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Yas, Queens (and Kings)! History's Most Scandalous Queer Royals: Edward II

The British monarch's devotion to his two male lovers led to their deaths—and reportedly a disturbing incident with a red-hot poker.

"Yas, Queens (and Kings)! History's Most Scandalous Queer Royals" is a weeklong series in celebration of LGBTQ History Month chronicling both queer erasure and monarchal shenanigans of the past.

Edward II's murder is the stuff of homoerotic legend. The monarch was immortalized by Shakespeare contemporary and rival Christopher Marlowe in his 1593 play, Edward II, and again in 1991 in Derek Jarman's experimental film of the same name. While he was a prisoner at Berkeley Castle in Gloucestershire, the deposed king's captors reportedly sodomized him with a red-hot poker, burning out his bowels so as not to leave any external marks.

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UNSPECIFIED - CIRCA 1754: Edward II (1284-1327) king of England from 1307, son of Edward I and Eleanor of Castile. Created Prince of Wales in 1301. Forced to abdicate and murdered in Berkeley Castle in 1307. A member of the Plantagenet dynasty. Wood engraving c1900. (Photo by Universal History Archive/Getty Images)

Edward II (1284-1327).

This has been the prevailing myth about Edward II, whose 20-year reign was almost as notorious as the way he allegedly died. Ruling England from 1307 to 1327, his intractable devotion to two of his favorites proved a detriment to the country, and ultimately cost him his throne and his life.

Edward was born in 1284, the son of the King of England, Edward I—who was not an easy man, at least when it came to dealing with his son's various caprices. Enter Piers Gaveston, the son of one of the king's household knights. He and Edward II met when both were about 16 and became fast friends—if not more. According to one contemporaneous observer:

"…upon looking on him [Gaveston] the son of the king immediately felt such love for him that he entered into a covenant of constancy, and bound himself with him before all other mortals with a bond of indissoluble love, firmly drawn up and fastened with a knot."

Edward lavished gifts on his friend, which, as a harbinger of things to come, bristled those around him. The king and the prince had a falling-out, and the king banished Gaveston in 1307 to punish his son. One rumor has it that Edward had asked his dad to allow him to give Gaveston some property, the County of Ponthieu. The king was reportedly having none of this, and pulled Edward's hair out in "great handfuls" before sending the young commoner away. This was only the first of Gaveston's many, many banishments.

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David Justin as 'Piers Gaveston' (left) and Kevin O'Hare as Edward II in Birmingham Royal Ballet's production of 'Edward II' which opens in front of Princess Margaret at the Hippodrome tonight (Thursday). Picture DAVID JONES/PA (Photo by David Jones - PA Images/PA Images via Getty Images)

David Justin as Piers Gaveston (left) and Kevin O'Hare as Edward II in Birmingham Royal Ballet's production of Edward II.

Edward grew up to be tall and muscular—a real medieval dime-piece, some would say. He took the throne in 1307 when his father died after contracting dysentery, because it was the Middle Fucking Ages. But, in all fairness, Eddy I was 68, which is like a thousand in 21st-century years.

Of course, the first thing Edward II did when he became king was bring back his precious Gaveston. But things quickly began to fall apart. Edward left Gaveston in charge as he went to France to wed the young (she was 13) Isabella—or as history has lovingly referred to her, the She-Wolf of France—in order to unite the two kingdoms. Edward then spent most of his coronation hanging out with Gaveston and ignoring his new bride, to the chagrin of the ever-watchful and shady barons who were wary of any threat to their position.

Edward II during the coronation ceremony with Queen Isabella in Westminster Abbey. Chromos widespread in 1902 during the celebrations for the coronation of King Edward VII. It was February 25, 1308 (Photo by Fototeca Gilardi/Getty Images)

The Coronation of Edward II, 1308 (1902).

