Amateur Rowing: Older and Grander than Previously Thought

Edward II’s tomb effigy at Gloucester Cathedral. The graffiti was etched by eighteenth-century choirboys.
Edward II’s tomb effigy at Gloucester Cathedral. The graffiti was etched by eighteenth-century choirboys.

Tim Koch writes:

I have recently had two of my beliefs about certain aspects of rowing history overturned. In May I published a piece on HTBS in which I confidently stated that rowing was ‘Not The Sport Of Kings’. A little later, in post on the 200th anniversary of the Head of the River at Oxford, William O’Chee and Christopher Seward wrote:

Although it is often believed that amateur rowing began at Eton or Westminster, recreational rowing is clearly attested in Oxford in the 1760s and was flourishing by the 1790s.

I had assumed from this that the 1760s marked the earliest references to rowing as an activity done purely for enjoyment by the wealthy and privileged and not as a task by working men in return for payment or prizes. I have since discovered that, not only was there a King of England who rowed for pleasure, he did it 500 years before the young gentlemen of Oxford started paddling up and down the Isis.

The information that enables this rewriting of history comes from one of those splendid websites that one occasionally finds existing quietly on the Internet. They are usually written by someone who is passionate about their chosen subject but who questions all previously accepted facts about it and who studies primary sources with an open mind. Kathryn Warner is one such person and her blog, ‘Edward the Second’, is one such site. It is subtitled ‘Why almost everything you think you know about Edward II is wrong’ and its home page says:

This blog takes an in-depth look at Edward II, king of England from July 1307 to January 1327; his life and his family; the events of his reign and its aftermath; and the people who lived then. It is not a chronological overview of his reign, as this is easily available elsewhere online. I use primary sources to keep my posts here as historically accurate as possible and do my best to take apart some of the myths and misconceptions that have arisen over the centuries about Edward, one of the most maligned kings in English history. I will never deny that Edward II was a disastrous ruler, but much of the criticism he gets is deeply unfair and based on prejudice, not evidence. His failure as a ruler does not automatically make him a failure as a human being, and he does not deserve much of the vitriol and contempt thrown at him over the last 700 years.

Edward II: The Unconventional King (2014) by Kathryn Warner.
Edward II: The Unconventional King (2014) by Kathryn Warner.

In addition to producing the blog, in 2014 Kathryn published a book, Edward II: The Unconventional King, available in hardback and as an eBook. The publicity says:

History has not been overly kind to Edward; having been subject to cutting criticism throughout his reign, he garnered a particularly poor reputation in the many years that followed. Today he is typically remembered for his inadequacy as a king, likely homosexuality, and of course that red hot poker. In The Unconventional King, Kathryn sets out to right some of these wrongs regarding his reputation, and the rumours that have surrounded him for centuries. She achieves this with great success; the unconventional king with the myths around him cleared, emerges as a man in his own right with a captivating life story. The book is meticulously researched, and this shines through in every chapter. It proves to be a fascinating read and makes a refreshing change to read about this king’s virtues, as well as his weaknesses as a ruler. 

The book is available for purchase now directly from Amberley Publishing, or at Amazon UK, Amazon US, The Book Depository and The Guardian Bookshop. There is a splendid in depth interview with Kathryn about The Unconventional King here.

With Kathryn’s permission, I am going to quote (in italics) large chunks of her work with little original comment from myself. I am taking this approach because her studies are my only source and I am not going to rewrite them to make it appear that they are not. Also, she writes in a relaxed and entertaining way which is worth sharing. I am not going to attempt to summarise Edward II’s reign or its historical context but instead concentrate on some aspects of his private life, especially (no surprises) his involvement in rowing.

Another view of Edward II’s tomb effigy.
Another view of Edward II’s tomb effigy.

In an e-mail to me, Kathryn produced some examples of the fact that Edward ‘was definitely sporty and athletic’:

Edward may have been the first person to play cricket – in 1299 he’s recorded playing something called ‘creaget’. And in 1314, he banned the playing of football in London, which may well be the first ref to that sport too. There are other references to him watching and playing some kind of ball game, though the details aren’t specified. In 1325 he watched 22 men play a ball game, which may well have been football, and in 1326 himself went out to the park of Saltwood Castle to play a ball game with some of his knights. 

Kathryn’s guest post for the blog ‘The Medieval World’  went into more detail about this most physically active of kings:

There were certain outdoor pursuits which most royal and noble men of the Middle Ages enjoyed: jousting, hunting and hawking. Participation in these activities was conventional and expected for men of a certain rank, but one king, however, preferred much more unusual hobbies. He was Edward II.

