Another fairly long post on Hugh the younger’s father, a man who is quite fascinating in his own right.
His Father’s Career and the Early Days
The life and career of Hugh the elder is often overlooked due to historians’ far greater interest in his son’s exploits. Yet, it could be argued, that without his ambition, and that of his own father, Hugh the younger would never have attained such prominence.
Hugh was born on 1st March 1261. His mother was Aline Basset, Countess of Norfolk, daughter of Philip Basset. His father, yet another Hugh Despenser was a close friend and ally of Simon de Montfort and fought alongside him, against King Henry III in the Barons’ War of the 1260s. During the few years when de Montfort held power in England, he was awarded the post of Justiciar of England no less than three times and was renowned for his skills as an administrator and a diplomat. His downfall – and death – came at the Battle of Evesham in 1265 – the last stand of de Montfort against the royalist forces. De Montfort, who valued his service and friendship, offered him the chance to escape but Despenser refused, saying: ‘My lord, my lord, let it be. Today we shall all drink from one cup, just as we have in the past.’ 1
At the time of his father’s death and burial in Evesham Abbey, Hugh the Elder was only four years old. As the son of a traitor it might have been expected that he would have lost any chance of inheriting his father’s lands and would therefore have disappeared into the historical abyss. Luckily for him, his grandfather on his mother’s side (Philip Basset), was a staunch royalist and had friends in high places. Because of this, although the Despenser lands had been forfeited to the Crown, Hugh would be allowed to inherit them when he came of age.
Hugh the elder then disappears from the records until 1278, when he is recorded at a tournament in Compiègne in France. Three years later his mother died and Hugh was allowed to take hold both of her lands and also his father’s. Technically, though, he was still considered under-age, and because he was now a young man of wealth, his marriage was awarded to the Earl of Warwick, William Beauchamp. A year later he bought back the right for 1,600 marks. It is tempting to speculate that Despenser and Warwick became well acquainted and that Despenser was a regular visitor to Warwick’s home for in 1286 Hugh married his daughter, Isabelle. Unfortunately though, this marriage was not sanctioned by Edward I and the young couple found themselves facing a fine of 2000 marks (later to be returned) and the confiscation of their land for eleven months. Although these punitive measures must have been inconvenient to say the least, for Despenser it meant that he had married into titled nobility and had also gained financially. Before Despenser, Isabelle had been married to (and widowed by) Patrick Chaworth, a landowner in Gloucestershire and south Wales and it was these lands that she now brought into the Despenser family.
Through the marriage, Hugh the elder also gained a step-daughter – Maud – who went on to marry Henry of Lancaster – brother to Thomas and nephew to Edward I. Hugh and Isabelle went on to have children of their own: two boys – Hugh (the younger) and Philip, and four daughters: Aline, Isabelle, Margaret and Elizabeth. All were later married to spouses that furthered the Despenser vision of greater wealth, power and connections.
Service at the Court of Edward I
In the meantime, Hugh the elder was also carefully fostering his position at court. Aware of his father’s treachery against the Crown, Despenser seemed determined to prove his loyalty to the king all the more. Some of that loyalty was displayed on the battlefield – with Edward I being such a warlike king, military service was inevitable for someone seeking to rise in his estimation. It appears that Hugh first saw battle under the earl of Cornwall in 1283 against Llywelyn ap Gruffydd in Wales, but he also joined Edward in his campaigns in Scotland in 1296, 1298, throughout 1299-1300, in 1301, 1302, 1305 and 1307. Although he has never been credited with being a great warrior on the field, it is notable that he was at Edward’s side even when others refused the summons to arms, as at Flanders in 1297.
But there was another side to Hugh the elder that made him particularly indispensable to Edward: like his father before him, Hugh was a skilled administrator and diplomat. His first opportunity to demonstrate this talent came in 1294 when Edward sent him to Europe to drum up support for his war against France. The trip was a success, gaining support for England from a variety of sources: Adolf of Nassau, king of the Romans, the count of Bar, the duke of Brabant, and Florence V, count of Holland. Having such a competent and loyal servant as Despenser must have been a great blessing to Edward and from then on, Despenser seemed to be permanently at Edward’s beck and call, whether on military service or diplomatic missions overseas.
