As some of you probably know, I got my start as a historical novelist writing about Edward II, so I’m pleased to be hosting a guest post from Martin White, who’s also written about this flawed but intriguing king. Over to Martin:
I must have been about 9 years old when I was first taken to Berkeley Castle in Gloucestershire. (We lived only a few miles away in Stroud.) Inevitably, I was impressed by the small cell where Edward II was said to have been imprisoned and then murdered with a red hot poker, his screams being heard well beyond the walls. I have a half memory too – something to do with a well, which, in my mind’s eye, I can still see: strange, because the story that Edward was kept for a time near a shaft where noisome animal carcases were thrown to procure his discomfort, if not death by disease, seems to have been a later invention and no more than a myth!
When we moved house to the city of Gloucester a year or so later, I was of course taken to see its Cathedral, and therein Edward’s tomb – the only monarch to be buried there after the Norman Conquest, and therefore our county’s special king, someone whose alabaster image and tomb of Purbeck marble and limestone had to be pointed out with pride to visiting relatives.
Later in my teens, of course, I became aware of Edward’s reputation for homosexuality, and partly perhaps in response to Marlowe’s unflattering depiction of a medieval sodomite, partly due to the strongly homophobic attitudes of adolescents in the ‘60s (if not later), he lost something of his lustre in my personal pantheon of mighty men of the emerging English nation!
I studied History as my degree subject at Cambridge, but I avoided Medieval Britain for my entire three years of study; and even though Cambridge also revealed to me that, fight it as I might, I was myself almost certainly gay, Edward himself remained at the back of my mind as little more than of local interest, and definitely not as a precursor, let alone hero or brother-in-arms!
Whilst Gay Liberation and Queer Studies made advances during the following decades, these somehow did not impinge on my life in any major way, for I had abandoned the Liberal Arts and had become a lawyer, inhabiting a professional world where to be gay was at best to be tolerated, and was not something likely to enhance one’s curriculum vitae. I read no history books for 30 years, and it was only when retirement beckoned, and I began to wonder how I might continue to pursue my by now thoroughly ingrained work ethic, whilst concentrating on something more enjoyable than property law and development, that my reviving interest in the past, plus a desire to try my hand at novel writing, led me first to write a novel about Schubert (also now thought by some to have been gay), and then one about Edward.
I recall the very moment when the Edward project first took shape in my mind – as I was driving along the motorway on my way to see my mother, who still lived in Gloucestershire, but was by this time in a care home suffering from dementia. What better topic could there be for me than a gay historical figure whose downfall was played out in my own part of the world – at Berkeley and Gloucester Cathedral, but also nearby at Kenilworth (where Edward was also imprisoned), at Hereford (where his favourite, Despenser, was hung drawn and quartered), and on the Gower over the border in Wales (where Edward was first captured by his enemies).
That I should home in upon Edward as the subject for a novel in 2010 was indeed fortuitous, for once I began to read around the topic I discovered that something of a revolution was in process with regard to theories concerning Edward’s downfall. Whilst some argued strongly against the idea, others, and in particular Dr Ian Mortimer of Exeter University, were presenting an entirely different narrative to that involving the famous red hot poker, and were finding more and more evidence to support the thesis that Edward in fact escaped from Berkeley Castle, that his state funeral at Gloucester Cathedral in December 1327 was a complete fraud, that he spent time at Corfe Castle and then in Ireland, and then made his way across Europe finally to settle in Northern Italy at the Abbey of Sant’ Alberto di Butrio, where he died probably at some time in the 1340s (something which Italian historians had been claiming for many decades!)
If the originality and attraction of this new perspective was not enough to strengthen me in my desire to dramatise Edward and his fate, the fact that it led me to Italy, by then my favourite country – crazy, corrupt, and chaotic as it is! – provided all the additional incentive that I needed.
A year of reading the latest research and of visiting the various locations mentioned above, laid the groundwork for the novel. Another setting also began to figure in my planning, when I discovered firstly that in the fourteenth century the Dominicans had a monopoly on the royal confessorship, that no record of who was acting as Edward’s confessor after September 1326 (ie during the months of his fall from power) exists, and that at Gloucester English Heritage have restored and opened to the public the old Blackfriars (Dominican) Friary, which, during my life as a schoolboy in the city had been an old ruin behind fencing and metal sheets, in part used for storage and light industry!
This gave me the key to the plot as it eventually emerged, for who better to tell Edward’s story than the man (inevitably a Dominican, if unidentified by history) to whom Edward’s secrets were revealed and with whom he anguished over the reasons for his fall. Brother Stephen, whom this character became, would explore those sins (Envy, Anger, Sloth) by which Edward’s political acts would have been judged by his contemporaries, but also Lust and Sodomy which played an equal role, certainly in his dealings with his rebellious Queen and various favourites.
Through the development of his relationship with the king, however, Brother Stephen took Edward, and indeed myself, to a higher plane than that of mere politics, as together we explored the man himself, his inner conflicts, his quest for salvation. Thus, a fictionalised account of Edward’s fall and its newly propounded conclusion became the background for a story of personal redemption, in which my own and Edward’s repressions intertwine, and there is an interplay between views of sexuality deriving from the distant past, the present (at least pre-Trump), and that no-man’s land of my own youth and early adulthood in the ‘60s and early ‘70s.
“To Catch the Conscience of the King” by Martin White is published by DiButrio Books and is available from Amazon and other booksellers both as a paperback (£9.99) and as a Kindle edition (£5.52).