November 28, 2013, by Harry Cocks

The Reign of Edward II: Beyond the Legend

Edward II of England (whose tomb in Gloucester Cathedral is pictured here) is probably best known for the supposedly grisly manner of his death in 1327, which was said to have involved a red-hot poker and an intimate orifice.  However, even though they generally agree that Edward was murdered in Berkeley Castle in that year, medieval historians now see this story as a piece of propaganda, designed to symbolise the King’s weakness and the cruelty of those who usurped his throne.  Edward’s enduring affection for his favourite Piers Gaveston has also made him something of a queer icon for artists from Christopher Marlowe to the film maker Derek Jarman.

A newly-completed Ph.D thesis from Nottingham’s History department by Sharon Walker entitled “Tyranny, Complaint and Redress: The Evidence of the Petitions Presented to the Crown, c.1320-1335” aims to get past the legends surrounding Edward to examine how the crises of the reign leading up to his deposition affected ordinary people. Most historians of Edward’s final years and the subsequent regency of his 15-year old son (Edward III) have tended to focus on the effect of this political turbulence on the nobility, their place in administrative and governmental history, and the workings of the judicial system.

Sharon Walker’s research, which analyses “complaint and redress” petitions to the King, shows us the vivid individual lives and concerns of the king’s subjects, who were often victims of violence and theft during this unsettled period. The petitions were a direct appeal for justice from the King himself and were mainly used when normal legal channels had been exhausted. They varied from small grievances such as that of three woodsmen who complained that they had been stopped from gathering wood by the king’s bailiffs, to that of Geoffrey Fitz Waryn who complained that he had been attacked, his house burnt down and that he had only escaped “by the grace of God, half naked.”  Another example of the violence of the period is the petition of John Snyterby who accused one John of Melton of having viciously attacked him, breaking his arms and legs in revenge for him carrying out his duties as a constable of the peace. Examples such as these, Walker says, illustrate the genuine voice of the petitioners, and are vivid records of those seeking the king’s justice during the recurring crises of this defining moment in late medieval English history.  Dr Walker’s research shows the links between the powerful and the people, in particular how the changing fortunes of Thomas 2nd earl of Lancaster, the Despenser family, Edward II’s queen, Isabella, and her partner Sir Roger Mortimer of Wigmore affected the lives of those seemingly unimportant people who made up the majority of the king’s subjects.

Dr Walker gave a paper at the Leeds International Medieval Congress in 2013 on private petitions relating to Thomas, 2nd earl of Lancaster both before and after his execution in 1322 and is currently preparing her thesis for publication.

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