From his youth he devoted himself in private to the art of rowing and driving carts, of digging ditches and thatching houses, as was commonly said, and also with his companions at night to various works of ingenuity and skill, and to other pointless trivial occupations unsuitable for the son of a king,’ commented the Lanercost chronicler disapprovingly. Edward II loved building walls, swimming, rowing, hedging, working with wrought iron and shoeing horses, and not only did he enjoy such hobbies, he showed talent for them: the Scalacronica, a chronicle written by the son of a knight who had known Edward well, called him ‘very skilful in what he delighted to employ his hands upon.

Most unusually for the fourteenth century, Edward II loved being around water, swimming and rowing. In February 1303 before his accession, when he was eighteen, he had to pay four shillings in compensation to his Fool Robert Bussard or Buffard, because the two men went swimming together in the Thames at Windsor and Robert was injured in some way by ‘the trick (Edward) played on him in the water……

Some extant entries in Edward II’s household accounts also provide a glimpse into his love of spending time with his common subjects and watching or taking part in their activities. In November 1322 near Doncaster, he stood by a river to watch fishermen fishing, shortly afterwards went to the forge at Temple Hirst in Yorkshire to chat to his blacksmith John Cole, and in May 1326 invited a group of shipwrights to stay with him at Kenilworth Castle. In August 1326, the king joined in when a group of men were hired to make hedges and a ditch in the park of Kenilworth Castle, and some weeks earlier had bought drinks for a group of men hired to clean the ditches around Edward’s London manor of Burgundy ‘in the king’s presence.’ There are many other such entries. 

All fourteenth-century chroniclers who describe Edward II’s appearance comment on his enormous strength: ‘he was one of the strongest men in his realm’;’’handsome in body and great of strength’; ‘tall and strong, a fine figure of a handsome man’ and so on. Edward revelled in his strength and in his excellent health and fitness; he loved the outdoors and demanding physical exercise; he was as far removed from the caricatured feeble court fop he is depicted as in (the 1995 Mel Gibson film) Braveheart and much modern fiction as any man possibly could be…..

Hawking, one of the accepted ‘sport of kings’. Detail from the Queen Mary Psalter, England, circa 1310-1320. Picture: The British Library Board.
Hawking, one of the accepted ‘sport of kings’. Detail from the Queen Mary Psalter, England, circa 1310-1320. Picture: The British Library Board.

Whilst propelling a boat by means of oars and paddles has been around since before recorded history, this task has mostly been carried out for necessary and practical purposes. Almost certainly, many of the working men who crewed these boats would have raced each other at some time, but they would have been motivated by prize money produced by gambling rather than by the thrill of the race itself. The idea of rowing for pleasure by the wealthy, privileged and powerful is popularly supposed to be a relatively modern one but I now find that Kathryn has uncovered several (frustratingly brief) fourteenth-century references to Edward II’s involvement in rowing as a leisure activity.

Edward II: The Unconventional King:

In the autumn of 1315, Edward went on holiday to the Fens (a marshy region of eastern England) with ‘a great concourse of common people’……. Centuries ahead of his time in recognising the pleasures of taking holidays by water, he spent a congenial month from mid-September to mid-October rowing and swimming at King’s Lynn in Norfolk and at Fen Ditto and Impington near Cambridge, though he fell into the water and nearly drowned ‘while rowing about on various lakes……’ (One of Edward’s critics) sneered at the king’s holiday, saying sarcastically that Edward went to the Fens to ‘refresh his soul with many waters’, a perfectly normal thing to do in later centuries but very strange to the fourteenth-century mind.

An e-mail from Kathryn contained this delightful snippet of information:

It was known in Scotland that Edward loved rowing, and after (he humiliatingly lost the battle of Bannockburn to Robert Bruce, King of Scotland in 1314) a mocking poem was written about him, using the traditional oarsman’s chant of ‘Heavalow, Rumbelow’:

Maidens of England, sore may you mourn,
For you have lost your men at Bannockburn with ‘Heavalow’
What, would the king of England have won Scotland with ‘Rumbalow?’

Despite her best efforts, Kathryn cannot be sure about the form of boats Edward may have used or if they were paddled, sculled or rowed – though contemporary illustrations seem to show that all three types existed at the time. There are references to a group including the King rowing or being rowed in a ‘shoute’ (which the Anglo-Norman dictionary translates as ‘a flat-bottomed boat’) from Westminster to Richmond and Edward himself refers to a ‘bat’, Anglo-Norman for ‘small boat’ or ‘dinghy’. Kathryn adds ‘I can’t think of any references to oars or what kind they might have been….. and I am sure that there aren’t any illustrations of his rowing boats anywhere.’ There may not be any pictures of Edward in a boat but there are contemporary illustrations of fourteenth-century boats, both rowed and paddled, which Edward could have used.

