Hugh Despenser the Younger’s disgrace and execution was just the start of years of desperation and sorrow for his family. Many of his followers, too, faced an uncertain future under the new regime headed by Roger Mortimer and Queen Isabella of France. Stripped of his protection and favour, they were now at the mercy of a victorious and vengeful leadership. It was his family however, who were to suffer the most.
At the time of his death Hugh had four sons and five daughters aged from about 16 to a babe in arms. He had left his wife, Eleanor, in charge of the Tower of London. With her, in her charge was Edward and Isabella’s second son, John of Eltham (aged about 10). When the Tower fell to the London mob on November 17th, John was ‘rescued’ by those loyal to the queen and Eleanor and some of her children imprisoned. Two weeks or so later she would have been told of her husband’s capture and execution and the downfall of the king. She must have known that her family’s cause was lost, but even she would not have been able to predict some of the outcomes for her children.
Hugh III, the eldest son, was still besieged at Caerphilly Castle – a well-supplied and virtually impregnable fortress that could hold out for months if necessary. One of his commanders was the experienced and loyal Sir John Felton, the man who was eventually to save his life. Of course, there was no way that they could stay there forever, but on the other hand the siege was becoming costly – in time, money and manpower to Isabella and Mortimer, who wanted it ended as quickly as possible.
Meanwhile, Isabella turned her attention to other members of the Despenser brood – and some of the most vulnerable. On 1st January 1327, she issued an order to the prior of Watton Priory in Yorkshire that Margaret Despenser, who was only about four or five at the time, was to be admitted to the convent and veiled ‘without delay, to remain for ever under the order’. In other words she was forced to become a nun. Margaret had been living, for the past three years, in the care of Thomas de Houk, a nobleman with manors in Yorkshire, along with her nurse and a great household. This was not unusual: it was quite common for children (both boys and girls) of the aristocracy to be brought up in other households at that time and was in no way indicative of the feelings of the parents towards them. So, even though Margaret was probably not with her mother at the time of her veiling, she was still dragged away from all that had been safe and familiar to her in her life – a very frightening experience for one so young.
A similar order was also issued for Eleanor Despenser, who was round about seven years old. She was also most probably living in some other household although, unlike Margaret, I cannot find any record for it. She had already been betrothed to the young Laurence Hastings, heir to the earldom of Pembroke, but this wasn’t enough to stop her becoming veiled for the rest of her life. Isabella then arranged for little Laurence to marry a daughter of her lover and co-conspirator, Roger Mortimer instead. Eleanor wasn’t even sent to the same convent as her sister, where they could at least have been a little comfort to each other. Instead she was sent to Sempringham, in Lincolnshire. Both Watton and Sempringham were of the native Gilbertine order – a very strict Cistercian-like order who observed codes of silence and austerity. Having come from such a comfortable and well off existence it must have been a big shock to both girls to find themselves in such an environment.
An older sister, Joan (aged about 10), also became a nun around this time, although no order for her veiling can be found (as yet). Joan also entered a different convent – this time the Benedictine order’s Shaftesbury Abbey in Dorset. Joan had already been betrothed to the son of the earl of Kildare in 1323 but he very inconveniently died a year or so later. Although it is not impossible that she then found she had a calling and insisted on becoming a nun, it is highly unlikely that Hugh and Eleanor would have allowed it, especially at such a young age, and especially when another earl or first born son could be found to strengthen family ties further. That she was veiled (most likely forcibly as with her sisters) in a southern nunnery also indicates that she was also probably living in another household – local to Shaftesbury or thereabouts.
That these young girls were not with their mother or even with each other at the time still does not excuse that this was a cruel thing to do. It was also completely un-necessary. These girls were no threat to Isabella either at the time or in the future. They would not have been heiresses and their marriages could have been arranged carefully by whoever was in power – so why did Isabella do it? Maybe it was because they were the softest targets for her to go after (although Eleanor’s youngest sons were not forced to become monks) and she didn’t want the state to have the burden of caring for them. Or, most likely, it was out of spite towards Eleanor, Hugh’s wife – who had had the care of some of her children when they were removed from her in 1324.
Some apologists for Isabella – noticeably Alison Weir, in her Isabella biography – conveniently gloss over this event. In particular, Weir states, erroneously, that, “Despenser’s five daughters were placed in convents, while their mother was in the Tower; three later became nuns…“. This is completely disproved by the entries extant in the Close Rolls and seems to imply that their veiling was, not only for their own good, but also out of choice!
Such forced veiling was not at all common. Yes, wives and daughters of those considered enemies of the state were often sent to convents as a form of imprisonment, but they were not forced to take holy orders which would have chained them there forever. More often than not they were later released – an option no longer for Despenser’s daughters, no matter how the political climate changed. The only other case that can be compared to theirs is that of Gwenllian – the daughter of the Welsh Prince and rebel against Edward I, Llywelyn Gryffydd. She was also sent to Sempringham priory as a baby after her father’s defeat and death and remained there for the rest of her life. Indeed she was still alive when Eleanor was taken there and it is tempting to speculate that they met. After Edward II’s triumph at Boroughbridge, he ordered, amongst many others, Mortimer’s wife and daughters to be sent to various convents – but they were never forcibly veiled and they were released after a while.
The boys, on the other hand – except for Hugh – emerged relatively unscathed. Of Edward, Hugh’s second son, history is strangely silent. Aged between 11 and 16 in 1326, he would also have been living in another household, either as a page or a squire. He certainly does not seem to have been imprisoned in any way so maybe whoever was responsible for him either hid him or else sent him to safety abroad. The two younger sons, John (age unknown but probably under 8) and Gilbert, approximately 6 or 7 years old were the children that, most likely, were with Eleanor in the Tower. In addition to them was Elizabeth, the youngest, but at the time she would either have still been in the womb or a very tiny baby. These three children seem to have been left alone and as far as I know, stayed with their mother. The eldest daughter, Isabella -aged about 14 at the time – also managed to escape the fate of her younger sisters. This was because she was already married to Richard Fitzalan, son of the recently beheaded earl of Arundel. Unfortunately though, this would turn out to be a very unhappy coupling and she was later repudiated and her children by him declared illegitimate.
In the meantime, the siege at Caerphilly continued until 20th March 1327 when John Felton managed to negotiate a surrender on condition that Despenser’s son’s life was spared and that he and the rest of the men there received a pardon for their actions. This was granted. Hugh III was duly imprisoned – it seems under the care of Roger Mortimer (!) – but at least he would not suffer the same fate as his father. In fact, Edward III, in December 1328, ordered Mortimer to turn Hugh over to him, to be kept at Bristol. Maybe he was wary of allowing Mortimer such power over the son of a former enemy – after all, it would have been easy for Mortimer to have arranged an ‘accidental’ death somewhere along the way. Given that Edward released Hugh III very soon after his coup against Mortimer and his mother and that Hugh later became one of his trusted men, it is tempting to think that these men already had some link of friendship – maybe forged as children when they must have known each other.
Eleanor and her younger children were released from the Tower on February 25th 1328. It must have been a relief in more ways than one for her captor at the time was none other than Thomas Wake – one of the men who had captured and executed her husband. The lands that belonged to her by inheritance were also returned to her and she retired to live at Hanley Castle in Worcestershire. Not that her story ends there though for very soon she was to be abducted and married and then imprisoned again. But that can wait for another post! Suffice it to say, after Edward came to full power in 1330, he allowed her to collect Hugh Despenser’s remains and finally inter them in a fine tomb in Tewkesbury Abbey.
Isabella, She Wolf of France and England – Alison Weir
And big thanks to Kathryn Warner for our long discussions on this subject.