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Charles Dickens > A Child's History of England > Chapter XVII

A Child's History of England

Chapter XVII


KING Edward the Second, the first Prince of Wales, was twenty-three
years old when his father died. There was a certain favourite of
his, a young man from Gascony, named PIERS GAVESTON, of whom his
father had so much disapproved that he had ordered him out of
England, and had made his son swear by the side of his sick-bed,
never to bring him back. But, the Prince no sooner found himself
King, than he broke his oath, as so many other Princes and Kings
did (they were far too ready to take oaths), and sent for his dear
friend immediately.

Now, this same Gaveston was handsome enough, but was a reckless,
insolent, audacious fellow. He was detested by the proud English
Lords: not only because he had such power over the King, and made
the Court such a dissipated place, but, also, because he could ride
better than they at tournaments, and was used, in his impudence, to
cut very bad jokes on them; calling one, the old hog; another, the
stage-player; another, the Jew; another, the black dog of Ardenne.
This was as poor wit as need be, but it made those Lords very
wroth; and the surly Earl of Warwick, who was the black dog, swore
that the time should come when Piers Gaveston should feel the black
dog's teeth.

It was not come yet, however, nor did it seem to be coming. The
King made him Earl of Cornwall, and gave him vast riches; and, when
the King went over to France to marry the French Princess,
ISABELLA, daughter of PHILIP LE BEL: who was said to be the most
beautiful woman in the world: he made Gaveston, Regent of the
Kingdom. His splendid marriage-ceremony in the Church of Our Lady
at Boulogne, where there were four Kings and three Queens present
(quite a pack of Court Cards, for I dare say the Knaves were not
wanting), being over, he seemed to care little or nothing for his
beautiful wife; but was wild with impatience to meet Gaveston

When he landed at home, he paid no attention to anybody else, but
ran into the favourite's arms before a great concourse of people,
and hugged him, and kissed him, and called him his brother. At the
coronation which soon followed, Gaveston was the richest and
brightest of all the glittering company there, and had the honour
of carrying the crown. This made the proud Lords fiercer than
ever; the people, too, despised the favourite, and would never call
him Earl of Cornwall, however much he complained to the King and
asked him to punish them for not doing so, but persisted in styling
him plain Piers Gaveston.

The Barons were so unceremonious with the King in giving him to
understand that they would not bear this favourite, that the King
was obliged to send him out of the country. The favourite himself
was made to take an oath (more oaths!) that he would never come
back, and the Barons supposed him to be banished in disgrace, until
they heard that he was appointed Governor of Ireland. Even this
was not enough for the besotted King, who brought him home again in
a year's time, and not only disgusted the Court and the people by
his doting folly, but offended his beautiful wife too, who never
liked him afterwards.

He had now the old Royal want - of money - and the Barons had the
new power of positively refusing to let him raise any. He summoned
a Parliament at York; the Barons refused to make one, while the
favourite was near him. He summoned another Parliament at
Westminster, and sent Gaveston away. Then, the Barons came,
completely armed, and appointed a committee of themselves to
correct abuses in the state and in the King's household. He got
some money on these conditions, and directly set off with Gaveston
to the Border-country, where they spent it in idling away the time,
and feasting, while Bruce made ready to drive the English out of
Scotland. For, though the old King had even made this poor weak
son of his swear (as some say) that he would not bury his bones,
but would have them boiled clean in a caldron, and carried before
the English army until Scotland was entirely subdued, the second
Edward was so unlike the first that Bruce gained strength and power
every day.

The committee of Nobles, after some months of deliberation,
ordained that the King should henceforth call a Parliament
together, once every year, and even twice if necessary, instead of
summoning it only when he chose. Further, that Gaveston should
once more be banished, and, this time, on pain of death if he ever
came back. The King's tears were of no avail; he was obliged to
send his favourite to Flanders. As soon as he had done so,
however, he dissolved the Parliament, with the low cunning of a
mere fool, and set off to the North of England, thinking to get an
army about him to oppose the Nobles. And once again he brought
Gaveston home, and heaped upon him all the riches and titles of
which the Barons had deprived him.

The Lords saw, now, that there was nothing for it but to put the
favourite to death. They could have done so, legally, according to
the terms of his banishment; but they did so, I am sorry to say, in
a shabby manner. Led by the Earl of Lancaster, the King's cousin,
they first of all attacked the King and Gaveston at Newcastle.
They had time to escape by sea, and the mean King, having his
precious Gaveston with him, was quite content to leave his lovely
wife behind. When they were comparatively safe, they separated;
the King went to York to collect a force of soldiers; and the
favourite shut himself up, in the meantime, in Scarborough Castle
overlooking the sea. This was what the Barons wanted. They knew
that the Castle could not hold out; they attacked it, and made
Gaveston surrender. He delivered himself up to the Earl of
Pembroke - that Lord whom he had called the Jew - on the Earl's
pledging his faith and knightly word, that no harm should happen to
him and no violence be done him.

