Saturday, 21 June 2014

19 June 1312: the Death of Piers Gaveston

Guy de Beauchamp.jpg
Above: the Earl of Warwick stands triumphant over the dead body of King Edward II's favourite, Piers Gaveston, first earl of Cornwall.

On 19 June 1312, the first earl of Cornwall, Piers Gaveston, was illegally put to death at Blacklow Hill near Warwick. He had been condemned to death by disaffected nobles, including the earl of Warwick, the earl of Lancaster, the earl of Hereford, and the earl of Arundel, for violating the terms of the Ordinances. Two Welshmen subsequently ran him through with a sword and then beheaded him. As Richard Cavendish claims in a 2012 article: Piers 'flew too high and paid the penalty'.

Piers was the son of a Gascon knight and had been born around 1284, who was loyal to the father of Edward II, Edward I. Piers became a member of the royal household at a young age and consequently met the future king there. Chroniclers described him as handsome, athletic, and well-mannered. Edward I had, reputedly, been impressed by Piers' conduct and martial skills and wanted him to serve as a model for his young son, the heir to the throne. Piers however came into conflict with the king, when a dispute occurred between the treasurer Walter Langton and the prince. Enraged, Edward I banished Piers and a host of other men from the prince's household. He was later exiled, but returned when Edward II acceded to the throne in 1307. 

Historians have puzzled endlessly about the exact nature of Piers' relationship with Edward II. Piers was extremely close to the king. Although Cavendish terms it 'an extremely close friendship', he betrays a misunderstanding of medieval knowledge of sexual affairs, by suggesting that, although both Edward and Piers later fathered children with their spouses, they might have engaged in a bisexual affair with one affair. Scholars such as Kim Phillips and Barry Reay have convincingly demonstrated that modern notions of sexuality, including homo- and bisexuality, did not exist as such in the medieval period. 

Above: Edward II controversially made his favourite, Piers Gaveston, earl of Cornwall in 1307.

Chroniclers, however, speculated about Piers engaging in sex with the king. The Annales Paulini confirmed that Edward adored Gaveston 'beyond measure', while the Chronicle of the Civil Wars of Edward II suggested that, when he first saw Gaveston, the king felt such love for him that he 'tied himself to him against all mortals with an indissoluble bond of love'. The contemporary Vita Edwardi Secundi opined that 'I do not remember to have heard that one man so loved another... our king was... incapable of moderate favour'. Robert of Reading bluntly stated that Edward II enjoyed 'illicit and sinful unions'. In short, the wealth of evidence available supports J.S. Hamilton's suggestion that 'The love that the King felt for Piers Gaveston has been described as greater than the love of women. It still seems more likely that it was also stronger than the love of brother'.

Writers such as Lisa Hilton and Ian Mortimer have suggested that it is by no means certain that Edward engaged in sexual relations with Piers Gaveston (or other male favourites, for that matter), and Pierre Chaplais controversially argued that their relationship was probably closer to sworn brotherhood rather than a sexual relationship. As Phillips and Reay state, it is impossible to label either man homo- or bisexual, as popular writers, including Alison Weir, sometimes to do, as understandings of sexuality were extremely different in the medieval period. While it seems convincing that Edward and Piers had a sexual relationship, and perhaps loved one another, it is impossible to term either man 'non-heterosexual'.

Above: a representation of King Edward II.

In August 1307, Edward made Piers the earl of Cornwall, a decision which antagonised the barons, who resented Piers' foreign origins. When the king left England in early 1308 to marry the twelve-year old French princess Isabella, he appointed Gaveston regent in his place. When the king returned, he pointedly ignored his new bride in favour of Gaveston, who sat next to him at the coronation banquet. Eventually, disaffected barons forced the king's hand, and he was forced to exile the unpopular Gaveston in May 1308. 

Despite this, Edward continued to reward his favourite, and he was appointed Lieutenant of Ireland. Inn some respects Gaveston enjoyed success in Ireland, fortifying the town of Newcastle McKynegan, for example. Eventually, when he felt that his nobles had perhaps mellowed towards Gaveston, Edward II recalled his favourite. By February 1310, however, some earls refused to attend parliament as long as Gaveston was present, so affronted were they by his arrogance and intimacy with the king. In November 1311, by which time the king had been forced to accept the Ordinances issued by the earls, Piers had again been exiled from England.

However, Gaveston returned at Christmas and was reunited with Edward in January 1312, probably at Knaresborough. The archbishop excommunicated Gaveston in March, and the barons decided to obtain hold of Gaveston once and for all. Eventually, he was executed on 19 June outside of Warwick. His body was left on the ground for some time, before Dominican friars brought it to the city of Oxford and it was eventually buried at the Dominican prior at Langley, following the securing of a papal absolution for Piers in January 1315 (he had, as noted, been excommunicated). The king reacted with anger and heartbreak at news of his favourite's (and possibly, lover's) death, but circumstances did not allow him to seek vengeance with the earls. 


  1. Great to find folks interested in Gaveston, and his murder.

  2. Yes, it's a fascinating if tragic story.