British Library MS 20 A ii The Chronicle of England
There are no primary sources records of the events surrounding Edward II’s death at Berkeley Castle on 21st September 1327. Historians utilise the evidence in official records and chronicles to construct narratives exploring possible scenarios. The information in the records reflects the tubulent shifts in political power in England from 1327 to 1330, and beyond. Edward II was deposed by an army lead by his wife and son in 1326. He abdicated in January 1327, in favour of his fourteen year old son, Edward III. He was entitled Sir Edward of Caernarfon and incarcerated. A regency council headed by Isabella, the king’s mother and her right hand man, Roger Mortimer was established.
Edward was moved from Kenilworth castle to Berkeley castle, where he later died, in spring 1327. Originally parliament was informed that he had died of natural causes. The majority of chroniclers also accepted this. The Annales Paulini, records that he died. The French Brut attributed his demise to an illness brought on by sorrow. The Peterborough Chronicler writes that “He was well in the evening but dead by the morning.” The earliest indications of foul play appear in Lanercost, which states Edward died “by natural causes or by violent means”, whilst Scalachronica says the truth is known only to God. With the exception of the long Brut, the poker story doesn’t appear until the 1350’s.
At Easter 1330, Mortimer finally over stretched himself, orchestrating the judicial murder of Edmund, Earl of Kent. He and Queen Isabella were as cruel and avaricious as the regime they replaced. Edward III had little power and came to believe his own life was endangered. Rumours began circulating that Mortimer had ordered Edward II’s murder, providing his son with just reason to arrest Mortimer, his sons, and close allies, plus Edward II’s keepers.
Adam Murimuth’s chronicle captures the changes in opinion. His chronicle is unique as it is based on his personal diary. In 1327, he recorded that Edward had died. Following Mortimer’s 1330 trial, Murimuth claims Edward was suffocated, with Mortimer’s agreement. It is likely that the poker story, which appears in the long version of the Brut, was written around this time. This chronicle records the first version of the poker myth. This was not universally accepted, the Bridlington Chronicler, writing circa 1340 notes that “Since this king died, diverse vulgar opinions on the manner of his death have been discussed, they are not worth writing down”.
The information proved valuable to two chroniclers, Ralph Higden and Geoffrey le Baker, writing circa 1350. Higden, a monk and respected historian of St Werburg’s Abbey, Chester, wrote the Polychronicon, which contains little concurrent material, he rarely left the cloister. He summarises the long Brut and comments on the outlandish stories circulating. Le Baker claimed his record was informed by a man involved in Edward’s move to Berkeley, adding a sense of veracity to his work. Higden’s work was thought to be true because the life story of his Polychronicon’s translator was misinformed. John Trevisa, a Cornish scholar translated the manuscripts circa 1388. He was chaplain to Thomas, Lord Berkeley V, the grandson of Edward’s keeper Thomas Lord Berkley III. Some historians believed Trevisa translated Polychronicon verbatim as he had inside knowledge. This post will use the available records to evaluate the chronicles, as to their accuracy.
January to August 1327 – Imprisonments and Plots
Edward II’s first keeper, his cousin, Henry, Earl of Lancaster housed him at Kenilworth Castle. Lancaster resented Mortimer, making it imperative that Mortimer controlled both Edward II and Edward III. Enhancing his power, and providing him with leverage over the royal earls. An attempt to free Edward was foiled in late March 1327. Arriving at Kenilworth with an armed force, Mortimer secretly moved Edward to Berkeley Castle, without informing the king. Mortimer’s son-in-law, Thomas, Lord Berkeley and Sir John Maltravers, were appointed Edward’s keepers on 3rd April 1327. Berkeley later added an assistant keeper, his cousin Sir Thomas Gurney.
Le Baker’s source, William Bishop, a Mortimer man at arms, was allegedly part of Edward’s escort party. Bishop related a tale of a circuitous and humiliating journey, via Corfe Castle and Bristol to Berkeley Castle, to le Baker in 1347. He claimed he led Edward’s horse from Bristol, Edward forced to sit backwards, wearing a straw crown. This is the only contact Bishop had with Edward. Considering Mortimer required the journey to be swift and secret, Bishop’s account seems bizarre.
Berkeley, like Mortimer had cause to hate Edward. Following the contrariant uprising in 1322, his wife Margaret, was incarcerated in a nunnery. Edward attempted to dissolve their marriage. Maltravers also fared badly, and was in exile in France with Mortimer. Gurney also a contrariant, had his lands restored on payment of a fine. Mortimer knew these men and trusted their loyalty. In return they were rewarded, with political and judicial appointments and granted 100s per day for the expenses of “the late king and his household” , between 3rd April to 20th October.
