I’ve written this post to celebrate the coronation of Edward II, the king that Hugh Despenser was eventually to become very closely, in fact, probably intimately, involved with. Yet, at the time, in 1308, exactly 700 years ago today, Hugh was still a minor figure within the nobility – practically landless, and with no position or wealth, his only claim to fame was the privileged and trusted position of his father as one of Edward’s advisors.
And yet the events that occurred at the coronation in many ways foreshadowed his future.
It was actually a double coronation, as Edward’s 12 year old wife, Isabella, was also to be crowned. However, the man who completely stole the show was Piers Gaveston, Edward’s first great obsession, and most probably lover. His many and varied important roles during the Coronation ceremony, including carrying the crown of St Edward, infuriated the Earls who felt they had a far greater right to them than the Gascon upstart. Gaveston also wore silk robes of royal purple encrusted with pearls and other gems, instead of the cloth of gold (material shot through with gold thread) that he and the Earls were entitled to wear in the presence of the King. In fact, the Pauline annalist, writing at the time, described him as being “so decked out that he more resembled the god Mars than an ordinary mortal”.
As if his behaviour at the Coronation ceremony wasn’t bad enough, Gaveston exceeded it at the banquet, although some of the blame also has to lie with Edward, who preferred to sit next to his friend than with his new queen. The hall was decorated with hangings containing the heraldic devices of both the King and Gaveston together when traditionally, Isabella’s family arms should have been displayed. It was almost as if the King considered Gaveston to be his co-consort than Isabella. Such insults to the Queen did not pass un-noticed, especially by Isabella’s uncles’ Charles of Valois and Louis of Evreux, who, after remonstrating with the king over his behaviour, walked out.
Even the food did not cut it. Gaveston had been placed in charge of arranging the banquet but for some reason – possibly his complete ineptitude at organisation – it was a complete disaster. There was plenty of food, but it arrived late, cold and barely edible. By this time the barons must have been pretty hacked off and one – unfortunately not named – had to be restrained from an assault on Gaveston. All in all, it must have been a pretty memorable day, even if for all the wrong reasons, and it was yet another nail in Gaveston’s coffin. What Hugh thought can, of course, only be guessed at, but I’m sure he must have been as frustrated as the other guests at Gaveston’s vaunted position. His father supported the Earl of Cornwall in the months to come, but there are signs that Hugh the younger took a different path – for once being part of those dissenting against the King. But that is a topic for a future discussion…