A King and His Husband: Edward II and the Earl of Cornwall (Reprint)

Volume 21

Updated 12 March 2022

By Robert Curtis 

Picture the scene: the year is 1308, and Edward II wears the crown of England. Except today, he has left the crown at home - it’s a tiresome old thing, after all, and he’s worn it for several months without much chance for a break. Here he comes now, strolling through his palace gardens, his burnished hair a graceful river that tumbles down to his shoulders and frames a face made for laughter.

His cheeks are round, his eyes are a gentle blue, and his beard is thick and tousled. He’s left his royal cloaks behind too, preferring a tasteful blue tunic trimmed with gold and a pair of silky black tights. He is not alone, either, as kings rarely are. Edward has his entourage with him, of course, but it’s the man by his side that draws the most looks; Piers Gaveston, the Earl of Cornwall. Piers is of a height with Edward, but he is bulkier thanks to his years spent fighting abroad and at home, in war and tournaments alike. His hair is straighter than the king’s, and his features are sharper and more angular, but most striking are his quick, grey eyes. His own tunic is a bright purple, the colour of royalty, and he carries it with confidence as the other lords of the realm look on in distaste.

As you watch, Piers lays a hand on Edward’s arm and the king throws back his head in mirth; the earl has made a joke, no doubt something at the expense of one of the courtiers whose birth towers over his own. The queen, sitting a short distance away with her ladies, looks up at the sound, and her ears prickle. Behind her, the Earl of Lancaster lays a large hand on an even larger sword, apparently without realising what he’s doing. Moments later he remembers himself, letting his hand fall limp to his side and showing his displeasure with a dark frown instead.

The king and his companion come to a halt at one of the flowerbeds, and they watch a dozen bees at their work amidst the bright petals, which beam with all the colours of the rainbow. Piers makes to pluck one of the flowers but withdraws as one of the bees zooms over to his fingers. Edward laughs again. Now the queen’s lips are drawn in a hard line, and she motions to a steward to accost the king with matters of state - anything to prise him away from Piers. The king waves his servant away again, and he and his companion vanish from view behind a sprawling shrubbery. 

It makes for a beautiful scene, and one that has captured the imagination of painters, poets, and writers for centuries. But for just as long, Edward and Piers have made historians squirm. First came the chroniclers, who hurried over accounts of their relationship and made only passing references to the deep love between the two men. Then came the historians who tied themselves in knots working to present that love as a brotherly bond, similar to that forged between men at war.

Speculation about the sexuality of historical figures is always a thorny and perhaps futile business, and indeed precisely what sexuality meant to people in the fourteenth century is very much up for debate. However, popular representations from the sixteenth century onwards, and plenty of recent scholarship, have drawn the rather likely conclusion that there was something special between Edward and Piers, and that they were not “just platonic”. Theirs is a captivating story and, with the help of playwright Christopher Marlowe, its popularity exceeded the tales of Henry V and Richard III in the early modern period.

At that time, Edward could very well lay claim to being the most famous gay man in English history, though one might say that Oscar Wilde had since usurped that title for himself. He has drawn much criticism for his abilities as a king, and the fact that he seems to have paid rather little attention to the matter of actually ruling, but it is worth investigating Edward’s human side as well, as there we find a man who remained true to himself despite the intense prejudices of the period in which he lived. 

History has dealt Edward a bad hand; he is remembered primarily for his political weaknesses, and especially for the special treatment he gave his favourites. Piers’ personality also grated with the rest of the English nobility, as he (and Edward) enjoyed making fun of them, so his appointment as Earl of Cornwall drove a wedge between king and court. The end result of this was Piers’ execution in 1312, presided over by the same Earl of Lancaster who we met in the garden, while Edward’s later relationship with Hugh Despenser would ultimately lead to his abdication in 1327.

It would be unfair to focus on the political turmoil of Edward’s reign, however, as the king’s story can be seen in a different light. If we accept that Edward and Piers were more than brothers-in-arms - noting the king’s well-documented disinterest in arms - then their tale becomes one of remarkable fortitude, the pair of them standing proud against the ire of the English nobility, the Catholic Church, and indeed King Edward I. Edward I banished Piers to France, and his place in the princely household was a point of contention between father and son for some time after the prince fell out with the king in 1305.

The chroniclers are vague as to the reason why Edward I went to such lengths to keep the two apart, but one very obvious conclusion presents itself. While it was politically foolish for Edward II to favour Piers Gaveston so obviously, pursuing their relationship was also a rather brave thing to do in a world where even the hint of same-sex relations would bring widespread condemnation politically, spiritually, and personally.

We cannot know if modern ideas of sexuality apply to Edward, or to Piers, but to some extent this does not matter