The movie Braveheart immortalized Edward I as a legendary villain and tough guy. On the other hand, the film portrayed Edward II as incompetent, lazy, and effeminate. The contrast could not be more striking. Edward I died in 1307 while preparing for another Scottish campaign. Edward II assumed the throne and reigned for 20 years. Whatever the truth about the two Edwards, tensions with the barons and earls dominated Edward II’s early reign. In particular, Edward’s relationship with Piers Gaveston preoccupied the kingdom for nearly a decade.
The English proclaimed Edward II king on July 20, 1307. Edward II immediately abandoned his father’s punitive expedition against the Scots. Then, he recalled Piers Gaveston from exile and named him Earl of Cornwall. Gaveston and Edward became close friends which aroused suspicion about the pair. Eventually, Edward I banished Gaveston from the realm to punish his disobedient son. The exact nature of the pair’s relationship has been a matter of debate for the last 700 years. At the time, it proved a point of contention with the English nobility.
After recalling Gaveston and removing his enemies from power, Edward married Isabella of France. He hoped to strengthen ties with France and procure Isabella’s considerable dowry. Meanwhile, he left Gaveston in charge while in France. Gaveston received unprecedented power for someone of his social standing. Nobles willing to accept his return initially quickly turned on the king’s favorite. They accused Gaveston of stealing from the treasury and complained about England’s “two kings.”
Gaveston’s rise to prominence irritated the English nobility and insulted the French. Edward ignored Isabella at the wedding in favor of Gaveston. The Earl’s ostentatious clothing offended French and English alike. When Parliament met, the nobles refused to work with the king on needed reforms until he reigned in the Earl of Cornwall. Eventually, Isabella and the French joined the English barons in demanding Gaveston’s exile. In the end, Edward appointed his friend the Lieutenant of Ireland and shipped him to Dublin. Edward appealed to the pope while parliament refused to discuss Gaveston’s return.
Over time, Edward II made several concessions to the barons to allow Gaveston to return. However, Gaveston offended the nobility and acted arrogantly. Meanwhile, England faced a financial crisis and renewed Scottish problems. Parliament refused to assist Edward with Gaveston present. In 1310, Edward surrendered to parliamentary demands. The nobles established a body of 21 Ordainers to reform the government. The 21 men drew up the Ordinances of 1311 limiting the king’s authority and war making ability. Additionally, the barons initiated financial reforms and banished Gaveston again. On top of this, they stripped Gaveston of all titles and forbid him from living within Edward’s realm. The king retreated to his Windsor estate to pout while some barons kept their personal armies intact. Finally, Edward recalled Gaveston and repealed the Ordinances of 1311. This set up a potential civil war.
The nobles met in London to discuss their next move. Meanwhile, the Archbishop of Canterbury excommunicated Gaveston. Next, the opposition decided to arrest Gaveston. He was captured, tried, and executed. He remained unburied for nearly three years. Edward viewed the execution as murder and plotted revenge. He negotiated a strong alliance with France which strengthened his position in England. The king returned and a compromise avoided civil war. Edward got a tax increase to fight the Scots and the Barons received immunity for Gaveston’s death.
Edward II’s early reign was needlessly complicated by his relationship with the Earl of Cornwall. Piers Gaveston proved an arrogant upstart that annoyed and insulted the nobility. The king enabled Gaveston’s behavior to the point that the pair insulted the French. Eventually, the nobility eliminated Gaveston and the king compromised so that he could wage war on the Scots.