Joining the Medieval Archives today for a question and answer session is historian and author Stephen Spinks. We recently talked with Stephen on the Medieval Archives Podcast. It’s a fantastic talk you don’t want to miss!
Stephen’s new book Edward II The Man: A Doomed Inheritance is an in-depth biography of an often overlooked medieval king.
Connect with Stephen on his website Fourteenth Century Fiend (https://fourteenthcenturyfiend.com), Twitter: https://twitter.com/SpinksStephen or Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/SpinksStephen/.
You can buy his book from Amberley Publishing at https://www.amberley-books.com/edward-ii-the-man.html or from Amazon USA or Amazon UK
What is your writing process? Do you work from Outlines, write free form?
As someone who only recently published my first book, I’ve found my writing style has evolved over the last few years. When I set out on the journey I had very little in the way of knowledge about how to approach writing a book other than I knew what I wanted to say after years of research. I spent twenty-three years on and off (more years off than on) searching archives, sourcing books and reading journals in search of the breadcrumbs laid down by Edward II and his court, and each time I ended up busily scribbling notes. Before long I had a mountain of paperwork, references and post-it notes stacked up in my study. I hate post-its! They always come unstuck! To help get through it all, I created an outline of the project. I knew for example that Edward’s reign split into four neat parts, – apprenticeship, accession & Gaveston, the middle years and finally Edward, Hugh Despenser the Younger and the king’s fall from power. From there, breaking down the chapters became simple, especially as I knew it made sense writing a biography, to go chronologically from Edward’s birth until the end of his life. I then had two big black note books – ‘my bibles’. I would consolidate all my research for a particular chapter I was working on into these black books. If the info and evidence made it in, then it was likely to end up in the book. It helped sort out what was useful and critical to the narrative. This would take me a full week or so for each chapter, and once done, I would re-read the notes at the end of the week and then go and do something else – go for a run, do my ironing, clean the car – my house never looked so clean! Then I would sit down in my study with a blank page on my MacBook and start typing the chapter for anything up to 9 hours straight and produce approximately 5,000 words, give or take. I’m good at writing in single sessions with the odd tea break. It keeps me really focused.
Do you write every day?
Sometimes I wish I could, because I love the feeling of getting lost in time in my writing. There’s nothing better than starting on a piece, getting carried away and then realising, as you look at the clock, that what felt like an hour was in fact four. I think my fingers would hurt if I wrote every day. I generally write once a week in a continuous stream of consciousness, referring back to my black notebooks as I go. I’m definitely an owl, not a lark. It takes me time to come round in the morning and I find I warm up throughout the day. On my scheduled writing days I generally start about 4pm and write into the night until the chapter is done. Sometimes that’s meant some very long nights! Writing Edward II the Man, I tried to be really disciplined and kept to weekly writing on most of the months I had assigned. I was so conscious not to be late for the deadline – my first – and I knew I wanted to keep back lots of time for re-drafting and editing. As they say, the first draft is just the beginning.
How did you begin writing? Did you always want to be a writer?
I come from a family of bibliophiles, so grew up always with a book of some sorts in hand – mostly historical sagas. I never thought I would write though, until I was teenager, and even then not professionally. I read a great historical novel by Sharon Kay Penman called ‘Here be Dragons’ when I was fifteen, and loved her work and how she had transported me back into a world I already felt akin to. At that time, I was also reading about Edward II, and remember thinking that there was such little work out there on him, I should write to Sharon Penman and suggest she write about him. Then I thought, no hang on, I will write that book someday. The idea stuck and twenty-three years later I did it. I used to write short stories and friends always loved them and this spurred me on, and then in 2016 I gained a column in a magazine in called Midlands Zone. From there I found the confidence to have a go at the book and so I sort out a publisher who was willing to take a punt on me. I’ve always felt like an amateur, but with enough courage and open mindedness by listening to constructive criticism, I’ve kept going and my style has grown also. I’m definitely drawn to non-fiction. There’s something about writing about events that happened that really brings the past to life for me.
