According to a quote from French existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, “The ass is the secret femininity of males, their passivity” (Bredbeck 31). This is a rather shocking quote to open with, but a perfectly suitable one for both the subject of homosexuality and the murder of England’s King Edward II done supposedly by a hot poker thrust into his anus. This paper will discuss the homosexual relationships of Edward II that led to such a messy end—pun intended—while comparing actual facts to retellings by authors of the Elizabethan Era such as a sonnet by John Taylor and the play entitled Edward II by Christopher Marlowe.
Edward II was born in 1284 to King Edward I, and even as a young boy displayed certain tendencies that caused his parents to question his masculinity. According to Caroline Bingham, author of The Life and Times of Edward II, the young Edward was a fan of gardening who displayed little interest in jousting. The King thought his son would benefit from some male influences, and he appointed Piers Gaveston as his squire. Unfortunately, the two fell in love instead. Bingham writes, “When the king’s son saw him he fell so in love that he entered upon an enduring compact with him” (Bingham 35). The two became inseparable, and King Edward I sought early to break them apart. He even went so far as to send his son away for a summer in 1305 because he feared that his son “had an inordinate affection for a certain Gascon knight” (Costain 187).
The puppy love between the young boys persisted and found new strength when King Edward I passed away in 1307, relinquishing the crown to Edward II, then only 23 years old. Straightaway the young monarch appointed Gaveston as Earl of Cornwall and the two lovers were married… to women. Gaveston married Edward’s niece, and Edward married Isabella of France. Just after Edward and Isabella’s wedding, Gaveston arrived dressed in jewelry that had been a gift from Isabella’s father to Edward… causing some jealousy on Isabella’s part. As a humorous article from the e-zine History House states, “It’s simply bad form when your homosexual lover shows up wearing your wedding presents a few days after the ceremony.” (History House).
Isabella wasn’t the only one to be jealous. Many of Edward’s peers—a group of barons and earls—were upset that the king spent all of his time whoring around with another man. Homosexuality, as explained in Gregory W. Bredbeck’s Sodomy and Interpretation, while not unheard of was definitely not accepted. Actually, it was abhorred. Bredbeck writes, “A large number of derogatory terms became associated with people who engaged in sodomy—pathic, cinaedus, catamite, buggerer, ingle, sodomite—and legal writings of the time express a definite attitude of abhorrence” (Bredbeck 5). The barons conspired together and had Gaveston exiled to France.
And here is where 16th century author Christopher Marlowe’s play Edward II begins, with the exiled Gaveston returning to England. Marlowe’s Gaveston has just received a letter from the king requesting that he return, and Gaveston is overjoyed at the prospect of seeing his lover. He opens with a monologue, saying, “Ah, words that make me surfeit with delight!/ What greater bliss can hap to Gaveston/ Than live and be the favourite of a King!/ Sweet prince, I come!/ These, these thy amorous lines/ Might have enforced me to have swum from France,/ And, like Leander, gasped upon the sand,/ So thou wouldst smile, and take me in thine arms” (Marlowe).
When the two finally meet a little later, Edward’s words reflect the same intimacy that Gaveston speaks of and also show that he cares more about his lover than about his country. He says, “What, Gaveston, welcome, kiss not my hand;/ Embrace me, Gaveston, as I do thee./ I have my wish, in that I joy thy sight;/ And sooner shall the sea o'erwhelm my land/ Than bear the ship that shall transport thee hence” (Marlowe). A destructive flood would be better than seeing his dear friend leave his side.
Edward also bestows upon him various titles, saying, “I here create thee Lord High Chamberlain,/ Chief Secretary to the state and me,/ Earl of Cornwall, King and Lord of Man” (Marlowe). Gaveston humbly replies, “My lord, these titles far exceed my worth,” but Edward insists, “Thy worth, sweet friend, is far above my gifts:/ Therefore, to equal it, receive my heart” (Marlowe). It is easy to see why so many noblemen would be jealous of Gaveston—being so favored—and Bredbeck makes the argument that perhaps Gaveston’s love for Edward was nothing more than a love for money and power.
“I must have wanton poets, pleasant wits,/ Musicians, that with the touching of a string/ May draw the pliant king which way I please,” says Gaveston (Marlowe). Here he clearly makes a reference to manipulating the king to get what he wants and, as Bredbeck explains, Marlowe’s Gaveston is painted with a “broader discourse of political ambition and power. Gaveston begins his speech with the seemingly innocent question, ‘What greater bliss can hap to Gaveston/Than live and be the favourite of a king?’, but his ending to the speech indicates that ‘favourite’ is something other than a position of personal affection” (Bredbeck 58).
But one’s true motivations are always subject to speculation. It is difficult to know if Gaveston’s feelings towards the king were anything less than genuine, but we do know that Edward truly loved Gaveston, at least enough to constantly defend his lover under threat of civil war, even when Gaveston was in ever-present danger of being exiled from the country, or worse, murdered by Mortimer and the other scheming peers. Nobody else in the court liked Gaveston, and Edward’s relationship with him made the king unpopular. John Taylor writes a poem from Edward’s perspective, saying, “But all these fickle [joys] did fading end,/ Pierce Gaveston, to thee my love combinde:/ My friendship to thee scarce left me a friend,/ But made my Queene, Peeres, People all unkind” (Taylor).
