Edward II killed at Berkeley Castle
The inglorious reign of Edward II drew to an end in 1326. The people had suffered famine under his rule during a period of extreme weather conditions. The church had been ill-treated and seen possessions and treasures grabbed by Edward’s favourites. Scotland had been lost to the English for centuries to come; lands in Gascony were taken from him. Edward was not overwhelmed with support.
So it was that the small invasion force of his own wife Isabella and her lover Roger Mortimer grew apace as it progressed through the country, and Edward failed to rally any great nobles to his side to resist it. Edward fled to South Wales with his favourite (and possibly lover) Despencer, but on November 16 1326 they were caught in open country and captured by Henry of Lancaster.
Despencer was soon tried and executed, after having his body engraved with biblical verses by the mob. Hanged then drawn and quartered like a common thief, he also suffered castration, probably as a brutal reaction to his presumed homosexuality.
Edward was taken to Kenilworth Castle , where according to some accounts he was well treated. But the king was forced to abdicate, presented with a litany of his supposed crimes and failures, and also with an option: abdicate and see his son crowned in his place; or be deposed in favour of Roger de Mortimer. He chose the former, abdicating on January 20 1327, a decision made formal by Parliament a week later.
The ex-king alive was an embarrassment to those who had dethroned him. On April 3 1327 he was moved to Berkeley Castle , where his treatment was aimed at breaking him without actual violence. He was deprived of light, fed badly, kept in appalling conditions, and his sleep was interrupted regularly. But Edward was an athlete, and had a strong will to live for all his ineffectiveness as a ruler.
After one briefly successful attempt to free him, and possibly another had been discovered before it could be carried out, the need to remove the ex-king became more urgent. Roger Mortimer sent William Ockle and Thomas Gourney to Berkeley Castle to do the deed, Thomas de Berkeley conveniently absenting himself, an action that saved him from retribution in later years.
The most probable cause of Edward’s death on September 21 1327 was either strangulation or smothering - quick, clean and leaving no visible signs of violence. But the more often quoted means of his destruction is far more brutal and agonising. Legend has it that the king was held down in his cell beneath either a table or a mattress, a horn inserted in his anus and pushed deep into his body, then a red-hot poker or copper rod inserted through the horn – preventing any signs of burning on the exterior of the body – and manoeuvred until his internal burns killed him, or possibly he died of shock. This legend has Edward’s screams heard for miles around, hardly a clever course of action for those wanting to claim as they did that Edward had died a natural death. As with Despencer’s castration, there is definitely a reaction to Edward’s supposed sexual liaisons with Gaveston and Despencer in this version.
There is a third possibility concerning Edward’s death at Berkeley, namely that it didn’t happen. There are several sources leading historians to believe he fled to Ireland, or Italy, or even just faded into obscurity, one of them backed with the so-called Fieschi letter, published in 1872 and written by the Bishop of Vicelli, Manuele de Fieschi, chronicling Edward’s movements through Europe until Fieschi met him in Milan years after his purported demise.
Given the risks to Isabella and Mortimer of Edward surviving, logic dictates he died at Berkeley Castle. How he died is unclear and will remain so, although it is said his ghost haunts this most atmospheric of castles during the month of September.
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