The Despenser War 1321, Pt2


Once the barons realised that Edward was not going to budge an inch on granting them their requests (did they really expect him to?), they put ‘Plan B’ into action. Namely, to attack any properties that belonged to Hugh, his father or any of their supporters. And to make this look as if they were doing it for the sake of the realm, they decided to fight under the royal banner.

The first place to fall was Hugh’s castle at Newport (recently ‘acquired’ from Hugh Audley – see this post for details). Despenser’s great confidence in being able to defend his properties was rather sadly misplaced as castle after castle fell and estate after estate was despoiled. The combined force of the marchers was certainly not one to be sniffed at: according to the Close Rolls it consisted of at least ‘eight hundred men-at-arms, with the king’s banner of his arms displayed, and with five hundred hobelers, and 10,000 footmen’. The keepers of the castles, seeing that no help was forthcoming from their lord or the king, were forced to surrender them. Many of the native Welsh, too, refused to fight for Despenser. In fact around 30,000 of them (according to the Vita – but this figure sounds suspiciously like an exaggeration) went to the barons and pleaded that they be spared, saying: ‘give up your displeasure towards us; we have never liked Hugh Despenser’s lordship; we are all prepared to obey your orders’. They then swore on the Holy Gospels that they renounced Despenser’s lordship over them but would still stay loyal to the king ‘in all things’.

It is important not to make too much of this desertion however. The Welsh weren’t too keen on having to pay homage to any English lord, no matter who he was. He represented the oppressive invader; he was the man who took their money as taxes and punished them if they broke the (English) law. And whether or not Despenser was hated more than any other lord (and a possible reason for this would have been his treatment of Llywelyn Bren), you just have to consider the stark choice the tenants had to make when faced with an army of hostile and violent men. Did they want to claim loyalty to an overlord that they had no real connection to and suffer the consequences? No, of course they didn’t: life was tough enough already.

The Close Rolls have a slightly different take on things:

they [the marcher barons] stayed there in his lands for five days in order to destroy the lands completely, within which time they made by force all the greater part of all the country swear to be of their accord, and they imprisoned and held to ransom those who refused, and burnt their houses and goods, of his peers or by the law of the land.


In Wales alone, ten of Despenser’s castles were taken and despoiled, among them Newport, Cardiff and Caerphilly. As for his manors, 23 were destroyed in the attacks and all of Hugh’s goods and chattels taken as spoil. His livestock (and presumably those of his tenants) were also taken, as were his horses and wagons. Woods were felled and crops either carried away or destroyed. They also demanded rents from the tenants, probably seeing the money as due to go to Despenser, and therefore now defaulting to them. And wherever they could find them, they also burned Hugh’s charters, remembrances and muniments. In a nutshell, his Welsh lands were devastated.

There were also, of course, deaths. Not everyone surrendered to the barons. Hugh Despenser the younger’s men: Sir John Iwayn, Philip le Keu and Matthew de Gorges were summarily executed for defending Despenser property and several Welshmen were also either killed or maimed. Others, including Ralph de Gorges (the new Justiciar of Ireland), Sir Philip Joce, Sir John de Fresyngfeld, Sir John de Donestaple and William de Donestaple were imprisoned for holding firm to their loyalty to Hugh. Even those who tried to remain neutral in the dispute did not escape the general violence: John Cromwell was a Marcher landowner but did not join them in their fighting. For this his lands were also attacked and despoiled.

Nearly two weeks after it began, Despenser decided it was in his best interests to surrender his lands into the king’s hands. The reasoning behind this was probably that if the Marchers really stood for the king and realm’s best interests, then they would hardly attack his property. Actually, this was not the case, as several Welsh royal castles were targeted too. In late May/early June, there are also several references to protection being granted to Hugh and some of his supporters to travel ‘beyond the sea on the king’s business’. The trip never happened as the grant was later cancelled, but it seems to infer that Edward was seriously thinking of sending Hugh (but interestingly not his father) abroad for his own safety.

Edward also called a meeting of his counsellors in order to find a way to stop the Marchers’ destruction. It seems, however, as if his own advisors were split over what to do. Some demanded that the rebels’ own castles should be seized and destroyed in a ‘tit for tat’ measure. Others, however, advised caution, saying that such an action would pitch all of England into a bloody civil war from which would be the ruin of the kingdom.

With the Welsh lands of Despenser and his allies lying in ruins, the Marchers returned north to meet with Lancaster at Sherburn to draw up an indenture justifying their actions against the Despensers, a document they intended forcing upon Edward at the next Parliament on 15th July at Westminster. They then began their journey south, still armed, dressed in the Marcher cause livery and displaying the royal banner. On the way, the army turned its attentions to the English estates of both Despensers, father and son, and the lands of any who were regarded as relatives or supporters. Once again, manors were overrun and robbed of all that was valuable before being destroyed.