Despenser proved particularly invaluable, however, between 1296 and 1298, when Edward was facing crises both abroad and at home. In 1297 he was part of a delegation sent to Paris to seek peace with Philip IV, as well as to request assistance with the mediation from as many nobles as possible. Unfortunately the main aims of the talks could not be met, but they did succeed in securing a permanent alliance with count Guy of Flanders through a proposed marriage between his daughter Isabella (not to be confused with the later Queen Isabella, daughter of Philip IV) and Edward of Caernarfon, Edward’s son and heir.
As well as these negotiations, Despenser was also involved in helping the king over domestic matters – namely raising money to fill the crown’s depleted coffers. He re-enforced demands upon the clergy to pay the clerical tenth, as was expected of them and also took control of policies regulating the wool trade in England. This consisted of a tax, called the maltort, levied on all exports of wool, as well as an enforced sale of wool in April and July of 1297. As many of Edward’s magnates depended on the wool trade for their own incomes, this made Despenser extremely unpopular and it was something that he was never forgiven for.
Edward, however, was putting greater and greater trust in him. For example, in 1302 he was once again sent to France as part of a delegation to discuss peace terms with Philip IV. In 1305 his name is recorded on the ordinance for the governance of Scotland, and almost straight after he was sent to the Pope at Avignon to obtain an annulment of the Confirmation of Charters that Edward was forced to sign in 1297. It was just this sort of loyalty and distinguished service that earned Hugh rich rewards, in particular the marriage of his son, Hugh the younger to Eleanor de Clare, the king’s favourite grand-daughter.
The young prince Edward of Caernarfon seemed to think well of Despenser too, and there are several letters between them which attest to this fact. Of course, it is tempting to speculate that Hugh the elder may well have been grooming the young Edward into continuing his service when the prince eventually became king, but that is hard to know, It is just as possible that there was a genuine affection between them and Edward may have seen Hugh as a fatherly figure.
Service at Edward II’s Court
And that affection certainly paid off in 1308 at Edward’s coronation. Hugh the elder was one of those who were chosen to carry the square of cloth upon which were laid the ceremonial coronation robes. Of course, his inclusion caused more bitterness against the titled nobility, who felt they had more right to the task than an upstart who had recently climbed the social ladder. During Edward II’s reign, Hugh remained loyal to the crown, sticking by Edward throughout the period of opposition to Piers Gaveston. He also refusewd to sign Lancaster’s Ordinances, therefore creating even more friction between him and the barons.
Edward did not send Hugh on foreign missions as much as his father had, instead preferring to keep him at home, by his side. As confirmation of the trust Edward had in him, the king granted him the custody of Chepstow, Devizes, Strigoil and Marlborough Castles in 1309 and also created him Justice of the Forests south of the Trent for life. He was granted the wardship and marriage of Sir John Moriet, even though the king’s favourite, Piers Gaveston had asked for it a few days later. It is interesting to note that Gaveston did not get his way on this occasion; Edward instead honoured his earlier promise to Despenser, showing how much he valued him.
After Gaveston’s execution, the king called upon Despenser’s services as a negotiator between himself and the rebel barons. During the same period, Despenser was also chosen to act as a godfather to Edward’s newborn son, Edward (the future Edward III). Once again the exclusion of some of those who felt entitled to such a role caused an undercurrent of bitterness. Lancaster, in particular, was furious with Despenser’s position and from then on there was a feud between the two men.
The way that Despenser served Edward II seems, certainly up until 1318 at least, to be equal to the way that he served Edward I – as a trusted, competent advisor, administrator and statesman. Yet from 1312, when he fell out with Lancaster, there are hints from the chronicles of the time that the perception of his character was changing. The Vita Edwardi Secundi states that ‘Sir Hugh Despenser, who was perhaps even less deserving than Piers, lurked with the king’.2 Could this have been the beginning of his later notoriety? And if so, it also begs the question of how much of it was deserved. Could a man of such loyal and skilful service to the crown suddenly turn into a power-crazed villain caring only of the desires of himself and his son? It certainly seems to be a drastic change if so. I think that the answer may lie somewhere between the two extremes.
