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1312: Piers Gaveston

On this date in 1312, Edward II’s dearest friend Piers Gaveston was “executed” by the English nobility that had long despised him.

The “notorious royal favourite” had initially been welcomed by Edward I around 1300 as a royal companion for the crown prince.

By the end of Longshanks’ life, the old king was so irate at their relationship (the prince had had the temerity to request a title and castles for Gaveston) that Gaveston was booted out of the country.

(But at least he wasn’t defenestrated, the fate of the fictional Gaveston stand-in “Phillip” in Braveheart.)

Ah, the gay-baiting.

The younger Edward immediately recalled his friend when death came for Longshanks, and Gaveston was resented both by English peers and the young Queen Isabella for the favor the new king held him in.

The purported homosexual relationship between Edward II and Piers Gaveston is commonly believed* though ultimately speculative, reading between the lines of chroniclers who are sometimes bitterly hostile towards these two. “The King loved an evil male sorcerer more than he did his wife,” for instance, is a bit of propaganda — we obviously don’t believe the “sorcery” bit — and even that’s not completely explicit.

There’s a strong circumstantial interpretation to made, but since the particulars of Edward’s behavior with his favorite behind drawn tapestries are permanently unavailable to us, it will suffice us to say that this interpretation has conditioned the “Piers Gaveston” who comes to us in later centuries as a widely-credited cultural artifact.

Whether as calumny or commendation, homosexuality is the first thing everyone “knows” about Piers Gaveston, the emblem of his life and the doomed reign of his sovereign. We meet him from the other side of Stonewall, even when we meet him in Renaissance poetry or Renaissance drama.

The historical, flesh-and-blood Piers — and there’s a very thorough biography of him here** — was certainly defined by more than gay identity, real or imputed.

The personal resentment he inspired in the likes of Lancaster and Beauchamp was political, mapped onto the timeless power struggle between nobles and crown, and within the nobility itself.

The king trusted Gaveston, who was himself just the son of a knight, with plum royal assignments like governing Ireland, and Gaveston executed them effectively; with an immoderate confidence in his own considerable talents, the favorite was not above tweaking his rivals with derisive nicknames.

The Lancaster faction progressively got the upper hand on Edward and Gaveston, and with civil war brewing, they captured the hated Gascon at Scarborough Castle while Edward scrambled unavailingly to raise an army of his own.

He was held privately for nine days before Lancaster — “a sulky, quarrelsome, and vindictive man … quick to resort to violence,” by Alison Weir’s reckoning — decided he had to go. Gaveston was beheaded without color of law at Blacklow Hill near Warwick. A monument to his memory still stands there today.

Thou executioner of foule bloodie rage,
To act the will of lame decrepit age.

The grief-stricken monarch would serve his revenge upon the Earl of Lancaster ten years’ cold, beheading him for treason in 1322 upon the verdict of the man who had by then slid into Gaveston’s place in the king’s favor, Hugh Despenser.

* Not universally accepted, however.

** Bonus: Nineteen things you never knew about Piers Gaveston.

1326: Hugh Despenser the Younger, King Edward II’s lover?

On this date in 1326, the power behind Edward II’s throne — and the presumed lover in his bed — was hanged, drawn and quartered and pointedly emasculated in a grisly public execution as the Queen and her lover took control of England.

(Wince.)

The younger Despenser, being carved up in an illustration from Froissart.

Poor King Edward — that’s the swishy princeling gay-baited in Braveheart — would suffer a horrid demise of his own a few weeks later. He’s the one most conveniently read as a gay martyr.

Hugh Despenser the Younger (or Hugh le Despenser) has his fans, but he’s much more likely to be taken for a villain.

An upstart knight who unexpectedly lucked into a jackpot inheritance when his wife’s brother died at Bannockburn — that’s the rumble Robert the Bruce starts at the end of Braveheart — Hugh the younger parlayed his newfound position of feudal magnate into the still better gig of royal favorite.

