As part of the series of extracts from my book A History of the English Monarchy: From Boadicea to Elizabeth I, this extract examines the love affair between the fourteenth-century's King Edward II and Piers Gaveston, Earl of Cornwall. Like Gaveston's biographer, J. S. Hamilton, I think most of the attempts to insist the relationship was some kind of heightened fraternal bond devoid of a sexual or romantic element are cumbersome, illogical and overwrought. While researching the book, I saw nothing that did not support the conclusion that the two men were romantically involved with one another. Edward II was king from his father's death in 1307 until he was deposed twenty years later. Equally, however, I found mountains of evidence to disproving the old canard that Edward II was not the biological father of his four legitimate children. The relevant footnotes and endnotes are available in the original book.
Like his father, Edward II was tall and robust. The Vita Edwardi Secundi, which was an account of the King’s life written by a clerk who lived at Edward’s court and who recorded his experiences at the time, observed that the King was ‘a fine figure of a handsome man’, while Sir Thomas Grey, whose father fought in Edward’s army, wrote that ‘physically he was one of the strongest men in the realm’. Another thought Edward moved well despite his size: ‘elegant, of outstanding strength’. None of the eyewitness descriptions of Edward’s contradicts one chronicler’s description of him as ‘fair of body and great of strength’. There are no surviving accounts that mention his eye colour, but illustrations and his effigy all show wavy blond hair that fell either to his chin or his shoulders. Later in life, he grew a beard.He had a ribald sense of humour. In a letter to a French prince, the Comte d’Évreux, he joked about the sexual prowess of the Welsh, or the ‘plenty of wild men’ in ‘our land of Wales’, as he put it. Growing up, he saw little of his parents and was only six when his mother, Eleanor of Castile, died, but he was close to his stepmother Marguerite and he took an interest in helping former servants of Eleanor. Queen Marguerite came to Edward’s aid in 1307 when Piers Gaveston, the prince’s favourite, was exiled on the old King’s orders. The exact nature of Edward’s relationship with Gaveston has perplexed scholars, with some cautioning against ‘anachronistic and futile’ attempts to impose modern concepts of sexuality on the medieval period. However, the contemporary accounts leave little room for reasonable doubt that it was a romantic relationship and while it will always be impossible to verify how far they went sexually or how often, what mattered was that it was a love affair, the great love affair of Edward II’s life.
Piers Gaveston was the son of a Gascon knight, born a year or two before Edward II in 1284. His father, Arnaud, had served Edward I in the wars in Gascony, Wales and Scotland, although it was through his mother, Claramonde, that the family acquired most of their wealth. Piers was barely a teenager when he joined his father in combat, where he apparently impressed the King with his manners and skills as a soldier. Shortly after that, Edward I appointed him as one of ten young men to attend on the Prince of Wales to provide him with some suitable company. Gaveston seems to have been the oldest of the ten and that, coupled with his good looks – one contemporary wrote that Gaveston was ‘graceful and agile in body, sharp witted, refined in manners [...] well versed in military matters’ – his prowess as a jouster and the fact that he had already experienced the battlefield, perhaps explain young Edward’s initial infatuation with him.
Infatuation quickly turned into obsession. A clerk in Edward’s service wrote, ‘I do not remember to have heard that one man so loved another. Jonathan cherished David, Achilles loved Patroclus.’ Another chronicle wrote that after a short separation, Edward ran over to Piers ‘giving him kisses and repeated embraces; he was adored with a special familiarity’. In an age when embracing and kissing, even on the lips, was an accepted form of greeting within the upper classes, it was not so much Edward’s actions that caused offence as the effusiveness with which they were bestowed. During the last years of the old man’s life, Longshanks grew so concerned about the two men’s intimacy that he sent Gaveston abroad, still well-provided for but abroad nonetheless, and it was Edward’s request to provide Gaveston with an overly generous amount of land that prompted his father to scream, ‘You bastard son of a bitch! Now you want to give lands away – you who never gained any? As the Lord lives, were it not for fear of breaking up the kingdom, you would never enjoy your inheritance!’ And he began viciously beating him. In a ruthless and mercenary age, the Earl of Pembroke would later remark, ‘he perishes on the rocks that loves another man more than himself’. It was a lesson that Edward II never learned.
... Gaveston was witty and his tongue cut like a scythe. Cocksure, charismatic and eye-wateringly rude, he was clever but he was not wise. He gave scornful nicknames to the earls, the most powerful members of the aristocracy, a closed blue-blooded group of eleven who did not take kindly at having their corpulence mocked, as he did with the rotund Earl of Lincoln, or being publicly referred to by his nicknames for them, including ‘the Jew’, ‘the Actor’ or ‘the Black Dog’. Piers turned up to the coronation wearing purple, a colour associated with royalty, and he was left in charge of the government when the King visited France in 1308. In a world obsessed with rank and precedence, Gaveston constituted an offensive anomaly. At the coronation banquet, the King’s two brothers-in-law, Charles de Valois and Louis d’Évreux, left in protest at the upsetting of etiquette in Gaveston’s favour. Further anger came when Edward arranged for Piers to be married to his niece, Margaret de Clare, a more-than advantageous match for the son of a knight.
