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<   No. 3299   2013-09-29   >

Comic #3299

1 {illuminated manuscript image of Edward II and his son}
1 Caption: Succession

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Edward II
King Edward II of England. Public domain image from the British Library.
Normally I write these annotations on my train trips to and from work each day. However, this past week I have been laid up with a severe cold and a secondary bacterial infection. Which means two things: (1) I didn't have my regular enforced writing time, so today's effort is going to be short and sweet, and (2) once again I am reminded just how glad I am that we live in an age where antibiotics are available.

It wasn't always the case. Prior to the early 20th century - in fact, less than a hundred years ago - there were no known antibiotics. If you got an infection like then one I am currently recovering from, it could quite possibly lead to pneumonia and death. If you got a worse infection, your chances were even slimmer.

Which brings me around to history in general. This is on my mind since I am currently reading Peter Ackroyd's excellent History of England, Volume 1: Foundation. I was impressed by Ackroyd's expositionary style of historical writing when I read his Venice: Pure City as a prelude to my trip to that city in 2012. Having read about the history of Venice just before visiting, it broadened and deepened my experience there enormously. Anyway, so when I got home and saw a book on the history of England (which I have developed some interest in) by the same author, I snapped it up. It's taken me a while to work through my backlog of unread books to get there, but I'm now up to the reign of King Edward III.

I have previously had a vague awareness of some of the more important events of English history - William the Conqueror, Magna Carta, the Reformation, the Civil War and Restoration, etc. - but not a knowledge of how it all linked together into a continuous tapestry. Reading the details in Ackroyd's prose is gripping stuff. My eyes widened as I read about the end of Edward II's reign and how it came to pass that he was succeeded by his son Edward III...

Spoiler alert![1]

One might imagine that nothing is more natural and simple than a king passing away of old age and his eldest son, the heir apparent, attending dutifully by the deathbed and then inheriting the throne. Yet it was not like this at all in the case of Edward II and his son Prince Edward. (Some of you no doubt know the story better than I do from my reading of one history book in the last week, so excuse my lack of rigorous detail here.)

Edward III
King Edward III of England. Public domain image from the British Library, via Wikimedia Commons.
The gist of the story is that Edward II was having trouble managing discontent within his kingdom brought about by the dislike many of the local barons of the land had towards some high-ranking friends of the king. He was also in a long rolling dispute (inherited from his predecessors) with the French over who actually owned bits of land in the west of what is today France, including the province of Aquitaine. In 1325, not wanting to leave home to deal with France, he decided to appoint young Prince Edward (13 years old at the time) as Earl of Aquitaine and send him to the French court to pay homage to King Charles IV. To assist the young prince in this matter and negotiate a favourable outcome for England, Edward II also sent his wife, Queen Isabella. After all, he figured, Isabella was the sister of Charles, and so should probably have some sway over him.

The problem was that Isabella actually hated her husband and much preferred her own family. She negotiated a deal over Aquitaine that was incredibly favourable to France, began an affair with an exiled English traitor named Roger Mortimer, and started planning with her brother and Mortimer to invade England. Charles supplied troops and ships, and in 1326, Mortimer and Isabella invaded England and swept across the country. They captured London as King Edward fled, executed a bunch of Edward's friends in incredibly gruesome fashion, and eventually captured the king in Wales. Isabella had her husband imprisoned while she and Mortimer summoned a Parliament to decide what to do. Legally, Edward was still the king, and could not be executed without first being convicted of treason. Parliament, although they had turned against Edward's rule, decided this was too much. Instead they ruled him incompetent and gave him an ultimatum: either abdicate in favour of his son, Prince Edward, or fight the charge and have his crown stripped and awarded to someone with skill in governing (i.e. Roger Mortimer - the guy having an affair with his wife, the queen). Edward sensibly decided to cut his losses and abdicate.

Young Prince Edward, now 14 years old, assumed the throne as Edward III. But this is not the end of the story. As a minor, Edward needed a regent to act in his behalf and rule the country until he was old enough to take charge himself. Who else but Queen Isabella and, behind her skirts, Roger Mortimer? Together they effectively ruled England for four years as young Edward grew up. Early in this period, Edward II, held imprisoned in Berkeley Castle in Gloucestershire, "mysteriously" died - it was reported to Parliament as "a fatal accident". Even for the year 1327 this was suspicious. Most historians agree he was probably murdered on the orders of Isabella and/or Mortimer. There are incredibly lurid stories of exactly how this murder was achieved, which I shall not recount here for the sake of anyone eating food as they read this, or with delicate sensibilities - if you are morbidly curious and have a strong stomach, feel free to look it up.

Even this is not the end of the tale. Just before his 18th birthday in 1330, young Edward raised his own small force of loyal soldiers. With them he ambushed Roger Mortimer and Isabella, had Mortimer summarily executed, and put his mother under house arrest for the rest of her life. Now, finally, he could rule as King Edward III in his own right.

And you thought your family had problems?

Title image: Edward II bestowing the Earlship of Aquitaine on his son, Prince Edward. (There is some artistic licence here, since the prince was only 13 years old at the time and presumably did not have such a full beard.) Public domain image from the British Library, via Wikimedia Commons.

[1] In case, you know, you want to, like, read the history book yourself or something. Is it valid in any sense to call giving away the details of an event that actually happened, and that happened almost 700 years ago, a "spoiler"?

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