Now, it was agreed with Gaveston that he should be taken to the
Castle of Wallingford, and there kept in honourable custody. They
travelled as far as Dedington, near Banbury, where, in the Castle
of that place, they stopped for a night to rest. Whether the Earl
of Pembroke left his prisoner there, knowing what would happen, or
really left him thinking no harm, and only going (as he pretended)
to visit his wife, the Countess, who was in the neighbourhood, is
no great matter now; in any case, he was bound as an honourable
gentleman to protect his prisoner, and he did not do it. In the
morning, while the favourite was yet in bed, he was required to
dress himself and come down into the court-yard. He did so without
any mistrust, but started and turned pale when he found it full of
strange armed men. 'I think you know me?' said their leader, also
armed from head to foot. 'I am the black dog of Ardenne!' The
time was come when Piers Gaveston was to feel the black dog's teeth
indeed. They set him on a mule, and carried him, in mock state and
with military music, to the black dog's kennel - Warwick Castle -
where a hasty council, composed of some great noblemen, considered
what should be done with him. Some were for sparing him, but one
loud voice - it was the black dog's bark, I dare say - sounded
through the Castle Hall, uttering these words: 'You have the fox
in your power. Let him go now, and you must hunt him again.'

They sentenced him to death. He threw himself at the feet of the
Earl of Lancaster - the old hog - but the old hog was as savage as
the dog. He was taken out upon the pleasant road, leading from
Warwick to Coventry, where the beautiful river Avon, by which, long
afterwards, WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE was born and now lies buried,
sparkled in the bright landscape of the beautiful May-day; and
there they struck off his wretched head, and stained the dust with
his blood.

When the King heard of this black deed, in his grief and rage he
denounced relentless war against his Barons, and both sides were in
arms for half a year. But, it then became necessary for them to
join their forces against Bruce, who had used the time well while
they were divided, and had now a great power in Scotland.

Intelligence was brought that Bruce was then besieging Stirling
Castle, and that the Governor had been obliged to pledge himself to
surrender it, unless he should be relieved before a certain day.
Hereupon, the King ordered the nobles and their fighting-men to
meet him at Berwick; but, the nobles cared so little for the King,
and so neglected the summons, and lost time, that only on the day
before that appointed for the surrender, did the King find himself
at Stirling, and even then with a smaller force than he had
expected. However, he had, altogether, a hundred thousand men, and
Bruce had not more than forty thousand; but, Bruce's army was
strongly posted in three square columns, on the ground lying
between the Burn or Brook of Bannock and the walls of Stirling

On the very evening, when the King came up, Bruce did a brave act
that encouraged his men. He was seen by a certain HENRY DE BOHUN,
an English Knight, riding about before his army on a little horse,
with a light battle-axe in his hand, and a crown of gold on his
head. This English Knight, who was mounted on a strong war-horse,
cased in steel, strongly armed, and able (as he thought) to
overthrow Bruce by crushing him with his mere weight, set spurs to
his great charger, rode on him, and made a thrust at him with his
heavy spear. Bruce parried the thrust, and with one blow of his
battle-axe split his skull.

The Scottish men did not forget this, next day when the battle
raged. RANDOLPH, Bruce's valiant Nephew, rode, with the small body
of men he commanded, into such a host of the English, all shining
in polished armour in the sunlight, that they seemed to be
swallowed up and lost, as if they had plunged into the sea. But,
they fought so well, and did such dreadful execution, that the
English staggered. Then came Bruce himself upon them, with all the
rest of his army. While they were thus hard pressed and amazed,
there appeared upon the hills what they supposed to be a new
Scottish army, but what were really only the camp followers, in
number fifteen thousand: whom Bruce had taught to show themselves
at that place and time. The Earl of Gloucester, commanding the
English horse, made a last rush to change the fortune of the day;
but Bruce (like Jack the Giant-killer in the story) had had pits
dug in the ground, and covered over with turfs and stakes. Into
these, as they gave way beneath the weight of the horses, riders
and horses rolled by hundreds. The English were completely routed;
all their treasure, stores, and engines, were taken by the Scottish
men; so many waggons and other wheeled vehicles were seized, that
it is related that they would have reached, if they had been drawn
out in a line, one hundred and eighty miles. The fortunes of
Scotland were, for the time, completely changed; and never was a
battle won, more famous upon Scottish ground, than this great
battle of BANNOCKBURN.

