Today is the 685th anniversary of the date traditionally given as that of the murder of the deposed King Edward II at Berkeley castle.
The eeffigy of King Edward II at Gloucester
I am reliably informed that the method used - a red hot poker - comes from only one chronicle, and that one which rather liked to record deaths which peculiarly matched the life of the deceased, so maybe there is poetic, if gruesome, imagination at work here. Nevertheless the red hot poker is now firmly entrenched in the popular view of his death.
My college of Oriel was founded (strictly speaking refounded in his name) by the King in January1326 and we commemorate him as "our memorable founder" in the College prayer. According to college gossip (so it must be true) a few years ago there was a serious discussion in the Governing Body as to whether it was appropriate for the college to have the plant kniphofia - commonly known as Red Hot Pokers - growing in Garden Quad. I am pleased to say that the plants survived, and still, I think, flower in Oriel.
On a more serious note in recent years a number of medieval historians have questioned whether or not King Edward was murdered and have inclined to the idea, noted in the fourteenth century, that he was conveyed out of the country and died many years alter in Italy. Ian Mortimer in his books on Roger Mortimer and on King Edward III writes about the matter.
I am not sure what I think - I respect the arguments advanced, but there are so many stories of royal prisoners escaping death on the battlefield or in prison from King Harold II surviving Hastings and ending his days as a hermit at Chester through King Sebastian of Portugal to King Louis XVII, and from Emperor Alexander I of Russia retreating to a hermitage in 1825 and to the career of Anna Anderson in the twentieth century posing as the surviving Grand Duchess Anastasia, all of which appear to be at best the triumph of hope over grim reality, or simply fradulant.
As a result I rather fear that King Edward did not survive his time in Berkeley, but there may be more to be understood of a period when a lot of people would have been hedging their bets.
The reign of King Edward II has attracted a vast amount of scholarly attention, and retains its fascination as a period, with its clashes of personalities, its political upheavals and the insights it affords into medieval government.
One topic which may not have attracted as much attention is the matter of the King's beard. His very fine, if somewhat damaged, tomb effigy at Gloucester, erected a few years after his death, shows him with a luxuriant and splendidly curling beard. It has to be said that the very fine, but much less well known label-stop portrait of the King in the nave of St Albans, along with probably the best surviving one of Queen Isabella, suggests a less elaborate decoration of the royal chin. Nonetheless it is the Gloucester image which predominates in later representaions.
King Edward II
This begs the question - it it just the skill of the carver we are seeing, or is it the skill of the royal barber? The King's red, curling hair falls in ringlets in his moustache and beard such as to suggest the use of curling tongs, or did he sleep with curling papers in his beard? Both suggest a side of the King's toilette which gives pause for thought. Royal hairdressing over the centuries has often been a demanding art.
Whatever the exact date or nature of the King's death as a historian and as an Orielensis I remembered King Edward II in my intention at Mass this evening.