The Death of Edward II – natural causes, suffocation or a red-hot poker up the bum?

Edward II - an ill-fated king
Edward II – an ill-fated king

The death of King Edward II during his imprisonment at Berkeley Castle in 1327 is shrouded in mystery. Nobody knows for certain whether he died of natural causes, was murdered on the orders of his wife, or in fact swapped his clothes with a servant and escaped…

It’s an understatement to say that Edward II had a pretty rough time as king of England. Unsuccessful military campaigns. Uprisings and civil wars. And after years of making enemies all over the country because of his controversial relationship with the unpopular Piers Gaveston, and later the hated Despenser family, he fell out of favour with his own wife – the French king’s sister, Isabella. In 1326, Queen Isabella turned against Edward, gathered an army and kicked him off the throne. As a result, Edward II became the first English monarch to be deposed. Depending on what you believe, it’s possible he then suffered a very gruesome death by having a red-hot poker shoved up his anus – on Isabella’s orders.

She sounds like a woman you wouldn’t want to mess with.

Queen Isabella – the ‘She-Wolf of France’

Isabella had a deep dislike for Edward’s close friend and adviser, the very rich and influential Hugh Despenser the Younger. Some people say he was the real ruler of England because of how much he dominated Edward. She was also embarrassed by Edward’s unsuccessful military campaigns in Scotland and considered him an incompetent king. Finally, because of rising tensions with the French, Edward and Hugh had decided in 1324 to confiscate Isabella’s lands and place her youngest children into the custody of the Despenser family. That was the straw that broke the camel’s back.

In 1325, Isabella went to France to negotiate a peace treaty with the French king on Edward II’s behalf. After negotiations completed, she decided not to return to England and plotted against Edward instead. She became involved with an exiled lord, Roger Mortimer, and the two of them hatched a plan to remove Edward II and the Despensers from power.

Queen Isabella and her forces
Queen Isabella and her forces

In 1326, Isabella and Mortimer gathered an army and invaded England. Edward was pretty unpopular by this point, largely because people hated the Despensers, and many rose up against Edward in support of Isabella, forcing the king to flee London. Eventually Edward was captured and imprisoned by Isabella’s forces, and she and Mortimer became the de facto rulers of England.

Was Edward murdered with a red-hot poker?

In January 1327, Edward II was forced to abdicate. His young son was crowned Edward III, with Isabella as queen regent. Edward II was moved to the more secure location of Berkeley Castle. What happened after this is still a massive source of debate.

On 23rd September 1327, Isabella and Edward III were informed by messenger that Edward II had died at Berkeley Castle because of a ‘fatal accident’ – which is the information that was given to Parliament. Nobody is clear on the nature of this accident or what is said to have happened. Others say he died from ill-health and depression brought on by his captivity.

But the most popular view is that he was murdered on the orders of Isabella and Mortimer. There is a legend that the two of them plotted to murder him in such a way that they could deny any wrongdoing. Allegedly, they sent a famous order, “Eduardum occidere nolite timere bonum est, which – depending where you place the comma – could be read as “Do not be afraid to kill Edward; it is good”, or “Do not kill Edward; it is good to fear”. The evidence is minimal, but the likelihood that most historians subscribe to is that Isabella and Mortimer did have Edward killed, because of concerns over plots to liberate him.

How they murdered him is also up for debate. Some say he was suffocated or strangled. But a sordid legend has it that a group of men held the king down, pushed a horn into his anus, and then inserted a red-hot poker to burn out all of his internal organs. It was a method of execution that would leave no visible marks on the body. However, most historians now agree that the red-hot poker story was just medieval propaganda – possibly inspired by Edward’s rumoured homosexuality.

It seems we’ll never know how Edward II died…

But maybe Edward didn’t die at Berkeley at all…

There is a minority view that in fact Edward II escaped Berkeley Castle and carried on his life in exile in Europe. This theory comes from the ‘Fieschi Letter’ – an undated letter written by priest Manuele Fieschi to Edward III, a copy of which was first discovered in 1877 in Montpellier. The letter says that when Edward II heard that he was to be murdered at Berkeley Castle, he swapped clothes with a servant and escaped by killing the gatekeeper.

Berkeley Castle - where Edward II was imprisoned and (possibly) murdered
Berkeley Castle – where Edward II was imprisoned and (possibly) murdered

The question is, who did they bury at Gloucester Cathedral if it wasn’t Edward II? Some say that it was either the gatekeeper – and Isabella knew her husband had escaped – or it was the servant, killed by Isabella’s assassins.

The Fieschi Letter goes on to state that Edward fled to Corfe Castle in Dorset, then travelled to Ireland, France and eventually settled in Italy, where he spent the rest of his days as a hermit.

Supporters of the Fieschi Letter point to royal accounts that mention Edward III’s meeting with ‘William the Welshman’ whilst in Germany – a man who claimed to be Edward II. No further details about ‘William the Welshman’ are known. Other documents detail how Edmund, the Earl of Kent, was executed for plotting to liberate Edward II from Corfe Castle – three years after his apparent death.

In addition, evidence that it was actually the king’s body buried at Gloucester Cathedral is a bit shoddy. For the first time, a wooden effigy of the king was carried through the streets instead of his body. Furthermore, the body was embalmed before it was viewed (from a distance) by local dignitaries, which possibly made it unrecognisable.

Do I smell a cover-up? One that maybe even Edward III was in on, or knew about?

It certainly seems quite fanciful that Edward II escaped and survived in the way the letter tells it – and the letter’s motives are doubted by historians. However, the evidence for all accounts of what happened to Edward II is inadequate. We don’t even have a cause of death, just a number of wildly different theories.

So perhaps Edward II was more resourceful than Isabella thought…

Next week: Who killed Jill Dando?


Wikipedia: Edward II of England, Isabella of France, Fieschi Letter

Times Higher Education – A red hot poker? It was just a red herring

Susan Higginbotham – Hugh Despenser the Younger


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