Plague and famine succeeded in England; and still the powerless
King and his disdainful Lords were always in contention. Some of
the turbulent chiefs of Ireland made proposals to Bruce, to accept
the rule of that country. He sent his brother Edward to them, who
was crowned King of Ireland. He afterwards went himself to help
his brother in his Irish wars, but his brother was defeated in the
end and killed. Robert Bruce, returning to Scotland, still
increased his strength there.

As the King's ruin had begun in a favourite, so it seemed likely to
end in one. He was too poor a creature to rely at all upon
himself; and his new favourite was one HUGH LE DESPENSER, the son
of a gentleman of ancient family. Hugh was handsome and brave, but
he was the favourite of a weak King, whom no man cared a rush for,
and that was a dangerous place to hold. The Nobles leagued against
him, because the King liked him; and they lay in wait, both for his
ruin and his father's. Now, the King had married him to the
daughter of the late Earl of Gloucester, and had given both him and
his father great possessions in Wales. In their endeavours to
extend these, they gave violent offence to an angry Welsh
gentleman, named JOHN DE MOWBRAY, and to divers other angry Welsh
gentlemen, who resorted to arms, took their castles, and seized
their estates. The Earl of Lancaster had first placed the
favourite (who was a poor relation of his own) at Court, and he
considered his own dignity offended by the preference he received
and the honours he acquired; so he, and the Barons who were his
friends, joined the Welshmen, marched on London, and sent a message
to the King demanding to have the favourite and his father
banished. At first, the King unaccountably took it into his head
to be spirited, and to send them a bold reply; but when they
quartered themselves around Holborn and Clerkenwell, and went down,
armed, to the Parliament at Westminster, he gave way, and complied
with their demands.

His turn of triumph came sooner than he expected. It arose out of
an accidental circumstance. The beautiful Queen happening to be
travelling, came one night to one of the royal castles, and
demanded to be lodged and entertained there until morning. The
governor of this castle, who was one of the enraged lords, was
away, and in his absence, his wife refused admission to the Queen;
a scuffle took place among the common men on either side, and some
of the royal attendants were killed. The people, who cared nothing
for the King, were very angry that their beautiful Queen should be
thus rudely treated in her own dominions; and the King, taking
advantage of this feeling, besieged the castle, took it, and then
called the two Despensers home. Upon this, the confederate lords
and the Welshmen went over to Bruce. The King encountered them at
Boroughbridge, gained the victory, and took a number of
distinguished prisoners; among them, the Earl of Lancaster, now an
old man, upon whose destruction he was resolved. This Earl was
taken to his own castle of Pontefract, and there tried and found
guilty by an unfair court appointed for the purpose; he was not
even allowed to speak in his own defence. He was insulted, pelted,
mounted on a starved pony without saddle or bridle, carried out,
and beheaded. Eight-and-twenty knights were hanged, drawn, and
quartered. When the King had despatched this bloody work, and had
made a fresh and a long truce with Bruce, he took the Despensers
into greater favour than ever, and made the father Earl of

One prisoner, and an important one, who was taken at Boroughbridge,
made his escape, however, and turned the tide against the King.
This was ROGER MORTIMER, always resolutely opposed to him, who was
sentenced to death, and placed for safe custody in the Tower of
London. He treated his guards to a quantity of wine into which he
had put a sleeping potion; and, when they were insensible, broke
out of his dungeon, got into a kitchen, climbed up the chimney, let
himself down from the roof of the building with a rope-ladder,
passed the sentries, got down to the river, and made away in a boat
to where servants and horses were waiting for him. He finally
escaped to France, where CHARLES LE BEL, the brother of the
beautiful Queen, was King. Charles sought to quarrel with the King
of England, on pretence of his not having come to do him homage at
his coronation. It was proposed that the beautiful Queen should go
over to arrange the dispute; she went, and wrote home to the King,
that as he was sick and could not come to France himself, perhaps
it would be better to send over the young Prince, their son, who
was only twelve years old, who could do homage to her brother in
his stead, and in whose company she would immediately return. The
King sent him: but, both he and the Queen remained at the French
Court, and Roger Mortimer became the Queen's lover.