Hugh the elder was undoubtedly ambitious and struggled to get himself into a position of importance, but this does not exclude the possibility that his commitment to both kings was genuine, and not just a means to an end. He may also have been capable early on of obtaining lands by underhand means – for example by bolstering claims to properties on the edges of his estates. However, because he was still viewed (by most anyway) as an important, trustworthy man, and because Edward I was a strong king, these went for the main part un-noticed. Later on, when he and his son became hated by the magnates (and many of the chroniclers), every misdeed was noted, and a few were made up for good measure too. One interesting case, about the inheritance of Elizabeth Comyn, which discusses how misdeeds can be twisted to seem even worse, can be read here.
After 1318, when Hugh the younger started his rise to power and infamy, both men became a team. They seemed to share retainers and household staff and more or less worked together in garnering wealth and lands; in addition they practically ruled the country. Hugh the younger’s aggressive pursuit of lands in south Wales triggered the civil war known as the Despenser Wars (1321/1322), after which the king was forced to agree to terms set by Lancaster and the other contrariants. One of these was the exile of both Despensers. Hugh the younger took the opportunity to try out a bit of piracy in the channel but Hugh the elder followed a quieter path, seeking refuge in Bordeaux.
After their return in 1322, Hugh the younger took centre stage, but his father was not forgotten. Edward created him earl of Winchester; at last he had a title – something he must have dreamed about when he was younger but never thought he’d achieve. At this point, Hugh the elder seems to slip out of the action a little, but there is no doubt that he continued to collect land and wealth by nefarious means, as later petitions show (there are so many of these allegations that I’m saving them for a later post – when I’ve had a chance to look at some primary sources).
Revenge of the Barony
The actions of both Hughs did nothing to endear them to the country. When Isabella and Mortimer invaded in 1326, any tangible support that Edward and the Despensers might have hoped for just faded away or switched sides. Hugh the elder surrendered at Bristol castle on 27th October (hoping, in vain, for some clemency) and was tried in the presence of the earls of Lancaster (Henry, Thomas’s brother), Norfolk and Kent. Roger Mortimer was also present and William Trussell presided as the judge. The charges against him, according to the Pauline annalist were as follows:
That he had made a law that men could be condemned without right of reply.
That as a traitor he had been banished by the assent of the king and the barons and he had not been reconciled.
That he had accroached power and counselled the king to disinherit and to break the laws, as in the case of Thomas of Lancaster, whom he had caused to be put to death for no reason.
That he had been such a robber that all the people demanded vengeance.
That he had counselled the king to deprive the prelates of the church, not allowing their customary franchises. 3
Hugh the elder was found guilty on all charges – he was not even allowed to speak in his own defence. His sentence, despite his age (65), was that he be drawn to his place of execution by horses. There he was to be hung in his armour, with his coat of arms reversed, beheaded and his body fed to the dogs. Afterwards his head was carried on a spike to Winchester.
It was such an ignominious end for a man who, at the beginning of his career at court, showed so much potential: a man who was considered faithful and consummate (and indeed continued to be so throughout his service) but ended up as a detested tyrant. That he committed some nasty acts for his own ends is without doubt, but the question remains – how many? How many misdeeds that he was accused of, both at the time and afterwards in petitions, actually took place? Probably the majority, but it must also be borne in mind that in such a torrent of complaints, some people just jumped on the bandwagon, hoping for some compensation or other reward for their troubles. Another question that needs to be asked is whether Hugh was greedy and manipulative from the start (in that case why don’t we know more about it?) or whether he became that way – corrupted by power and influenced by his son. Unfortunately, like so many historical questions we shall probably never know the answers.
1. Cited in ‘The Early Career of Hugh Despenser the Elder’, by Martyn Lawrence in The Reign of Edward II: New Perspectives, (York Medieval Press, 2006), p.208
2. Vita Edwardi Secundi, ed. Wendy Childs (Oxford University Press, 2005)
3. Cited in King Edward II, by Roy Martin Haines, (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2003)
Thomas of Lancaster 1307-1322 by J.R. Maddicott (Oxford University Press, 1970)