Isabella tolerated Edward and Gaveston's unusual relationship, using it to further her own gain. Not everyone was so understanding. Edward wasted no time in naming Gaveston Earl of Cornwall, a title usually reserved for members of the royal family. This, as well as Gaveston's closeness to and influence over Edward, pissed off barons in the king's court, who saw Gaveston as a "second king." During a meeting of Parliament in 1308, the barons held off all matters of state until the Gaveston problem was addressed, and so the king was forced to send his favorite into exile again.

Now, Gaveston, by multiple accounts, was a messy bitch who loved drama. The barons found him arrogant, and he in turn gave them offensive names. For instance, he called Lincoln "burst-belly," Pembroke "Joseph the Jew," Lancaster "the fiddler," and Warwick "the black dog of Arden." He also really tested his limits with the king, securing favors and appointments for his friends and servants and generally irking the wrong people.

In 1310, following Gaveston's return to court, the barons refused to attend a meeting of Parliament if the problematic fave was there, leading to yet another exile. Then, in 1312, the barons finally rebelled, driving Edward, his pregnant wife, and Gaveston from their castle. Edward negotiated to exile Gaveston again, then brought him back. At that point, the vengeful barons had had it. They eventually got their hands on Gaveston, tried him, and beheaded him.

Historical Picture Archive/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images

"After being recalled by Edward II, Piers Gaveston is captured and executed by the rebelling barons and his head shown to the Earl of Lancaster as proof before sending it as a message to the king. Kenilworth, 19 June 1312. Illustration by James E. Doyle. 1864. Color lithograph. Located in a private collection. (Photo by © Historical Picture Archive/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)"

Piers Gaveston's Head Shown to the Earl of Lancaster, 1312 (1864).

The king was, understandably, devastated—and humiliated that the barons had usurped his power. But he soon found solace in another favorite, Hugh Despenser. A member of the wealthy but much-reviled Despenser family, Hugh the Younger (his dad was the Elder) gleefully took up the grand Despenser tradition of scamming, stunting, and stealing. Regardless, Edward stuck by him and his family, even after they were run out of town by the jealous barons in 1321. Once again, he had to agree to exile his favorite.

Edward committed the same mistakes with Despenser as he did with Gaveston, putting the needs of his pet over that of his kingdom. A contemporary account, from 1326, refers to Edward and Despenser as "the king and his husband." This time, however, Isabella would not be so accommodating. While Isabella had been able to compromise with Edward over his relationship with Gaveston, she could not stand Despenser.

Isabella had her own favorite, Roger Mortimer, and together they plotted to depose Edward. It was pretty easy since national sentiment was against Edward, who had bankrupted England with a series of bad decisions, influenced in part by his relationship with Despenser. In 1326, Isabella and Mortimer instigated an uprising against Edward, and in a matter of months they had captured the king and forced him to abdicate his throne. Isabella made sure that Despenser suffered big-time: According to some reports, he was dragged naked through the streets and castrated while still conscious. His entrails were slowly pulled from his body, and his heart was cut out and thrown into a fire.

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Hugh the Despenser's torture in Hereford, known as Hugh le Despenser the Younger, in 'Chronicles' of Jean Froissart (c, 1337, c, 1400), 1326, EnglandParis, Bibliotheque Nationale. (Photo by Photo12/UIG/Getty Images)

Hugh the Despenser's Torture in Hereford, 1326.

The Middle Ages, man. Maybe Despenser's graphic death led to tales of Edward's own demise—his relationships with Gaveston and Despenser no doubt inspired the death-by-sodomy angle. However, historians refute the red-hot poker story. He was probably murdered while imprisoned, yet some rumors claimed he actually survived his capture and died years later.

As for Edward's son, Edward III, he had some hard feelings towards Mortimer, whom he successfully overthrew and executed in 1330. He remained on good terms with Isabella, though, and apparently she had some residual feelings for her late husband. When she was buried, she requested that Edward II's heart (medieval folks loooved cutting out hearts) was interred with her.

Sources:

Piers Gaveston, Hugh Despenser, and the Downfall of Edward II

‘The King and His Husband’: The Gay History of British Royals

Edward II of England

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