As your book is sure to inspire others, what authors inspired you?
Well Sharon Kay Penman certainly inspired me. I also love works by the historian Ian Mortimer, especially his ‘The Greatest Traitor’ and ‘The Perfect King’, all about Roger Mortimer, 1st Earl of March and Edward III respectively. He’s great at telling a story without compromising on the facts and I hope my style follows the same basic rules. History needs to be told in an accessible and people led way. Otherwise we fail to inspire and bring history to life.
My favourite book is the ‘Vita Edwardi Secundi’ – or The Life of Edward II – translated in 1957 by Nigel Denholm-Young. Whilst it’s a chronicle written at the time Edward II was alive, I just adore the way the writer captured what he saw and heard at the king’s court. He squirrels the information judiciously down on vellum, perhaps hoping all the while that his work would last for posterity. While the original manuscript is now lost, it was copied in the eighteenth century so it’s still going of sorts. If my book makes it 700 years down the road, I will be more than happy.
How did your interest in the Middle Ages begin?
I read really broad British and European history at university at King’s College in London, from 400 AD to 1925. Yet, ever since I was child I’ve always been drawn to medieval history. There’s something special about it. From my earliest memories, I wanted to be Robin Hood. Then at the age of 7 or thereabouts, I gave up the bow and arrow for a sword, becoming a self-proclaimed knight… ‘Sir Stephen of the Greenfields’. Then, one evening in winter in 1989 – I still remember this distinctly – after discovering and poring over the pages of a book on Westminster Abbey, I went for the top-job; king. I liked the picture of the Coronation Chair, first used by Edward II in February 1308, and I fancied sitting on it. The chance of wearing a crown, of course, was a bonus. I was brought up on the tales of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, of Ivanhoe, Robin Hood and the crusaders. I remember visiting the Tower of London with my aunt and the nearby Warwick Castle with my mum, and just felt at home surrounded by the history. So much happened in the medieval world in Britain that we still live with today – Magna Carta, parliament, the majority of the legal system and much, much more. I’ve always been hooked. Medieval history is as relevant today as it’s ever been, and I’m really excited to see something of a popular resurgence in interest in the period following dramas like Game of Thrones and Lord of the Rings.
What spurred your interest in Edward II?
I used to sit with my mum as a child, poring over a book on the Kings & Queens of Great Britain and I always remember finding his story memorable. Principally I guess because Edward II was the first king to be deposed in English history since the Norman Conquest of 1066. I then watched Braveheart, and there saw him portrayed as the somewhat foppish prince whose boyfriend as thrown out of a window by his irate father Edward I. I wanted to know more, both about whether that actually happened or not and also was Edward II as bad as his modern reputation would have us believe? The answer to both of those questions is no. I became so interested in his life story that my first job in heritage – I look after stately homes in my day job for the National Trust – was working and managing Kenilworth Castle in Warwickshire; an enormous, now ruined, place which witnessed Edward’s forced abdication on 20 January 1327. It’s fair to say that Edward’s been in the shadows of my life since my teens.
How long did it take to research and write Edward II the Man?
After watching Braveheart I just had to start researching. Twenty-three years later I finished the book. It’s been something of a life-long passion you could say. Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t researching continuously during that time. In fact I would have moments of great energy, research for months and then nothing would happen for a year. Life kind of got in the way. It was really in the last four years that I seriously focused and upped the research, and I began writing the book officially three years ago in between my very busy day job as a full-time heritage manager for the National Trust in England. I snatched time in the evenings, at weekends and when I was on leave to get ahead. Once Amberley offered me a publishing deal, my managers at the National Trust were really supportive and granted me a three month sabbatical to crack on with the job. It made such a difference having more headspace and the book is end result. I hope you all like it.