That job was open because its occupants had a distressing tendency to get dead, a fate obviously ordained for Hugh Despenser as well.

But whereas Edward’s childhood pal Piers Gaveston, the murdered former fave, aroused mostly personal pique among rival nobles, Hugh Despenser meant to use his favor to rule.

Despenser exploited his position to build up his wealth and control the king; with his father (you’ll never guess that he went by “the elder”), he became the de facto if never the de jure ruler of the realm.

At one point, his rivals in the nobility turned the tables and got him exiled. Hugh became a pirate in the English Channel while he maneuvered his way back onto dry land in his customary most-favored-consigliere position.

So although the British barons who wanted Despenser’s head were undoubtedly a distasteful lot themselves, and certainly capable of all manner of depravity in pursuit of their own crass self-interest, it doesn’t take a backwards view of human sexuality to get why Hugh Despenser would raise an early 14th century Briton’s hackles.

But you have to give England this: its politics back then were a damn sight more interesting than you get today. Anyone who uses the term “bloodsport” for the modern electoral charade ought to cross cutlasses with the likes of the dread pirate Despenser.

And it gets better. Meaning, for Hugh Despenser the Younger, worse. Much.

Queen Isabella — that’s Sophie Marceau’s hot-for-barbarian imported princess in Braveheart — became estranged from her Hugh-lovin’ husband,* and established herself back in France with her lover Roger Mortimer.

Then, the lovebirds invaded England.

Edward and Hugh were so unpopular at this point that “their” nobles who should have repelled the incursion went in a landslide for the invading adulterers.

Hugh Despenser’s father had already been hanged for his trouble by the time The Younger was taken; the latter tried to cheat the executioner by refusing all food and drink for days, truly a spartan image of desperate self-mortification in a rough day and age.

When you get a load of the death his royal captors had worked out for him — and which they were obliged to deliver to their starving captive hurriedly in Hereford rather than more ceremoniously back in London — you can understand why. After a perfunctory trial that same morning, they tore the former favorite apart.

Froissart’s rendering:

When the feast was over sir Hugh, who was not beloved in those parts, was brought before the queen and knights assembled; the charges were read to him – to which he made no reply; the barons and knights then passed the following sentence on him: first, that he should be drawn on a hurdle, attended by trumpets and clarions, through all the streets in the city of Hereford, and then conducted to the market-place, where all the people were assembled; at that place he was to be bound on a high scaffold, in order that he might be more easily seen by the people. First, his privates were cut off, because he was deemed a heretic, and guilty of unnatural practices, even with the king, whose affections he had alienated from the queen by his wicked suggestions. His private parts were cast into a large fire kindled close to him; Afterwards, his heart was thrown into the same fire, because it had been false and traitorous, since he had by his treasonable counsels so advised the king, as to bring shame and mischief on the land, and had caused some of the greatest lords to be beheaded, by whom the kingdom ought to have been supported and defended; and had so seduced the king, that he could not or would not see the queen, or his eldest son, who was to be their future sovereign, both of whom had, to preserve their lives, been forced to quit the kingdom. The other parts of sir Hugh thus disposed of, his head was cut off and sent to London.**

It’s reported that Isabella and Mortimer feasted and made merry as they beheld this hideous spectacle. Now that’s bloodsport politics.

Hugh the younger Despenser and his life and times are covered in amazing detail by a couple of active-posting enthusiasts of this particular period who have already been linked elsewhere in this post: the aptly-named Edward II blog (dig his biography of Hugh Despenser, among many other such dramatis personae; also his account of the execution, already cited); and, Lady Despenser’s Scribery (whose entire sidebar is pretty much all about our day’s principal; for the quick tour, see her biography and posts on the “trial” and execution).

* The reason for said estrangement can be situated anywhere one likes along the personal-political spectrum; one recent historical novel speculates (upon no authority but dramatic license) that Hugh raped the queen.

** Remains reportedly discovered last year were speculatively identified as Hugh Despenser’s; the litany of injuries to the body testify to the ghastly death-ritual its owner underwent.