When the King wrote, again and again, to the Queen to come home,
she did not reply that she despised him too much to live with him
any more (which was the truth), but said she was afraid of the two
Despensers. In short, her design was to overthrow the favourites'
power, and the King's power, such as it was, and invade England.
Having obtained a French force of two thousand men, and being
joined by all the English exiles then in France, she landed, within
a year, at Orewell, in Suffolk, where she was immediately joined by
the Earls of Kent and Norfolk, the King's two brothers; by other
powerful noblemen; and lastly, by the first English general who was
despatched to check her: who went over to her with all his men.
The people of London, receiving these tidings, would do nothing for
the King, but broke open the Tower, let out all his prisoners, and
threw up their caps and hurrahed for the beautiful Queen.

The King, with his two favourites, fled to Bristol, where he left
old Despenser in charge of the town and castle, while he went on
with the son to Wales. The Bristol men being opposed to the King,
and it being impossible to hold the town with enemies everywhere
within the walls, Despenser yielded it up on the third day, and was
instantly brought to trial for having traitorously influenced what
was called 'the King's mind' - though I doubt if the King ever had
any. He was a venerable old man, upwards of ninety years of age,
but his age gained no respect or mercy. He was hanged, torn open
while he was yet alive, cut up into pieces, and thrown to the dogs.
His son was soon taken, tried at Hereford before the same judge on
a long series of foolish charges, found guilty, and hanged upon a
gallows fifty feet high, with a chaplet of nettles round his head.
His poor old father and he were innocent enough of any worse crimes
than the crime of having been friends of a King, on whom, as a mere
man, they would never have deigned to cast a favourable look. It
is a bad crime, I know, and leads to worse; but, many lords and
gentlemen - I even think some ladies, too, if I recollect right -
have committed it in England, who have neither been given to the
dogs, nor hanged up fifty feet high.

The wretched King was running here and there, all this time, and
never getting anywhere in particular, until he gave himself up, and
was taken off to Kenilworth Castle. When he was safely lodged
there, the Queen went to London and met the Parliament. And the
Bishop of Hereford, who was the most skilful of her friends, said,
What was to be done now? Here was an imbecile, indolent, miserable
King upon the throne; wouldn't it be better to take him off, and
put his son there instead? I don't know whether the Queen really
pitied him at this pass, but she began to cry; so, the Bishop said,
Well, my Lords and Gentlemen, what do you think, upon the whole, of
sending down to Kenilworth, and seeing if His Majesty (God bless
him, and forbid we should depose him!) won't resign?

My Lords and Gentlemen thought it a good notion, so a deputation of
them went down to Kenilworth; and there the King came into the
great hall of the Castle, commonly dressed in a poor black gown;
and when he saw a certain bishop among them, fell down, poor
feeble-headed man, and made a wretched spectacle of himself.
Somebody lifted him up, and then SIR WILLIAM TRUSSEL, the Speaker
of the House of Commons, almost frightened him to death by making
him a tremendous speech to the effect that he was no longer a King,
and that everybody renounced allegiance to him. After which, SIR
THOMAS BLOUNT, the Steward of the Household, nearly finished him,
by coming forward and breaking his white wand - which was a
ceremony only performed at a King's death. Being asked in this
pressing manner what he thought of resigning, the King said he
thought it was the best thing he could do. So, he did it, and they
proclaimed his son next day.

I wish I could close his history by saying that he lived a harmless
life in the Castle and the Castle gardens at Kenilworth, many years
- that he had a favourite, and plenty to eat and drink - and,
having that, wanted nothing. But he was shamefully humiliated. He
was outraged, and slighted, and had dirty water from ditches given
him to shave with, and wept and said he would have clean warm
water, and was altogether very miserable. He was moved from this
castle to that castle, and from that castle to the other castle,
because this lord or that lord, or the other lord, was too kind to
him: until at last he came to Berkeley Castle, near the River
Severn, where (the Lord Berkeley being then ill and absent) he fell
into the hands of two black ruffians, called THOMAS GOURNAY and

One night - it was the night of September the twenty-first, one
thousand three hundred and twenty-seven - dreadful screams were
heard, by the startled people in the neighbouring town, ringing
through the thick walls of the Castle, and the dark, deep night;
and they said, as they were thus horribly awakened from their
sleep, 'May Heaven be merciful to the King; for those cries forbode
that no good is being done to him in his dismal prison!' Next
morning he was dead - not bruised, or stabbed, or marked upon the
body, but much distorted in the face; and it was whispered
afterwards, that those two villains, Gournay and Ogle, had burnt up
his inside with a red-hot iron.

If you ever come near Gloucester, and see the centre tower of its
beautiful Cathedral, with its four rich pinnacles, rising lightly
in the air; you may remember that the wretched Edward the Second
was buried in the old abbey of that ancient city, at forty-three
years old, after being for nineteen years and a half a perfectly
incapable King.

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