Once I was a clever boy learning the arts of Oxford... is a quotation from the verses written by Bishop Richard Fleming (c.1385-1431) for his tomb in Lincoln Cathedral. Fleming, the founder of Lincoln College in Oxford, is the subject of my research for a D. Phil., and, like me, a son of the West Riding. I have remarked in the past that I have a deeply meaningful on-going relationship with a dead fifteenth century bishop... it was Fleming who, in effect, enabled me to come to Oxford and to learn its arts, and for that I am immensely grateful.

Friday, 21 September 2012

King Edward II

Today is the 685th anniversary of the date traditionally given as that of the murder of the deposed King Edward II at Berkeley castle.
EdwardEffigy 291x300 Effigy of Edward II
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.
edward.ii .3.full  300x225 Edward II

The King's effigy in profile

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.

1 comment:

Mike Cliffson said...

The poker has a verismilitude for our forebears which jibes with modern CSI fans: no external mark of death, hence murder as undetectable and faster and more reliable than poisoning.Skillful suffocating would leave traces detectable today, but not then,but unlucky or unskilful leaves bruises and so on; I understand the financial advantages to the crown and the coroner himself made for a bias to treat death as murder - not that this sort of consideration would have necessarily weighed with putative regicides - they should worry about the local coroner? - or would they have wished to cover their traces a bit?, or perhaps, rather, that a poker story would be the more in accord with public thinking: that a murderer will want to cover up as much as possible: too many people do see dead bodies, layers out, servants , etc.
Besides natural death or smothering are so tame! Aint we tabloid readers got no ancestors?
Equally as with CSI fans, the frisson of mentally contemplating the vicarious suffering, the sheer indignity of such an attack let alone such a death, especially for a royal, daring to degrade authority, as it were perhaps - the whole thing beats Harry cavorting in vegas hands down.
None of which proves it true nor false, of course , but I remember that history lesson among others eminently forgettable.
I have a feeling that there might be something to the poker story, even if it happened to other than the king: Orwell remarked of atrocity stories that their similarity did not disprove them as fact, but rather showed how as (fallen) humans we have in common repressed desires to do much the same awful things.