The Fairy Tale of Edward II

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IT HAS BEEN a strange life after death, that of Edward of Caernarfon, born in Wales on April 25, 1284, St. Mark’s Day in the Catholic faith. This is the boy who grew up to be Edward II of England, who married in 1308, was deposed in 1327, and was murdered at age 43 at Berkeley Castle in the west of England, purportedly by means of a red-hot poker through the bowels. History records that Edward was the lover of a Gascon knight, Piers Gaveston, and also of an Anglo-Norman one, Hugh le Despenser Junior.

While the story of Edward was remembered throughout the 14th and 15th centuries, it was the Elizabethan playwright Christopher Marlowe (1564–1593) who consecrated Edward as a suffering homosexual on the London stage, circa 1592. The author of the most beautiful sustained homoerotic poem in the English language, “Hero and Leander,” Marlowe leaves no doubt as to the sexual nature of Edward’s relationship with Gaveston, nor about the homophobic motives of those who executed the King.

And yet, evidence has been accumulating since serious work on the British medieval archive began 150 years ago suggesting that Edward II was probably not sexually involved with the men traditionally named as his partners, and very possibly wasn’t homosexual at all. If anything, Edward may have been promiscuously heterosexual. It looks as if what we have here is a great European myth, 700 years old and still going strong, inspiring artists and writers for four centuries, but based on little sound historical evidence.

This is not to insist that Edward II was demonstrably heterosexual. After all, the most gifted gay historian of the Middle Ages to date, the late John Boswell of Yale University, accepted the accounts of Edward’s homosexuality in his 1980 magnum opus, Christianity, Social Tolerance and Homosexuality. And it’s certainly possible that at any moment some archive may yield a proof that Edward II was indeed gay. But given the current weight of evidence, I think such proof would have to come in the form of contemporary letters  of unimpeachable authenticity, written on behalf of someone profoundly in the know, perhaps a member of Gaveston’s own family. But until such evidence materializes, I propose that Edward’s homosexuality is one of English history’s big lies.

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