Edward II inherited a kingdom heavy in debt, at war with Scotland and the nobility on the verge of rebellion. Could he have turned it around or was he truly doomed from the start?
His inheritance was certainly toxic. Years of fighting between England and Scotland at the start of the First Wars of Scottish Independence led by Edward I against men like Robert the Bruce, almost bankrupted England. Edward II inherited £200,000 of debt from his father, which runs into many multi-millions of pounds in today’s terms. He also inherited corruption among court officials like Walter Langton, treasurer and bishop of Coventry & Lichfield, as well as nobles chomping at the bit for reforms to help ease their position. Edward I had spent nearly the latter half of his reign undoing promises, holding back demands to reduce taxations and not levy prises (taking his subjects’ goods at a greatly reduced rate or for free) and much more, which meant that when his son became king, he was met with enormous problems – no money, disgruntled nobles and a war he could not really hope to win. Edward I after all certainly failed to conquer Scotland in any long-term or sustainable way before he died in 1307. Turning this around was a task any successor would have found unwieldy. What made matters worse for Edward II was the ever growing power of the Bruces’ in Scotland, a European famine that swept across England from 1315 until 1318 which weakened the population, reducing taxation and further hindered the ability to raise armies to fend of Scottish raids in northern England. Edward had to borrow huge sums of money from Italian bankers, the pope and successive kings of France to keep the government and the kingdom afloat. Those earlier demands for reforms from his nobles became even louder and more pressing, but they were also entwined in the demands for the removal of the king’s favourites – it all got very messy. Even if Edward II had not had royal favourites at court, he would invariably I think have followed his father’s policy of holding back baronial & political reforms because that was what his father had taught him to do. Edward II throughout his reign showed an acute awareness of what he felt was his sovereign rights, and he would resist bitterly anyone who encroached to far upon them. So in many ways, he was certainly doomed by inheritance.
What is one myth about Edward II you’d like to dispel?
It has to be that Edward II was murdered with a red-hot poker. It’s what many people think they know about him. We all love a good story, and this one of an emasculated king put to death with a poetic nod to his alleged ‘vices’ has been doing the rounds for at least 650 years. If Edward II was murdered at all, then it was most likely by suffocation – a foul deed, done quietly and easily while he slept in his bed in his prison cell at night at Berkeley Castle, Gloucestershire. The chronicler Geoffrey le Baker, responsible for the story, was writing some thirty years after the event, at a time when there was a move to see Edward II canonized as a saint. The notion of him dying in such a horrific fashion, and with fire – used in the medieval period to purify the body of sin – was all a little too symbolic, and too much like hard work, to really be the method for doing away with a king who needed to be dispatched quietly and out of the way.
Were Edward and his favorite Piers Gaveston close friends as many writers portray, or was there more to their relationship?
After twenty-three years of research, I am convinced that Edward and his boon companion Piers Gaveston were lovers. Their behavior gives us unwitting evidence which supports the view that they had a really close, intimate bond. After Gaveston’s murder, Edward spent ten years seeking to bring vengeance on those who had murdered the earl. It was so deep rooted and personal that it polarized the court and made England politically unstable. Even some of the chroniclers go so far as to suggest something, even though they had to be careful to dance around the subject, because sodomy in the fourteenth century was condemned by the Church, and to accuse a king could see you in very hot water, even if that king was open about it all. The author of the contemporary Vita Edwardi Secundi, who was at court, noted when Gaveston was murdered in 1312 by a handful of the nobility, that Edward lamented for Piers like ‘David upon Jonathan’ and that their love is said ‘to surpass the love of women’. Another, the St Paul’s Annalist aligned Edward to King Reheboam in the Old Testament, who was the son of King Solomon, carefully implying – but not stating overtly – that Edward behaved like Reheboam who had in the biblical text promoted younger, more unsuitable advisors at court over traditional advisors, and also promoted the cult of male prostitutes. Another wrote that Edward and Gaveston part took in ‘sinful union’. In the twentieth century, modern historians have challenged the notion that Edward and Gaveston were in a same-sex relationship, but this often reflects the moral judgements of their own age in which they are writing. Only in the last twenty years, as LGBT rights have been secured, has an open, comfortable and honest debate really ensued where talking about the sexuality of Edward II can be freely explored in an honest and academic way, free from prejudice. This is a critical step in how we now can view the evidence, so Edward’s sexuality, while not his defining feature, is a vital part of his character. In an age when kings ruled and not reigned, how Edward behaved and what he did and said, amplified his politics and his legacy, so these individual parts of his character need to be read together to get the full picture. He certainly was a lover of men and women, his wife to for the majority of his reign as they had four children, so using today’s terms, we would see Edward II as bisexual, but with a propensity for male company.
