The Death of Piers Gaveston

Having seen Alianore’s post on the subject, it seemed improper to let the day go by without a brief tribute to Edward II’s favorite, Piers Gaveston, who was executed on June 19, 1312. (In medieval history, at least, June seems to have been quite the month for unjust executions.) It was a tragic end to what appears to have been at the very least a deep friendship on both sides. As I haven’t the chance to write a proper post, here’s an excerpt from The Traitor’s Wife instead:

The justices examined the evidence presented to them—an easy task as Gaveston himself had no chance to speak or call anyone to speak in his behalf—and sentenced the Gascon to death. Here Gilbert de Clare, though unwittingly, came to Gaveston’s aid, for the earls deemed it unseemly that the brother-in-law of the Earl of Gloucester should die a traitor’s death. Instead, he was granted the nobleman’s death of beheading.

“They finally took him out of the dungeon, on June 19 it was,” said the Countess of Pembroke’s laundress. She cleared her throat; it was not usual for her to speak in front of so many people, and certainly not in front of a group of people like this—the king, the queen, her lord Pembroke, the king’s nieces, the Earl of Surrey, Lord Despenser and his son. Gaveston’s young widow was in full mourning; most of the others were in black or at least in their drabbest robes. “Poor man, he was filthy and looked in need of a good meal—he’d been in there nine days—but still he bore himself proudly, like the fine knight that I had heard he was. The Earls of Lancaster, Arundel, and Hereford came to Kenilworth to watch it be done.”

“Only the three?” asked Hugh the elder. “Where was Warwick?”

“He was not there, sir, I’ll swear it. They say he stayed in his castle at Warwick
the whole day.”

“Then he is not only a scoundrel, but a coward,” said the king’s niece Eleanor. It was odd, the laundress thought, that it was she, not the queen, who had reached over and clasped the king’s hand while the tale was being told, but the ways of the royal were inscrutable and the girl after all was the king’s near relation.

“Aye, my lady, they say he wanted no part of the business once he started it. So they brought him to Kenilworth, as I said, to the Earl of Lancaster’s land, I think. Then they took him to a place called Blacklow Hill—many a day I rolled down it as a girl, and no longer will anyone want to play there—”

“Was he shriven?” asked the king. “Do you know?”

“There was no priest there, but he prayed before he died, and many of the bystanders did too—although others laughed.”

The king was weeping, and so were his nieces. Strange, the laundress thought,
the queen—the closest thing to an angel in looks she had ever seen—was dry-eyed. But if the rumors about the king and Gaveston had been true…

The second Edward wiped his eyes. “Go on.”

“There’s little left to tell, your grace. They bade him to kneel down, and he did, as graceful as though he was here in court. He had just time to commend his spirit to God. Then one man—a Welshman he was—ran him through the heart, then another Welshman cut off his head. Oh, but he did ask before, joking-like, that they leave him his head so as not to spoil his beauty so much.”

The younger Despenser’s mouth twitched upward.

“The Earl of Lancaster did not go up the hill for some reason, so they had to bring the head down to him, to show him that the deed had been done. Some friars came and got the body later, as you now know, your grace, and took him to Oxford.” She paused awkwardly, then remembered that she had been asked to tell everything she knew. “I heard—but do not know for sure—that his head was sewn back on.”

“God bless the friars,” said Edward. “They shall be well rewarded. And so shall you.” He nodded at his steward, standing nearby, who approached the laundress with a purse.

“It was the countess’s doing, your grace. She sent me to visit my family near Warwick Castle, knowing that I would keep my ears and eyes open and report on what had happened.”

“And it was you, Pembroke, who asked the countess to provide those eyes and ears. Thank you.”

“It was the least I could do, your grace.”

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