Sunday, April 25, 2010

In Memoriam: Edward II

Even the most rabid of monarchists would have to admit that not everyone who's ever been born to (or indeed called upon) to fill a throne has been universally good at all aspects of reigning all the time; even in days of yore, when Kings were seen as living gods, it was accepted that some kings made war better than peace, for instance, or that most of them preferred the company of wenches to their queen.

PhotobucketThe point is, allowances were made for these quirks in their personality, benefits of the doubt offered; no such allowances were made for the man who became Edward II, though. Even as a child, his interests were more yeomanly than royal. Fond of animals, possessed of the common touch, Edward would have just as soon shod a horse or thatched a roof as entered into a joust.

That the son of Edward I (whose nickname was Longshanks) had no interest in the arts of war was the scandal of the age; to remedy the situation, the King procured for his son a young Gascon named Piers Gaveston, whose reputation for prowess with weaponry of all kinds was then still unburdened by the bevy of allegations that would later be attached to him. In lieu of a royal bride, it was Gaveston who was by his side when Edward was invested as the first Prince of Wales in February 1301.

Gaveston likewise took pride of place at the January 1308 marriage of Edward (then King) to Isabella of France, the beautiful and conniving daughter of Philip IV; during Edward's coronation in February 1308 - which Gaveston was called upon to organize - he barely made it out of Westminster Abbey alive, owing as much to the fiasco of his own organization as it was to the royal status the King had seemingly bestowed upon him - allowing him to wear purple in defiance of sumptuary laws, for one. Yet Edward II did fulfil his principle duty as King - to secure the succession with the birth of an heir; the boy who would become Edward III is universally recognized as one of England's greater kings, in sharp contrast to the negative opinion earned by his father and passed down as received wisdom over the next seven centuries.

Edward II's twenty year reign ended with his forced abdication, imprisonment, and eventual murder*; even the means of death - by legend a red-hot poker was inserted into his anus - points to the savage bigotry of the times. Whether Edward and Gaveston were lovers will never be proven, at least not directly; indirectly, though, the evidence is incontrovertible. Henry VIII and Charles Brandon were as close friends as King and noble could be, yet no ignominy clung to either of them for it. Somehow, though, nothing Edward II ever did earned so much as a molecule of praise during his lifetime, surely a text book example of homophobia in action if ever there was one.

In the centuries since he's gone from a reviled monster to a fascinating anomaly to a gay icon thanks almost entirely to pop culture; Christopher Marlowe's play Edward II was not only the first portrayal of the unfortunate King but is one of the earliest plays in English as well, having been performed since at least 1592. The most sensational recent work about Edward II is Derek Jarman's fanciful 1992 film Edward II, in which the King was portrayed by Steven Waddington and Gaveston by Andrew Tiernan; Isabella, better known to us now as the She-Wolf of France, was played to stunning effect by Tilda Swinton.

*As with most high-profile murders, conspiracy theories abound.

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