Okay, I realise this is well outside of my patch. And anybody is more than welcome to call me an eejit and tell me to shut up because I don’t know what I’m talking about.
But the thing is, I was watching the second installment of this superb series called She-Wolfs: England’s Early Queens on BBC4, narrated by the splendid Dr. Helen Castor, based on her book by the same name. And last night’s episode concerned Isabella of France (married to Edward II) and Margaret of Anjou (married to Henry VI).
It was excellent stuff. Great stuff. Fascinating.
Except for one thing, which I confess, tripped me up.
And that’s the story about Edward II’s death in 1327, courtesy of the red hot poker. Which is repeated everywhere from Horrible Histories to…well, everywhere else basically.
Now here’s the thing. According to Dr. Castor, that story didn’t make the rounds until the Elizabethan playwright Christopher Marlowe inserted it into his play, Edward II. (I know, bad pun. Couldn’t resist. Sorry.)
But excuse me, one: he wasn’t there. And two: the problem with that ‘end’ is it’s just a little to ‘poetic justice-y’ to be credible.
Because let’s go over the plan.
You, Roger de Mortimer and your delicious Queen Isabella have decided that after three attempts to free him, the realm would be a safer place without the deposed king hanging about so that there’d be no one for any rebels to gather round. So you decide to get rid of the bloke. Fine. Good.
But, in order for no one to be blamed, you have to get into the ex-king’s chamber without anybody seeing you, dispatch said redundant monarch and get out again–still without being seen or heard or the crime detected. Good. Excellent. No worries.
The chronicles of the day don’t even mention how Edward died, just that he had. And Mortimer and indeed the Queen aren’t named as the deadly duo until some time afterwards too.
(But that’s the problem with mediaeval chroniclers–you don’t know whether they’re being politic, whose side of the fence their on, and when they tell clankers, I mean these clankers clank! We’re talking round and bouncing down the hill with a right racket. Me, I like my historical lies neat and tidy, like Napoleon’s Bulletins from Russia: “My health has never been better.”)
So, okay, moving along with the plot to do away with Edward.
We therefore assume the crime is not one of passion, but is carefully planned and pre-meditated. One also assumes Mortimer didn’t just turn up alone, but took a few heavies with him. And one assumes they were all armed too, wouldn’t they be?
(I mean, was Edward such a weenie that Mortimer wouldn’t have wanted back-up?)
Still, Marlowe and indeed later historians wish us to believe that Mortimer turned up in Edward’s chamber at Berkeley Castle and while his heavily armed mate was working like stink with the bellows to heat the fire up, he sat down for what…a chat? “Oh never mind Chauncy, he loves playing with coals…” Because it’s not like they could bring along a Bunsen Burner.
A blacksmith’s coals take about an hour to get hot enough for use in the morning and that’s with heavy stoking and a bellows working. But these guys didn’t have an hour. Not if their brief was ‘get in, do the deed, and get out, as quickly and silently as possible so no one gets caught.’
Nor could they have even counted on there being a fire already burning in the hearth–not on 21 September 1327. That’s still late summer here in England and it can be warm.
So, they ride to the stand of trees nearest the castle, leave their horses and make the rest of the way on foot. Then, once there, they quietly climb up the stairs and open the locked door to his chamber. Edward looks up and says, “What do you want?” And they…what?
Fannied about with the fire? Grabbed the nearest implement that comes to hand because they forgot to bring their swords and knives? Someone expects me to believe this? They saw the poker and thought, “why use my trusty knife which I spent all morning sharpening, why not use a poker? I know, we’ll heat it up and skewer him with it.” What?
(And where were all the castle staff during this hour plus while they got the coals to blacksmith’s temperature and why was there no one to hear the rising screams of the intended shishkabob as he gathered the warm intention of his visitors? Off for the day on an employee picnic?)
No and no and no. This wasn’t an off-the-cuff bumbling mess of a murder by half-wits who didn’t know how to go about it.
These guys are good. They know their business. They didn’t get to be royal heavies without having experienced a great deal of warfare.
So I’m thinking, given the brief–swift, silent, clean (so there are no traces on their clothes in case they do meet anyone)–we’ve got to be looking at either a neat slit throat or the use of the garotte. Both are fast. Both are silent. And then they let the body fall to the floor and go out as quietly as they came in. And sometime later after they’re well away, the body is discovered…
Because that other method–as satisfying as it might have been to Mortimer or indeed Isabella, well, they weren’t stupid. Or not that stupid. And they were taking great care not to get caught. Nor did they have time on their side.
As for Isabella having gone with Mortimer to do the deed, that’s just silly. Queens and kings had been ordering the murder of one or other of their enemies or of those who had become inconvenient from time immemorial. But they didn’t do the deed themselves–they had people to do that sort of thing for them.
And Marlowe’s dramatic theory? What can I say, the guy brings out the Peter Wimsey in me. And his hot poker story? It wouldn’t hold up in court.