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Reign of Edward II. Part 2

Edward II. continued - Edward's new Favourite, Despenser - War in consequence with the Barons - Lancaster beheaded - Queen Isabella and Mortimer - The Queen commences War against her Husband - The Fall of the Spensers - The King dethroned - His dreadful Death - Destruction of the Templars.
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Such had been the fortune in war of the son of one of the greatest commanders that the English ever saw en the throne; such was the condition to which the weakness and cowardice of Edward II. had reduced the kingdom. The Scots insulted and harassed him on one side, the Welsh on the other; and the haughty barons, taking advantage of his fallen fortunes, sought to raise their own power on the ruins of the throne. They came forward again boldly with their ordinances, and Edward was compelled to submit to them. Lancaster was set at the heal of the council, and introduced a totally new set of office: of the crown. The government offices, they declared, should be filled from time to time by the votes of Parliament - that is, of the barons. So far from these new rulers endeavouring to expel or humble the Scots, it was believed that Lancaster was in secret alliance with them: and this afterwards was proved to be true. Acting this traitorous part, Lancaster pretended to keep up a hostile show against the Scots, but he took care that all attempts against them should fail.

Edward was clearly totally unfit to govern a kingdom. He had neither abilities to conduct the affairs of peace or war; and he was of that unhappy character of mind which never derives any benefit from experience. The misery which he had brought upon himself by his foolish foulness for Gaveston, and the destruction brought upon the favourite himself, had not the least effect in preventing him falling into the same error. Soon after the death of Gaveston he conceived the same singular and indomitable attachment to Hugh le Despenser, or Spenser, a young man of ancient descent, and in the service of the Earl of Lancaster, who, in his changes of office, had placed him about the court. This second fatal attachment involved the remainder of the reign of Edward in perpetual strife and trouble, and precipitated his terrible end.

This young Despenser, the new favourite, had all tie graces of person and the accomplishments which had bewitched the king in Gaveston, but he had advantages which never belonged to the Gascon - those of birth, rank, and connection. His father was a noble of ability and experience, highly esteemed for his wisdom, bravery, and integrity through his past life. But these things availed nothing with the indignant barons, who suddenly saw the young man and his father advanced over their heads. They withdrew sullenly from court and Parliament, and sought an opportunity to make their resentment felt by both the king and his minions. This opportunity, with a monarch like Edward, could not be long wanting. He began the same reckless course of heaping honours and estates on the younger Spenser. As he had married Gaveston to his own niece, sister to the Earl of Gloucester, he now repeated the very act as nearly as circumstances would permit him, and married Spenser to the sister and one of the co-heirs of the late Earl of Gloucester, who was killed at Bannockburn. He thus put him, in his wife's right, in possession of vast estates, including the county of Glamorgan and part of the Welsh marches. The father also obtained great possessions, for, in spite of his reputation for wisdom, his sudden advancement to such large opportunity appeared to have awakened in him a boundless rapacity. The king immediately followed up these gifts by seizing, at the instigation of young Spenser, on the barony of Gower, left to John de Mowbray, on the plea that it had reverted to the crown through Mowbray's neglect of feudal usage on entering into possession. This was exactly the sort of occasion for which the barons were on the watch: the whole marches were on name; civil war was on foot. The Earls of Lancaster and Hereford flew to arms. Audley, the two Rogers de Mortimer, Roger de Clifford, and many others, disgusted, for private reasons, with the Spensers, joined them. The lords of the marches sent a message to the king, demanding the instant banishment or imprisonment of the young favourite, threatening to renounce their allegiance, and to punish the minister themselves. Scarcely waiting for an answer, they fell on the lands of both the Spensers, pillaged and wasted their estates, murdered their servants, drove away their cattle, and burned down their castles. Lancaster having joined them, with thirty-four barons and a host of vassals, this formidable force marched to St. Albans. Having bound themselves not to lay down their arms till they had driven the two Spensers from the kingdom, they sent a united demand to the king for this object. Edward assumed constitutional grounds for his objection to this demand. The two Spensers were absent - the father abroad, the son at sea; and the king declared that he was restrained by his coronation oath from violating the laws and condemning persons unheard. Timid at the head of an army, Edward was always bold in defence of his favourites. These pretences weighed little with men with arms in their hands. They marched on London, occupied the suburbs of Holborn and Clerkenwell; and a Parliament having assembled at "Westminster, these armed remonstrants delivered in a charge against the two Spensers of usurping the royal powers, of alienating the mind of the king from his nobles, of exacting fines, and appointing ignorant judges. By menaces and violence they carried their point, obtaining a sentence of attainder and perpetual banishment against the two obnoxious courtiers. This sentence was pronounced by the barons alone, for the commons were not even consulted, and the bishops protested against so illegal a proceeding. The only evidence which these turbulent barons gave of their remembrance of the laws, was in requiring from the king a deed of indemnity for their conduct; and having got this, they disbanded their army, and retired, highly delighted with their success, and in perfect security, as they imagined, to their castles.

