Edward II and the Fieschi Letter

Edward II

Son of Edward I, father of Edward III and ruler of England 1307–27, Edward II’s claims to fame are few. Humiliated by the Scots at Bannockburn, it’s perhaps not unjust to say his reign is one that is often submerged within the vast sea that is England’s history.

In recent times, this has changed slightly. In addition to a, largely fictitious, portrayal of him in Braveheart, interest in this king has also increased for more academic reasons. The main reason for this is a series of questions that have been raised about the exact manner of his death, something which was of crucial importance to my novel, The Crown Jewels Conspiracy.

Was the king murdered in the dungeons of Berkeley Castle? Or did he not die there at all?

Of Edward II’s life, much is known. Born at Caernarfon Castle in 1284, the prince accompanied his father on many of the Scottish campaigns throughout his late teens and early twenties, leading to his being knighted in 1306 before taking the throne a year later. On marrying Isabella, daughter of Phillip IV of France, in 1308 as part of an attempt to calm the rift between the two nations, much was expected of Longshanks’s successor. Yet any chance that England might have enjoyed a continuation of his father’s dominance was plagued by regular run-ins with his barons.

Of Edward’s performance and personality, most notably his sexuality, the debate has been ongoing since his coronation. His fathering of four children with Isabella, in addition to a lack of personal accusation by his rivals, suggests he was unlikely to have been gay, even if he was bisexual. What cannot be disputed, however, is that his tendency to promote personal favourites like Piers Gaveston to roles of prominence proved a cause of great political unrest. Eventually this resulted in a series of reforms, most notably the Ordinances of 1311, which further curbed the king’s absolute authority.

Though success in achieving the new legislation and the execution of Gaveston a year later was undoubtedly viewed with much initial optimism by the barons, sadly for Edward the worst times remained ahead of him. His crippling defeat by Robert the Bruce in 1314, despite a numerically superior English force, saw a drastic shift in the war with Scotland, following which widespread famine further tested the patience of his people. Even after Gaveston’s death, his willingness to empower personal favourites remained, resulting in the rise of the Despenser family, who in time would take their rightful place among history’s controversial figures.

Despite initial success revoking the reforms of 1311, his uneasy truce with Scotland saw opposition to his regime intensify significantly. When his furious queen allied herself with the exiled baron Roger Mortimer, the writing for Edward was on the wall. As his government collapsed, he fled into Wales, where he was eventually captured and forced to abdicate in January 1327. According to most contemporary chroniclers, he died eight months later at Berkeley Castle, be it of a grief-stricken illness or a painful murder.

However, in recent times, much of this has been brought into question.

The Fieschi Letter

Discovered in the French city of Montpellier in 1878, the Fieschi Letter is one of those ‘is it?/isn’t it?’ documents, the integrity of which could change everything we know about Edward II’s final days.

As the critical facts of the letter have already been discussed at length in my novel, The Crown Jewels Conspiracy, I will omit further discussion here. What is perhaps worthy of consideration is what that content could mean in terms of our understanding of Edward II’s life.

The letter itself is believed to be a copy of an original. It was discovered by an archivist in an official register once belonging to the Bishop of Maguelonne. Despite being a copy, as the register concerned files dating before 1368, its authenticity has never been seriously doubted.

Instead, the key questions seem only to relate to its accuracy.

In his books on Edward III and Roger Mortimer, in addition to his articles in The English Historical Review and the BBC History Magazine, the historian and author Ian Mortimer put forward a convincing case in favour of the letter’s reliability. Fieschi’s account of Edward II’s escape from Berkeley Castle can potentially be backed up by the activities of the former constable of Corfe Castle – to where Edward apparently next travelled – and would also make sense of the Earl of Kent’s subsequent attempts to rescue Edward. Interestingly, critics of the letter tend to argue that Roger Mortimer fabricated news of Edward’s survival in order to persuade Kent to support a plot against the new regime.

In addition to the letter, there are other exciting things to consider. In the small town of Cecima in northern Italy, there is a long-standing tradition that a King of England was buried in one of the abbey tombs – today, the grave in question is open, apparently due to it being unearthed on the request of Edward III, who later had his father’s body brought back to England. Even without Lord Berkeley’s inconsistent claims regarding the former king’s death in 1327, further questions arise over the viability of eyewitness accounts. Though many dignitaries paid their respects to the king before he was buried in Gloucester Cathedral, reports suggest the body had been embalmed by then. Coupled with the fact Edward had been imprisoned since his dethronement, it’s unclear how many had seen the former king recently.

Similarly, this was the first occasion the body of a post-Norman king was not paraded through the streets on a bier – a wooden effigy was used instead. Incidentally, the name William le Galeys, apparently the name of the man Edward III met in Koblenz, translates as William the Welshman – a Welshman by birth, Edward II was also the first Prince of Wales since the eradication of the line of Welsh princes. Equally curious is the fact that Isabella never remarried, unlike many previous consorts.

While all of the above can be considered as possible evidence in favour of Edward’s continued existence, unfortunately, there is little that can be regarded as definitive; above all, there is a distinct lack of corroborating evidence. Was the copy transcribed correctly? Was Fieschi telling the truth? As a regular visitor to England, one could argue his supposed knowledge of Edward’s survival could have been used as a source of blackmail. Still, there is nothing to indicate that he personally profited from it – as mentioned in the novel, le Galeys’ agent appears to have been voluntarily entertained at royal expense.

A second theory is that the letter was an attempt by the Bishop of Maguelonne to undermine Edward III’s position with the Holy Roman Empire. Without question that might have weakened Edward III’s status in Germany, but the author’s consistent tendency to name specific locations could call this into question. After all, if Fieschi were lying, a quick search of Cecima would surely prove or disprove his deception. Or at least his accuracy.

A fundamental matter to consider might be whether Edward’s survival mattered. Despite his forced abdication and imprisonment leading to various plots to rescue him during the last six months of his recorded life, come 1337 the situation in England was far calmer. After ten years away from the throne, being over fifty and long believed to be dead, there is little to suggest the previously weak king would have had any serious chance of regaining power. Whether he died or not, the Fieschi Letter perhaps instead provides an exciting insight into the minds of the powers that be. If Edward did die in 1327, its suspicious timing could indicate he was the victim of a plot. If he didn’t, it might just be that by 1337 the English lords no longer saw him as being important enough to merit further investigation.

At the time of Edward II’s abdication, England was still a papal fiefdom following King John’s surrender to the papacy in 1213. Over the years there have been various discussions over when this arrangement formally ended. Though the final break may have occurred during the Reformation, the last official payment to the papacy was recorded as having been made by Edward III in 1333, thus confirming papal superiority over England was still in place shortly after Edward II’s alleged death. Had Edward II survived, an anointed king in the eyes of the Church, pressure on Edward III could have been strong from Avignon, despite his position being secure at home. In theory, a similar argument could then be put forward regarding Edward II’s offspring, especially as an annulled marriage – in no small part due to Isabella’s adultery with Mortimer – would have rendered all of Edward II’s children, including the present king, illegitimate.