In 1308, Edward himself was married to his stepmother’s niece, Princess Isabella of France. Although she had only just passed the age of consent, it was already clear that Isabella would grow to inherit the good looks of the French royal family ... Three months after his marriage, Parliament presented Edward with a declaration asking for Piers Gaveston to be banished and stripped of his title. Faced with united opposition from his peers, Parliament and family, Edward had to acquiesce, but he did so begrudgingly and with minimal sincerity. In return for losing the earldom of Cornwall, Gaveston was appointed Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, a job he executed with great success. ... In the summer of 1309, he was brought back to England and two years later, Edward took him with him on campaign against Scotland. Here Gaveston was far less successful. Edward II is often blamed for losing the Scottish Wars of Independence, but while he was an infinitely less talented general than his father it is unlikely that Longshanks himself would have won even if he had lived longer.
... But how to account for the extraordinary venom Piers Gaveston provoked in the other earls while he lived? The most obvious answer is what we would now call homophobia. That was the interpretation taken by Derek Jarman when he directed the 1991 movie Edward II, with Steven Waddington and Andrew Tiernan playing the couple opposite Tilda Swinton as Edward’s malicious wife, who allies herself with the worst elements of the puritanical Far Right in order to gain power. The film dramatised Christopher Marlowe’s play of the same name and, in order to make the modern parallel work, the nobles surrounding Edward II were shown to be disgusted by his sexuality. As a director, Jarman was less interested in historical accuracy and more in the applicability of the story to Thatcherite Britain, dedicating the film to the repeal of the country’s anti-gay laws, which were then so pernicious that they prohibited the discussion of homosexuality in schools even if a child’s mental health was at risk.The idea that Gaveston died because he was Edward II’s lover is a popular one and it enjoys some support academically. However, medieval attitudes to sexuality were not as simplistic as is commonly supposed and a case could be made for arguing that the problem was the background and prominence, rather than the gender, of the royal favourite.
Gaveston also had the bad luck to be the favourite of a King who inherited a tainted throne from an awe-inspiring father. Surrounded by military failure, economic problems and diplomatic stalemate, the barons and earls vented their frustration on the most convenient scapegoat, the King’s right-hand man. Jealousy too must have played a part in what happened, for royal largesse always brings out the green-eyed monster in those excluded from it. That is why the most successful monarchs try to balance their favour between different factions, but Edward II, as the contemporary Vita attests, was incapable of moderation. There were many men and women in history who paid for royal friendship with their lives – Robert Cochrane, favourite of King James III of Scotland, was frog-marched to his own hanging by a group of earls much like Gaveston had been; Philibert Le Vayer, confidante of the future King Henri III of France, was found murdered in an alleyway near the Louvre, possibly with the connivance of the fretful Queen Mother; Mary, Queen of Scots’ faithful secretary, David Riccio, was dragged screaming from her presence and stabbed to death by her husband and his aristocratic allies. There was also Concino Concini, a favourite of Marie de Medici, the Duke of Buckingham under Charles I, Dr Johann Streunsee in eighteenth-century Denmark, Marie-Antoinette’s beloved Princesse de Lamballe and, of course, Grigori Rasputin, hounded to his death in the last days of Imperial Russia. Gaveston may be one of many royal intimates who was undone not because of what he did, but because he had access to something others wanted.
Finally, personal blame cannot be discounted. The victim’s actions may not make the crime excusable, but they may help render it explicable and in Gaveston’s case, his arrogance and his insensitivity to others may have helped hasten his end. A palace clerk who witnessed his rise and fall wrote later, ‘I therefore believe and firmly maintain that if Piers had from the outset borne himself prudently and humbly towards the magnates of the land, none of them would have opposed him’.Today, a private dining club at the University of Oxford still bears his name but his daughter died young and by the time the earldom of Cornwall was revived, it was once again given to a member of the royal house. The Duchy of Cornwall is now part of the traditional inheritance given to the heir to the throne, an unintentional merging of the titles once held by Edward II and Piers Gaveston.
Edward II did his duty by fathering four children with Queen Isabella who, as she grew older and became a mother, was given more of a say in her husband’s government...
 In the Old Testament, the future King David was the friend of the Israelite prince Jonathan, who ultimately saved his life, while in Greek myth the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus was usually presented as a romance. The ambiguity continues elsewhere in the Vita, with the clerk saying that there was no evidence to prove that Edward and Gaveston had ever been ‘immoderate’ with one another, then going on to say that in this case, Edward seemed incapable of moderation. A platonic example is supplemented by a conclusion with one that suggests romance.