King Edward II is said to have been murdered at Berkeley Castle in 1327 by order of Roger Mortimer and Edward’s estranged wife - Isabella, daughter of Philip IV of France. The gruesome manner by which Edward was reputedly despatched (a red-hot spit inserted into his anus - ouch!) has been hotly (no pun intended) disputed by historians for many years. It is more likely, so it has been suggested, that he was smothered, for Mortimer gave specific instructions that no external marks should be visible on the body so avoiding incrimination. First written accounts of Edward’s death did not appear until 30 years later, by which time the facts would most likely have been massaged. Some say Edward escaped to Italy but it is widely accepted this was not the case and he did indeed perish at Berkeley.
Edward of the Plantagenets' ascended to the throne on the 8th July 1307, following the death of his father - Edward I. He married 12 year old Isabella in 1308. It was an arranged marriage specifically engineered to go some way to alleviate the tension which had been simmering between the English and the French. It was four years before she gave birth to their first child - Edward; later to become Edward III. She had three more children by Edward between 1316 and 1321; John of Eltham, Eleanor of Woodstock and Joan of the Tower.
Edward was rumoured to have had several homosexual relationships, though again some historians have suggested he had ‘favourites.‘ One favourite in particular was Piers Gaveston of Gascony who Edward first met in his mid teens well before his marriage to Isabella. It was widely known that Edward’s father (Edward I) disproved of their dubious liaison, so had Gaveston exiled from England in 1307. When the King died, Edward recalled Gaveston to court and arranged a marriage to his niece, Margaret de Clare, bestowing him the title of 1st Earl of Cornwall and assuring him a place in the Royal family.
Gaveston was to be expelled from England again due many to his apparent influence over King and court and also his disparaging remarks directed at the English nobility, specifically Edward’s father’s most trusted barons. Gaveston was excommunicated and told never to return to England, but such was his indifference he returned nonetheless under the misguided assumption the King would be in a position to defend him. However, the law was the law and Edward was powerless to help him. So in 1312 by order of Thomas of Lancaster - the Earl of Warwick and an assembly of barons he was captured at Scarborough Castle and taken to Warwick Castle where he was sentenced to death. He was marched to Blacklow Hill, a short distance from Warwick Castle. There he was run-through with a sword and beheaded. His body was left where it fell but was later claimed and buried at the Dominican Friary, King’s Langley in Hertfordshire. His headless ghost still haunts Scarborough Castle to this day where it is said to lure people to their deaths over the battlements. Many claim to have seen his ghost as it paces the battlements.
Following Gaveston’s death, Edward found a new favourite in Huge Despenser the Younger, a Knight of Hanley Castle, who wheedled he way into the King’s favour, much as Gaveston had done before him. There is no evidence to suggest this was another homosexual relationship but his influence over the King’s decisions were to prove intolerable by those at court.
Isabella despised Despenser, it was even rumoured he tried to rape her. 'Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned' - Isabella would have her revenge. She remained faithful to Edward, tolerating his favourites for many years but a woman can only take so much and her patience and allegiance to her King were wearing thin. She was quickly emerging as an intelligent aid to the king. She was sent to France in 1325 on a diplomatic mission, there she met and fell in love with Roger Mortimer, an exiled opponent of Edward. In September 1326 they plotted to depose Edward and eliminate Despenser. They assembled an army to invaded England. On landing they met with little resistance, joined by many disgruntled nobles who supported their cause.
Mortimer and Isabella wasted no time in having Despenser executed in Hereford on charges of high treason and theft of land. A huge crowd gathered to see him die in a most gruesome manner. He was dragged behind a horse into the city where he was stripped naked and made to wear a crown of thorns. Biblical verses denouncing corruption and sin were etched into his skin. He was then hung from a 50ft gallows. Just at the point of his death he was cut down, is genitals were sliced off and burned as he watched. He was then gutted, his entrails pulled out and held up before him whereupon they too followed his genitals into the fire. Finally his heart was cut out and thrown into the fire along with his other bits and bobs.
Mortimer and Isabella imprisoned Edward, firstly at Kenilworth and later at Berkeley Castle. In January 1327, Thomas de Berkeley, Sir John Maltravers and Sir Thomas Gurney were appointed the ex-King's custodians. He was taken to the 12th century Norman castle keep at Berkeley where he was imprisoned next to a 28ft deep dungeon which can still be seen in the King‘s Gallery. There he had to endure the stench of rotting animals, excrement and filth and the occasional peasant who crossed Lord Berkeley thrown in for good measure, all in the hope that Edward would succumb to his fetid entombment and contract some deadly disease so avoiding the need to have him murdered. However, Edward was healthy and strong and survived his torture for five long months. It is not surprising to learn that the souls of the departed who spent their last days at the bottom of the dungeon still haunt this corner of the castle.
It was on the 11th October 1327 that Mortimer and Isabella gave instructions to Sir John Maltravers and Sir Thomas Gurney to dispose of Edward as they saw fit. Edward would have been in no doubt that his end was nigh. Maltravers and Gurney visited his cell, a struggle broke out but Edward was restrained and pinned facedown on his cell bed. Because of his homosexual practices the manner of his death was viewed as a fitting exit. A horn was inserted into his anus then a red hot spit was administered searing his bowels. His screams were said to have been heard outside the castle walls. After his death his heart was cut out and given to Isabella in a casket. To this day his agonizing screams have been heard coming from the condemned cell on the anniversary of his murder.
Edward was interred at Gloucester Cathedral, the funeral was attended by Isabella and the new King, the fourteen year old Edward III. Later, he would have Mortimer executed for the murder of his father and for sleeping with his mother, oh! and one or two other indiscretions to boot. Though Isabella pleaded for his life she was spurned by her son. She died in 1358, she had instructed that she be buried in her wedding dress along with Edward II heart, now there’s irony for you.
Other haunted rooms in the castle include The Morning Room, formerly a chapel till it was converted in the early 19th century. This room is haunted by a hooded figure which has been seen by visitors walking to a point where the old vestry once stood. Whilst chatting to the guides I was told of an episode which happened quite recently. A woman visiting that room with her partner later told him and a guide that when they left the Morning Room something came with her, for she could feel the tiny hand of a child in hers for the rest of her visit. She was not frightened, on the contrary, she felt most protective towards her companion and held its hand firmly.
Finally, The Great Hall is haunted by a shadowy figure seen climbing the stairs to the mezzanine. It is though a court jester met his death by falling from the mezzanine, so it may be his ghost that haunts the hall.
The Berkeley Dynasty
The Berkeley family have owned and resided in the castle for nearly 900 years, making it he oldest inhabited castle in England. Berkeley was constructed in 1154AD to defend the Welsh border and Severn estuary, prior to the castle it was a Saxon settlement.
Some ‘Berkeley Connections’ you may be interested in: Shakespeare wrote Midsummer’s Night’s Dream for a Berkeley wedding; The very first American Thanksgiving was held by Berkeley men; Francis Drake was a regular visitor to Berkeley - the bedroom where he slept is named after him; The Barons of the West gathered at Berkeley before setting out to the momentous meeting with King John at Runnymede at which the Magna Carta was signed; the Castle has many links with the monarchs of England: most notably King John, Henry VII, Henry VIII, Queen Elizabeth I, Charles I, George I, the Prince Regent - to name but a few.
Source for Berkeley Connections: Berkeley Castle where history is a home