Notice how he mentions the queen in his list of “unkind” people. The relationship between Edward and Gaveston was so strong that Queen Isabella often felt neglected. She wrote a letter to her father saying, “I am the most wretched of wives. [Edward] is a stranger in my bed” (Bingham 67). The character of Isabella as portrayed in Marlowe’s Edward II embodies this same sense of loneliness and longing. In Act One Scene Two, she begins to walk away and Mortimer asks her where she is going. She says, “Unto the forest, gentle Mortimer,/ To live in grief and baleful discontent;/ For now my lord the King regards me not,/ But dotes upon the love of Gaveston./ He claps his cheeks and hangs about his neck,/ Smiles in his face, and whispers in his ears;/ And, when I come, he frowns, as who should say,/ ‘Go whither thou wilt, seeing I have Gaveston’” (Marlowe).
As the plot of Marlowe’s play goes, all the various earls and the older and younger Mortimer go to the Pope and get Gaveston banished once more, this time to Ireland. Edward is racked with grief and upset with his wife, insisting that she played a part in this. He says, “Thou art too familiar with that Mortimer,/ And by thy means is Gaveston exiled,/ But I would wish thee reconcile the lords,/ Or thou shalt ne'er be reconciled to me” (Marlowe). Throughout the text of the play she protests the accusation of an affair with Mortimer, but in reality, Queen Isabella did take up a lover named Roger Mortimer and did conspire to kill Gaveston (New World Encyclopedia).
Gaveston is eventually murdered by beheading and Edward is distraught…at least momentarily. In the play he soon meets a young man named Spencer—known historically as Hugh le Despenser—who worms his way into the king’s good favor just as Gaveston did. Stephen Greenblatt, author of Renaissance Self-Fashioning: From More to Shakespeare, says “When Gaveston is killed, Edward has within seconds adopted someone else: the will exists, but the object of the will is little more than an illusion” (Greenblatt, Renaissance 165). With political opposition increasing and a threat from France, Edward and le Despenser ran from kingdom to kingdom attempting to gain supporters, but were captured in 1326. Hugh le Despenser was brought to the queen who had him killed. One account of Hugh’s death states that his “member and testicles were first cut off, because he was a heretic and a sodomite, even, it was said, with the King” (Bingham 179).
King Edward II soon met a death equally as gruesome. In both reality and in Marlowe’s play, the crown was passed down to his son, Edward III, and the sodomite king was locked in prison until Queen Elizabeth gave orders for his death in September of 1327. An account published thirty years after the fact said, “He was ignominiously slain with a red-hot spit thrust into the anus” (Bingham 197). Taylor’s sonnet from King Edward’s perspective—speaking from the grave—says, “A Red-hot spit my Bowels through did gore,/ Such misery, no Slave endured more.” Of Taylor’s version of the murder, Bredbeck writes, “Taylor frames his narrative to stress that fate and fortune, the attendants of royal power, withdrew their favor when Edward II ‘combinde’ his love with Pierce Gaveston…even the barbarous murder offers few overt morals, as if to imply that the lessons are self-evident: a contra naturam love deserves an equally contra naturam death” (Bredbeck 49).
Marlowe’s version of the account doesn’t blame Isabella for the king’s unsightly murder, but instead pins the horrid idea on the executioner named Lightborn. But historically, Queen Isabella is responsible and forever known as “The She-Wolf of France.” But regardless of whose idea it was, this death is very symbolic in meaning. Bredbeck writes, “The murder of Edward by raping him with a red-hot poker—quite literally branding him with sodomy—can be seen as an attempt to ‘write’ onto him the homoeroticism constantly ascribed to him" (Bredbeck).
According to The Norton Anthology of English Literature, Christopher Marlowe himself was branded with “atheism, sedition and homosexuality” and comparisons can be drawn between his own tragic fate—he was brutally stabbed with a dagger—and that of the homosexual King Edward. The Norton Anthology goes on to say, “Edward II’s life of homoerotic indulgences seems innocent in comparison with the cynical and violent dealings of the corrupt rebels who turn against him… Marlowe’s plays, written in the turbulent years before his murder at the age of twenty-nine, have continued to fascinate and disturb readers and audiences” (Greenblatt, Anthology 1003).
In my opinion, not only does Marlowe “fascinate and disturb” me, but also the life of King Edward II. While I’m not naïve enough to assume his death was entirely based on his sexuality and had much to do with his frivolous spending and inattentive leadership, I do know that his contemporaries harbored a great disgust and anger towards his love of other men as is to be seen by the horrible torture he underwent. If the ass really is the “secret femininity of males” as Sartre says, then those men did everything they could to rid Edward of that femininity once and for all, following the beliefs of the time that sodomy was to be abhorred at all costs. The king’s death was nothing more than a derogatory slight on his very life, causing us to question what is the greater sin: the love of two men or the hatred towards them?
Bingham, Caroline. The Life and Times of Edward II. Weidenfield and Nicolson, 1973. Print.
Bredbeck, Gregory W. Sodomy and Interpretation. New York: Cornell University Press, 1991. Print.
Costain, Thomas B. The Three Edwards: A History of the Plantagenets. Doubleday, 1962. Print.
“Edward II, Part I: The Gay Blade.” History House: An Irreverent History Magazine. Web.
“Edward II, Part II: The She-Wolf of France.” History House: An Irreverent History Magazine. Web.
Greenblatt, Stephen. Renaissance Self-Fashioning: From More to Shakespeare. University of Chicago Press, 1980. Print.
Greenblatt, Stephen, ed. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2006. Print.
“Isabella of France.” New World Encyclopedia. 24 Nov. 2008. Web.
Marlowe, Christopher. Christopher Marlowe: Complete Plays and Poems. Ed. E.D. Pendry and J.C. Maxwel. London, 1976. Print.
Taylor, John. A Briefe Remembrance of All the English Monarchs. London, 1618. Print.