s accusations against Kent in March 1330, which may have been based on information supplied to him by Lord Berkeley, or may have been from a different first-hand source (such as his own initiative in ordering the ex-king’s death to be faked). Either way, the condemnation of Kent in parliament reveals that the prosecuting authority (led by Mortimer) had access to a source indicating that the idea of Edward II’s survival and rescue was not a joke or the act of an idiot, it was a very real threat, necessitating Kent’s death – even though he had been close to Mortimer prior to September 1327.
It is still possible to believe that Edward II died in Berkeley Castle. It is still possible to believe that Father Christmas exists, based on the weight of ‘evidence’ delivered in the post every December. But belief does not equate with correctness, even when that belief is based on evidence. In this case, the conflict of the ‘evidence’ lies between a single, unreliable first-hand source for the death on the one hand, and three first-hand sources for the survival, plus the two further supporting information streams, on the other. The only way to reconcile these is if the unreliable source for the death is taken to mean that Lord Berkeley had not yet heard about Edward II’s death in November 1330 for the simple reason it had not happened. Berkeley lied in announcing the death in September 1327, probably on instructions from Roger Mortimer.
It remains common practice to write history which accords with the tradition of the death. To do so is to prioritise Lord Berkeley’s unreliable message over the multiple information streams concerning the survival. To do so is not just unprofessional, it is a blinkered approach to the whole question. If Edward II was dead, why did John Pecche try to rescue a dead man from a castle to which he had until recently had access? If Edward II had been killed as a precuation, to stop people trying to support him against the government acting in his son’s name, why did Roger Mortimer and Isabella choose to pretend he was still alive? They were asking for trouble. If Edward II really was dead, it is impossible to explain why Edward III did not bring charges of murder and failing to keep Edward II safely against John Maltravers, in the same way as he did against Berkeley. It is even harder to understand why he later rewarded both men for their loyal service to him. If you wish to argue that Edward II died in Berkeley Castle, without resorting to assumptions, speculation and guesswork about motives and likelihood (which prove nothing), you have to prioritise a single, unreliable first-hand account of his death over at least three first-hand accounts of his survival, and a collosal mass of circumstanial evidence. Such a prioritisation is illogical, bad practice, and thus nothing more than a prejudice.
Edward II after 1330
In this light, the famour Fieschi letter must be mentioned. It directly supports the above conclusion – the Edward II was kept secretly alive – and was written by Manuel Fieschi in about 1336, notary and co-executor of Cardinal Luca Fieschi (who died in January 1336), a distant cousin of Edward II, who had met him personally on several occasions. In the letter Manuel addresses himself to Edward III and explains all the above with regard to Edward II’s capture, deposition and imprisonment, and gives details of his time at Corfe Castle. It was written after December 1335 and survives in a near-contemporary copy in a cartulary of a bishop of Maguelonne (Archives départementales d’Hérault, G 1123, fol. 86r). It has been published several times in both Latin and English, the most easily available copies being in my own book, The Greatest Traitor (2003), pp. 251-2, Paul Doherty, Isabella and the Strange Death of Edward II (2003), pp. 186-8, and Alison Weir’s Isabella: She-wolf of France, Queen of England (2005), pp. 282-4. In translation it reads as follows:
In the name of the Lord, Amen. Those things that I have heard from the confession of your father I have written with my own hand and afterwards I have taken care to be made known to your highness. First he says that feeling England in subversion against him, afterwards on the admonition of your mother, he withdrew from his family in the castle of the Earl Marshal by the sea, which is called Chepstow. Afterwards, driven by fear, he took a barque with lords Hugh Despenser and the Earl of Arundel and several others and made his way by sea to Glamorgan, and there he was captured, together with the said Lord Hugh and Master Robert Baldock; and they were captured by Lord Henry of Lancaster, and they led him to the castle of Kenilworth, and others were [held] elsewhere at various places; and there he lost the crown at the insistence of many. Afterwards you were subsequently crowned on the feast of Candlemas next following. Finally they sent him to the castle of Berkeley. Afterwards the servant who was keeping him, after some little time, said to your father: Lord, Lord Thomas Gurney and Lord Simon Bereford, knights, have come with the purpose of killing you. If it pleases, I shall give you my