by Expert Contributor, Kathryn Warner
Edward II ruled as king of England from July 1307 to January 1327, and is remembered as one of the country’s most unsuccessful – if not the most unsuccessful – kings in history. He was the first to be forced to abdicate his throne, and the nineteen and a half years of his reign saw endless conflict with his own barons, military defeats, excessive reliance on a parade of male ‘favourites’, and much else. Yet his turbulent reign is a fascinating one, and Edward himself was a fascinating, albeit deeply flawed, individual.
Edward was born on 25 April 1284 in Caernarfon, North Wales, where his father had recently begun to build a great castle which still stands today. In 1284 it was, however, in the very early stages of construction, so Edward was perhaps born in a temporary timber building in the middle of a construction site. His father was Edward I, almost forty-five years old in April 1284 and king of England since the death of his father Henry III in November 1272, and his mother Leonor or Eleanor of Castile was forty-two, born perhaps in Valladolid in central Spain in November 1241. Rather astonishingly, Edward of Caernarfon was the youngest of his parents’ fourteen, perhaps even as many as sixteen, children. He had at least ten older sisters, of whom five lived into adulthood, and three older brothers, who all died in childhood: John (1266-71), Henry (1268-74) and Alfonso of Bayonne (1273-84). Edward was not born as the heir to his father’s throne, as his ten-year-old brother Alfonso – named after his uncle and godfather Alfonso X of Castile – was still alive in April 1284. Alfonso, however, died in August 1284, whereupon four-month-old Edward of Caernarfon became heir to their father’s throne. Unlike his three older brothers, Edward was a sturdy, healthy child, and he grew up to become an enormously strong, fit, tall, and physically powerful man.
Edward’s royal ancestry was impeccable: he was crowned king of England at age twenty-three, and was the son of a king and the grandson of two more kings. His paternal grandfather was Henry III, born in 1209, king of England from 1216 to 1272, the fourth longest-reigning king in English history after Elizabeth II, Victoria and George III. His maternal grandfather was Fernando III, king of Castile and Leon, born in 1201 and ruler of two of the four kingdoms of medieval Spain. Fernando III conquered much of the territory of al-Andalus, or Muslim Spain, between the 1220s and the 1240s, including the great city of Seville, Cordoba and Jaen. He died in Seville in May 1252, when his daughter Leonor, the twelfth of his fifteen children. was ten years old. She married Lord Edward, heir to the English throne, in Burgos, northern Spain, two and a half years later. Fernando was later canonised as a saint of the Catholic Church, and is now the patron saint of the city of Seville, where he and many members of his family are buried in the cathedral.
It is a little-known fact that Edward II, that most disastrous of English kings, was the grandson of a Spanish saint, and in fact he was the first of only two half-Spanish monarchs in English history: the second was Queen Mary I, born in 1516 as the child of Henry VIII and Katherine of Aragon. Eleanor of Castile was not the first Spanish queen of England, as her husband’s great-uncle Richard Lionheart (reigned 1189 to 1199) married Berengaria of Navarre in 1191, but the couple had no children, and Berengaria never set foot in England, or least not while she was its queen. Edward II’s great-grandson Henry IV (reigned 1399 to 1413) married Juana of Navarre in 1403, but she was his second wife and was not the mother of his children.
Unfortunately, it is impossible to say for sure what Edward II knew about his Spanish heritage, as his mother the queen died when he was only six years old in November 1290. Rather curiously, he inherited a county in northern France from his mother after her death. Queen Eleanor, though herself Spanish, had a French mother: Jeanne de Dammartin (c. 1220-79), queen-consort of Castile and Leon, and also countess of Ponthieu in her own right as her inheritance from her parents. Jeanne’s maternal grandmother Alix, countess of the Vexin, daughter of Louis VII of France, had been betrothed to Richard Lionheart of England for many years, and married William Talvas, the young count of Ponthieu, after Richard refused to marry her. Alix and William’s daughter Marie was the mother of Jeanne, queen of Castile, who passed on her county of Ponthieu to her daughter Eleanor, queen of England, who in turn passed it on to her youngest and only surviving son, Edward II.
Edward thus became count of Ponthieu at the age of six, and it was the first of his many titles. I’ll examine further aspects of his life, family and reign in future articles for History Lair.
Expert Contributor/Kathryn Warner
Kathryn Warner holds two degrees in medieval history from the University of Manchester, and is a historian of the fourteenth century, specializing in the reign of Edward II. She has appeared in TV documentaries, has given a paper at the International Medieval Congress, and often gives talks about Edward to conferences, symposiums and history societies.
Books on the subject by Kathryn Warner: