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Reign of Edward II. Part 1

Edward II. - Weakness of the King - His favourite Gaveston - The King's Marriage with Isabella of France - Gaveston's Death - Losses in Scotland - Battle of Bannockburn - Edward Bruce attempts to conquer Ireland - Incursions of the Scots under Robert Bruce.
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The transition from Edward I. to his son, Edward II., was an abrupt descent from power to weakness. It was one of those striking examples of the extraordinary succession of a feeble son to a great and able father which have puzzled the world to account for, from the days of Solomon and Rehoboam to our own. In all ranks and departments of life we are met, in every age, by this singular phenomenon of men distinguished by pre-eminent genius, and who have made, by the vigour of their intellectual action, a strong impression on their age, leaving behind them an enfeebled or commonplace offspring. In some cases philosophical inquirers have supposed this to have been the result of an ill-assorted or ill-cemented marriage, where the union has not been one of soul and affection, but a mere conventional association, yielding imperfect fruit. In others it would seem as if the parent had exhausted, by almost superhuman efforts of mind, the bulk of his mental energy, even consuming beforehand the portion due to his posterity. Whatever be the cause, the examples of such deficiency in the sons of such great men are prominent and numerous, and none are more melancholy than the one now before us.

The great monarch whose proud ambition it had been to embrace the whole island in his empire, to maintain his possessions in France, and to rule his kingdom by new and superior institutions, was gone, and there appeared on the throne a youth of three-and-twenty, handsome, generous, and agreeable, but destitute of any trait which implied the elements of future greatness. He was not even vigorous in the passions which carry youth out of the direct line. He had no decided tendency to any dangerous vice. He was gentle, and disposed to enjoy the social advantages of his high position. The people of all classes and orders hastened to swear fealty to him, arguing, from the prestige of his parentage, and the reputation of his amiability, a fortunate reign. But the very first movements of the young king were fatal to those anticipations, and both at home and abroad brought a cloud over the brilliant visions which had attended his ascension to the throne. He was essentially weak, and all weak things seek extraneous support. The vine and the ivy cling to the tree that is near them, and the effeminate monarch inevitably seeks the fatal support of favourites. This was the rock on which Edward's fortunes instantly struck, and the mischief of which no experience could induce him to repair.

This disastrous propensity to favouritism, which early manifested itself, had excited the alarm of the stern old king, and led him to take decided measures against the evils which it threatened to produce. There was a brave Gascon knight, who had served in the army of Edward I. with high honour, and whose son, Piers Gaveston, had consequently been admitted into the establishment of the young prince. This youth was remarkably handsome and accomplished. He was possessed of singular grace of carriage and elegance of demeanour. In all the exercises of the age, both martial and social, he excelled, and was full of the sprightly sallies of wit and mirth which are so natural to the Gascon. The young prince became thoroughly fascinated by him. He was naturally disposed to strong and confidential friendship, and gave himself up to the society of this gay young courtier with all the ardour of youth. His father, quickly perceiving this extravagant prepossession, and foreseeing all its fatal consequences, had banished the favourite from the kingdom. On his deathbed he again solemnly warned him against favourites, depicting to him the certain ruin that such foolish attachments would bring upon him in the midst of powerful and jealous nobles; and forbade him, on pain of his curse, ever to recall Gaveston to England.

But no sooner was the breath out of the old king's body, than the infatuated Edward forgot every solemn injunction laid upon him. The Scots were again strong in the field, and the late king had taken an oath from his son that he should never be buried till they were once more subjugated. But regardless of this, the young king, after making a feint of prosecuting the Scottish war, and marching as far as Cumnock, on the borders of Ayrshire, there halted, and retraced his steps to London without attempting anything whatever. Arriving in London, he at once buried the body of his father in Westminster Abbey, on the 27th of October.

