12 March, 2016

Edward II Digs Ditches

I've written before about Edward II's 'rustic' pursuits such as digging ditches, thatching roofs, doing metalwork and so on. Several fourteenth-century chroniclers commented (usually rather scathingly) on Edward's hobbies, and they seem to have been widely known. Lanercost, for example, says "from his youth he devoted himself in private to the art of rowing and driving carts, of digging ditches and thatching houses, as was commonly said, and also with his companions at night to various works of ingenuity and skill, and to other pointless trivial occupations unsuitable for the son of a king." Edward's willingness to "give himself up always to improper works and occupations" was deemed important enough to be mentioned many years later as one of the reasons for his unsuitability to be king, not only because such occupations were considered incompatible with his royal dignity, but because they led him "to neglect the business of his kingdom." His rustic pursuits caused exasperation with the king among his subjects; the Vita Edwardi Secundi (whose author was a royal clerk who knew the king well) says that if Edward had devoted the same time to military matters as he did to his hobbies, he would have raised England's name aloft. A member of Edward's own household in 1314 was arrested for saying that Edward lost the battle of Bannockburn that year because he wasted time digging ditches rather than hearing Mass, though failed to explain how that would have helped Edward defeat Robert Bruce. Many contemporaries realised that Edward was not stupid and incompetent, but expanded his energies in other areas rather than ruling his kingdom. The Scalacronica is one exception to the scathing commentary, and says that Edward was "very skilful in what he delighted to employ his hands upon."

In his 2010 biography of Edward, Professor Seymour Phillips wrote (p. 72) "There is no direct evidence to support the claims about Edward II's interest in hedging and ditching...". Well, there is now, because I've found some (see my 2014 The Unconventional King, pp. 213-4). I've gone through SAL MS 122, a manuscript now held in the library of the Society of Antiquaries in London, which is the last account of Edward's chamber and the only one which survives intact (none exist at all until 1322, then only in fragments until May 1325 to October 1326).

On 15 July 1326, Edward II was staying at his Westminster cottage of Borgoyne or Burgundy, where he spent much time near the end of his reign with only a few attendants, shunning his more luxurious accommodation in and around London. Twenty-six ditch-diggers "who are with the abbot of Westminster" and whose mestre was called Thomas de la Bruer or Brewere were hired to clean the ditches around the cottage on that day, and did so in the king's presence. Edward rather kindly bought drinks for the men, presumably ale. It was probably very hot that day: two chronicles, Annales Paulini and the French Chronicle of London, talk about the drought and the "great want of water" in England in the summer of 1326, and the heat and dryness apparently caused conflagrations; towns and abbeys burned. OK, this is not in itself proof that Edward II himself was digging (or even cleaning) ditches, but he was watching the men do it, which does at least imply an interest in their job. In November 1322, he stood by a river near Doncaster to watch ten men fishing. It's hard to think of another medieval king of England who would have taken an interest in watching men fishing and cleaning ditches.

And there's an even better entry in Edward's last chamber account a few weeks later. In August 1326, Edward was staying at the royal manor of Clarendon in Wiltshire. He hired twenty-two men for eighteen days to make some kind of enclosure involving hedges and a ditch in the park of Clarendon; they each received two pence a day for the work plus presumably food and drink. A few days later, all thirty-three of Edward's portours (porters, though that's not a great translation - they're sometimes called valletz or valets) of the chamber, including presumably the two women he'd hired in this role at the same wages as the men, were also ordered to help with the park enclosure and hedges. Very cutely, the men and two women toiling in the heat of drought-ridden 1326 England were provided with ale by a local resident. I so love details like this; doesn't it bring people of the distant past to life and make them real? There's another entry in this chamber journal where Edward II, riding close to the royal palace of Sheen in late July 1326, gave a man he encountered six pence for bringing him fresh water from a well; this is surely also an indication of the heat.

Anyway, the first entry about the twenty-two men making the enclosure at Clarendon is the relevant one. What's so great is that Edward II himself was obviously down in the ditch or trench, helping out. We know this because he encountered one of the workmen, whose name was Gibbe (nickname for Gilbert) and who had very shabby shoes on, perhaps even no shoes at all. Gibbe is called a garson, 'boy', in fact. Noticing this situation, the king borrowed twelve pence from his servant Elis Pek to give to Gibbe to buy himself new shoes, and reimbursed the money a little later (kings didn't carry cash around themselves, after all!). This entry actually refers to Edward II being in the trench himself. There's also a reference at this time to men of the king's household cutting something (I can't figure out the word) for the hedges "in the presence of the king." So here's Edward again watching people doing physical labour, and in some way joining in.

So yes. There is a very good reason why I call Edward II 'the unconventional king'. Edward was like, jousting, naaah, boring. Jumping into a ditch to help out? Watching men fishing and cleanihg ditches and preparing wood? Now you're talking!


Anerje said...

Great research as usual. I'm sure Edward enjoyed the planning to construct ditches and hedges. He must have had a keen interest in where they were sited, and in agriculture etc. Piers, I'm certain, would have had no interest in digging ditches!

Kathryn Warner said...

Oop, accidentally rejected Sami's comment instead of publishing it!


Now, here is a man who was described as one of the strongest in his realm and a great hunter, meaning he really knew how to hunt and not just stand on some platform killing animals others brought in front of him. To me that pretty much is giving these stories of his un-kingly hobbies some clout.

Robust outdoors man himself, I bet Edward did not just watch guys doing some Real work. I am pretty sure he jumped in when ever he wanted and that caused some eyebrows go twisted among the high and mighty. Maybe he was just a guy who wanted to do something real, something with his hands? Perhaps he just didn't give a s**t about the kingly duties and let others take care of those, like Hugh and others, who in turn took all the advantage of Edwards attitude towards running a kingdom.

What I would love to see is a movie that concetrates on these aspects of Edwards life. I would cast Hugh Jackman to play Edward, simply because he is big and can sing and dance as well as be rather convincing Wolverine. He would be digging ditches and laughing and joking with some workers, and some official would show up and go like, ehem, your highness, there is the ambassador of Such-and-Such waiting for an official meeting and Eddie would be like, Hey, I am digging here, see?

And what ever the nature of his relationship with Piers, physical or not, it would not be like two damsells picking up daffodils on meadows but two best friends, both big guys capable of taking care of business (Piers was beating his opponents in tournaments all over the place when they were mostly melée type, meaning legal gang fights in an arena with some actual deaths too), with enough hutshpah to call barons with silly names and laugh at that out loud, two guys who are also brothers in arms, as much as lovers, and who, for what ever reason, do not understand that they can not ridicule the whole nobility for fun.

That woul be Edward movie I would like to see.

sami parkkonen said...

No problem, dear. It is your blog and you reject my comments when ever you wish to do so. If need be.

Kathryn Warner said...

I have a new ergonomic keyboard because of my tendinitis, and it's taking a while to get used to it, so I clicked on the wrong button. :)

Kasia Ogrodnik said...

I knew about digging and thatching, but driving carts somehow escaped my notice :) Fantastic post, as always!:)