THE STORY BEHIND AN INCOMPETENT KING
“Starved of affection during childhood, ignored by his father in adolescence, and confronted by unsolved problems at his accession, Edward II sought advice, friendship, even affection, from ambitious favourites.”(Morgan, 176) It is strange that a king should be seeking affection and be in need of friendship. In fact, what is strange is that such a man as Edward II should be a king. But it was not his fault because he did not choose it, and probably he would not choose it, which he made apparent during his reign.
Sandwiched between the hammer of Scots and a famously chivalric king, Edward II’s reign looks very unfortunate. “The apparently secure edifice [built by Edward I] collapsed under the incompetent Edward II”(Prestwich, 1). After Edward II “under Edward III the wheel of fortune turned again”(Prestwich, 2). Son of one Edward, the father of another, Edward II was a very different Edward. He did not have the power and the will of either Edwards. Finding the affection and friendship in Piers Gavaston and Hugh Despenser he isolated himself from his noblemen. He ignored the art of patronage. In fact he ignored his job, kingship.
By his appearance and name he made people think that this was a second Edward, but he was only Edward the second as he soon proved to be. He did not have the conventional interests of a king: he did not like horsemanship or fighting. Rather than a king he looked like a romantic prince: he took delight in the countryside, he loved music, and his pastimes included woodwork and metalwork. Actually as a prince he had done his job well since he was not expected to do much. Occasionally his father would leave him nominally in charge when he went away “In reality, the country was ruled by a regency council, but Edward of Caernarvon witnessed documents and put his seal to them”(Saaler, 16). With a regency like that council he would probably do better when he was a king, because, after all, witnessing documents and putting his seal to them was apparently among Edward’s abilities.
The companionship of his noblemen Edward II was apparently not in favor of. He would like the companionship of monks in the seclusion of a monastery as one chronicler recorded: “The King’s son stayed longer, enjoying the seclusion of the monastery. He became our brother in the chapter. The magnificence of the place and the frequent recreation of the brethren pleased him greatly. Every day, he asked to be served with a monk’s portion, such as the brothers take in the refectory.”(Saaler, 17). Probably he would stay longer and perhaps one day become a monk himself. However, seclusion is not what a king or a prince is supposed to like. He secluded himself from his nobility and ignored his duties to them as a king. The nobility could tolerate his unconventional behavior, but not their subordination by the king for the company of workmen. They needed and expected him to patronize them as his father had done, but he could not be reached.
As noted before, Edward II would remain a prince, but he was strangely destined to become a king. He was the fourth son of Edward I. Therefore he was normally the fourth in line to the throne. However, unfortunately all three elder brothers died in childhood. So the throne was left to Edward. In fact, Edward was left to the throne. He was doomed to be the king.
His contemporaries tended to attribute the evils of his reign to his attachment to Gavaston. Gavaston was the devil who furnished his court with companies of jesters, ruffians, flattering parasites, musicians and other nasty men so that the king might spend both days and nights jesting, playing, blanketing and other such filthy exercises. In fact, the actual cause of everything was the king’s own personality. He is said to have followed the easiest path, and to have agreed with the last person who spoke to him. Consequently his opinions changed from hour to hour, and therefore people did not trust his decisions. He was so peculiar a man that occasionally he did behave like a king, conforming to the accepted behavior for a king. This drove mad his nobles because they concluded that he could rule effectively, but chose not to. He was an impulsive and unpredictable person who was easily bored. He allowed his friends to gain influence and wealth by using his boredom to their advantage. He disliked governing and allowed, or forced, others to gain power. Therefore his period witnessed rivalry of different groups and persons for land, wealth, and high office.
The kind of king that Edward was was depicted effectively by his own wife: “Edward brings the lowest and most infamous men to the palace. He visits low dens of the Port of London, sits with tramps, wrestles with lightermen, races against grooms. Fine tournament, these, for our delectation! He has no care who runs the kingdom, provided his pleasures are organized and shared.” It is no surprise that she actively participated in his deposition.
Edward II’s reign is usually summed up by chroniclers as a period of destruction rather than governance, resulting from the king’s failure to obey the Edward I kind of kingship pattern. He was criticized for his careless attitude and disregard and for relying on bad advice which finally led to his deposition and murder. Edward I had presented a powerful image. He had been a man of strong character who commanded respect in both war and politics. After a reign of almost 35 years he had come to embody a tradition of kingship, which people assumed his son would follow. But, unlike his father, Edward II was bored by the traditional duties of a king.
There was every possible reason for Edward II’s failure. He was unable, or unwilling to govern. His period was marked with continuous wars but he lacked the resources to achieve a decisive victory. the economic strains were made worse by a series of natural disasters such as famine and disease. Consequently he failed. He was first deposed and then murdered.
Overshadowed by his father’s image as a king, Edward II disappointed, frustrated, even enraged those who were used to the 35 years of powerful, autocratic and kingly regime of Edward I. He was supposed to be like his father, but he was a man of peace, and leisure, and did not want to bother himself by the duties of a king. By his nature he was inclined to tranquility, simplicity, and joy. He would not choose to be a king, he would rather remain a prince and enjoy the privileges of the son or brother of a king. But he was given no choice. He was but a tragic hero, driven by his inevitable destiny to his tragic end.