King Edward II’s Stone Head Unearthed at British Abbey
An excavation at a medieval Abbey in Britain has uncovered a treasure trove of finds. These include the personal effects of nuns and examples of religious art. But the most surprising artifact among the discoveries is a mysterious stone head. An examination of the object suggests that it may represent the face of the tragic English King, Edward II.
A team of archaeologists had been excavating Shaftesbury Abbey in southern England when they made the discovery. This was once home to a community of nuns and was one of the largest and richest abbeys in England, but it has all but disappeared. According to the Daily Mail , it ‘was once the second-wealthiest nunnery in England — behind only Syon Abbey, on the Thames in Isleworth.’ In its heyday, Shaftesbury Abbey was the same size as Westminster Cathedral . The abbey was ‘built by Alfred the Great in the 9th century,’ reports The Times .
Shaftesbury Abbey was once one of the largest and richest abbeys in England, but it has all but disappeared. (Mike Smith/ CC BY SA 2.0 )
Mysterious Stone Head
When the team was excavating under the ruins of the abbey they made an amazing discovery. The Daily Mail reports that the ‘archaeologists and students were thrilled when they dug up the life-sized head, which bears a crown.’ It is carved stone and was clearly sculpted by a master craftsperson. The head has been damaged but it is still in remarkable condition.
Is this King Edward II?
A 700-year-old stone head has been unearthed by archaeologists on the former site of Shaftesbury Abbey.
— BBC Radio Solent (@BBCRadioSolent) October 2, 2020
The object was caked in soil and after it was cleaned it was found to have strange headgear, possibly a cap. The Guardian quotes Julian Richards, who led the project as saying, “Who could this be, wearing that sort of headgear? Then someone pointed out it wasn’t a cap, but a crown.” The jewels on the headband can still be made out. The fact that the head was crowned was something of an enigma.
Finder Julian Richards excavating the head. ( Shaftesbury Abbey Museum & Gardens )
Is it the Head of King Edward II?
The more the researchers examined the head, the more mysterious it became. According to the Guardian, ‘the sex of the subject was unclear. The flowing locks suggested a woman, the jawline a man.’ Therefore, it may represent a king or a queen. Archaeologists then began some detective work and they believe they may have identified who the stone head was meant to represent.
- Anglo-Saxon Abbey where Lusty King Edgar was Crowned, Found!
- Britain’s Oldest Door is Westminster Abbey Relic that May Have Been Covered in Human Skin
- Why was Edward II Such A Hated King?
Because the head was crowned, the researchers focused on English royalty. The possibility was raised that it may be a stylized depiction of an Anglo-Saxon king. However, the most likely candidate was deemed to be Edward II. Mr. Richards is quoted by the Guardian as saying that “It might be Edward II, but we’re not sure.”
Effigy of King Edward II on his tomb at Gloucester Cathedral. Source: Matthew /Adobe Stock
Edward II’s Defeat at the Battle of Bannockburn
Edward II, who reigned from 1307-1327, was the son of the ferocious Edward I, often called the ‘Hammer of the Scots’ for his brutal campaigns in Scotland. Unlike his father, Edward II was no warrior, he lost Scotland at the Battle of Bannockburn .
He was never popular and was widely seen as corrupt and weak. It was alleged that he was homosexual and that his favorite Piers Gaveston was his lover. Edward was deposed as king and imprisoned and he was later murdered, possibly by being starved to death. His life and tragic downfall are the subjects of a play by Christopher Marlowe.
The Times reports that the ‘carving is thought to have been part of a previously unknown gallery of statues of kings and queens inside Shaftesbury Abbey.’ It possibly was used to separate the nuns from members of the public during masses. There may have been several galleries in the church. The discovery of the head is helping archaeologists to better understand Shaftesbury Abbey’s layout. It is likely the head was once painted to make it even more life-like.
A depiction of the Battle of Bannockburn from a 1440s manuscript of Walter Bower's ‘Scotichronicon.’ This is the earliest known depiction of the battle. ( Public Domain )
The Dissolution of the Monasteries
Shaftesbury Abbey was also an important pilgrimage site. Many believers came here to pray to the relics of Saint Edward the Martyr (c 962-978 AD), an assassinated Anglo-Saxon King. The stone head is somewhat damaged, and this may be a result of the events that led to the ruin of this once rich abbey.
In 1539 Henry VIII ordered the Dissolution of the Monasteries and nunneries in England. His agents, under the orders of Thomas Cromwell , destroyed many masterpieces of religious art during the closures. Richards is quoted by the Guardian as stating that “Somebody has taken a sledgehammer and smashed this up because it’s broken across the neck.” It is also possible that the carving was thrown to the ground.
If this is correct, the stone head is a testament to the violence and destruction that accompanied the Dissolution of the Monasteries . Within fifteen years of its closure, Shaftesbury Abbey had all but disappeared. Its stones were taken away by local people and used in their buildings.
It is believed that the stone head may have been left because it was deemed to be of no use. The head has been removed to Shaftesbury Museum, where it is hoped that it will eventually go on display.
By Ed Whelan