Was Edward’s relationship with Piers and later Hugh Despenser his downfall?
Edward’s closeness to both favourites certainly made him unpopular with many. However the two men – Gaveston and Despenser the Younger – were very different and Edward’s reliance on them was not the single cause for his deposition. At the time of his fall from power in 1327, and indeed after it, Edward still commanded widespread support, but notably not from the mainstay of his earls and barons. The opposition to Gaveston in the yearly years of the reign was predicated on his intimate relationship with Edward, in that he shared the king’ bed and therefore had access to the king’s patronage. In an age when land and title meant power, Gaveston’s steep rise to favour upset the apple cart. In the end, in the nobles mind, he had to go so they could have better chances of securing the king’s patronage. However it backfired, for by murdering Gaveston, Edward loathed his murderers and did everything he could over ten years to bring them to book. They were further away from patronage than ever before. In 1312, the nobles sought to remove Gaveston, but not the king. Even though Edward had been threatened with deposition the year before Gaveston’s murder, it was unlikely that was ever a serious threat – he had no immediate heir in 1311.
In the case of Hugh Despenser the Younger, Hugh was a different kettle of fish altogether. Unlike Gaveston, Despenser the Younger was rapacious, vindictive, manipulative with all those around him – including Edward – volatile and therefore highly dangerous. He assumed control and virtual sole access over the king through his role as Chamberlain which he exploited. He went on a land grab, usurped the rights of many and alienated Queen Isabella and many of the earls and barons, including the Mortimers, who had been enemies of the Despensers since the Barons’ War and the battle of Evesham in 1265. Edward appeared to be under the spell of Hugh in uncharacteristic ways when compared to his relationship with Gaveston, and as the king began to lose control over the country, he needed Despenser as much as Despenser needed him. It had all gone too far by 1326 when Isabella and Mortimer set off from the continent to invade England. There was no going back for all involved. I think Edward’s downfall came at the hands of Hugh Despenser the Younger, who for too many at court was too dangerous to ignore. The only way to remove him was invasion after Edward refused to give him up, but after 1322 when Edward II had overthrown and executed his powerful cousin Thomas of Lancaster, all knew that the king was likely to seek vengeance for Despenser’s death in 1326 if he was given his freedom again. There was therefore only one ultimate outcome, which was the removal of the king himself. It is interesting to note, that even at this late stage, after Despenser had been executed, the parliament that deposed Edward II had to be bullied into the decision, and after his deposition in January 1327 at Kenilworth Castle, there were three attempts to rescue him and place him back on the throne. He was not in short, even in his darkest hour, as unpopular as history would have us believe.
What is your opinion on Edward’s fate? Killed? Exiled?
