Some Final Thoughts on The Despenser Wars


I thought that I’d round up my series of posts on the Despenser War with a few little musings of my own. While researching for these posts it was interesting to note that some modern historians seemed to be engaging in a mini Despenser War all of their own depending on whether their own natural inclinations were towards the Marchers (pro Isabella/Mortimer historians) or fairly impartial (pro Edward). I can’t with any honesty say that any historians that I have read are pro Despenser! There are so many bits and pieces of information in the various Rolls, Statutes and chronicles that it is easy to pick and choose bits of evidence to suit your theory on the events.

Of the chronicles, the Vita perhaps presents some of the better commentary, even though generally it is critical of Edward’s reign and the influence of the Despensers. The author’s judgements on Hugh the elder’s behaviour before 1321 is quite detailed and rather damning:


But in truth in the opinion of many this misfortune fell upon them justly. For the cruel and greedy father had in the past wronged many, and obtained the excommunication of many. For when he was justice of the forest he accused many of illegal hunting, he wretchedly disinherited many, forced some into exile, extorted unjust ransoms from many, collected a thousand pounds’ worth of land by means of threats, and behold now he feels the hand of God coming to correct him. The general judgement was that he justly lost what he had formerly accumulated from the loss of others. (1)


Hugh the elder had, before his son came to power as chamberlain, generally been thought of – as far as we know – as a wise counsellor and able administrator. His position as Justice of the Forest would certainly have made him some enemies and laid him open to accusations of harshness and corruption. Whether these had any real basis, we will never know, but I think it is safe to assume, considering the practices of the time, that he probably did indulge in many of the things described above. He certainly did acquire a lot of lands and money – more than is often generally acknowledged.

The Vita did not mince words about Hugh the younger’s conduct either – as you’d expect:


But according to some the son’s wickedness outweighed the father’s harshness. For, confident of the royal favour, he did everything on his own authority, grabbed everything, had no regard for the authority of anyone whomsoever, set traps for his co-heirs; thus, if he could manage it, each would lose his share through trumped up accusations and he alone would obtain the whole earldom. (2)


So, according to this chronicler (a voice among many it would seem), the Despensers got what was coming to them. Their outright greed and increasing power more or less guaranteed such a reaction among the other barons who, in most cases, had a right to feel aggrieved by their actions. At this point the Marcher rebels certainly held the high moral ground and could reasonably feel self-righteous in their demands that Edward removed the men from his side. However, it could be argued that what happened next somewhat dented the virtuousity of their cause.

The destruction of the Despenser estates was violent and thorough. Throughout their lands, properties were destroyed, goods and livestock stolen and people threatened and displaced. And the main people to suffer were the Despensers’ tenants – poor serfs and farmers who had a hard enough life already. A later petition illustrates the effects on just one village which was attacked in this way:


The poor people of Hugh le Despenser, earl of Winchester, of the town of Loughborough show that on the morrow of the feat of the translation of St Thomas, 15 [Edw. II], Holand and Bredon with many armed men came to Loughborough and chased the people from their house so that they dared not return for three months, and carried away many of their goods wrongfully and against the king’s peace. The people request a certain restoration from the lands, goods and chattels of Holand and Bredon that have come into the king’s hand having regard for their great loss and poverty and relief of their estate. (3)


In their condemnation of the actions of the Despensers, many historians conveniently forget the suffering of the innocent – the collateral damage as it were, to use a modern term. Because their cause could be construed as just and good, it then becomes rather inconvenient to admit that they were also responsible for some of the same acts they were accusing their enemies of. Even the Vita does not spare them on this issue:


Yet in the judgement of some worthy men the barons went too far in their persecution. For even if they found just reason for the banishment, nevertheless they did not seize their goods justly. Why did they destroy their manors, for what reason did they extort ransoms from their followers? Although they had a just cause before, they now turned right into wrong. (4)


In fact the Despenser Wars could be summed up as a huge disagreement between those with money and power, the only real long term effect of which was to cause greater suffering and poverty to those without. According to Haines, Bishop Cobham of Worcester wrote a letter to the Pope bemoaning the civil war that had broken out. According to him, the barons were besieging castles and wreaking havoc across the land and he had no idea why. In fact he went even further and said that no-one knew the reason, except for those involved. (5)

Indeed, it was a horrendous few months of strife and violence which in the end was to change absolutely nothing. Well, almost. Although the barons briefly obtained their demands for the exile of the Despensers and pardons for themselves (as well as restitution of lands, some of the Ordinances etc), their victory was not to last long. Within a few months the Despensers had returned, and within the year many of the rebels had either died at the Battle of Boroughbridge, been executed or imprisoned. It seemed as if all opposition to Edward’s will had been crushed.

This civil war should have been a wake up call for Edward. It should have shown him the deep feelings of antipathy against his choice of favourites. For the Despensers too, it should have served as a warning against future aggressive avariciousness. Sadly it seemed to spur them on to even more self-destructive behaviour (that is, self-destructive for their futures). As J. Conway Davies commented: ‘They were too old in the ways of greed to learn’. (6)

So, in summary then, a war that could and should have changed the way Edward ruled his kingdom (with or without the Despensers), changed absolutely nothing. It was a chance, wasted.



(1) Vita Edwardi Secundi, edited and translated by Wendy R. Childs, p. 195
(2) Ibid.
(3) Petition SC 8/106/5268, National Archives.>
(4) Vita, P. 197
(5) Haines, Roy Martin, King Edward II: His Life, His Reign and Its Aftermath, 1284-1330, McGill Queen’s University Press, 2006
(6) Conway Davies J., The Despenser War in Glamorgan, Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, Third Series, Vol. 9, (1915)

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6 Responses to Some Final Thoughts on The Despenser Wars

  1. Carla says:

    “In fact the Despenser Wars could be summed up as a huge disagreement between those with money and power, the only real long term effect of which was to cause greater suffering and poverty to those without. “

    What an accurate, pithy, and deeply depressing summary. Plus ca change.

  2. Alianore says:

    Great post! It’s interesting that the author of the Vita, despite his obvious dislike of the Despensers, thought they “had been banished out of malice.” He also points out that in 1322, the Marchers “killed those who opposed them, plundered those who offered no resistance, sparing no one.”

    It’s interesting too how many historians conveniently ignore the suffering the Marchers inflicted on the innocent and pretend that only the Despensers were victims. There’s also a petition by the ‘poor people’ of Swansea, for example, and the convent of Brecon said that the Despenser War ‘greatly impoverished’ them. Not to mention the flood of petitions by people all over the country saying that the Marchers had stolen their goods – from a church, in one case – assaulted and/or imprisoned them, and burned their houses when they refused to join the rebellion. Funny how this wealth of evidence is usually ignored. I mean, God forbid that we should acknowledge that there was wrong on both sides. Usually, it’s: Edward and the Despensers = bad. Marchers = good.

  3. Gabriele C. says:

    Don’t historians learn to try and be unbiased these days? 😉

    Well, some are (Althoff’s biography of Heinrich IV is a fine example), but when it comes to certain historical characters, emotions often seem to get the better even of some historians. And poor Ed got the arse card. 🙂

  4. Su_H says:

    The word ‘story’ is in history and even modern historians just can’t resist getting a good story in there. The WotR is no different; impartiality? What’s that then? 🙂

  5. Lady D. says:

    To all of you – I can’t agree more! But… truth will out – as they say!

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