The only thing for which he appeared impatient was the return of his favourite Gaveston, whom he had recalled the moment the sceptre fell into his hands; and the royal summons was as promptly obeyed as sent. Gaveston joined his royal patron before he returned from Scotland. The earldom of Cornwall had been conferred on him before his arrival; and the thoughtless upstart appeared in the midst of the court covered with his new honours, and disposed to show his resentment for past disdain to the most powerful men of the kingdom. "Under the ascendancy c: Gaveston, the king displaced all his father's old and experienced ministers. There was a revolution in the great offices of the court, as sudden as it was complete. The chancellor, the treasurer, the lords of the exchequer, the judges, and every other holder of an important post, were dismissed, and others more suited to the fancy or partiality of this favourite substituted. To his own share of honours and emoluments there appeared no limit. The earldom of Cornwall had been held by Edmond, son of Richard. King of the Romans, and was an appanage which had no: only been possessed by a prince of the blood, but was amply sufficient of itself for the maintenance of one. But this seemed little to the king for the man whom he delighted to honour. He was continually lavishing fresh honour and riches on Gaveston. He handed to him the treasure which his father had laid up for the prosecution of the crusades; he presented him with estate after estate, many of them conferring fresh titles of distinction; and it was said that you could scarcely travel into any part of the kingdom without beholding splendid houses and parks, formerly possessed by great families, now conferred on this young favourite. Nor did the royal bounty stop here. The king gave him extensive grants of land in Guienne; and, as if he would raise him to a par with royalty itself, he married him to his own niece, Margaret de Clare, sister to the Earl of Gloucester, and appointed him lord chamberlain. All this did not seem to satisfy the king's desire of heaping honours and wealth upon him; and he is reported to have said that, if it were possible, he would give him the kingdom itself.

It would have been strange if the favourite, under such a rain of favour and fortune, had displayed more wisdom than his royal friend. It would have required a mind of peculiar fortitude and moderation not to have been thrown off the balance by such a rush of greatness, and Gaveston was not of that character. He was gay, vain, and volatile, and rejoiced in the opportunity of humbling and insulting all who had real claims to superiority over himself. The great and proud nobles who had surrounded the throne of Edward I. in the midst of its victorious splendour, and who had contributed by their counsels and their swords to place it above all others in Europe, naturally beheld with ill-concealed resentment this unworthy concentration of the royal grace and munificence in one so far inferior to them in birth and merit; and Gaveston, instead of endeavouring to appease that resentment, did all in his power to exasperate it by every species of ostentation and parade of his advantages. Vanity, profusion, and rapacity of fresh acquisition all united in him. He kept up the style and establishment of a prince; he treated the gravest officers of state and the possessors of the noblest names with studied insolence. He imagined that in possessing the favour of the king nothing could again shake him, and therefore he was as little solicitous to conciliate friends as he was careless to make enemies. At every joust and tournament he gloried in foiling the greatest of the English nobility and princes, and did not spare them in their defeat, but ridiculed them to his companions with jest and sarcasm. This could not last long without combining the whole court and kingdom for his destruction, and perhaps for his master's.

The young king was bound, by the laws of feudalism, to pass over to France, and do homage to Philip for his province of Guienne, and, by those of chivalry, to fulfil, as early as possible, the contract of marriage with the Princess Isabella, to whom he had been long affianced. This was a contract into which his father had been led in the course of his ambitious projects, and for which he had broken off the previous contract with Guy, Count of Flanders, for his daughter Philippa. It was a marriage projected in cruel perfidy, the old count being left to the malice of his enemies, and to perish in prison in his eighty-first year, and the fair, forsaken Philippa, who was really attached to Edward, dying of a broken heart about two years before this ill-fated espousal. The results of this marriage were as disastrous as its arrangement was unprincipled. Isabella soon came to entertain a deep contempt for and deeper hatred of her husband, and remains branded to all time as the accomplice in, if not the instigator of, his murder; and from this alliance sprung those claims on the crown of France, which steeped the soil of that country with blood, and raised an enmity between the two nations prolific of ages of carnage, bitterness, and misery.