Detail from a marginal decoration for Psalm 88 in the Luttrell Psalter, England, circa 1325-1335, which clearly depicts a rowing boat. Picture: The British Library Board.
Detail from a marginal decoration for Psalm 88 in the Luttrell Psalter, England, circa 1325-1335, which clearly depicts a rowing boat. Picture: The British Library Board.
Water jousting, detail from the Queen Mary Psalter, England, circa 1310-1320. Picture: The British Library Board.
Water jousting, detail from the Queen Mary Psalter, England, circa 1310-1320. Picture: The British Library Board.

Water jousting took place in two styles. Either the jousters aimed at a target hanging over the river or at another jousting boat. Are these boats rowed or sculled? The oarsmen are each holding one oar with both hands and I suspect the medieval artists’ casual approach to perspective is why both oars are one side. Further, unless the oarsmen are ‘backing down’, these boats would be moving apart, not together. Water jousting is still done in France, where the sport has its own governing body. The Wikipedia page for water jousting in France gives more historical examples.

Fourteenth-century fishermen at work. No oars or paddles are illustrated but I would guess that these were paddled craft – as shown here.
Fourteenth-century fishermen at work. No oars or paddles are illustrated but I would guess that these were paddled craft.
A picture from the Codex Manesse which was produced between 1310 and 1340. It is intriguingly titled 'Lord Niune rowing with his mistress' - is this the ultimate in 'rowing for pleasure'? They are using what at first look like paddles but they must be oars as they are in rowlocks of some kind, possibly made of rope. Also, is this the earliest representation a woman (or is it two women) rowing?
A picture from the Codex Manesse which was produced between 1310 and 1340. It is intriguingly titled ‘Lord Niune rowing with his mistress’ – is this the ultimate in ‘rowing for pleasure’? They are using what at first look like paddles but they must be oars as they are in rowlocks of some kind, possibly made of rope. Also, is this the earliest representation a woman (or is it two women) rowing?

As already indicated, at the time Edward’s leisure activities were considered not suitable for a king.

Edward the Second blog: Was Edward II violent?

……. the Polychronicon, a chronicle written around 1350 by Ranulph or Ralph Higden, a monk of Chester…… has this to say on the subject of Edward II: ‘A handsome man, of outstanding strength….. He forsook the company of lords, and fraternised with harlots, singers, actors, carters, ditchers, oarsmen, sailors, and others who practise the mechanical arts……’

Edward the Second blog: Friday facts:

The Scalacronica of the 1360s says that Edward ‘amused himself with ships, among mariners, and in other irregular occupation unworthy of his station, and scarcely concerned himself with other honour or profit, whereby he lost the affection of his people……..’ No less a person than Pope John XXII condemned Edward’s ‘childish frivolities.’

Edward the Second blog: Edward’s eccentric aquatic activities:

On the day Edward agreed to Parliament’s decision to depose him, 20 January 1327, a delegation sent to him at Kenilworth Castle read out the reasons why his subjects had rejected his rule. Included in the second one……. was ‘he has always given himself up to unseemly works and occupations’. 

Kathryn summarises Edward’s life thus.

Edward II: The Unconventional King:

Edward II’s entire life was a battle against what was expected of him. Entirely unconventional by the standards of the time, even eccentric, he had neither the temperament nor the ability to fill the position he had been born into, to the great unhappiness of himself and his subjects…….. 

…….Edward had the misfortune to be born in the wrong era. Many of the character traits and behaviour that made him such a disastrous king, and were incomprehensible and even shocking to his contemporaries, would be judged differently today. In many ways, Edward was ahead of his time…..

Kathryn’s guest post for ‘The Medieval World’ concluded:

Were he alive in our century, he would no doubt be admired as a king with the common touch and as an excellent role model……. Sadly for Edward II, he was born in the wrong era, and his favourite activities attracted little but bewildered and horrified contempt.

A picture of ‘a king dining alone’, from Walter Milemete’s De Secretis Secretorum of 1326 or 1327.  Kathryn says that this is probably meant to represent Edward. The table piece in the shape of a boat may have been for alms for the poor, salt or wine.
A picture of ‘a king dining alone’, from Walter Milemete’s De Secretis Secretorum of 1326 or 1327. Kathryn says that this is probably meant to represent Edward. The table piece in the shape of a boat may have been for alms for the poor, salt or wine.

When Edward was forced to abdicate in favour of his young son, he stated: ‘I greatly lament that I have so utterly failed my people, but I could not be other than I am’. This was a rather pathetic epitaph for a man who probably would have fared better as a king had he lived in modern times, relieved of the responsibilities of major decision making and with a character which would now be much admired – not least in the rowing world.

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