The King and the Carter's Son: Who is Who?

The Deydras affair was perhaps not quite so dreadful as the Nesle affair--except of course to the unfortunate Deydras himself.  Reading about it today, in fact, it has an almost comical aspect--except of course to the unfortunate Deydras himself.  And his cat.

medieval manuscripts, cat, illuminated manuscript, deydras, dydras, powderham, edward ii

To fully understand this incident, it's important to remember that Edward II was a king out of step with his time.  In another era, he would have been hailed for being in touch with the common man.  In his own, his fascination with ditch digging and roof thatching, swimming with common people, and watching men fish, was seen as unkingly.  To put it in the nicest possible terms.  There had already been rumors he was a changeling of some sort.

To make matters worse (at least for Edward), the country was in turmoil and already agitated against him by 1318. There was his spectacular failure at Bannockburn (you had one job, Ed, one job...), on top of losing virtually everything his father had gained in Scotland.  There was his ongoing feud with his cousin, Thomas, Earl of Lancaster, and his resistance to agreeing to the Ordinances demanded by his barons.

There had been Piers Gaveston, the 'favorite' upon whom he lavished gifts, titles, and lands, and whom he was forced by his barons--not once, not twice, but three times--to exile.  Like Chuckie, Gaveston just kept popping up again.  Until they killed him.  (And normally one would think that goes without saying, but in light--a little vampire humor there--of the peculiar goings-on at Melrose, maybe we do need to clarify that.  Unlike the Hundeprest, Gaveston stayed dead.)

There was discontent over many things--each of which could be its own post.

In January of 1318, a tanner's son named John Deydras...or John Dydras, or John of Powderham, (because One Moniker is Never Enough)...appeared at a place called Beaumont Palace--no connection to our Beaumont--in Oxford.  He announced that he was the rightful heir to the throne.  Indeed, he bore a resemblance to the Edwards, first and second, being tall and strong, and looking enough like them that people actually considered he might just be the real son of Edward I.  After all, it had always been peculiar to them that the 'son' of such a great warrior king wanted to thatch roofs.

They did, however, want an explanation for Deydras's missing ear.

Simple, he said, and exactly the proof of his story.  As a baby, his royal nurse had failed to watch him and he had been attacked by a royal sow in the royal courtyard who bit off his royal ear.  (One source says that it was at Beaumont Palace, itself, that this occurred.)  The nurse, fearing the royal wrath at this horrible negligence and injury, quickly switched him for a servant's son, leaving the heir to the throne with the carter (or a tanner, depending on the source), and setting the commoner's child up to be raised as the Prince of Wales.

However, said Deydras/Dydras/Powderham, he was 'the true heir of the realm, as the son of the illustrious King Edward, who had long been dead.  He declared that my Lord Edward was not of the blood royal, nor had any right to the realm, which he offered to prove by combat to him." So sayeth the Lanercost Chronicle.

The story grew and spread.  Edward himself was unconcerned.  When the pretender was brought before him at the Northampton Parliament, in August that year, Edward greeted him with, "Welcome, my brother!"  He seemed to regard the entire incident as a joke and wanted Deydras to become his court jester.

Isabella was not so amused.  She was more than not amused.  She was furious.  We can speculate as to reasons why she held this level of anger, in contrast to her husband's amusement.  Because she understood the danger posed by such a claim, especially amidst the current discontent, better than Edward?  Because she feared for herself and her children if he were desposed as a pretender?  Because she cared about Edward?  Because Deydras's story put doubts in her own mind as to the legitimacy of her ditch-digging husband?  Because it embarrassed her personally that people were beginning to believe Edward was of common birth and his own behavior wasn't convincing them otherwise?  Because she was embarrassed anyway by his interests and hated this incident highlighting them?  Did the fact that she had given birth to her third child, just six weeks prior, have any bearing on her thoughts, feelings, and actions at the time?

One source--and one source only--tells us that it was Edward's desire to make him a court jester that set off Deydras's meltdown.  He was arrested and put in prison.

A note on the process of historical research: It seems curious to me that he could have gone from January to August making this claim without already having been arrested, but reports on this incident are very bare bones.  I'm assuming, then, that he was in custody from the time he made the claim until he was brought before Edward.  Perhaps the reference to being thrown in prison (as opposed to thrown back in prison) means that his quarters were severely downgraded after his meltdown.

One site claims Deydras was executed in June of 1318, but this can't be accurate.  No other source that I've seen gives a date of his execution, except to say 1318.  So we have to guess it happened after August 1.  [Since we've already established that he stayed dead after the execution....]

John Deydras was put on trial for sedition.  On questioning--which some say happened in prison and was most certainly a euphemism for torture--he backtracked and said he was lying. wasn't his fault.  The Devil--disguised as his cat--made him do it.  Yes, I'm not kidding.  True story--about his untrue story.

The court had no sympathy for the deception played upon this one-eared man.  They sentenced him to death--and his little cat, too.  Just to make sure the cat didn't go riling up more pretenders, I guess.  John was hanged, and his cat was hanged beside him.

Thus ended the peculiar story of the King and the Carter's Son.  In an interesting side note, The Prince and the Pauper by Mark Twain, tells the story of a poor boy who looked just like Edward VI, Prince of Wales and briefly King of England, in the 1500s.  I wonder if the story of John Deydras was his inspiration.  I think it highlights the saying that truth is stranger than fiction.

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If you liked this article, you might also like others about peculiar incidents in medieval history
St. Columba The Unbelievable Claim of True Thomas Jedburgh: Ghosts and Orchards
or other posts under the MEDIEVAL HISTORY label



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