Edward II notes
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Music John McCabe
Choreographer David Bintley
Design Peter J. Davidson
Costume Jasper Conran
Lighting Peter Mumford
For a century between 1272 and 1377, England was ruled by three successive Kings called Edward. The numbering system that we use today was not at first employed: Edward II, when he succeeded to the throne in 1307, was known as 'Edward, son of Edward the first since the Conquest [of 1066]' and it was only the sheer unwieldiness of the title 'Edward, son of Edward, son of Edward...' that led the government of the last of these kings to adopt the style 'Edward the third' in 1327. The continuity of names was at first an accident: the future Edward II, born in 1284, was the youngest of 14 or more children of Edward I and his queen, Eleanor of Castile, and it was only the tragedy of child mortality that made the prince, at the age of four months, heir apparent to the throne of England. Thereafter, however, the naming convention took firm root: both Edward III's eldest son and the latter's first child were, in turn, christened Edward, and it was only their early deaths that brought a change with the succession of Richard II in 1377.
Edward I was already in his mid-40s when the future Edward II was born, and there is little sign of any intimacy between the two: later, indeed, they were to quarrel violently over the prince's relationship with Piers Gaveston. Furthermore, the early marriages of his remaining siblings, and the death of his mother when he was only six, deprived Prince Edward of the secure family life that would today be regarded as important to his personal development. One consequence of this personal isolation was that Edward became more than conventionally pious and increasingly regarded himself as a man of destiny. His birth at Carenarfon and his investiture as Prince of Wales in 1301 followed Edward I's conquest and submission of the Welsh; both father and son appreciated the advantages of linking themselves with notions of a united Britain found in the legends of King Arthur and the prophecies of Merlin. Edward II increasingly took refuge in such fanciful notions. In the later years of his reign, he developed an interest in the legend of the phial of holy oil supposedly given by the Virgin Mary to Thomas Becket: Edward's desire to be re-annointed with this oil betrays him as an isolated figure naively attempting to hedge himself about with divinity. It was precisely this exhalted sense of his own importance that led some people, after his death, to regard Edward as a martyr - and even persuaded Richard II, at the end of the 14th century, to lobby unsuccessfully got his canonisation.
The years before Edward II's succession to the throne in 1307 were dominated by his father's attempt to conquer the independent kingdom of Scotland. Although Edward I came close to subduing the northern kingdom, the emergence of Robert the Bruce and his coronation as King of Scots in 1306 seriously weakened the English position. In one sense, then, Edward II was unfortunate in inheriting an unwinable war. But his own determination to continue the struggle created fresh problems: the crushing defeat of his army by Bruce at the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314 was a disaster from which he never fully recovered.
Relations with France provided still more challenges. Edward II's marriage to the French Princess Isabella in 1308 was designed to relive diplomatic tensions over the English crown's right to the duchy of Aquitaine in south-west France. The fact that Gaveston took precedence over Isabella at the coronation banquet in the same year did not, however, endear Edward to his new in-laws: later, in 1320, there was another tense moment when Edward, while visiting the French court, refused to perform the special oath of loyalty requested by Isabella's brother. The result was a brief period of open warfare, in 1323-5, at the end of which Isabella herself was dispatched to France to negotiate a settlement. It was during this trip, ironically, that she met the exiled Roger Mortimer and plotted the invasion of England that would topple her husband's regime and, early in 1327, she set her son of the throne of England. Later, it was Isabella's own postition as the sister of the last Capetian king of France that would lead the young Edward III to challenge the house of Valois for the French throne and begin the long series of military struggles known as the Hundred Years War.
The nature of Edward II's sexuality is a subject of some difficulty for historians. Before the decriminalisation of homosexual practices in the 1960s virtually nothing overt was said on the subject: instead, Edward's biographers concentrated on the king's quaint preference for the rural crafts of hedging, ditching and thatching over the regal pursuits of chivalry. That Edward consorted with 'low life' could in itself, of course, be read in a number of ways. And herein lies the problem: not surprisingly, neither the details of the king's lifestyle nor the contemporary comments on his relations with Gaveston and Despenser yield more than ambiguous allusions to acts of sex. Even the details of his death remain extraordinarily vague: on the one hand there is the well-known tradition that he was murdered in a brutal parody of anal penetration; on the other there is the story of his escape from England to live out his last years as a hermit in the hills of Lombardy.
The modern historical profession has therefore become increasingly polarised on the issue of sexuality, with some arguing that the king entered into fully fledged same-sex partnerships with his courtiers and others suggesting that Edward's love for his favourites was emphatically platonic and fraternal. What fascinates and unites them all, however, is Edward II's continued ability, nearly 700 years after his death, to inspire artistic interpretations that have such immediacy and relevance for modern society.
From a longer article by W.M.Ormrod
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