Piers Gaveston, a foreigner sprung from a family of Guienne, had been his friend and companion during his father's reign, at the close of which he had been banished from the realm for his share in intrigues which had divided Edward from his son. At the new King's accession he was at once recalled, created Earl of Cornwall, and placed at the head of the administration. Gay, genial, thriftless, Gaveston showed in his first acts the quickness and audacity of Southern Gaul; the older ministers were dismissed, all claims of precedence or inheritance set aside in the distribution of offices at the coronation, while taunts and defiances goaded the proud baronage to fury. The favourite was a fine soldier, and his lance unhorsed his opponents in tourney after tourney. His reckless wit flung nicknames about the Court; the Earl of Lancaster was "the Actor," Pembroke "the Jew," Warwick "the Black Dog." But taunt and defiance broke helplessly against the iron mass of the baronage. After a few months of power the demand of the Parliament for his dismissal could not be resisted, and he was formally banished from the realm.
In the following year it was only by conceding the rights which his father had sought to establish of imposing import duties on the merchants by their own assent, that Edward procured a subsidy for the Scotch war. The firmness of the baronage sprang from their having found a head in the Earl of Lancaster, son of Edmund Crouchback. His weight proved irresistible. When Edward at the close of the Parliament recalled Gaveston, Lancaster withdrew from the royal Council, and a Parliament which met in 1310 resolved that the affairs of the realm should be entrusted for a year to a body of twenty-one "Ordainers".
A formidable list of " Ordinances " drawn up by the twenty-one met Edward on his return from a fruitless warfare with the Scots. By this long and important statute Gaveston was banished, other advisers were driven from the Council, and the Florentine bankers whose loans had enabled Edward to hold the baronage at bay sent out of the realm. The customs duties imposed by Edward the First were declared to be illegal. Parliaments were to be called every year, and in these assemblies the King's servants were to be brought, if need were, to justice. The great officers of state were to be appointed with the counsel and consent of the baronage, and to be sworn in Parliament. The same consent of the barons in Parliament was to be needful ere the King could declare war or absent himself from the realm. As the Ordinances show, the baronage still looked on Parliament rather as a political organization of the nobles than as a gathering of the three Estates of the realm. The lower clergy pass unnoticed; the Commons are regarded as mere tax-payers whose part was still confined to the presentation of petitions of grievances and the grant of money.
But even in this imperfect fashion the Parliament was a real representation of the country, and Edward was forced to assent to the Ordinances after a long and obstinate struggle. The exile of Gaveston was the sign of the barons' triumph; his recall a few months later renewed a strife which was only ended by his capture in Scarborough. The "Black Dog " of Warwick had sworn that the favourite should feel his teeth; and Gaveston, who flung himself in vain at the feet of the Earl of Lancaster, praying for pity " from his gentle lord," was beheaded in defiance of the terms of his capitulation on Blacklow Hill. The King's burst of grief was as fruitless as his threats of vengeance; a feigned submission of the conquerors completed the royal humiliation, and the barons knelt before Edward in Westminster Hall to receive a pardon which seemed the deathblow of the royal power. But if Edward was powerless to conquer the baronage he could still, by evading the observance of the Ordinances, throw the whole realm into confusion. The six years that follow Gaveston's death are among the darkest in our history.
A terrible succession of famines intensified the suffering which sprang from the utter absence of all rule during the dissension between the barons and the King. The overthrow of Bannockburn, and the ravages of the Scots in the North, brought shame on England such as it had never known. At last the capture of Berwick by Robert Bruce forced Edward to give way, the Ordinances were formally accepted, an amnesty granted, and a small number of peers belonging to the Barons' party added to the great officers of state.
The Earl of Lancaster, by the union of the four earldoms of Lincoln, Leicester, Derby, Lancaster, as well as by his royal blood (for like the King he was grandson of Henry the Third), stood at the head of the English bar nage, and the issue of the long struggle with Edward raised him for the moment to supreme power in the realm. But his character seems to have fallen far beneath the greatness of his position. Incapable of governing, he could do little but regard with jealousy the new advisers on whom the King now leaned, the older and the younger Hugh Le Despenser. The rise of the younger, on whom the King bestowed the county of Glamorgan with the hand of its heiress, was rapid enough to excite general jealousy, and Lancaster found little difficulty in extorting by force of arms his exile from the kingdom. But the tide of popular sympathy, already wavering, was turned to the royal cause by an insult offered to the Queen, against whom Lady Badlesmere had closed the doors of Ledes Castle, and the unexpected energy shown by Edward in avenging the insult gave fresh strength to his cause.