But they had in reality been too successful. The force put upon the authority of the king was so outrageous, and it reduced all respect for it to so low an ebb, that the barons and knights in their own neighbourhoods became totally regardless of public decorum towards the royal family. Even the queen, who had always endeavoured to live on good terms with the barons, and who detested the young Spenser as cordially as they did, could not escape insult. Passing the castle of Leeds in Kent, in reality a crown property, but in the keeping of the Lord of Badlesmere, she desired to spend the night there, but admittance was refused her; and some of her attendants, insisting on their royal mistress being admitted to what might be called her own house, were forcibly repulsed and killed. The queen instantly complained, with all her quick sense of indignity, to the king; and Edward thought that now he had a splendid opportunity of vengeance on his haughty barons. He for once assumed courage, and displayed a spirit which, if it had been permanent and uniform, would have made him and kept him master of his throne and prerogatives. He assembled an army, fell on Badlesmere, took him prisoner, and inflicted severe chastisement on his followers. The insult to the queen had excited the indignation of the-people against the barons, and completely justified the proceedings of the king. Thus suddenly finding himself on the high tide of public approbation, he at once declared the acts of the barons void, and contrary to the tenor of the Great Charter. He showed surprising activity in collecting forces and calling out friends in different parts of the kingdom. He recalled the two Spensers. They had only been banished in the month of August; in October they were again on English ground. The king marched down upon the quarters of the lords of the marches, who were thus suddenly taken unawares, while isolated in fancied security, and incapable of resistance. He seized and hanged twelve knights of that party. Many of the barons endeavoured to appease him by submission, but their castles were taken possession of, and their persons imprisoned.

Lancaster, alarmed for his safety, hastened northward, and now openly avowed his league with Scotland so long suspected, and called on the Scots for help. This was promised him under the command of the two great champions of Scotland - Randolph, now Earl of Moray, and the Douglas. But these not arriving, Lancaster set out on his march, and was joined by the Earl of Hereford and all his forces. Their army, however, did not equal that of the king, which numbered 30,000 men.

Lancaster and Hereford posted themselves at Burton-upon-Trent, hoping to keep back the royal forces by obstructing the passage over the bridge; but in this they failed, and hastily retreated northwards, hoping daily for the arrival of the promised aid from Scotland. At Boroughbridge, on the 16th of March, 1322, they were intercepted by a force under Sir Simon Ward and Sir Andrew Harclay, who occupied the bridge and the opposite banks of the river. In fear of the pursuit of the king's army, the two barons endeavoured to force the: ridge, but were stoutly repulsed; Hereford was killed, and Lancaster, who in his terror had lost all power of commanding his troops, was seized and conducted to the king.

