Piers Gaveston: Exile, Secrets, and Jealousy Marked the Life of the Favorite of King Edward II
Piers Gaveston, 1st Earl of Cornwall, was an English nobleman who lived during the 13th and 14th centuries AD. He was “the favorite” of English king Edward II - what exactly that means in his case is a subject of debate. Regardless, this favored position caused him to become a victim of jealousy, exile, and eventually murder.
Piers Gaveston was born around 1284. His father was Arnaud de Gabaston, a minor Gascon noble and his mother was Claramonde de Marsan. Arnaud served the English king Edward I faithfully and thanks to his services, his family received the favor of the king. Gabaston died in 1302, though prior to this, he was able to place his family members in the service of the king, thereby providing them with stable jobs, regular income, and security for their futures.
Edward I creating his son, Edward of Caernarvon (the later King Edward II), prince of Wales, 1301. Text reads "Eduuardus f actus e st princeps Wallie" (Edward is made prince of Wales). (Public Domain)
Bonding with the Future King
Gabaston’s son, Piers Gaveston, had already been a member of the royal household since his early teens. In 1300, he was moved to the household of the Prince of Wales, the future Edward II. Gaveston is reckoned to have been either the same age, or slightly older than the future king. Contemporary sources described Gaveston as being handsome, athletic, and well-mannered. He had also proven his worth in military matters. Thus, he would have been considered to be an obvious choice to serve as the Prince of Wales’ companion and role model.
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An extremely close bond developed between the two, causing some to speculate that they were involved in a homosexual relationship. Others, however, have argued that the relationship between Gaveston and Edward II was more along the lines of a ‘brotherhood-in-arms’, which has been described by the historian Pierre Chaplais as “some sort of very close relationship established formally between two persons of military status.”
The painting ‘Edward II and his Favourite, Piers Gaveston’ (1872) by Marcus Stone. (Public Domain)
Pier Gaveston, Earl of Cornwall
In any case, Gaveston was not only on good terms with the Prince of Wales, but also with the king. For instance, in 1302, Edward I ordered Gaveston’s daily allowance to be raised and that he be robed suitably each season. In 1305, however, the prince was in conflict with Walter Langton, the Bishop of Lichfield and Treasurer of England. The king supported Langton, and decided to punish his son. Therefore, Edward II was banished from his father’s court and had his financial support cut off. The size of the prince’s household was reduced and Gaveston was one of the men sent by the king into exile.
When Edward I died in 1307 he was succeeded by Edward II. Gaveston was recalled from exile, and lavished with honors. In addition to being made Earl of Cornwall, Gaveston was also given the hand of Margaret de Clare in marriage. As de Clare was the niece of Edward II, the king and Gaveston were now relatives. Gaveston continued to be the favorite of Edward II, though this was not to last.
The initial from the charter granting the earldom of Cornwall to Piers Gaveston on 6 August 1307. (Public Domain)
One of the enemies Gaveston made at court was Isabella of France, Edward II’s wife. Gaveston’s intimate bond with Edward II caused a rift between the king and the queen, as the former is said to have ignored and even humiliated his wife. For instance, during the coronation ceremony, the new king is recorded to have spent more time with his favorite than with the queen and that so offended some of Isabella’s relatives they decided to leave the ceremony. Gaveston was exiled once more, though after his return, his relationship with the queen seems to have improved.
An illuminated detail from BL Royal MS 20 A ii, ‘Chronicle of England’ [folio 10], showing Edward II of England receiving his crown. (Public Domain)
As the favorite of Edward II, Gaveston roused the jealously of the other nobles at court. Moreover, his arrogant behavior certainly made matters worse. By 1310, discontent amongst the nobles was so strong that the king was forced to appoint the Lord Ordainers, who were to draw up reforms for the management of the royal household. The result of this was the Ordinances of 1311, an article of which was the permanent exile of Gaveston.
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An imaginative medieval interpretation of Edward's arrest by Isabella, seen watching from the right. (Public Domain)
Death of the King’s Favorite
Although Gaveston retired to Flanders, he secretly returned to England by the end of 1311 and was soon publicly restored by the king. The barons took up arms against the king, and nearly captured him and his favorite at Newcastle. The two men managed to flee by sea to Scarborough. Edward II proceeded to York, whilst Gaveston remained in Scarborough Castle, where he was besieged. In May, Gaveston surrendered to Aymer de Valence, the Earl of Pembroke, on the condition that if an agreement could not be reached with the king by August, he be returned to Scarborough Castle.
The earl guaranteed Gaveston’s safety and left him at a town called Deddington. The next day, however, he was captured by Guy de Beauchamp, the Earl of Warwick. Gaveston was taken to Warwick, and after some sort of trial, was taken to Blacklow Hill, where he was run through with a sword and beheaded. His body was left there to rot, but was later rescued, embalmed, and buried in the Dominican friary at King’s Langley in Hertfordshire. Although Gaveston was executed in Warwickshire, it is rumored that his ghost continues to haunt Scarborough Castle.
The head of Piers Gaveston, 1st Earl of Cornwall, is delivered to Thomas, 2nd Earl of Lancaster; Humphrey de Bohun, 4th Earl of Hereford; and Edmund FitzAlan, 9th Earl of Arundel, for inspection. This was published in: Doyle, James William Edmund (1864) "Edward II" in ‘A Chronicle of England: B.C. 55 – A.D. 1485.’ (Public Domain)
Top image: Modern depiction of Edward II and Piers Gaveston. Source: Suburbanbeatnik/Deviant Art
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Cavendish, R., 2012. Piers Gaveston Executed. Available at: https://www.historytoday.com/richard-cavendish/piers-gaveston-executed
fourteenthcenturyfiend, 2018. ‘Risen from the Dust’? – The Real Heritage of Piers Gaveston. Available at: https://fourteenthcenturyfiend.com/2018/03/18/risen-from-the-dust-the-real-heritage-of-piers-gaveston/
great-castles.com, 2018. The Ghost of Piers Gaveston of Scarborough Castle. Available at: https://great-castles.com/scarboroughghost.php
Hamilton, J., 1999. Menage a Roi: Edward II and Piers Gaveston. Available at: https://www.historytoday.com/js-hamilton/menage-roi-edward-ii-and-piers-gaveston
The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2018. Piers Gaveston, earl of Cornwall. Available at: https://www.britannica.com/biography/Piers-Gaveston-Earl-of-Cornwall