As it’s LGBTQ history month, what better way to commence the series than with a fact that maybe not all of you are aware of, Edward II’s sexuality. He was king from 1307-1327, and though he did marry a woman, marriages during this time often occurred for political reasons rather than bride and groom falling in love.
Historians will always agree to disagree, as what a monarch gets up to in the bedroom, is strictly confidential. Everyone was assumed to be straight, but there is enough circumstantial evidence that one could assume Edwards fantasies. From puberty onwards, the king was utterly obsessed with men. And that’s not a bad thing – society was the problem.
This story has everything worth noting, the closeted monarch hiding behind a wife and children, the vengeful accusations, the scandal, murder, the wife set for revenge, and two lovers torn apart. It really is something out of a period drama.
You may recognise him from popular movie Braveheart, where he is portrayed in the most homophobic, extreme way possible with stereotypical campness, weakness and stupidity that doesn’t reflect his rule.
But one of the best portrayals was that of the playwright Christopher Marlowe, who published Edward II in 1594, widely known as the gayest play of the renaissance.
Interestingly enough, having gay affairs back in the day, didn’t automatically mean that you were defined as homosexual. Edward and his suspected lover both had sexual relations with their wives who bore children. Homosexuality was heavily condemned by the Church during this time as is well publicised, but often what happened behind closed doors would be strictly away from the public eye.
But it’s difficult to ignore his relationship with his very close male friend, who he later knighted during 1306, Piers Gaveston, a son of Edward’s fathers knights. Some historians have critically argued that perhaps the king was just really good friends with Gaveston, but the surviving evidence reveals certain details of their relationship that suggests otherwise.
The evidence comes from a 1320 anonymous writer, who laid claim that Edward felt ‘such love’ for his lover, that he went on to ‘enter a covenant of constancy and bound himself with him before with other morals of with a bond of indissoluble love’ and went on further to describe him as a sodomite.
But we do have to raise the point that ‘love’ was a word that was thrown around during this period, many people would describe their love to be something fairly trivial. But many have described it in ways that the friendship of Edward and Pier was beyond the bounds of moderation, and there was a lust for wicked and forbidden sex, that led to Edward later rejecting his wife.
Edward is often portrayed as a weak king, with him prioritising Gaveston over his country, despite the king dealing with a complete riff in social history. This is evident through his portrayal in TV dramas, who either tend to oversimplify or discuss the king in this manner. Truly it’s the English nobles who are unable to comprehend the king’s thoughts and actions, as two victims of tyrannical homophobia.
Although Gaveston was banished from the kingdom, the king always sought for his return, until Piers was later assassinated. Edward spent a large amount of money on his tomb and sought numerous prayers for his soul to be protected.
Years after Gaveston’s death, Edward once again found himself in a speculated love affair with Hugh Despenser. An analyst of Newnham Abbey in Devon 1326, described them as the king and his husband, describing Despenser as being ‘bewitched’ to Edwards heart. Edward showered the relatively insignificant pawn with gifts of honours and titles, which essentially equated to wealth and riches, infuriating the nobles.
It ended in a wreck, with the kings wife being heavily humiliated by Despenser and his power over the monarch. He ridiculed her French heritage and removed her children from her care. The queen allied herself with a powerful English baron, Roger Mortimer, who demanded justice. Edward and Despenser were captured in South Wales, where Despenser was hung, drawn and quartered and Edward was forced to pass his title to his son, Edward the third.
Though his reign be short, it was clear that Edward was infatuated by the men in his life, and let them overpower him, whether that be from a sexual perspective or not. It was clear Edward was obsessed, and despite some believing he felt of them like brothers, I strongly feel like Edward was more than brothers with these men. I don’t believe that he would’ve given up his title, or his prestige and reputation, for men that were simply just his good friends. Nor do I feel that rumours and chronicles at the time would’ve been so aggressive to suggest that these men weren’t passionately together. Nor do I believe that noble men would’ve kicked up such a riot to the then king, for showering other men in attention, if there wasn’t at least some suspicion that he was at least been laying with a man.
I would still like to lay claim that Edward was Britain’s first gay king. Well if not, at least we have Queen Anne to fall back on.