No greater contrast could be exhibited by two commanders than was shown on this occasion by Hereford and Lancaster. Hereford, determined to force the bridge, charged on foot; but a Welshman, who had discovered that the bridge was in a very decayed state, and full of holes, had concealed himself under it, and through one of these holes he thrust a spear into the bowels of the brave earl, who fell dead on the spot. Lancaster attempted to find a ford over the river, but the archers of the enemy poured in showers of arrows upon him. Night put a stop to the battle, and in the morning he was taken. Lancaster had in his day a great reputation for piety. "He was," says Froissart, "a wise man and a holy; and he did afterwards many fine miracles on the spot where he was beheaded." Hume has painted this nobleman as violent, turbulent, and hypocritical; and attributes his reputation for piety to the monks, whom he favoured, and who were his historians. But there is nothing in his public conduct which may not assume the character of patriotism, for he fell, as he had lived, in endeavouring to resist the mischievous practices of the king in regard to his favourites. He was a prince of the blood, and, by his position and the rights of the Charter, bound to support the constitution which the king was continually violating in his unbounded partiality to his minions. In conformity with his character, Lancaster, on being surrounded, retired into a chapel, and looking on the holy cross, said, "Good Lord, I surrender myself to thee, and put me into thy mercy." He had no mercy to expect from Edward, who remembered too well the indignities which his beloved Gaveston had received at the hands of the earl and his associates at his execution, and who now resolved to have ample revenge.

About a month after the battle, he convoked a court martial at the earl's own castle of Pontefract, where he himself presided, and where as a traitor, having made league with Scotland against his rightful sovereign, Lancaster was condemned to be hanged, drawn, and quartered, He was clothed in mean attire, set upon a sorry jade of a horse, with a hood upon his head, and in this manner he was led to execution on a hill near the castle, the king's officers heaping all kinds of insults upon him, and the populace, whom, he had greatly incensed by his calling in the Scots, pelting him with mud, and attending him with outcries and curses. In his life and death Lancaster bore a striking resemblance to the Earl of Leicester, the leader of the barons in the reign of Henry III.

Besides the two leaders of this revolt, five knights and three esquires were killed in the battle, and fourteen bannerets and fourteen knights bachelors were hanged, drawn, and quartered. Amongst those who were executed - ere Badlesmere - who had insulted the queen - Gifford, Barnet, Cheney, and Fleming. Many were thrown into prison, and others escaped beyond the sea. "Never," says an old writer, "did English earth at one time drink so much blood of her nobles, in so vile a manner shed as this." But not only was this vengeance taken on the persons of the insurgents, their vast estates were forfeited to the crown, and the people soon beheld, with inexpressible indignation, the greater portion of these immense demesnes seized upon by the younger Spenser, whose rapacity was insatiable. In a Parliament held at York, the attainder of the Despensers was reversed, the father was created Earl of Winchester, and both he and his son enriched by the lands of the fallen nobles. Edward was as totally uncured of his folly as ever. Harclay, for his services, received the earldom of Carlisle and a large estate, which he soon again forfeited, as well as his life, for a treasonable correspondence with the Scots. But the rest of the barons of the royal party receiving little, were the more incensed at the immense spoils heaped on the Spensers. The king's enemies, on the other hand, vowed vengeance on both monarch and favourite, and the people regarded him with more determined envy and hatred than ever.

Thus Edward, falling the moment that he was successful into his hopeless failing of favouritism, not only lost every advantage he had so completely gained, but hastened by it the day of retribution. The nobles who had escaped to France, there set on foot a dangerous conspiracy. Amongst these was the younger Roger Mortimer, one of the most powerful barons of the Welsh marches, who had been twice condemned for high treason, but receiving a pardon for his life, was detained in the Tower, where his captivity was intended to be perpetual. Making his guards drunk with a drugged liquor, he escaped, and now joined these conspirators, all smarting from their sufferings on account of the favourite, and many of them from his usurpation of their castles and lands.

Everything favoured these conspirators. At home, the young Spenser, as little instructed by past dangers as his master, seemed to grow every day more arrogant; and an expedition against the Scots, like all the expeditions of this king against that people, proving a failure - followed by the usual inroads of the Scots, in one of which they nearly took the king prisoner, and in which they wasted the country to the very walls of York - created deep discontent and national irritation. Sensible of the lowering aspect of things in France, Edward, at length, after a war of three-and-twenty years, fruitful in disaster and ruin, now concluded a truce with Scotland for thirteen years. In this truce he did not recognise the title of Robert Bruce to the crown; but Bruce, who had made good his claim to it, who had repelled all the attacks of England on his country, given it a great overthrow at Bannockburn, and on various occasions carried the war into England, satisfied himself with these substantial advantages.

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