Death in the Middle Ages

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.

Edward II
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.



  1. Perhaps I should write posts about ill-remembered history more often!

    I think, but couldn’t swear, that the article about Edward II’s survival was in a journal from some years back and written by a woman… But I could be misremembering that completely. It included a highly tenuous but detailed hypothesis about how Edward escaped as his killers approached, and some poor substitute was killed instead… it may even have been based on the poker-up-bum version of events, now I come to think about it.

    I agree it’s strange how fascinating these things can be to some. In some cases (certainly EII and Clarence) it’s the gruesomeness of the death, and no doubt down to the same instinct as gives us Britain’s Freakiest Bodies documentaries and rubbernecking at motorway accidents. But antiquarian obsessions like the princes in the Tower are even stranger – the pro-Richard brigade have no perspective at all on Richard as king, and seem to be stretching all credibility to prove some very minor point for no obvious reason…

    I found the psychological angle quite interesting where Richard II was concerned: youngish boy coming to the throne at a very bad time, biologically – not surprising he developed a bit of a warped perspective on it all.

  2. I think the Edward II article must have been either Ian Mortimer (biographer of Roger Mortimer, and so far as we can tell, none of us are any relation to any of the others, although we haven’t asked Rog, obviously) or Paul Doherty, who wrote this and who is, I think, referenced in the Mortimer book.

    Mortimer’s biog of Mortimer, I seem to recall, was very good up to the point where he seemed to feel (or his publisher seemed to feel) that it lacked “edge”, hence a large chapter near the end about the Edward in Italy story. A lot of the evidence for his survival (not that I can remember a whit of it either; fat lot of credit we are to our ejurkation) seemed pretty circumstantial to me at the time, dependent on precise wording of household accounts and proveable patterns of movement of individuals, both of which are pretty flimsy as evidence for anything at this distance in time. Some itineraries that survive for actual kings are downright wrong. So it seems to me to be quite a leap of faith to think you can establish the exact locations of individual gentry and nobles in one corner of Gloucestershire over ten days in 1327.

    But I think what most strikes me about these sorts of supposedly fascinating mysterties is “why the hell does it matter?” Same goes for the Princes in the Tower. In both cases, the endeavour is antiquarian rather than historian-like – obsessively establishing a set of “facts” whose implications, even if the facts are proveable, are pretty tenuous.

    Granted there would be some knock-on effects for Edward III’s psychological state in the early years of his reign if he knew his father was still alive (which according to Doherty he did), but there’s not a lot of point in having a lone scrap of evidence for someone’s psychological state unless you’ve already got a picture to fit it into, or hope to develop one. I do think psycho-history – or neuro-history, perhaps is a better term! – has some possibilities, though. I’m not a total cynic. But you won’t illuminate anyone’s state of mind by just concentrating on the extraordinary crisis points.

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