David Mitchell’s highly enjoyable Soapbox videocastpodblogthing takes a historical turn this week, and although he goes out of his way to point out that Vikings did not in fact have horns on their helmets, he does not attach a similar caveat to his recounting of Edward II’s death. So, from memory, here is a quick and garbled account of the two most famous medieval English deaths, and the gen on whether or not they actually happened like that.
The story goes that in 1327 Edward, having been deposed by his French wife, her exiled English lover and an invading army, and imprisoned in Berkeley castle, was murdered by having a red-hot poker shoved up his arse. Murdered in Berkely castle he certainly was: the usurpers could not afford to have a legitimate crowned king of England just sitting around, as someone would most likely try to stick him back on the throne. But the poker business is a fiction: it first turned up in documents about a hundred years after Edward’s death, and is a non-too-subtle comment on his sexual preferences.
Strangely, there is also a story that Edward actually escaped and lived out the rest of his life as a monk in Italy. I remember reading a fairly interesting journal article about it in the stacks of the University Library in Cambridge – it was notable principally for citing no sources whatsoever.
Edward IV had his younger, conniving and probably somewhat unstable brother George, the Duke of Clarence, executed in 1478 after his involvement in a series of plots. The story goes that, as a last brotherly favour (of sorts), Edward allowed Clarence to choose the manner of his own death. He elected to be drowned in a butt of Malmsey wine. In contrast to the Edward II story, this one was contemporary: we know that it was circulating in London around the time of the execution. So it could have happened. However, there is no stronger evidence for it than the London rumour mill: a surviving record of someone being paid to dispose a spoiled vat of wine at around the same time would more or less seal it, but none exists. Clarence’s remains – or, at least, a skeleton believed to be his by virtue of being stored in his tomb – were corroded somewhat by the sarcophagus being flooded at some point, so it is not possible to tell by inspection whether they suffered any trauma from more a conventional execution method, such as a snapped neck or stab wound. The possibility of this exotic death having happened therefore remains open – though it is still something of a tall tale.
Disclaimer: this is all drawn from my recollections of a few articles I read about seven years ago, so it could be nonsense. But – forgive me, I can’t resist – I got a first and David Mitchell got a 2:2, so take yer pick.