By Susan Higginbotham
Excerpt: Edward I and his first wife, Eleanor of Castile, had at least fourteen children, most of whom died young. Edward II himself was the couple’s fourth son. His two oldest brothers, John and Henry, had long predeceased him, and the third boy, Alphonso, died within months of Edward II’s birth.
Edward II was born on April 25, 1284—three years to the day before Roger Mortimer, the man who would kill him, was born. He was born at Caernarfon Castle in Wales. Legend has it that Edward I presented the newborn infant to the Welsh as a Welsh-born prince who could not speak a word of English. Neither Hilda Johnstone, who wrote a biographical study of Edward II’s youth, nor Michael Prestwich puts much credence in the story; it was not until 1301 that Edward II was created Prince of Wales.
Edward I and his queen, Eleanor, went abroad when their only surviving son was but two years old, and did not return until over three years later. Edward was thus left entirely to the care of servants, though his household was a luxurious one. It was not unusual for royal and noble children to be raised apart from their families, so one should avoid making too much psychological capital of this. Nonetheless, the three-year separation could have hardly fostered a close relationship between father and son, who would meet as virtual strangers when Edward II was five years old. Within fifteen months of the reunion between parents and child, Edward’s mother had died. Edward’s primary emotional attachment in these years seems to have been to his nurses, who were looked after well by Edward after he became king.
In 1297, when Edward II was thirteen, he got his first taste of his future role when Edward I went to Flanders, having appointed his son as regent. This appears to have been a purely nominal role, however; the real authority lay in the hands of the adults on the regency council. By 1300, though, Edward had begun accompanying his father on military campaigns.
The most personal details that emerge from this time are in Edward’s letters to his relatives and acquaintances. To Walter Reynolds, then his treasurer, he asked for the loan of a stallion. He informed his sister Elizabeth that he had a beautiful white greyhound and wished her to send him her own female greyhound, “for we very much want to have puppies from them.” Hearing that the Abbot of Shrewsbury had a gifted player of the “crwth,” a Welsh relative of the violin, in his house, he asked that he receive a minstrel of Edward’s there so that the minstrel could take lessons. On a more serious note, he asked the mayor and sheriffs of London to relieve a well-connected female prisoner. In one letter, he offered the Count of Evreux “some of our bandy-legged harriers from Wales, who can well catch a hare if they find it asleep, and some of our running dogs, which go at a gentle pace; for well we know that you take delight in lazy dogs.”