(I’d like to give a warm welcome to Kathryn Warner and thank her for the post. I’ll have a review of her excellent book up on Friday!)
King Edward II is rightly remembered as one of the most disastrous kings England has ever produced. His reign of nineteen and a half years, July 1307 to January 1327, was a painful history of civil war, baronial insurrections, failed military campaigns in Scotland, war with France, and the king’s over-reliance on a cohort of male ‘favourites’ who wielded excessive and malign influence. Edward was an unconventional, even eccentric man who was completely unable to fulfill the role he had been born into (for more details, see my Edward II: The Unconventional King). Aggravated beyond endurance with their king, a strong alliance of Edward’s barons, bishops and even his own wife Isabella of France forced him to abdicate his throne to his fourteen-year-old son Edward III in January 1327. Held in captivity at Berkeley Castle in Gloucestershire, the former king is traditionally said to have been murdered there on 21 September 1327, and by far the best known (and terrible) narrative of his death is that he was killed by having a red-hot poker inserted inside his rectum which burned out his insides. This story is, however, virtually certainly to be a myth.
Edward II’s death was announced to the parliament then being held at Lincoln in late September 1327, and his funeral took place at St Peter’s Abbey, Gloucester (now Gloucester Cathedral) on 21 December 1327 in the presence of his son Edward III, widow Queen Isabella, and much of the English nobility and episcopate. Initially it was given out that he had died of natural causes; at the parliament of November 1330, the first one after the young Edward III overthrew the regency of his mother Isabella and took over governance of his own kingdom, it was stated for the first time that Edward II had been murdered. The method was never given officially, though two men, Sir Thomas Gurney and William Ockley, were sentenced to death in absentia for the murder of the former king. Gurney fled to Spain and died there in 1333; Ockley vanishes from history.
In the absence of any official explanation as to the cause of Edward II’s death, fourteenth-century chroniclers put their imaginations to work or repeated gossip they had heard, and gave a wide variety of causes of Edward’s sudden death. Some say that he died of natural causes; others that he died of illness, or grief; some that he was suffocated; some that he was strangled; one that he was fine in the evening but dead by the morning; one that he was ‘vilely murdered’ with no more details given; one that he ‘either died naturally or by the violence of others’; one that ‘he died, in what manner is not known, but God knows it’. Others state simply that he died at Berkeley without speculating how, and others admit that they have no idea what happened to him. Adam Murimuth, who was a royal clerk and the only chronicler anywhere near Berkeley Castle in September 1327 (he was a hundred miles away in Exeter), wrote at first that Edward was murdered ‘by a trick’ and later that he was suffocated.
The infamous ‘red-hot poker’ story appears in the Brut of the 1330s and Geoffrey le Baker and the Polychronicon in the 1350s, and chroniclers of the later fourteenth century tended to copy this idea. The story was popularised by Christopher Marlowe in his c. 1592 play about Edward II and has generally been repeated as certain ‘fact’ ever since. It is anything but. As we have seen, only a handful of contemporary or near-contemporary chroniclers repeated the story and are far outnumbered by the chroniclers who did not. Assuming that Edward was murdered in September 1327 at all, it makes little sense for his murderers to have tried out a sadistic method they couldn’t have known would work and which probably wouldn’t have killed him immediately anyway. The rationale usually given for this vilely sadistic method is contradictory: that it was chosen because it would leave no marks on the body to give away the fact that Edward had been murdered, but then, it makes no sense that Gurney and Ockley would inflict such torture on him so that his screams could be heard for miles around the castle and make it obvious what was happening within. Another explanation often given for the red-hot poker torture and murder is that it was a punishment for Edward II’s sexuality, that he received his just desserts for being the passive partner in sexual acts with men (though we have no way of knowing the reality of Edward’s sex life).
In my opinion, the whole tale of Edward II’s murder by red-hot poker is an absurdity, a piece of salacious gossip which has been repeated over and over because it is so lurid and disgusting. As we see above, it is emphatically not the case that Edward’s contemporaries and near-contemporaries were universally agreed that this was how he died; it was never given out as official fact; few if any modern historians of the fourteenth century accept the story as certain truth. It is far more likely that Edward was suffocated, perhaps after being sedated, and in fact it is entirely possible that he was not killed in September 1327 at all. Between 1328 and 1330, a large number of influential men, including Edward’s half-brother the earl of Kent, the earls of Mar and Buchan, the mayor and bishop of London and the archbishop of York, strongly believed that Edward was still alive and tried to free him from captivity at Corfe Castle in Dorset. Kent was executed, the archbishop was hauled before King’s Bench, and numerous other men were arrested or fled the country, and their lands and goods seized. In the 1330s an Italian bishop wrote a long letter to Edward III explaining how Edward II had escaped from Berkeley and ended up in Italy. Edward II’s fate is mysterious, but we can be almost 100% certain that it did not involve a red-hot poker.
– Kathryn Warner, Edward II: The Unconventional King (2014)
– Seymour Phillips, Edward II (2010)
– Ian Mortimer, Edward III: The Perfect King (2006) and Medieval Intrigue: Decoding Royal Conspiracies (2010)