Saturday, 30 April 2016

47 Edward II: from Caernarfon to Neath Abbey

47 Edward II (photos: Neath Abbey, Edward II, the Oxwich brooch) – 30April 2016                            
What connects Neath Abbey with the castles at Swansea, Caernarfon and Oxwich?  What I have in mind is that tragic individual born at Caernarfon Castle who became King Edward II.

Caernarfon was one of the castles designed by James St George - along with Harlech, Beaumaris and Conwy - and built for the Plantagenet King Edward I as he consolidated his conquest of North Wales.  On 25 April 1284 his fourth son Edward was born at Caernarfon Castle to his wife Eleanor of Castile – after whose death the 12 carved stone crosses including Charing Cross and Waltham Cross were erected.  Each one marks where the procession carrying the Queen’s body rested overnight on the journey from Nottingham, where she had died in 1290, to Westminster for her funeral.  Her husband Edward I - known as ‘Longshanks’, as in the film ‘Braveheart’ – stayed two nights at Oystermouth Castle in December 1284.

Their youngest son, the future King Edward II, was in legend presented as a baby to the Welsh princes at Caernarfon as a Prince of Wales who spoke no English: in reality there is no historic basis for this unlikely event, which first appeared in writing nearly three centuries later.

When Edward was born, his two eldest brothers had already died, which made him second in line to the throne, and then his remaining brother Alphonso died.  Edward of Caernarfon was tall and athletic like his father, but very different in character – weak and easily led.  He was interested in the theatre and gardening, not ideal activities for a Plantagenet prince, and he became one of the least suitable rulers of Britain, as depicted in Christopher Marlowe’s 1592 play “Edward II”.  Though married in 1308 to Isabella, daughter of the King of France, he preferred the company of male flatterers to that of European princesses.  After years of misrule, trouble with the barons and the decisive defeat at Bannockburn by the Scots, the king fled from London in 1326 before an invading force led by his estranged wife and her lover. 

Along with his corrupt favourite Hugh le Dispenser, who was Lord of Glamorgan, Edward reached Neath Abbey in November 1326.  From there he sent ahead armour, documents, charters and money to Swansea Castle, intending to follow later, possibly to sail to Lundy Island.  But he turned back and was captured near Llantrisant at Pant-y-brad.  Dispenser was hung, drawn and quartered in Hereford, while in January 1327 Edward was deposed, and later murdered in Berkeley Castle. 

With news of the king’s capture, a number of items were taken from Swansea Castle, causing a hunt for missing royal possessions by the new regime.  Suspicion fell on Robert de Penrhys (Penrice), though nothing could be proved.  Two of the purloined items emerged in peninsular Gower centuries later - one being the marriage contract dated 1303 of Edward’s betrothal to Isabella, daughter of the French King.  This document, written in medieval French, set out the terms of the dowry and had important financial implications.  Sometime during the nineteenth century it was given by a Gower patient in payment for services to Dr Nichol of the Royal Institution of South Wales.  For many years it hung on a wall inside Swansea Museum, though it is now safe in environmentally-controlled storage at West Glamorgan Archives. 

There was also a 40mm diameter gold ring-brooch with six elaborate settings dating from medieval times, discovered in 1968 during restoration work at Oxwich Castle, formerly part of the Penrice estate.  Though we cannot be certain, this brooch, which is displayed in the National Museum of Wales in Cardiff, most probably belonged to the king. 
If the Oxwich brooch, like the marriage contract, had been purloined from Swansea Castle, then those items are a tenuous link between Neath Abbey and the castles of Swansea, Caernarfon and Oxwich, and the story of the ill-fated Edward II. 

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