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Piers Gaveston and the Royal Treasure*

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  11 July 2014

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Many charges were leveled against Piers Gaveston, the Gascon favorite of Edward II and earl of Cornwall from 1307 until his violent death at the hands of a group of disaffected magnates led by earls Thomas of Lancaster and Guy of Warwick in 1312. One of the most readily accepted has been the accusation that he had maliciously and illegally taken the royal treasure into his own hands and that he had then transported the treasure to his native Gascony. According to the contemporary Annales Londonienses, no sooner had Gaveston been recalled from exile than Edward bestowed the royal treasure upon him in its entirety: “Furthermore he has relinquished to the said Piers the disposition and control of all the royal treasure, jewels, and precious stones.” Other chronicles refer to Gaveston's acquisition of the royal treasure in 1307, linking it to the fall from grace of Edward I's former treasurer, Walter Langton, bishop of Coventry and Lichfield (but most often styled bishop of Chester in contemporary accounts of the reign). According to the Annales Paulini, Gaveston, still not satisfied, induced Edward to give him the wedding gifts that the king had received from his new father-in-law, Philip the Fair of France. Moreover, the earl of Cornwall was supposed to have sent this treasure abroad resulting in the pauperization of both king and Crown. To the monastic chroniclers of the fourteenth century, and indeed to the magnates who drafted the Ordinances of 1311, the veracity of these allegations was too well established to require specific proof. Modern scholars, however, require more concrete evidence than the narrative sources supply of Gaveston's alleged wrongdoing. Documentary evidence sheds light upon the various questions revolving around Piers Gaveston and the royal treasure.

Research Article
Copyright © North American Conference on British Studies 1991

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I am grateful to the College of Arts and Letters and the Department of History of Old Dominion University for providing me with a sabbatical leave during Spring semester 1989 in which I was able to write this article, and to the Old Dominion Research Foundation for providing me with a travel grant that allowed me to do my research and writing in London. I am also grateful to Professors Elizabeth A. R. Brown, George B. Stow, and Charles T. Wood who kindly read and commented on an earlier version of this article.


1 For recent accounts of the events leading up to Gaveston's execution see Maddicott, J. R., Thomas of Lancaster, 1307–1322 (Oxford, 1970), pp. 121–30Google Scholar; Phillips, J. R. S., Aymer de Valence, Earl of Pembroke, 1307–1324 (Oxford, 1972), pp. 3236Google Scholar; Hamilton, J. S., Piers Gaveston, Earl of Cornwall, 1307–1312 (Detroit, 1988), pp. 92103Google Scholar.

2 An example of this tendency is found in Dodge, Walter Phelps, Piers Gaveston (London, 1899)Google Scholar, the only biography of Gaveston available in English for nearly a century. Dodge asserts that “The charge that Gaveston sent much treasure out of the country is well authenticated” yet his evidence for this statement consists of the dicta of two hostile chronicles (p. 55).

3 Annales Londonienses, in Chronicles of the Reigns of Edward I and Edward II, ed. Stubbs, W., Rolls Series, 2 vols. (London, 18821883), 1: 151Google Scholar: “ac etiam omnem thesaurem regalem, jocalia, et lapides preciosos, dispositione et voluntati dicti Petri reliquit.”

4 Annales Paulini, in Chronicles of the Reigns of Edward I and Edward II, ed. Stubbs, , 1: 257Google Scholar, contends that Gaveston was responsible for Langton's arrest because the bishop had caused his exile, and goes on to say that Edward II therefore Terras ejus et tenementa fiscus capiebat: thesaurus, equi et pecora Petro de Gavastone sunt donata.” Flores Historiarum, ed. Luard, H. R., Rolls Series, 3 vols. (London, 1890), 3: 140Google Scholar, is more strident in tone, comparing the treatment of Langton by Gaveston to that accorded to Christ by Lucifer and to the apostles by Simon Magus. See also the somewhat confused account of events presented in The Chronicle of Walter of Guisborough, ed. Rothwell, H., Camden 3rd series, 89 (1957): 382–83Google Scholar. In fact, Langton's fall from grace was more likely a result of his longstanding animosity with the new king, not to mention the financial difficulties confronting Edward II at the outset of his reign. See Hamilton, , Piers Gaveston, pp. 3132Google Scholar; Prestwich, M., Edward I (Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1988), p. 570Google Scholar.

