Thursday, 3 March 2011
Edward II and the Red Hot Slanders.
There are two things everyone knows about Edward II; that he was an effeminate wuss and that he met his end after they 'got medieval on his ass'. Students of history may also remember something about the Battle of Bannockburn and a bit of tabloid banter about his French wife, but mainly its the cross dressing and the poker that sticks in the memory.
Mostly we have Mel Gibson to thank for this.
Mel Gibson's contribution to historical accuracy in movies is only exceeded by his contributions to temperance and Christian-Jewish harmony (Gallipoli being the exception that proves the rule). Going over the errors in Braveheart would take rather a long time, but lets just say the absence of a bridge in the Battle of Stirling Bridge is one of the minor ones.
By the same token though having one of the most ruthless and effective military leaders of the Middle Ages for a Dad doesn't make you a great general any more than appearing in a few good films makes you a great director.
And that was really Edward's problem. He was lousy military leader, a lousy peacetime leader, and a lousy absolute monarch. In English history he's the embarrassing one between Edward I "Hammer of the Scots" and Edward III "Hammer of the French". Fair enough, that's the problem with hereditary monarchies, sometimes the guy you get just isn't up to the job.
But let's be clear about what talents you needed to be the top dog at the time of the knights. You needed to be single minded, ruthless, to be prepared to use extreme violence, to double cross your opponents, and to trust nobody. Today if you were recruiting for someone with that skill mix your best bet would be to try the local maximum security prison.
He enjoyed swimming, boating , music, dancing and romances. He enjoyed practical jobs like digging ditches and shoeing horses and liked the company of ordinary people. Quite a regular guy really, but someone who would stand out as a bit odd in the Royal Family today, let alone seven centuries ago.
Edward may not even have been gay. Being accused of sodomy by a medieval chroniclers is a bit like being played by an English actor in a Hollywood movie, it's just a quick way of telling the audience you're a baddie.
However we don't know that he wasn't gay. Given that there were 21 male monarchs between Harold II and Henry Tudor, then if 5% are gay we can make an educated guess that it was either him or Richard the Lionheart. However as Richard 'outed' himself on at least two occasions, once on the eve of his marriage whilst standing in church wearing only his pants, and spent a night in bed with the King of France, the smart money would probably go on it being him.
So Edward may or may not have been gay, but at least he doesn't appear to have been a paedophile.
And the red hot poker?
Well that isn't mentioned until a decade or so after he was deposed, and contemporary accounts say he was suffocated. The truth is we don't know as the people who got rid of him weren't too keen on the story getting out. One historian even has him being banished to Italy and living out his days peacefully in the sun.
I think that's stretching credibility a bit, but if there was ever an English monarch who would have gladly swapped being King for punting around Venice it was Edward. A useless king, but a better person than many of his critics.
For more on Edward try this excellent blog.