Edward II and Richard III, who will be laid to rest in Leicester Cathedral on March 26, have made a similar journey through popular culture. In both cases, the story of a flawed monarch who lost his throne to an invading force inspired an Elizabethan playwright. Both Richard III by William Shakespeare and Edward II by Christopher Marlowe created a received wisdom about their title characters that was accepted by the public for centuries. Shakespeare’s Richard III was a hunchbacked villain who ruthlessly eliminated his family members and died offering his kingdom for a horse. Marlowe’s Edward II was foolish, dominated by his male “minions,” and met a gruesome end by being disemboweled with a red hot poker.
In the 20th century, popular perceptions of Richard III and Edward II diverged. The founding of the Richard III society in 1924 began the process of reevaluating Richard III’s reputation and Shakespeare’s portrayal has been thoroughly critiqued. The discovery of Richard III’s remains revived popular interest in the king’s reputation and there is now a range of more sympathetic portrayals of Richard in historical fiction and popular biography alike. In contrast, Marlowe’s portrayal of Edward II has become even more accepted and entrenched in popular culture. For example, the 1995 Oscar winning film Braveheart, portrayed the future Edward II as frivolous, focused entirely on his male favourites and easily cuckolded by his estranged wife.
In the foreward to Kathryn Warner’s book, Edward II: The Unconventional King, historian Ian Mortimer observes that there is an “Edward II routine” accepted by the public and numerous historians. Warner, one of the foremost experts on Edward II, scrutinizes the accepted narrative of Edward II’s life and death, finding the complex historical figure behind the Elizabethan legend.
Warner demonstrates that while Edward II rarely an effective monarch, especially compared to his father, Edward I, and son, Edward III, he was a much more complicated figure than his depiction in popular culture. The strongest sections of the book are Warner’s thoughtful revaluation of Edward II’s marriage to Isabelle of France. The match began badly with Edward ignoring his 12 year old wife to socialize with his favourite, Piers Gaveston, during the wedding celebrations, and ended badly with Isabelle overthrowing her husband with the help of her own favourite, Roger Mortimer. During the intervening years, however, Warner reveals an effective working relationship between the king and queen with evidence that they cared for each others’ welfare. The existence of four children, all of whom were clearly fathered by Edward, is clear evidence that the royal couple were not estranged for their entire marriage as they are in Marlowe’s play.
I was not convinced by the final chapter of Edward II: The Unconventional King on Edward II’s possible life in exile after his presumed death in 1327. While accounts of Edward II’s death by red hot poker are as fictionalized as Richard III offering his kingdom for a horse at the Battle of Bosworth field, the possibility that Edward II managed to fake his own death and live out his life in obscurity seems unlikely. Edward II did not simply disappear in the manner of Richard III’s nephews, the Princes in the Tower, but had a funeral in Gloucester Abbey attended by dozens of people close to him. The existence of circumstantial evidence for Edward II’s survival, however, reveals that there remain unanswered questions about this controversial king. Like Richard III, Edward II continues to be a historical enigma with a contested reputation.
Next Week: Princes at War: The Bitter Battle Inside Britain’s Royal Family in the Darkest Days of WWII by Deborah Cadbury