5 Annales Paulini, 1: 258Google Scholar. None of the chroniclers seems to have been aware that at the coronation of Edward II and Isabella–an affair at which indignation against Gaveston rose to a fever pitch — John, duke of Brabant returned various royal treasure which had been pawned to him by Edward I in late 1297. See de Sturler, J., Les relations politiques el les échanges commerciaux entre le duché de Brabant et l'Angleterre au moyen âge (Paris, 1936), p. 160Google Scholar; British Library (hereafter cited as B.L.) Add. MS. 4578 fo. 50.

6 This is reported in the annals of Trokelowe, John, Chronica monasterii S. Albani, ed. Riley, H. T., Rolls Series, 6 vols. (London, 18631873), 3: 6465Google Scholar; Guisborough, pp. 382–83; and by the author of the generally reliable Vita Edwardi Secundi, ed. Denholm-Young, N. (London, 1957), p. 19Google Scholar, who does not judge the veracity of the claim, but merely includes it in his transcript of article 20 of the Ordinances of 1311. Similarly, the Chronicon de Lanercost, ed. Stevenson, J., 2 vols. (Edinburgh, 1839), 2: 211–12Google Scholar, reports that before his exile to Ireland in 1308 Edward gave Gaveston “quaedam pretiosiora et cariora, quae in thesauro suo poluit invenire.”

7 The Ordinances are preserved in B.L., Harley Charter 43 D. 18, and printed in Statutes of the Realm (London, 1810), 1: 157–67Google ScholarPubMed. For an interesting insight into the personal nature of the Ordinances and the attack on Gaveston see Prestwich, M., “A New Version of the Ordinances of 1311,” Bulletin of the Institute of Historical Research 57 (1984), 189203CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

8 The majority of Gaveston's goods were abandoned at Newcastle on 4–5 May 1312. Gaveston surrendered himself into the custody of Aymer de Valence, earl of Pembroke, on 19 May at Scarborough. On 10 June he was seized by the earl of Warwick at Deddington, and on 19 June he was beheaded on Blacklow Hill, along the road between Warwick and Oxford. See Hamilton, , Piers Gaveston, pp. 9599Google Scholar; Maddicott, , Thomas of Lancaster, pp. 124–30Google Scholar; Phillips, , Aymer de Valence, pp. 3236Google Scholar.

9 The negotiations are well chronicled in Rymer, T., Foedera, Conventiones, Literae, ed. Clarke, A., Caley, J., Bayley, J., Holbrooke, F. and Clarke, J. W., 4 vols. in 7 (London, 18161869), 2.1: 180205Google Scholar, and in Roberts, R. A., “Edward II, the Lords Ordainers, and Piers Gaveston's Jewels and Horses,” Camden Miscellany, Camden, 3rd series, vol. 41 (1929)Google Scholar. See also, Maddicott, , Thomas of Lancaster, pp. 130–48, 153–54Google Scholar; Phillips, , Aymer de Valence, pp. 47–50, 5359Google Scholar; Hamilton, , Piers Gaveston, pp. 103–07Google Scholar.

10 Public Record Office (hereafter cited as P.R.O.), C 66/138 m. 3; Foedera, 2.1: 203–05. An English translation of the schedule of Gaveston's goods is printed in Hamilton, , Piers Gaveston, pp. 119–27Google Scholar. Maddicott, , Thomas of Lancaster, p. 131Google Scholar, provides a brief estimate of the extent, value and provenance of these goods. He calculates that 189 lots of goods were inventoried in the quittance for Gaveston's goods; of these 29 were valued. There is also an enumeration of Gaveston's goods by type in Appendix no. XIII (pp. 99–102) to Dimitresco, M., Pierre de Gavaston, comte de Cornouailles: son biographie et son rôle pendant la commencement du regne d'Edouard II, 1307–14 (Paris, 1898)Google Scholar.