The history between Edward and his keepers supports the claims of harsh conditions reported by Murimuth, the long Brut and le Baker. However the official records show Edward was well cared for at the insistence of Isabella and Edward III. She sent him letters and luxurious gifts. He had meat, wax candles and access to a private chapel. Le Baker blamed Isabella for Edward’s suffering, claiming Edward’s rooms were above a pit of rotting carcasses. The intention being that the stench and corruption would cause mortal illness, and endanger the entire castle! Rumours of ill treatment would have reached the royal court, something Mortimer, Berkeley and Maltravers knew to avoid. Had they abused his father Edward III would not have bestowed some of Mortimer’s vacant manors on Berkeley’s infant son in 1331. Or allowed Maltravers to have a political career.
Edward was deprived of contact with his wife and children. The long Brut relates a conversation between Edward and a guard, who informs Edward that he “wolde her strangle… and al so that ye would do to my Lord your Sone”, should they visit. This reflects Edward’s reputation for vengeance. Mortimer and Isabella had usurped his throne and cruelly executed his favourites. Edward would not overlook this, should he be restored. However Edward is distraught that the guard thinks he is capable of this. Warner believes Isabella and their children stayed away to spare his feelings and theirs.
Edward’s move to Berkeley did not dissuade the plotters. Two significant conspiracies to free Edward were discovered. The first, the Dunhevid plot, involved the same men who failed to free Edward from Kenilworth, possibly working with the Earl of Mar. In late July 1327, Berkeley informed a friend that Berkeley Castle had been looted and Edward seized. It appears he remained within the castle and the plot was foiled by Berkeley’s men. To ensure secrecy Berkeley and Maltravers were granted powers of arrest. The majority of the plotters were accused of other crimes, including refusing to fight the Scots. The raid is mentioned in the Close Rolls, William de Aylmere, requested bail whilst awaiting trial for “…consenting to and abetting in the robbery of Berkele and the taking of Edward de Carnarvan, the late king and the levying the king’s people in war against him…”.
The long Brut claims Gurney was appointed Edward’s keeper and moved him to Corfe Castle. There are no records supporting this, and payments to Berkeley for Edward’s upkeep continued. Berkeley appointed Gurney as assistant keeper because he and Maltravers were often absent. Both had distant estates, and were regularly appointed Commissioners of the Peace. In July, Berkeley was excused from Edward III’s Scottish campaign, as he was “charged with special business by the king”. Capturing the Dunhevid plotters who remained at large.
1st to 21st September 1327 – A New Plot and a Sudden Death
Edward III sent Mortimer to Wales, as Justiciar, on 4th September to deal with “certain malefactors … wandering around… making confederacies and alliances…”. On 7th September, his deputy, William de Shalford informed him that Sir Rhys ap Gruffydd and others intended to free Edward and bring down the government. Mortimer, remained in Wales, eschewing the Lincoln parliament. On September 14th, Shalford wrote again with more details. Mortimer sent William Ockley, and William Beaukaire to Berkeley with Shalford’s letter and orders for, Edward’s custodians to remedy the situation quickly. Ockley, a servant of Mortimer’s wife, Joan was undoubtedly loyal. Beaukaire, a royal man at arms and pardoned Despenser loyalist, was an unusual choice. They arrived at Berkeley somewhere between 14th and 21st September. We have no idea of Mortimer’s intent. Did the frequency of plots convince him Edward must die? Were his instructions were misinterpreted by Edward’s panicked keepers.
The Brut, claims that Mortimer ordered Edward’s murder for St Matthew’s Day, 21st September. Maltravers and Gurney were instructed on the method to be used. Le Baker creates a total fiction, claiming Isabella commanded the Bishop of Hereford, Adam Orelton to order Edward’s death. Orleton’s alleged letter, like Mortimer’s order was intentionally ambiguous. Orleton was in Avignon representing the king in discussions with the Pope, at the time, making his involvement impossible.
Edward conveniently died, overnight on 21st September. There are no physician’s records, or letters implying he was unwell, meaning the cause of his death is unknown. The Brut mentions that Edward said “that he would rather be dead than imprisoned”. Other reports suggest that he was depressed and unhappy. Closely guarded, he was unlikely to have been able to take his own life. Suicide was a mortal sin, the Church would refuse him burial and he risked eternity in hell.
