J.S. Hamilton weighs the evidence and concludes that Edward II and his notorious favourite were more than just good friends.
There have been very few liaisons in English history that have gained greater notoriety than that which existed between King Edward II (r. 1307-27) and his Gascon favourite Piers Gaveston. Until very recently it has been a commonplace assumption that the two men were homosexual lovers, and that Edward's passion for Gaveston drove a wedge, ultimately fatal for both men, between the King and his young queen, Isabella of France. Recently, however, Pierre Chaplais has suggested, in Piers Gaveston: Edward II's Adoptive Brother (1994) another interpretation of the relationship, arguing that the two men entered into a brotherhood-in-arms at some point in the early 1300s, and that this compact is sufficient explanation for the intensity of their relationship, even to the extent that the King ignored and indeed humiliated his indignant spouse. Chaplais defines such a brotherhood as `some sort of very close relationship established formally between two persons of military status'. So, were Piers and Edward just good friends, or brothers, or lovers? And what about poor, neglected Isabella? Was she really the `She-Wolf of France,' or, was she, as contemporary French chronicles styled her, `Isabella the Fair', an unfortunate victim more sinned against than sinning?
It is best to dismiss all of our stereotyped images at the outset, whether they are derived from Marlowe's Edward H or Derek Jarman's 1991 film of the play, from Maurice Druon's historical novel The She-Wolf of France, (1960), or, perhaps least historically of all, from Mel Gibson's Hollywood movie Braveheart. What do we, and what can we, actually know about the lives, and sexualities, of the protagonists, especially in relation to each other?
Edward II was born at Carnarvon on April 25th, 1284, the fourth son of Edward I and Eleanor of Castile, yet by the summer of his first year he was the heir to his father's throne. Little is known about his education, but by 1300 he was said to be a skilled horseman, although his later lack of martial skill and/or interest has been often remarked and makes one wonder why he should wish to enter into a brotherhood-in-arms with Gaveston or anyone else. He possessed a small but varied collection of books, and was probably more comfortable in French than Latin, though his frequent characterization as rex illiteratus seems to have no basis in evidence. In any case, he was being groomed to rule, and in the last ten years of his father's life, Edward was given increasing public exposure and responsibility. Interestingly, it is also during these years that he was betrothed to his future queen as well as introduced to his great friend and, I would argue, lover, Piers Gaveston.
Let us now turn to Piers Gaveston, whose introduction into the household of the adolescent prince was to have such an unforeseen impact. First of all, there can be little doubt about the fact that Gaveston was introduced into the household of Prince Edward by Edward I himself. The young Gascon, probably a few years older than the Prince, had already seen military service in Flanders in the company of his father Arnaud de Gabaston, a minor Gascon noble. Piers was consistently described in contemporary chronicles as handsome, athletic, and well mannered: in short, he was a suitable role model after whom Prince Edward might have been expected to pattern himself. From 1300 until his execution in 1312, his fortunes were inseparably linked to Edward's, and in general his wealth and status rose steadily, if not at first remarkably. Gaveston appears in the records drawing wages and performing a variety of services in the Prince's household, and his rising status may be indicated by his designation as socius (companion) rather than scutifer (esquire) by 1303. According to the Chronicle of the Civil Wars of Edward II, upon looking on Piers, the King's son immediately felt such love for him that he `tied himself to him against all mortals with an indissoluble bond of love'. …