Piers Gaveston, 1st Earl of Cornwall (c. 1284 – June 19, 1312) was the favorite, and possibly lover, of King Edward II of England. A Gascon by birth, Piers was the son of Sir Arnaud de Gabaston, a soldier in service to King Edward I of England. Arnaud had been used as a hostage by Edward twice; on the second occasion, Arnaud escaped captivity, and fled to England with his son. Both then entered the royal household, where Gaveston behaved so well and so virtuously that the King declared him an example for his own son, Prince Edward, to follow, making him a companion of Prince Edward in 1300. Prince Edward was delighted with Gaveston—a man skilled in the arts of war and military tactics—who was noted for his wit, rudeness, and entertaining manner, and gave him many honors and gifts. The Prince also declared that he loved Gaveston “like a brother.” A close friend of Roger Mortimer of Wigmore, Gaveston was awarded wardship of Mortimer’s property when Roger’s father died. Considered a great privilege for someone who was still a commoner, this caused jealousy and resentment among the barons. In 1307, when Edward became king, he quickly elevated Gaveston to the peerage as Earl of Cornwall. The following year, Gaveston briefly acted as Regent while Edward was in France.
Following pressure to banish Gavesto, Edward instead appointed him Lord-Lieutenant of Ireland in 1308, which did remove him from court but which also gave him a position of some responsibility. Gaveston was blamed for encouraging Edward’s profligacy. He distinguished himself in Ireland, however, consolidating English rule and establishing an efficient administration. When he returned to England in 1309, he was soon forced back into exile. When he returned to England again in 1312, he was confronted by an armed rebellion led by the king’s cousin, Thomas Plantagenet, 2nd Earl of Lancaster. On June 19, 1312, his enemies murdered him while a prisoner at Blacklow Hill. Gaveston was not without talent but had a knack of annoying the barons, who resented his influence and privileges despite his achievements in Ireland. Ultimately, it was Parliament that deposed the profligate Edward, as it had tried to constrain his power throughout his reign. At this point, it was an elite that had the ability to check kingly power. However, under Edward III of England, the next king, commoners began to share this responsibility. Full-blown participatory democracy was a long way off, yet developments were now in motion that made this outcome a political inevitability, in due time. Even though this was unintentional, Gaveston’s life helped to launch this process.
Gaveston and Edward I
While King Edward I liked Gaveston, he strongly disapproved of the close relationship between the knight and the Prince, which was felt to be inappropriate due to Gaveston’s rank. He became especially enraged with Gaveston when he, along with twenty-one other knights (including Sir Roger Mortimer), deserted the English army in Scotland after the 1306 campaign and went to a tournament in France. Furious, the King declared the estates of all the deserters forfeit, issued orders for them to be arrested, and declared them traitors. Gaveston and his companions therefore asked Prince Edward to intercede with the King on their behalf; the Prince accordingly enlisted the support of his stepmother, Queen Margaret, who pleaded with the King to forgive the young men. Most, including Mortimer, were forgiven in January of 1307 and returned their estates. Gaveston, however, remained disfavored: the King had learned that Piers and the Prince were sworn brothers-in-arms, who had promised to fight together, protect each other, and share all of their possessions. To the King, this was unthinkable: Not only was it monstrous for a future King to be shackled by oath to a commoner, unable to be adequately secure against potential plots; but the oath threatened to share the government of England itself with Gaveston, and that was simply intolerable. His displeasure with Gaveston and the young man’s friendship with Prince Edward only continued to increase.
The Prince, determined to maintain his oath and companionship with Gaveston, next resolved to ennoble the other man by granting him the County of Ponthieu (one of Prince Edward’s own Counties). He sent an extremely unwilling Treasurer William Langton to the King with this news. Langton announced it on his knees: “My lord King, I am sent on behalf of my lord the prince, your son, though as God lives, unwillingly, to seek in his name your license to promote his knight Piers Gaveston to the rank of the Count of Ponthieu.”
Unsurprisingly, the King was not pleased. Reportedly, he shouted back at Langton, “Who are you who dares to ask such things? As God lives, if not for the fear of the Lord, and because you said at the outset that you undertook this business unwillingly, you would not escape my hands!” The King then summoned the Prince before him, demanding to know why he had sent Langton before him. The Prince replied that he wished for the King’s permission to grant Ponthieu to Gaveston. According to historian Ian Mortimer, on hearing these words spoken by the Prince, the King flew into a rage, exclaiming, “‘You wretched son of a whore! Do you want to give away lands now? You who have never gained any? As God lives, if not for fear of breaking up the Kingdom, I would never let you enjoy your inheritance!’ As he spoke, the King seized hold of the Prince’s head by the hair and tore handfuls of hair out, then threw the Prince to the floor and kicked him repeatedly until he was exhausted.”