Isabella of France was reputed to be the most beautiful woman of her time, and she was as high-spirited and intriguing as she was handsome. The royal couple were married on the 28th of January, 1308, with great pomp and ceremony, in the church of Our Lady of Boulogne, five kings and three queens being present on the occasion. No great affection appears to have existed on either side. Isabella could not fail to be already well aware of her husband's character, and she is said to have trusted to her influence to overturn the king's favour for Gaveston, and to be able to rule him and the kingdom herself. Edward, though wedded to the loveliest woman of the age, and surrounded by every species of festivity and rejoicing, evinced, on his part, no other desire than to get back as speedily as possible to his beloved Gaveston, to whom, in his absence, he had left the management of the kingdom - a fresh indignity to his own royal kinsmen. The festal gaieties of the French court were suddenly broken off to gratify this impatient anxiety of the king to return, and the royal couple embarked for England, accompanied by a numerous retinue of French noblesse, who came to attend the coronation.

Gaveston, accompanied by a great array of the English aristocracy, hastened to meet the king and queen on landing ; and the scene which ensued was by no means calculated to create respect for the king, either in the mind of his young bride, or of her distinguished countrymen present. Forgetting the very presence of the queen, Edward rushed into the arms of his favourite and overwhelmed him with caresses and terms of endearment. The queen looked on with evident contempt; her kinsmen with open indignation.

The coronation took place at Westminster, on the 24th of February; and this great occasion - which, by judicious management, might have been made a means of uniting all parties, and raising the respect for the king - by his irremediable and utterly blind devotion to his favourite, became a fresh cause of scorn and exasperation. This fatal trait in the monarch appeared rather like the effect of what, in those ages, was called glamour, the spell of some powerful sorcerer, or of witchcraft, cast over an individual to destroy him, than merely weakness or folly. It seemed as if every opportunity was sought, rather than merely employed, to exalt the favourite, no matter at whatever cost, whatever risk, or whatever alienation of men's minds. Gaveston was put forward as the principal personage - the principal object of attention and worship, to the great insult of the barons and chief men of the realm, all now assembled. He only must carry the crown before the king and queen, though this was an office to which the great Earls of Lancaster or Hereford might have laid more fitting claim. The nobles were filled with indignation, which Gaveston, instead of endeavouring to disarm by more modest conduct, appeared to take a particular pleasure in aggravating to the extreme. He appeared in the greatest splendour of attire, and in his equipage and retinue outshining them all. In the tournaments which succeeded, he challenged, and by his indisputable vigour and address succeeded in unhorsing, the four most illustrious nobles of the land - men distinguished not only for their high rank, their great estates, and high connections, but as the successful leaders of the national armies - the Earls of Lancaster, Hereford, Pembroke, and Warenne. This brought matters to a crisis. The anger of the whole nobility now burst forth beyond all bounds. The barons, four days after the coronation, appeared before the king with a petition which had rather the tone of a remonstrance, and insisted that he should instantly banish Piers Gaveston. The king, hesitating, and yet alarmed, replied that he would give them an answer in Parliament.

When this Parliament met, it appeared fully armed, and with an air that menaced civil war, if its terms were not complied with. Lancaster, by far the most powerful subject in England, was the centre and head of this movement. He was first prince of the blood; possessed of immense estates, which were on the eve, by his marriage with the heiress of the Earl of Lincoln, of being increased to no less than six earldoms, including all those powers and jurisdictions which in that age were attached to land, and made the great noble a species of king on his own estates, and over a great number of influential vassals, many of them being what were called lesser barons and knights. Lancaster was turbulent, ambitious, and haughty. He had received the deadliest affronts from Gaveston which a man of his proud character could possibly receive from an upstart, and he therefore hated him with a deadly hatred. This feeling was actively encouraged by the queen, who, herself inclined to rule, and having hoped to indulge easily this passion for power through the weakness of the king, saw with keen resentment her plans disappointed by the all-en grossing influence of the favourite. The rest of the barons, gladly gathering round Lancaster, and taking courage from the favouring disposition of the queen, resolved to crush the reigning parasite. They bound themselves by an oath to expel him from the kingdom. "With his Parliament in this temper, and disturbances and robberies appearing in various parts of the kingdom - possibly fomented by the barons, or at least left unrestrained, as strengthening their cause - the king was compelled to submit to their demands; and the bishops bound Gaveston by a solemn oath never again to return to the kingdom under pain of excommunication.

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