“By God’s soul, he acted as a fool. If he had taken my advice he would never have fallen into the hands of the earls. This is what I always told him not to do. For I guessed that what has now happened would occur. What was he doing with the earl of Warwick, who was known never to have liked him? I knew for certain that if the earl caught him, Piers would never escape from his hands.”
Paul Doherty, in the author’s note to his recent novel The Darkening Glass, suggests that Edward’s reaction to Piers’ death was “strangely muted,” and a theme of the novel is that Edward had grown tired of his friend. Well, not really. Edward’s words do sound rather odd, but as I’ve pointed out before, this is probably nothing more than evidence that profound shock, grief and rage do not lend themselves to eloquence. TheVita and several other chronicles, such as Lanercost, Scalacronica andAnonimalle, point out that Edward swore revenge for Piers’ death, and if we look at Edward’s subsequent actions rather than his speech, we get a far more reliable indicator of his feelings about Piers and his death. As late as June 1326, fourteen years later, Edward was still paying numerous religious houses to pray for Piers’ soul, hardly the actions of a man who had tired of him. The king spent large sums of money on taking care of Piers’ mortal remains – spending, for example, £144 between 8 July 1312 and 7 July 1313 on wax for candles to burn around Piers’ body, eighty pence a day to the Dominicans of Oxford to pray over the body, £300 on cloth of gold to dress Piers for the funeral, and fifteen pounds to two men to watch over the body – for only twenty-eight days in December 1314! These are huge, huge amounts of money – the kind of money you spend on a person you adore, not a person you’d grown tired of or no longer cared about.
Edward left York on 28 June 1312, two days after he heard about or at least responded to Piers’ death (I have no idea who told him, by the way; I assume the earl of Pembroke sent a messenger) and headed south to London. He left the pregnant queen behind, presumably to keep her out of the way of any danger, given that there was a strong risk that the country would slide into civil war – though I’m sure proponents of the currently oh-so-trendy Isabella Was A Tragic Neglected Victim Of Her Callous Husband theory can find some way of twisting this into more evidence that he was ‘abandoning’ her. Apparently, however, Isabella herself didn’t think so: she sent a letter to Edward on 29 June, the day after his departure. This cannot have been her reaction to hearing about Piers’ death as postulated by various writers, who miss the fact that she was with Edward when he heard about it.
Edward II’s extant accounts provide a fascinating insight into his journey from York to London through Lincolnshire. On 30 June, he paid Graciosus the Taborer (drummer) for playing for him at Howden. He stayed at Swineshead Priory on 6 and 7 July, and paid another pound to Janin the Conjuror for his performance in the king’s private chamber. (Isn’t that a wonderful image – the twenty-eight-year-old king of England watching conjuring tricks in his room at a priory on a summer evening?) On 8 July, Edward had reached Surfleet, and gave three shillings to William the Acrobat and his fellows for “making their vaults” before him.
The king arrived in Westminster on 14 July and stayed there for the rest of the month, and made an impassioned public speech at the house of the Dominicans asking the Londoners to defend the city against Piers Gaveston’s killers; evidence that Edward could be eloquent when the mood took him and when he cared deeply about something. For once, London supported him and closed the gates of the city against the earls of Lancaster, Warwick and Hereford, who brought their armies to Hertfordshire. On the other hand, the king summoned the three earls to appear before him at Westminster or London, playing a double game, as he often did; Edward had an aptitude for political intrigue, if little else. Rumours swirled: that Edward intended to seize Lancaster as soon as he entered London; that Lancaster would, with the help of a group of Londoners, capture Edward in the city. The killing of the king’s favourite ensured that England teetered on the brink of civil war…