If he wasn’t murdered, sudden death from an unknown medical condition is possible. Even today, fit, men in their forties have unexpected cardiac arrests. Parliament was informed on 28th September Edward died of natural causes. The lack of medical or coroner’s report, leaves room for conjecture, as demonstrated by the Chroniclers:
The long Brut:
“And as the Kyng lay and slepte, the traitoures, false forsuorne against her homage and her feaute, com priueliche into ye Kyngus chaumbre and her company with Ham and Laiden an Huge table oppon his Wombe and with men pressede and held fast adoune the iiij corners of the table oppon his body: wherewith the gode man awoke and was sore adrade to bene dede there, and slayn, and turned his body opsadoun. The tok the false tiranunts, and as wode traitoures, an horne and put hit into his fundament as depe and thai might and toke a spete of Copur brennyng & put hit through the horne into his body and oftentimes rolled therewith his bowailes; and so thai quelled here Lorde that nothing was perceyuede; and after he was entered at Gloucestr”.
Higden’s account is similar, but succinct: “… a hot broche put thro the secrete place posterialle.” Whilst le Baker, composed a dramatic narrative:
“These cruel bullies, seeing that death by such a foetid odour would not overcome so vigorous a man, during the night of 22 September suddenly seized hold of him as he lay on his bed. With the aid of enormous pillows and a weight heavier than that of fifteen substantial men they pressed down upon him until he was suffocated. With a plumber’s red hot iron inserted through a horn, leading to the in most parts of the bowel they burned out the respiratory organs beyond the intestines, taking care that no wound should be discernible on the royal body…” The Chronicle of Geoffrey le Baker
These accounts may arise from the Church’s disapproval of Edward’s alleged relationships with other men. Le Baker’s account, is beyond belief. It seems unlikely Edward survived after being restrained, pressed and smothered. Making him unable to scream loudly when the poker was inserted. The Brut and Higden also overlook the intense pain, and burns to his body from his struggles. If he was murdered his keepers were committing regicide. His death would have been swift, silent and secret. Mortimer, used sedatives to stupefy the guards when he escaped the Tower in 1323. He could have sent his daughter, Margaret suitable drugs or poison to incapacitate Edward. She could easily mix a draught for Edward, in her still room. Mortimer, an experienced soldier would have known that injuring the bowel could result in a slow, agonising death. Leading to questions from the physicians, priests, and Edward’s wife and son. Plus, an experienced embalmer would have noticed internal injuries.
Between Death and Burial
Gurney took a letter from Lord Berkeley to Edward III, informing him of his father’s death, on the night of 23rd September. He wrote to his cousin, the Earl of Hereford immediately. Parliament was notified four days later. Berkeley was ordered to suppress the news locally, Edward would not lay in state until he reached St Peter’s Abbey Gloucester on 20th October. Other anomalies in the treatment of Edward’s body after death, potentially support allegations of foul play. The embalmer, unusually for a man of Edward’s rank, was a local woman, watched by William Beaukaire. He then stood vigil until 20th October. Only he and the embalming woman knew if Edward had any suspicious injuries.
The Plantagenets had been buried at Westminster Abbey since the reign of Henry III. Edward was refused burial there. Possibly because his abdication meant he lost royal prerogative. London had recently risen against Isabella and Mortimer, and remained volatile. Westminster was possibly been too close for comfort. Gloucester, near Berkeley, had previous royal burials, making it a suitable location for Edward’s tomb.
Edward’s body was honoured with a vigil, led by the Bishop of Llandaff at Gloucester. Murimuth reports that “the abbots, priors, knights and burgesses of Bristol and Gloucester, viewed Edward superficially”. He specifies no date or location but it is sensible to assume he means Gloucester Edward’s body was viewed superficially, because he was prepared for burial, embalmed, wrapped, head to toe in cere cloth and dressed in his finery. His grand funeral took place on 20th December.
Growth of Avarice and Tyranny
Edward’s death, increased Mortimer and Isabella’s avarice and tyranny. They narrowly avoided civil war with the royal earls in 1329, in a fight over who controlled the king. At the Winchester parliament, Easter 1330, Mortimer accused Edmund, Earl of Kent, of treason. Allegedly convinced of Edward’s survival, he conspired with other nobles, the Archbishop of York and the Lord Mayor of London to free Edward from Corfe Castle, Dorset. Following a show trial, Kent’s nephew Edward III, had no option, and ordered his execution.
Edward III knew Mortimer was becoming increasingly dangerous. But he could move openly against him. His friends, led by William Montacute, began a whispering campaign, implicating Mortimer in Edward’s murder. These rumours appear in the chronicles, for example The French Chronicle of London states: “… by the abetting of certain persons, and with the assent of his false keepers, he was traitorously and vilely murdered by night…”
Mortimer investigated the rumours, questioning Montacute and his friends in mid-October 1330, but obtained no information. He ordered them to leave the Court at Nottingham immediately. Returning three days later, on the evening 19th October. Helped by William Eland, who knew secret ways into the castle, they captured and arrested Mortimer, his sons Edmund and Geoffrey, and his chief adherents. Edward III, knew of the plan and escorted Mortimer and his allies to the Tower of London. They were all imprisoned, Mortimer bricked up in his cell.