clothes, that you may better be able to escape. Then with the said clothes, at twilight, he went out of the prison; and when he had reached the last door without resistance, because he was not recognised, he found the porter sleeping, whom he quickly killed; and having got the keys of the door, he opened the door and went out, with his keeper who was keeping him. The said knights who had come to kill him, seeing that he had thus fled, fearing the indignation of the queen, even the danger to their persons, thought to put that aforesaid porter, his heart having been extracted, in a box, and maliciously presented to the queen the heart and body of the aforesaid porter as the body of your father, and as the body of the said king the said porter was buried in Gloucester. And after he had gone out of the prisons of the aforesaid castle, he was received in the castle of Corfe with his companion who was keeping him in the prisons by Lord Thomas, castellan of the said castle, the lord being ignorant, Lord John Maltravers, lord of the said Thomas, in which castle he was secretly for a year and a half. Afterwards, having heard that the Earl of Kent, because he said he was alive, had been beheaded, he took a ship with his said keeper and with the consent and counsel of the said Thomas, who had received him, crossed into Ireland, where he was for nine months. Afterwards, fearing lest he be recognised there, having taken the habit of a hermit, he came back to England and proceeded to the port of Sandwich, and in the same habit crossed the sea to Sluys. Afterwards he turned his steps in Normandy and from Normandy, as many do, going across through Languedoc, came to Avignon, where, having given a florin to the servant of the pope, sent by the said servant a document to pope John, which Pope had him called to him, and held him secretly and honourably more than fifteen days. Finally, after various discussions, all things having been considered, permission having been received, he went to Paris, and from Paris to Brabant, from Brabant to Cologne so that out of devotion he might see The Three Kings, and leaving Cologne he crossed over Germany, that is to say, he headed for Milan in Lombardy, and from Milan he entered a certain hermitage of the castle of Melazzo, in which hermitage he stayed for two years and a half; and because war overran the said castle, he changed himself to the castle of Cecima in another hermitage of the diocese of Pavia in Lombardy, and he was in this last hermitage for two years or thereabouts, always the recluse, doing penance and praying God for you and other sinners. In testimony of which I have caused my seal to be affixed for the consideration of Your Highness. Your Manuele de Fieschi, notary of the lord pope, your devoted servant.
As Fieschi does not say anything about the death of ex-king, and as the internal evidence shows this letter must have been written after the end of 1335, it is clear that men at Avignon believed that the ex-king might still be alive in the later 1330s, even though the pope had been challenged on this point in 1330 and issued a statement that he did not believe the man was alive. That the pope had believed this, as made clear by the challenge, was probably due to Kent’s visit to him in 1328 or 1329. Manuel Fieschi’s evidence is of a later date and much fuller in detail. If it was indeed based on the ex-king’s confession, as stated, then it constitutes a fourth first-hand account of the survival. If the Dominicans and Lord Mortimer had independent sources for their information, it amounts to a sixth source.
William Norwell, who had known Edward II until 1325, described William le Galeys’s claim to be Edward II in neutral terms. He did not say whether he did or did not believe him. But he did not label him as an impostor. Nor did the king treat him as an impostor, paying for his expenses and not trying to expose him (as was normally done with impostors). This official source indicates that the idea that Edward II might still be alive was still current among senior members of the royal household in the later 1330s, at the same time as the belief was curent at Avignon, according to Fieschi. It is interesting that both Norwell and the Fieschi letter connect the supposed Edward II with Italy, homeland of the Fieschi themselves.
The background to the Edward II-death debate is very interesting in its own right. Pride of place really belongs to Joseph Hunter, ‘Measures taken for the apprehension of Sir Thomas de Gurney, one of the murderers of Edward II’, Archaeologia, 27 (1838), pp.274-297. Hunter put this article forward to show people how the consensus of chroniclers is not necessarily good evidence for what actually happened in the past. By demonstrating what the official record evidence has to say on the matter, he argued, one may approach a more accurate view of historical events than is ever going to be possible through chronicle sources. He was a man ahead of his time – way ahead – and sadly the intensely conservative nature of the historical profession meant that his contribution was not properly recognised until the twentieth century.