Well, I certainly don’t think he was killed with a red-hot poker in the dark corners of Gloucestershire. If Edward II was murdered, it would have been by suffocation and on the orders of Queen Isabella and Roger Mortimer. Mortimer needed the queen to remain in power, so any decision to do away with the otherwise notoriously healthy Edward II, had to be taken together. Mortimer had the means and the access, Isabella had a good motive. The chroniclers, the people of the time and parliament, certainly by 1330 thought the king had been murdered, and the accusations laid at Mortimer’s door when he was arrested on 19 October 1330 at Nottingham castle and promptly executed the following month at Tyburn in London, make this explicit. However, the discovery of the Fieschi letter in 1878 which was written in 1336 by Manuele Fieschi to Edward III claiming he had heard the recent confession of a man claiming to be Edward II, is really interesting. In it, the letter goes into detail about how Edward II escaped, eventually ended up in France via Ireland, and with papal blessing, was convinced to give up the fight for his throne and retired to two hermitages in northern Italy. The letter is not a forgery. After Edward III received it, he began to pardon those implicated in the king’s alleged murder. He paid off debts to the governing bodies in Genoa, near where Edward II was said to be residing in the letter. In 1330, six years before the letter arrived in England, the earl of Kent, rallied the secret support of over 40 leading men, including the Archbishop of York and the Mayor of London, convinced that Edward II was still alive and being held in secret at Corfe Castle. The plot was foiled by Isabella and Mortimer and Kent executed on trumped up charges. Why did so many notable people risk everything if they could not produce Edward II at the end of their rescue attempt?
Edward III himself appeared to meet at man called ‘William le Gayles’ or ‘William the Welshman’ in Cologne in 1338, who in his official records, is noted as being a man ‘calling himself the king’s father’. Edward II was born in Wales so le Gayles is a fitting pseudonym. Rather than imprison or execute this man for impersonation, which was customary at the time, Edward III entertained this ‘William’ at his expense for two weeks at the same time the king’s wife had just given birth to their second son, Edward II’s grandson. Edward III then simply let this William return to, no other, than Italy and Genoa in particular. Is it all circumstantial? If you step back and forget what you know and start with a clean page and then place all these circumstantial pieces of evidence together, suddenly the argument for survival looks highly compelling, and one I am happy to nail my colours to the mast and support. In my mind, Edward II survived his alleged fate in 1327 and lived out his days until sometime around 1341 when he died and his body was brought back to England and buried quietly in what is now Gloucester Cathedral. There is even circumstantial evidence for this to.
Do you have plans for another book?
I have definitely caught the writing bug and now that Edward II the Man: A Doomed Inheritance is complete, I am pulling together my thoughts for project two. I’m hoping to write a biography of Robert the Bruce and his rise to power during the First Scottish Wars of Independence, especially as he fought against Edward I, II and III. It’s very early in the planning, so watch this space.
Where can your fans connect with you? Online?
My blog, Fourteenthcenturyfiend.com which I began over a year ago is where I post regular articles about the fourteenth century, Edward II and his court. I also run a series on my site entitled ‘A Writer’s Journey’ where I give an honest account of the highs, lows, and lessons learnt of writing, which is becoming really popular with writers out there at all stages of their careers. I’m also on Twitter @Spinksstephen and on Facebook. My page is fourteenthcenturyfiend. I love to talk to my readers, share ideas and suggestions so please feel free to get in touch.
Any last words for your fans?
Thanks for all the support, especially those who have or intend to purchase the book, or taken the time to stop off and read my website and blog. History is a great subject, with so many twists and turns and counter turns. It’s infectious for its skullduggery and its highs and lows. If we can all do one thing, its share our passion for history so as to inspire people who never enjoyed the subject at school. History after all, belongs to all of us and we can learn so much about our future from our collective past. Enjoy it.
About the Author
Stephen Spinks wrote his dissertation on Edward II while studying at King’s College, London. He works for the National Trust and manages three Medieval heritage sites with 900 volunteers and 150 staff. He is a columnist for ‘Midlands Zone’ magazine, in which he writes a very well received exploration of life as a gay man today, partly political, partly personal. He has given many interviews on radio and in his capacity at the National Trust, to ‘BBC’s Escape to the Country’ and the ‘Antiques Road Show’. He has been studying the primary sources (and locations) for this book over the past 15 years.