Edward II and the red-hot poker: murder most faked

This is why I love history. You think you know something about a time and a place, say, England in the 14th Century, you do a bit of reading and – bam – suddenly you realise that you were completely wrong in your assumptions.

But first a bit of context. I am toying with – maybe, just perhaps – writing a novel about the Hundred Years War. So I picked up a book by historian Ian Mortimer about the life of Edward III (son of Edward II) who launched the long wars against France. It’s called The Perfect King and, while I have only read the first third of it so far, it is quite brilliant. You can buy a copy here.

Mortimer has an extraordinary talent for relating history in a compelling, readable way. He is academically kosher but he can also write clear, exciting, page-turning books, a skill which so many historians struggle with. The Time Traveller’s Guide To . . . series is a perfect example of his genius. He also scooped all his academic peers a while back, if you will forgive the journalese, by discovering that Edward II did not die in 1327, which was the orthodox view, and something his own son claimed, but died years later.

This is where my own ignorance comes in. I thought I knew the history of the dynasty. Edward I – known as Longshanks and the Hammer of the Scots – was a big, warlike, alpha-male of a Plantagenet King of England. His son Edward II was softer, more sensitive and gay. His most famous lover Piers Gaveston was executed by one of Edward II’s barons, and his next lover Hugh Despenser started a war, and was captured, tried and executed, too.

A contemporary illustration of the coronation of Edward II

So Edward was a weak king – he couldn’t even protect his boyfriends. Then he was himself seized, so I believed, by Roger Mortimer – the arch-villain of the times, the daddy of all evil step-fathers (and quite possibly historian Ian Mortimer’s ancestor) – and put to death horribly in Berkeley Castle in 1327. I’m fairly sure I was taught this at school – but, if not, I picked it up in my distant youth and it stuck in my memory because it was so very gruesome.

Edward II, I believed, was killed by shoving a red-hot poker up his bum – a brutal comment on his sexuality in this homophobic time. They inserted a cow’s horn first, then the poker, which burnt through the tip of the horn and lethally scorched his insides. Thus leaving no external marks to give a way the nature of the crime. Sort of Game of Thrones meets Agatha Christie in its detailed, inventive, murder-mystery cruelty.

But this is not true, I discovered, while reading Ian Mortimer’s superb book. Edward II was deposed and kept prisoner in 1327, but not horribly murdered, even though his teenaged son Edward III (who was under the thumb of the Machiavellian Roger Mortimer, who was shagging Edward’s mother) claimed his father was dead and even attended his funeral. Later, Edward III, once he had outwitted and destroyed Roger, pursued the other “murderers” of his father. In fact, Edward II died much later in the 1330s.

So this is why I love history. You get murder mysteries, fables of gruesome torture, wicked politicians, and stories with more twists and turns than a Blackadder simile. And I haven’t even got to the Hundred Years War yet!

Angus Donald’s latest medieval novel Robin Hood and the Caliph’s Gold is available in paperback and eBook formats here.

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Nadine Wiseman
Nadine Wiseman
3 years ago

Have you read Paul Doherty’s excellent book on Ed 2 and Isabella? I must confess, weak king as he was, I have a huge soft spot for Edward II. I think Piers and he were a genuine love story and, idiots though they were, politically, I wept for him when Piers was brutally executed. Imagine growing up in the shadow of your father being the ultimate alpha male and boss king, knowing you were gay and didn’t have much truck with kinging and trying to keep all those stroppy bloody barons happy, and (probably) just wanting to sit in meadows singing show tunes.

Andy Blackmore
Andy Blackmore
3 years ago

I have read and loved all of your books.
My favourite genre is history, which you bring vividly to life.
My absolute favourite era is the 100 years war, so please just don’t toy with the idea, do it!

I need this book in my life.

J R Tomlin
3 years ago

There is no evidence whatsoever that Edward II was either weak or effeminate and it is pure homophobia, much of it modern. that paints him as such. Almost all historians dismiss the account that his death was by insertion of a hot poker.

As for Edward II’s survival, it is at least possible although much of the letter that claim is based on is pretty improbable. As for Ian Mortimer’s book, it is widely criticised by most scholars, especially by historian David Carpenter. I would suggest not depending on it solely as a source.

Nick Brett
Nick Brett
3 years ago

I went to a quite reasonable public school and am gutted at how little “English” history we were actually taught.