Readers interested in Edward II’s captivity should look at S.A. Moore (ed.), ‘Documents relating to the death and burial of King Edward II’, Archaeologia, 50 (1887), pp.215-226, and Thomas Frederick Tout, ‘The Captivity and Death of Edward of Carnarvon’, Bulletin of the John Rylands Library, vol 6 (1921), 69-113.
Although the person who found the Fieschi letter, Alexandre Germain, published it in the 1870s, the debate proper only took off in Italy. William Stubbs included it in his Chronicles of the reigns of Edward I and Edward II (2 vols, 1882-83) but apart from T. F. Tout (mentioned above), no one seemed to care. Professor Tout was just confused by it – convinced it had to be a forgery on the grounds that he could not doubt the mass of evidence that Edward II died in Berkeley Castle. The first scholar who did care, and had the courage and wit to suggest that Edward II may have survived Berkeley Castle, was Professor George Peddy Cuttino. For his contribution see G. P. Cuttino & T.W. Lyman, ‘Where is Edward II?’, Speculum, 53, 3 (1978), pp.522-543. This concludes that Edward II may well not be buried in Gloucester Abbey (a view with which I do not concur); nevertheless, despite a few assumptions and mistakes, this is an inspiring piece of historical scholarship.
Written from a preconception that Edward II did die in Berkeley but interesting nevertheless is R.M. Haines, ‘Edwardus Redivivus: the afterlife of Edward of Carnarvon’, Transactions of the Bristol and Gloucester Archaeological Society, 114 (1996), pp.65-86. This was the basis for the account of the death in the same author’s book, King Edward II: his life, his reign and its aftermath, 1284-1330 (Montreal, 2003). The latter is an excellent guide to the sources of the reign. Professor Haines’s Death of a king, privately published in 2002, is partly an assortment of other people’s writings on the subject and partly a redaction of Haines’s own views. The latter are marred by a conviction that Edward II did die at Berkeley, with a commensurate failure to consider the possibility that he survived.
Two radical new views were put forward almost simultaneously in early 2003 by Dr Paul Doherty, in his Isabella and the Strange Death of Edward II (Constable and Robinson, 2003), and by me in my The Greatest Traitor: the life of Sir Roger Mortimer, 1st Earl of March, Ruler of England 1327-1330 (Cape, 2003). Doherty boldly suggested a plethora of alternative readings of the evidence but failed to come to a certain conclusion, or to prove anything new. He thinks that Edward II did escape from Berkeley but that the Fieschi letter itself was a clever forgery. As for my own book, although the argument I put forward was not fully worked out, it had at its core an information-based argument. Having a scholarly background, I would not have chosen to go with such a radical piece of revisionist thinking if it depended only on a possibility or a plausibility. This marked the beginning of my attempt to make the discussion more rigorous.
2005 saw several publications on the death appear. Alison Weir published an account of the faked death in her Isabella: She-wolf of France, Queen of England (2005), drawing heavily on my work and Paul Doherty’s Isabella. And J. R. S. Phillips published his 2003 essay ‘Edward II in Italy: English and Welsh Political Exiles and Fugitives in Continental Europe, 1322 – 1365’, in Michael Prestwich, Richard Hugh Britnell and Robin Frame (eds), Thirteenth century England 10: proceedings of the Durham conference 2003 (2005), pp. 209-226. Phillips did not engage with my argument that Edward II survived; he simply presumed I was wrong. However, his article is very interesting for the reason he gives much more detail about the Fieschi letter, and in particular notes that the same register in which it appears contains a second Fieschi-related document, relating to Niccolinus Fieschi, whom I suggested might have brought the original Fieschi letter to England in April 1336.
Also published in 2005, in December, was my article, ‘The Death of Edward II in Berkeley Castle’, English Historical Review 120 (2005), pp. 1175-1214. Readers seriously interested in this subject should refer to this: it remains the most detailed and methodologically thorough piece on the subject published to date. An abstract is available here: you need a subscription to E.H.R. to see the whole piece. Alternatively, the text is reproduced verbatim in Medieval Intrigue, which is now available in paperback. This also contains several other essays that examine aspects of the fake death narrative, from the plot of the earl of Kent to the evidence for the ex-king’s later life in Italy.
April 2008, amended for typos and clarity Dec. 2014.
The story of Edward II’s death in 1327 is shaky at best, and we have good reason to believe he survived and lived out the rest of his days in relatively peaceful anonymity.