Hugh Despenser Goes AWOL (Abroad Without Leave)

In the Calendar of Chancery Warrants there is an intriguing entry for January 9th 1310 that reads:


Mandate to command the escheator on this side of Trent, if he find that Sir Hugh le Despenser, the son, has passed beyond the seas contrary to the king’s prohibition of such passage by an earl, baron, knight or other man of arms, without special licence, to seize his lands and goods into the king’s hand and answer for the issues at the Exchequer until further order. (1)


The aforementioned prohibition was issued in order to stop vital personnel from absconding to tourney on the continent in case Edward needed them at short notice for battle against the Scots. He had already banned such displays in England, mainly because they tended to be a breeding ground for anti-royalist plots and conspiracies (or, more accurately anti-Gaveston conspiracies), as the last English tournament at Dunstable in 1309 had proved.

It does seem though, that prior to mandate of January 1320, that Edward was certainly aware that his original order was about to be disobeyed, as on December 31st 1309, he sent out an order to all of the wardens of the various ports around the country to:


… not permit any earl, baron, knight, or other man at arms to pass the seas to tourney or do other feats of arms, or anything else, without the king’s special order, according to the order lately issued, as the king understands that some persons purpose to go to parts beyond the sea to tourney or do other feats of arms there. (2)


From later entries in official documents (see below), it became certain that Hugh did, indeed, go ‘beyond the seas’ – although where and why – despite the mention of tourneying – could not be confirmed.

Until now. Sometimes it seems as though there are random pieces of information spread around in certain manuscripts and books waiting for someone to find them and connect one to another, like a giant jigsaw. This is what happened last week, although the credit belongs entirely to Kathryn Warner who, on a trip to her local large library, casually took down Juliet RV Barker’s book: The Tournament in England 1100-1400. On flicking through the pages, the following sentence leapt out: ‘In 1310, a later Hugh Despenser attended a tournament at Mons with Robert Enghien, where their names and arms are recorded…’ (3)

Bingo! So it seems that Hugh the younger, at the age of 21, was so eager to go tourneying that he disobeyed the king regardless of any possible consequences on his return (this ‘act first, think later’ attitude can be seen time and time again during his life). Perhaps he thought no-one would notice his absence and that Edward would never find out. After all, he had no reason at that time to be at court (not being important enough), so who would even care about his whereabouts?

Obviously someone did – as Edward was made aware of the young man’s disobedience very soon after and, from the date of the warrant, seems to have acted straight away. After receiving the king’s instructions, Walter de Gloucestre, the escheator south of the Trent seized Hugh’s manors of Welde, Lammersch, Wykes, Kersey, Leyham and Oxecroft into royal custody. The only problem with this is that they didn’t actually belong to Hugh – they belonged to his father! The confusion had arisen because Hugh the elder had granted his son the issues of those manors to maintain him, but not the estates themselves. That his father was so stingy towards his heir is another issue that needs to be explored but alas, not in this post. Anyway, the upshot of the inquisition sent to work out the whole mess in February was that the manors were returned to Hugh the elder in full. (4) What other punitive measures, if any, were taken against Hugh the son, are not extant.

As with so much research, this discovery, whilst answering one question, provokes others. For example, who on earth was Robert d’Enghien, the man who was named with Hugh as travelling to Mons and taking part in the tourney? I did a little bit of digging around on genealogy sites and, although I couldn’t come up with someone by the name of Robert, I did find a d’Enghien family of noble birth and estate that came from… Enghien, in Hainault. And, on further inspection it turns out that Enghien is not far at all from Mons, the location of the tourney. There are some family trees that exist for members of the d’Enghien family around this time, but none show a person named Robert. The best of these genealogy maps can be found here.

However, just because Robert doesn’t appear does not mean that he didn’t have a connection with this family – he could have been a younger brother or a member of a smaller family branch that has not been recorded. However, what he was doing in the company of Hugh Despenser at that time, aiding and abetting him to defy the king – I’ll leave that to your imaginations!

Another tantalising question arises out of pure speculation, but speculation based on factual events. Once again, I must point out that Kathryn Warner must take all of the credit for this one, although, after viewing all of the possibilities, I tend to agree with her supposition. This point of interest arises from an entry in the Issue Roll for the 21st October 1310 that records Edward II paying a messenger for ‘the news which he brought to the same Lord the King, respecting the Lady Eleanor (5) – thanks to Kathryn Warner for the reference. Usually, when Edward paid such sums it was on the occasion of good news, such as a birth. It is possible (if a bit early) that this may have Isabella, Eleanor and Hugh’s second child – or it may even have been one that didn’t survive infancy and wasn’t recorded (as sometimes happened).

At this point, I ought to make the timeline of this a bit clearer. Hugh left England probably in early January (although it could have been late December). The tournament at Mons took place in July, so in other words he was away for a long time (sightseeing?). Edward paid the messenger on the 21st October 1310 (do you see where I’m going here?). Assuming that the messenger didn’t reach Edward until about a week or so after the birth (and then the delay in recording the gift), then Eleanor would have come to term at about the end of September/beginning of October – nine months after Hugh left. A parting gift perhaps? Unfortunately we’ll never know – the message could even have been that Hugh had returned. But nine months is a bit of a coincidence.

Once again, thanks to Kathryn Warner for finding the missing piece and putting the bits together (and, in doing so making me jump around in a mad, embarrassing way with delight). And thanks too, to her for letting me use it for this post. It’s made a welcome break from website building, I can tell you!

(1) Calendar of Chancery Warrants, AD 1244-1326, London, 1927 (republished on the Internet by TannerRitchie. p.308

(2) Calendar of the Close Rolls, Edward II, Vol VI: 1307-1313, London, 1902 (republished on the Internet by TannerRitchie), p. 237

(3) The Tournament in England 1100-1400, Juliet RV Barker, Boydell Press, 2003, p.133

(4) Close Rolls 1307-1313, p.198

(5) Issues of the Exchequer, Frederick Devon, London, 1837 p.124 (available on Google Books)


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6 Responses to Hugh Despenser Goes AWOL (Abroad Without Leave)

  1. Su_H says:

    Oooo how intriguing – I’m sure you’re right! And I love it when Hugh goes AWOL! Hope it’s going in the novel! 🙂

  2. Interesting! I knew about the AWOL, but I hadn’t connected it with the Mons tournament.

  3. Alianore says:

    Yay for accidental historical discoveries! Sad person that I am, finding out where Hugh was in 1310 and that he (probably!) made Eleanor pregnant just before departure made my entire weekend. 😉

  4. Gabriele C. says:

    Lol, Alianore, I can understand that.

    The whole thing is SO Hugh, isn’t it? 🙂

  5. Lady D. says:

    Su – Oh yes, it’ll be in the novel – and I’m sure he’ll get up to all sorts of stuff in Hainault!

    Susan – likewise. I love it when these extra bits of info come to light. It’s like finding a pot of gold. Alianore should get a medal!

    Alianore – I’m probably just as sad as you then 😉

    Gabriele – Oh yes, so Hugh! A pattern of behaviour is definately emerging!

  6. Carla says:

    If he was away for nine months he had plenty of time to get up to no good 🙂

    Was Robert Enghien’s family based in England or were they still at Enghien in Hainualt, or both, or don’t we know? Just wondering if Robert Enghien was also AWOL, or if he was a Flemish knight and not subject to the prohibition anyway.

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