Edward III called parliament at Westminster in late November 1330. The accused, being nobles were entitled to trial in parliament by their peers. The opportunity to present a defence at the king’s discretion. The majority loathed Mortimer and his escheator, Simon de Bereford. Edward III’s enmity towards them was no secret either.
Mortimer, was tried on 26th November 1330. Brought into parliament bound and gagged, the outcome was a foregone conclusion. The fourteen charges against him included usurping royal power, secretly moving Edward II to Berkeley castle to murder him, and the murders of Edward II and Edmund, Earl of Kent. On 29th November he was drawn to Tyburn and hanged naked, as a common traitor. Speaking at his execution Mortimer admitted procuring Kent’s death by luring him into a treasonable plot. He never admitted conspiracy to murder Edward. He understood that if this were a lie, it condemned him to eternity in hell. Bereford was also executed in November 1330, for his part in all of Mortimer’s crimes.
Edward’s keepers, had mixed fates. Berkeley was acquitted, having absent from the castle when Edward died. Gurney and Ockley were found guilty, despite Berkeley providing Gurney with an alibi. Ockley fled overseas before trial, and Berkeley aided Gurney to flee to Spain once sentence was passed. Both had a price on their head but neither was executed. Ockley disappeared whilst Gurney captured twice, in 1331 and 1333, died at Bayonne, enroute to England, despite the efforts of two physicians. Maltravers was accused only of plotting to kill Kent. Given time to flee, he was tried in absentia, and condemned to death. Despite having a price on his head, he was serving Edward III in Flanders by 1339. On his return to England in 1352, parliament quashed his conviction.
Murimuth writes a fresh account of Edward’s death after 1330. He accuses Mortimer, Gurney, Maltravers and Bereford of plotting to suffocate Edward. Maltravers was never charged with Edward’s murder, and no evidence of the manner of Edward’s death survives, suggesting that Murimuth recorded rumours circulating at the time. Additionally no one was charged with the torture, deprivation and ill treatment of Edward II, as described by le Baker and the long Brut.
Sainthood, Scandal and Mistaken Identities
Yet some of these erroneous chronicles had purpose. Higden reveals that le Baker’s narrative was hagiography, following claims of miracles at Edward’s tomb. The more a person suffered, the holier they became. Higden was dismissive of the short-lived attempt to canonise Edward remarking that a difficult ending to life, did not make one holy:
“…whether he schulde be accounted among seyntes other no. For nother prisonement ne persecucioun and greves preveth a man a seynt …for evel doer suffren suche peynes; neyther offrynges ne liknes of miracles proveth a man a seynt but the holynes of the rather lyf accorde perto, for suche beeth indifferent to gode and to yvel… ”
The Church agreed, the movement died away, leaving le Baker’s highly dramatic account of Edward’s final months. However Higden himself is implicated in the continued belief in the poker myth. Trevisa briefly continued and then translated Higden’s Polychronicon into Middle English circa 1387 . It was common in medieval families for a son to be named after his father or grandfather. This can cause confusion, which happened here. Trevisa became chaplain to Thomas, 5th Baron Berkeley circa 1388. His grandfather, Thomas 3rd Baron Berkeley, was Edward’s keeper and died in 1361, twenty seven years before Trevisa arrived there. Some historians mistakenly believed Trevisa heard Thomas III’s last confession, giving him additional knowledge. Trevisa as Higden’s translator and a respected Oxford scholar, was honour bound not to alter Higden’s work. This was overlooked, and the verbatim translation taken to mean Trevisa knew Higden to be correct.
The primary and secondary sources regarding Edward II’s death, make it difficult to draw conclusions as to his fate. Some record rumours and conjecture, others hagiography. Edward was guarded by men with ample motive for murder, but the wishes of Queen Isabella and Edward III probably stayed their hands. Had Mortimer confessed to killing Edward II, at his execution, the accusation against himself, Bereford and Edward’s keepers would be more credible. Mortimer and Bereford posed a significant threat to Edward III’s sovereignty, their executions were politically expedient.
There is evidence that his keepers treated him well and were never accused of torture, deprivation or ill treatment. Berkeley was acquitted and Maltravers conviction for procuring Kent’s death eventually quashed. There is evidence that Maltravers and Berkeley were rewarded by Edward III and trusted. Had Gurney or Ockley returned to England, they may have received similar clemency.