11 The major discrepancies between these figures and those provided by Maddicott (n. 10 above) arise from three different sets of clasps, or broochs (fermailles), numbering 15, 12 and 3 respectively, which the quittance introduces as lots, yet nevertheless goes on to itemize, providing valuations for 9 of the 15 clasps in the first lot.

12 Especially in the case of plain silver goblets, pitchers, spoons, etc., exchequer records from earlier inventories of royal plate and jewels tend to show valuations only slightly above the actual weight of the items listed. See, for example, B.L., Add. MS. 7965 (25 Edward I) fo. 135v, an inventory of gold-plated silver cups weighing between 20s. 5d. and 31s., and valued at between 27s. 5d. and 43s.; B.L., Add. MS. 7966A (29 Edward I) fo. 209, where 24 silver spoons with the arms of England and France upon ‘uno signo in masclato collo,’ have a total weight of 39s. 6d. and are valued at 42s. 6d.; P.R.O., E 101/369/11 (33 Edward I) fo. 172v, where a pair of silver cups are specifically valued at exactly their weights, 29s. and 27s. respectively. Numerous items in all of the above listed inventories are described only by weight, with the implicit meaning that this is also their value. See also Bodley MS Tanner 197 (4 Edward II) fo. 62 for another example of entries of this sort closer to the date of Gaveston's acquittance. Enamelled items, however, generally show a value of at least three to four times their weight, and the addition of jewels to any of these items, obviously, can increase their value dramatically.

13 Items in the acquittance are valued in both pounds sterling and livres tournois. The exchange rate between the livre tournois and the pound sterling has been calculated here at a figure of 5 for 1. See Trabut-Cussac, J. -P., L'Administration anglaise en Gascogne, 1254–1307 (Geneva, 1972), pp. 319–23Google Scholar.

14 These relics from the Holy Land, along with other items such as relics of St. Richard of Chichester, undoubtedly had a greater spiritual and symbolic than material value, but the market in relics arising out of the Crusades should not be overlooked entirely. Edward I, for instance, had an unvalued “crux auri cum rubettos amerandis et margaritas in qua est pars crucis Christi,” B.L., Add. MS. 7965 (25 Edward I) fo. 144, which we must nevertheless believe to have been extremely precious in contemporary eyes, as much for the piece of the True Cross as for the gold, rubies, emeralds and pearls.

15 A benchmark price of £32 can be established from the valuation of 22 destriers and coursers, ranging from 20 marks to 120 marks, at £713 6s. 8d. in Bodley MS Tanner 197 (Wardrobe Book for 4 Edward II) fo. 42. Also, 16 barded horses are valued in the same account, fos. 40–41v, at an average of just over £23. See, however, Maddicott, , Thomas of Lancaster, p. 132Google Scholar, who estimates the value of coursers and destriers at between £60 and £70 apiece. This is a substantial increase from the average price of £20 for a barded horse at the outset of Edward I's reign. See Prestwich, M., War, Politics and Finance in the Reign of Edward I (1970), p. 41Google Scholar; P.R.O., C 47/2/6, 7.

16 By way of comparison, the earldom of Cornwall—prior to Gaveston's elevation a sort of royal appanage — was valued at a figure of £4,000 per year, the sum with which Gaveston was recompensed upon surrendering his earldom to go into exile in Ireland in 1308. See Hamilton, , Piers Gaveston, pp. 5354Google Scholar.

17 Although his income as earl of Cornwall was some £4,000 per annum, record sources indicate that he was unable to collect all of his revenues. Allowing for the expenses of maintaining his household — even if not at the lavish levels described by the chroniclers — there cannot have been sufficient funds to purchase the goods listed in the quittance of 1313. Hamilton, , Piers Gaveston, pp. 4243Google Scholar.

18 One is templed to identify the “divers garnementz des Armes de le dit Pieres, ovek les alettes, garniz & freitcz de Perles,” with one of the tourneying outfits given to the Gascon by Prince Edward at the time of Gaveston's first exile to Ponthicu in 1307. B.L., Add. MS. 22923 (35 Edward I) fo. 12v. For an example of a large royal commission, see the goods made by Adam the Goldsmith for Edward I's daughter Margaret, duchess of Brabant, in 1297. B.L., Add. MS. 7965 (25 Edward I) fos. 134–35v.