King Edward then summoned the Lords gathering for the Parliament at Carlisle, and before them declared Gaveston banished. It appears to have been more a punishment of the Prince than of Gaveston—Gaveston’s conduct having been largely irreproachable, the King granted him a pension to be enjoyed while abroad. He also forced Prince Edward and Piers to swear an oath never to see one another again without his permission. Gaveston then set sail for France, loaded down with many rich gifts from the Prince. But as soon as Edward I died in July 1307, the new King recalled his “Brother Perrot” and endowed him with the County of Cornwall (which had been intended for Thomas of Brotherton, Edward I’s young second son).
Soon after his recalling, Edward II arranged the marriage of Gaveston to Margaret de Clare, a granddaughter of King Edward I, and sister of the Earl of Gloucester, another friend of both Edward and Gaveston. The marriage was held soon after the funeral of the old King: Held at Berkhampstead, the Manor of Queen Margaret, it proved an excuse for the first in a string of feasts and hunts, being followed by similar entertainments at Kings Langley in Hertfordshire, and a tournament held by the King in honor of Gaveston at Wallingford Castle, which had been presented to Gaveston by Edward. It proved an embarrassment for many of the older lords present: Gaveston’s young and talented knights easily won against the older knights fighting for the Earls of Surrey, Hereford, and Arundel. This led to the enmity of these Earls.
When Edward II left the country in 1308 to marry Isabella of France, who was just 12 years old, he appointed Gaveston Regent in his place, horrifying the Lords; they had expected Edward to appoint a family member or an experienced noble. By this appointment of his favorite, Edward demonstrated his faith in Gaveston, but in the process increased his friend’s unpopularity. Gaveston himself did little during his Regency, however; the only thing he did of note in his two weeks of rule was to take a proud attitude to those who came before him.
Gaveston also proved unpopular with the new queen consort. The two men, who were of approximately the same age, may have had a homosexual relationship, and Edward’s preference for the company of Gaveston over that of his wife, whatever the motives, is generally agreed by historians as having created early discord in the Royal marriage.
Gaveston’s behavior at the coronation feast is of especial note: he appeared in royal purple instead of an Earl’s cloth of gold. At this point, the French princes stood up and left in disgust. Gaveston spent the evening chatting and joking with Edward (who ignored his bride, her brother and her uncles in favor of Gaveston), and was eventually discovered to have been given all of the gold and jewelry Edward had received as wedding gifts. Gaveston was also given the honor of carrying the Crown during the ceremony. The barons had objected but allowed this when Edward agreed to abide by whatever ordinances Parliament passed, which was when the additional oath was added.
Ireland and return
However, following the embarrassment of the coronation, the barons threatened open rebellion unless Edward banished Gaveston. Edward chose a compromise, appointing him Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, an office which allowed Gaveston much authority, honor and dignity but at a distance from the court. Sir Roger Mortimer, 1st Earl of March may have assisted him in Ireland. By the summer of 1309 he had gained a reputation as a sound military administrator, having strengthened Dublin and secured English rule there. After manipulations by Edward in England, Gaveston left Ireland on July 23, 1309, and made his way to Stamford via Tintagel, arriving at Parliament in Stamford in late July. Edward agreed to abide by additional restrictions if Gaveston was allowed to return, since he had conducted himself well in Ireland.
Unfortunately, Gaveston swiftly made more enemies: the moderate Aymer de Valence, 2nd Earl of Pembroke, whom Gaveston offended by referring to him as “Joseph the Jew;” and Thomas Plantagenet, 2nd Earl of Lancaster, a cousin of the King and the most powerful Lord in the land after the King. Gaveston, says Mortimer, had no respect for the earls and could not resist calling them names. Plantagenet swore to destroy Gaveston when, after having already provoked the Earl many times, Gaveston persuaded Edward to dismiss one of Lancaster’s retainers. Led by Lancaster, a powerful group of Earls demanded that he be banished again. Few stood by the King. Of those who did, the Earl of Surrey had sworn eternal hatred of Gaveston. After a failed Scottish campaign in 1310–11, Edward was forced by his Earls to banish Gaveston once again.
