The Spellbinders by Aleardo Zanghellini is an alternate historical epic about the loves and life of who has come down to us as one of England’s most notorious kings, Edward II. It begins in late February, 1299: Zanghellini imagines a fateful meeting between Edward of Caernarvon, heir to Edward I, and Piers Gaveston, son of a retainer of Edward I, outside Canterbury Cathedral. Immediately smitten, Edward tries to put the darkly handsome Gascon out of his mind; when that proves futile, he instead begins stalking Piers—eventually he realizes that his feelings for Piers are matched by Piers’ feeling for him (and not only because he is heir to the throne of England), and the two consummate their love while on campaign. Five years later, still on campaign, their youthful infatuation has grown into a bond more powerful than any attempt to keep them apart: the two swear a vow of sworn brotherhood (before a priest, in a ceremony not unlike a wedding). Edward grants Piers titles, land, even an advantageous marriage to Edward’s own niece; but Gaveston’s political power as Edward’s favorite causes great discontent among Edward’s barons, and led to several exiles and his eventual death in 1312.
Most literary treatments of Edward II focus solely on his relationship with Piers, but Zanghellini does not end Edward’s story with Gaveston’s demise: initially bereft after Gaveston’s death, Edward comes to terms with his grief, and in time has other favorites, platonic and otherwise, including Hugh Despencer the Younger. Predictably, Edward’s power-hungry nobility resent the exclusive royal favor that he shows to his favorites, and Hugh is likewise executed. (It is all of these favorites who are the eponymous “spellbinders” in the novel’s title.) In a creative twist of accepted belief, Zanghellini suggests that it is Edward’s “betrayal” of Gaveston’s memory when he takes up with Hugh that leads Isabella, his wife, to turn against him and invade England with Roger Mortimer. Moreover, he goes so far as to imagine that Edward avoids execution at Berkeley Castle after he is deposed in 1327, and escapes to the Continent (a theory that has adherents among some current popular historians).
Edward’s relationship with Piers has inspired a number of plays, novels, and even films, beginning with Christopher Marlowe’s 1592 play Edward II. Recent novels about Edward and Piers include The Gascon and Gaveston, by John Penford (1984) and Chris Hunt (1992), respectively. As I noted above, they focus almost solely on the relationship between Edward and Piers. All three novels depict their relationship on the order of a once in a lifetime love match between soulmates, but Zanghellini, in addition to depicting the intense (and surely hormonally-induced) frenzy of an adolescent love, which developed into an indissoluble adult bond, also shows that one may survive the end of such a love, and that it is even possible to find love again.
Readers who are familiar with the “accepted” version of Edward’s life and death (as portrayed, for example, in the movie Braveheart) will be surprised and intrigued by Zanghellini’s re-imagining of this often maligned monarch. In his afterword, he explains exactly what in his narrative is verifiable historical fact, and what is conjecture, what is plausible, and what is purely imaginary. He carefully sifts through the contemporary sources, as well as subsequent historiography, to produce a story that is not only historically credible, but emotionally believable, and completely engaging.
Reviewed by Keith John Glaeske