The chronicler’s motives in repeating the poker myth are complex. Partly it reflects the Church’s condemnation of the homosexual relationships Edward may have had. The authors were religious men, monks and clerks, and often relied on gossip from visitors. They also accessed the work of other chroniclers, allowing the story of the poker to be embellished over time and according to purpose. The most lurid account, le Baker’s was specifically written to emphasise Edward’s suffering and holiness.
The original statement that Edward had died of natural causes could be true. Having sifted the evidence all we can say is that Edward II was said to have died overnight on 21st September 1327. The Peterborough chronicler sums the mystery of Edward II’s death up thus:
He was well in the evening, and dead by the morning.”
There are scholars who believe Edward II survived his “death” in 1327. Personally, I find their arguments plausible but chose to focus this article on the events surrounding his death. As I am very interested in the execution of Edward’s brother, Edmund Earl of Kent, I may well return to the possibility of Edward II’s survival at a later date, when I’ve had the opportunity to do more research.
References and Bibliography
 Warner K (2015) Edward II, The Unconventional King. Amberley. Stroud p242. Maunde Thompson E (1889) (trans) Adæ Murimuth Continuatio Chronicarum Robertus de Avesbury de Gestis Mirabilibus Regis Edwardi Tertii. HMSO London p53,
 Warner p227-230
 Warner p 233
 Warner p242
 Stubbs W (1882) Annales Paulini in The Chronicles of the Reigns of Edward I and Edward II vol I HMSO London. P337
 French Brut in Warner, p243
 Gransden A (1982) Historical Writing in the Fourteenth Century. Routledge. London p 43-44
 Murimuth p 63
 Murimuth p 64
 Mortimer I (2003) The Greatest Traitor, The Life of Sir Roger Mortimer, Ruler of England 1327 – 1330. Pimlico. London. p189 -190
 Auctore Bridlingtoniensi in The Chronicles of the Reigns of Edward I and Edward II vol I HMSO London. p97
 Gransden p43
 Warner p 243-244. Mortimer p263.
 Edward II’s brothers, Edmund, Earl of Kent and Thomas, Earl of Norfolk and his cousin, Henry, Earl of Lancaster
 Warner p233, Spinks S (2017) Edward II the Man: A Doomed Inheritance. Amberley, Stroud.
 Mortimer p239
 Calendar of the Close Rolls of Edward III 1327-1330, HMSO London (1896) p77.
 Warner p235
 Mortimer p192
 Mortimer p192
 Mortimer p136, Warner p176
 Mortimer p73-4
 Calendar of Fine Rolls 1319-27 HMSO London (1913) p154 -71
 Mortimer p 95
 CCR Edward III vol 1 p297
 CCR Edward III vol 1 p77, 284
 Le Baker p 30-31
 Warner p234
 Maunde Thompson E (1889) Chronicon Galfridi le Baker de Swynebroke, Oxford University Press. Clarendon p 30-31
 Calendar of the Patent Rolls of Edward III 1330 – 1334, HMSO London (1891) p123
 Brie F.W.D (1906) The Brut of England. Early English Text Society. London. p 253
 CFR 1319-27 p 154-71, Warner 156-159
 Warner p235
 Warner p 237 -240
 Warner p239
 CCR Edward III vol 1 p131
 Warner p 238
 CPR vol 1 p 156-157
 CCR Edward III vol 1 p158
 CCR Edward III vol 1 p297, 351, 429
 CCR Edward III vol 1 p130
 CCR Edward III vol 1 p156-7
 CCR Edward III vol 1 p217-8
 Tout p165
 Warner p241 – 242
 Mortimer p187
 Mortimer p186-7
 Mortimer p187
 CCR Edward III vol 1, 1327 – 1330. p37, where his is named as Giles (Gills) Beaucair
 The Brut p253
 Le Baker p41
 The Brut p 252
 Warner p237
 The Brut p 253
 Lumby J.R. (1882) Polychronicon Ranulphi Higden together with the English Translation of John Trevisa and an unknown writer of the 15th century. Vol VII. Longman & Co. London. p 325
 Mortimer p186
 Spinks p206
 Spinks p208
 Spinks p208
 Murimuth p54
 Warner p 246
 Mortimer p 236-7
 Mortimer p239
 Murimuth p54
 Mortimer p249 – 250
 Murimuth p63-4
 Higden p325 – 327
 Warner p243-244
 Gransden p48
 Warner p243-4
 Phillips S (2012) Edward II Yale University Press p 561-2