One can only imagine the terror of the servants and tenants of these manors as the Marcher mob descended upon them with the stark choice of either submit or die. Around 67 manors of the elder Hugh were despoiled in this way, and they even entered the abbey at Stanleye to take possession of the money and charters that he had stored there. The whole operation must have been planned to the finest detail due to the number of manors attacked, and their varying locations, as well as the disposal of the goods carried off. But of course the army was led by men, like the Mortimers and de Bohun, who were experienced soldiers and extremely capable tacticians. Edward and Hugh could not have come up against more dangerous opponents.

And as if the crisis wasn’t bad enough already, royal morale suffered another blow when Bartholomew Badlesmere, Edward’s steward, deserted to the Marcher cause. In some ways this should not have been surprising as he was connected to Roger Mortimer of Wigmore by marriage (Mortimer’s son had married Badlesmere’s daughter); he may also have had some resentment against Despenser’s influence with the king. However, this turned out to be a move that would, in the course of time, be of benefit to Edward and a completey fatal error for Badlesmere: Lancaster loathed him for some reason, and his inclusion into the Marcher ranks served only to create the opportunity for future divisions.

The Marcher army finally arrived at the gates of London on the 29th July, two weeks late for the start of the Parliament. Because they had come armed and with banners unfurled, the king refused to meet with them and the rebels consequently set up a sort of siege to the City, holding all of the gates to prevent Edward from sneaking away (although I’m sure he could have left by boat if he’d really wanted to). At this point there seemed to be little that could be done except to try and open some sort of negotiations. Edward sent those earls still loyal to him: Pembroke, Richmond, Surrey and Arundel to talk with the Marcher leaders at Clerkenwell. In return, the Marchers sent two knights with demands for both Despensers to be removed from power and exiled.

For a while it appeared that neither side would move from their position and the country stood poised on the brink of disaster. Edward held his position while the rebels threatened to burn London and depose him. By this point, it looks as though Hugh had retreated to a safer distance (according to the Pauline Annalist), sailing just off the coast of Gravesend by day and visiting the king at night. However the Marchers had gained a rather unlikely ally: during the time he spent talking to them, it appears that the earl of Pembroke was swayed by their arguments. He now sought to persuade the king to give in to their demands. According to the Vita, the words he is supposed to have uttered are:


‘Consider, lord king’’, he said, ‘the power of the barons; pay heed to the looming danger; neither brother nor sister should be dearer to you than yourself. Do not therefore for any living soul lose your kingdom. He perishes on the rocks who loves another more than himself. Let not the lord king say, to his own dishonour, that this business was begun by the barons; but, since it is for the good of the people that the country be rid of wicked men, and to this [public good], lord king, you swore an oath at your coronation, if therefore you will listen to the barons you will be able to reign in power and glory; but if not, and you turn away from their petitions [and] from ours, you may perhaps because of that lose the kingdom and all of us. For we are sworn allies, and we cannot oppose our peers.’


Even this fine speech did not move Edward. What finally did was a little more dramatic. His queen, Isabella, begged him on her knees to agree to the barons’ demands and exile the Despensers. There could have been no greater gesture than that sacrifice of royal dignity and Edward was finally forced to agree. It must have been obvious even to him by that point that there was no way out. On the 14th August, he consented publicly to his friends’ exile and on the 18th, public judgement was given against them in his presence.


Calendar of Close Rolls
Calendar of Patent Rolls
The Despenser War in Glamorgan, J. Conway Davies
Vita Edwardi Secundi, edited and translated by Wendy R. Childs
The Itinerary of Edward II and his Household, Elizabeth M. Hallam
‘The Despenser War’, unpublished chapter of Edward II biography, Kathryn Warner


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5 Responses to The Despenser War 1321, Pt2

  1. Great post! Aside from the destruction of people, livestock, and property, it’s sad to think what valuable records (to us) were destroyed as well.

  2. Lady D. says:

    I was thinking about the records too, when I wrote this. So much was lost. But for the people of that time it must have been terrible, especially when only 5 years previously they had been through a serious famine too.

    So many historians play down the utter destruction wreaked by the Marchers – perhaps because it makes Hugh look like the victim for once, or because it makes their cause

  3. Alianore says:

    Great post! As you know, the ludicrously biased way the Despenser War is depicted these days drives me insane – as though the Marchers were snowy-white innocents fighting for justice and harmed no-one apart from the Despensers (who may well have deserved the treatment – but it’s hard to argue that their many tenants did). Even the author of the Vita, who loathed the Despensers, thought the

  4. Su_H says:

    Great post! It so reminds me of how the WOTR are portrayed too – Plantagent=good, Neville , Wydeville etc etc=bad!!! Same link too as Warwick is the heir of the Despensers. And historians pride themselves in only giving the facts!!!

  5. Circlei says:

    Much was lost but… the bloodline lived on. You may prune the vine of undesirable growth but, the vine lives on to produce the blood of the grape or in the instance of the Spencer line, descendants that were vital to the existence and future of England…I am of the blood line of the Despencers. I recently learned of this by a geneologist. My great, great grandmother was Nancy Spencer from

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