19 Gilbert of St. Leofard, bishop of Chichester, 1288–1305.

20 Henry of Newark, archbishop of York, 1296–99.

21 Dr. J. R. S. Phillips has suggested to me that it is among these “diverse stones” that Piers Gaveston was reputed to carry certain gnostic stones, which may have encouraged a popular association of the favorite with sorcery. This is hinted at, but no more than that, in a popular contemporary song on Gaveston's death printed by Wright, T. in Political Songs of Fourteenth-Century England, Camden o.s. 6 (London, 1839), pp. 259–61Google Scholar.

22 These include a brooch given by Edmund of Cornwall to Lady Isabella and a brooch given to Edward I by Lady Isabella on New Year's Day 1293. Another dozen items, with reference to which the language of the acquittance is equivocal, are nevertheless almost certainly gifts presented to Edward I rather than to Edward II. Also, the numerous items bearing the arms of both England and France suggest that the wedding gifts of Philip the Fair to Edward I if not to Edward II may in fact have found their way into Gaveston's own coffers.

23 B.L., Add. MS. 7965, a wardrobe book of 25 Edward I, fo. 145. Identical entries for this gold and sapphire ring can be found in B.L., Add. MS. 7966A (29 Edward I), fo. 169v and P.R.O., E 101/369/11 (33 Edward I) fo. 175v.

24 B.L., Add. MS. 7965 (25 Edward I) fo. 145; 7966A (29 Edward I) fo. 170. These are undoubtedly the two stones from Jerusalem mentioned above.

25 B.L., Add. MS. 7966A (29 Edward I) fo. 209. It is particularly interesting that Gaveston should have received this item, which he had on his person at the time of his capture at Deddington, not only because of its immense value, but also because it had formerly belonged to Edmund of Cornwall and Margaret of France in turn. Such a gift, out of the royal treasure, must have further fueled the sense of outrage felt by many of the magnates at Edward II's enfeoffment of his favorite with the hitherto royal earldom of Cornwall. Several contemporary chronicles relate that on his deathbed, Edward I had specifically enjoined his son not to do this. This tradition became firmly established in sixteenth-century and later historical writing. See, for instance, Stow', JohnChronicles of England from Brute unto this present yeare of Christ, 1580 (London, 1580), p. 327Google Scholar.

26 B.L., Add. MS. 7966A (29 Edward I) fo. 168; 8835 (32 Edward I) fo. 124; P.R.O., E 101/369/11 (33 Edward I) fo. 173v. This was Edward I's daughter Eleanor, who married Henry, count of Bar, in 1293.

27 Ibid. This was Edward I's daughter Margaret, who married John II, duke of Brabant, in 1290.

28 B.L., Add. MS. 8835 (32 Edward I) fo. 122. Thomas de Corbridge was archbishop of York from 1299 until 1304.

29 Ibid., fo. 124v. John Pecham was archbishop of Canterbury from 1279 until 1292.

30 Gaveston and Edward II fled Newcastle together, and it is quite possible that some of the goods seized by the baronial opposition may have belonged to the king rather than the favorite. The quittance, however, treats all as belonging to Gaveston, and the king did not protest. Further, some of the most remarkable items, such as “la cerise,” were taken from Gaveston's person after his capture. The numerous items bearing the earl of Cornwall's arms also indicate that this was indeed his personal treasure.

31 Gaveston's earliest documented dealings with the Frescobaldi come only after the publication of the Ordinances of 1311 in a wardrobe book of 4 Edward II, B.L., MS. Cotton Nero C. VIII fo. 83. In early 1312, between the time of his return from exile in contravention of the Ordinances and his surrender at Scarborough, Gaveston busily gathered what cash he could — including £853 from the steward of Cornwall — in preparation for a hasty return into exile if necessary. See Hamilton, , Piers Gaveston, p. 94Google Scholar.

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