‘Stapledon’ was commissioned from MED Theatre by the Guild of St Lawrence in Ashburton. Written by MED Theatre’s Artistic Director Mark Beeson, it was performed at St Andrews Church in September 2018 by a community cast from the Dartmoor area, including ten members from Ashburton itself, with music by Gillian Webster and Trefor Farrow. This historical drama charted the life of Walter Stapledon Bishop of Exeter – from his humble origins coming from a farming family in North Devon, through his meteoric rise in the church and politics to become King Edward the Second’s most trusted diplomat and also his treasurer, to his murder by a London mob in 1326.
In 1315 Dartmoor, along with the rest of the country entered the most extreme period of starvation in English history, which it can be argued caused as much suffering as the Black Death itself, thirty five years later. According to the chronicler John Trokelowe, people were so desperate that they ambushed children to eat them, and in some cases even ate their own children. Out of this misery and chaos emerged the extraordinary figure of John of Devon, possibly maddened by the ergot growing on mouldy crops, who travelled to Oxford claiming to be the real King Edward, upsetting Queen Isabella, and then blaming his claim on the suggestion of his cat.
Stapledon must go down as perhaps the most successful of England’s treasurers (or Chancellor of the Exchequer as we would call it today). When Edward II came to the throne, the country owed thousands of pounds (billions in today’s money) to Italian bankers. By the time Stapledon had done his work the coffers were full and England was actually lending to the Italian bankers. In the process, however, he made himself deeply unpopular with the common people from whom he extracted these funds in a programme of swingeing austerity which would have been the envy of the likes of George Osborne.
The play ‘Stapledon’ is based on detailed research into the life of the ‘quiet man’ of Edward II’s reign, who flew under the political radar for much of the period. He knew both Edward’s favourites, Gaveston and Despenser, and befriended Isabella as well as Edward himself, eventually being forced to choose between Edward and his Queen in an agonising encounter in Paris. The letter written to Stapledon by Queen Isabella, which still exists in the Public Record Office, is one of the most fascinating documents in English medieval history, evincing underneath its anger a former closeness and a deep sense of hurt and betrayal, at a time when she herself was faced with a choice between Edward and Roger Mortimer.
Stapledon later paid for this betrayal with his head, which was cut off by Londoners with a bread knife in the aftermath of Isabella’s invasion of England with Mortimer. When presented with the severed head, the Queen is reported to have been horrified at his treatment, and immediately commanded that Stapledon’s body, which had been thrown into a pit by the banks of the Thames, should be re-united with his head and sent to Exeter for a proper burial.
The dates of the performances were :
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