He found himself strong enough to recall Despenser, and when Lancaster convoked the baronage to force him again into exile, the weakness of their party was shown by the treasonable negotiations into which the Earl entered with the Scots, and by his precipitate retreat to the north on the advance of the royal army. At Boroughbridge his forces were arrested and dispersed, and the Earl himself, brought captive before Edward at Pontefract, was tried and condemned to death as a traitor. "Have mercy on me, King of Heaven," cried Lancaster, as mounted on a grey pony without a bridle he was hurried to execution, "for my earthly King has forsaken me." His death was followed by that of a number of his adherents and by the captivity of others; while a Parliament at York annulled the proceedings against the Despensers, and repealed the Ordinances. It is to this Parliament however, and perhaps to the victorious confidence of the royalists, that we owe the famous provision which reveals the policy of the Despensers, the provision that all laws concerning "the estate of the Crown, or of the realm and people, shall be treated, accorded, and established in Parliaments by our Lord the King and by the consent of the prelates, earls, barons, and commonalty of the realm, according as hath been hitherto accustomed." It would seem from the tenor of this remarkable enactment that much of the sudden revulsion of popular feeling had been owing to the assumption of all legislative action by the baronage alone.
But the arrogance of the Despensers, the utter failure of a fresh campaign against Scotland, and the humiliating truce for thirteen years which Edward was forced to conclude with Robert Bruce, soon robbed the Crown of its temporary popularity, and led the way to the sudden catastrophe which closed this disastrous reign. It had been arranged that the Queen, a sister of the King of France, should re-visit her home to conclude a treaty between the two countries, whose quarrel was again verging upon war; and her son, a boy of twelve years old, followed her to do homage in his father's stead for the duchies of Gascony and Aquitaine. Neither threats nor prayers, however, could induce either wife or child to return to his court; and the Queen's connexion with a secret conspiracy of the baronage was revealed when the primate and nobles hurried to her standard on her landing at Orwell. Deserted by all, and repulsed by the citizens of London whose aid he implored, the King fled hastily to the west and embarked with the Despensers for Lundy Isle; but contrary winds flung the fugitives again on the Welsh coast, where they fell into the hands of the new Earl of Lancaster. The younger Despenser was at once hanged on a gibbet fifty feet high, and the King placed in ward at Kenilworth till his fate could be decided by a Parliament summoned for that purpose at Westminster. The Peers who assembled fearlessly revived the constitutional usage of the earlier English freedom, and asserted their right to depose a king who had proved himself unworthy to rule.
Not a voice was raised in Edward's behalf, and only four prelates protested when the young Prince was proclaimed King by acclamation, and presented as their sovereign to the multitudes without. The revolution soon took legal form in a bill which charged the captive monarch with indolence, incapacity, the loss of Scotland, the violation of his coronation oath, and oppression of the Church and baronage; and on the approval of this it was resolved that the reign of Edward of Caernarvon had ceased and that the crown had passed to his son, Edward of Windsor.
A deputation of the Parliament proceeded to Kenilworth to procure the assent of the discrowned King to his own deposition, and Edward, "clad in a plain black gown," submitted quietly to his fate. Sir William Trussel at once addressed him in words which better than any other mark the true nature of the step which the Parliament had taken. " I, William Trussel, proctor of the earls, barons, and others, having for this full and sufficient power, do render and give back to you, Edward, once King of England, the homage and fealty of the persons named in my procuracy; and acquit and discharge them thereof in the best manner that law and custom will give. And I now make protestation in their name that they will no longer be in your fealty and allegiance, nor claim to hold anything of you as king, but will account you hereafter as a private person, without any manner of royal dignity." A significant act followed these emphatic words. Sir Thomas Blount, the steward of the household, broke his staff of office, a ceremony only used at a king's death, and declared that all persons engaged in the royal service were discharged.
In the following September the King was murdered in Berkeley Castle.