In 1312, Edward, who had set up court in York, simply reversed the banishment order and invited Gaveston back. Chaplais says that Edward had managed to gain use of his “seal,” which the council of barons appointed by Parliament to supervise his rule had taken from him. He was faced with hostility. Thomas Plantagenet then raised an army against Gaveston and the King, and on 4 May attacked Newcastle, where Edward and Gaveston were staying. They were forced to flee by ship to Scarborough Castle, leaving behind all of their money and soldiers, where they were appropriated by Lancaster. Edward then went south to raise an army, leaving Gaveston in Scarborough. Lancaster immediately brought his army up to threaten Gaveston and to cut him off from the King. Fearful for his life, Gaveston was forced to surrender to Aymer de Valence, 2nd Earl of Pembroke, who swore an oath to surrender his lands and titles to protect Gaveston. However, in Oxfordshire, Gaveston was captured and taken to Warwick Castle by Guy de Beauchamp, 10th Earl of Warwick. He was held there for nine days before the Earl of Lancaster arrived; Lancaster then judged, “While he lives, there will be no safe place in the realm of England.” Accordingly, on 19 June, Gaveston was taken to Blacklow Hill (which belonged to the Earl of Lancaster), and killed by two Welshmen, who ran him through with a sword before beheading him as he lay dying on the grass.
He was survived by his wife and a baby daughter, Joan. The Earl of Pembroke, who had sworn to protect him, was mortified by the death, having attempted to raise an army to free him, and having even appealed to the University of Oxford for aid. (The University, not known for its military strength in any case, had not the slightest interest in assisting either Gaveston or de Valence.) Edward II, on hearing of the murder, at first reacted with utter rage; later, this would become cold fury, and a desire to destroy those who had destroyed Gaveston. Ten years later, Edward II avenged Gaveston’s death when he had the Earl of Lancaster killed.
Much later, Gaveston would be replaced in the King’s affections by Hugh le Despenser.
Gaveston was blamed for encouraging Edward’s profligate life-style, which appears to have consisted of showering his friends with gifts and spending a great deal of his time enjoying entertainment. However, what annoyed and alienated the barons above all was that while they or their ancestors had earned their titles by hard work or distinguished service, Gaveston had accomplished nothing of note and had “yet to prove himself of benefit to anybody but the king”. He was, though, a “renowned champion fighter” and after his elevation to the peerage served with distinction in Ireland. He was not without talent. His main error appears to have been lack of respect for the earls in addition to his birth as a commoner. His killers, though, took the law into their own hands, since he was not tried before any court.
Perhaps ironically, the eventual deposition of his patron, Edward II by parliament in 1327 followed by the succession to the throne of Edward III resulted in the strengthening of parliamentary power. Parliament flexed its muscles several times during Edward II’s reign, placing conditions on his ability to raise taxes and from 1314 to 1318 effectively governing the country through Plantagenet as Chief Councilor. However, under Edward III, the House of Commons became a much more significant chamber, providing commoners such as Gaveston with an opportunity to participate in governance without the need to be elevated to the peerage. Gaveston may have used his charm, perhaps also his sexuality, to manipulate Edward. Gaveston was probably a bad influence on Edward but Edward’s character and preferences invited and welcomed such influence. What can be said is that Gaveston’s life helped to create a climate in which the king’s subjects thought it prudent to impose constraints on royal power, based on the belief that governance should benefit the whole community. While at this point it was almost entirely an elite who had the ability to act as a check on kingly power, under Edward III commoners also began to share in this responsibility. Full-blown participatory democracy was a long way off, yet developments were now in motion that made this outcome a political inevitability, in due time.
Gaveston is a major character in Christopher Marlowe’s play Edward II, and is portrayed by Andrew Tiernan in the 1991 film adaptation.
Gaveston tells the story of his life in the historical novel The Confession of Piers Gaveston by Brandy Purdy.
In Mel Gibson’s film Braveheart, a foppish Gaveston is pushed through a window by Edward Im, disgusted at his son’s incompetency.
One of the more flamboyant dining clubs at Oxford University, the Piers Gaveston Society, is named after him.
A stone cross was erected at the place of his murder in 1821, on which the following words are inscribed:
In the Hollow of this Rock, Was beheaded, On the 1st Day of July, 1312, By Barons lawless as himself, PIERS GAVESTON, Earl of Cornwall; The Minion of a hateful King: In Life and Death, A memorable Instance of Misrule.