It was recently brought to my attention that an article titled ‘The Castle, the King, the Gay Lover, and the Fury of a Scorned Queen’ by Andrew-Paul Shakespeare had quite a few errors in it concerning Hugh Despenser the Younger. And, as you can see from the title, it was written in a rather flippant way that the Sun (UK tabloid newspaper) would be proud of. I’m certain that the author wrote it that way to attract readers – as there’s nothing like a possible scandal to provoke interest. However, many of the points the article raised were either wrong or pure speculation, so I felt I had to step in and deconstruct it with my own arguments. This was all the more important because the piece had been read and liked by a great number of people, and several of the comments indicated that the readers had learned something from it! I was originally going to post my reply in full in the article’s comments, but, as it amounts to over 1500 words, I felt it better to post it all here instead.
The article in question can be found at https://medium.com/@andrewpaulshakespeare/the-castle-the-king-the-gay-lover-and-the-fury-of-a-scorned-queen-55338d43b4c4.
Here is my list of corrections and comments (probably missed a few minor points).
- First of all, calling Hugh Despenser ‘gay’ is rather speculative. I understand that a headline like that will attract more readers, but it isn’t necessarily true. Apart fro the fact that ‘gay’ wasn’t even a concept in medieval times (for reasons too long-winded to go into here), there is no proof that Edward and Hugh had an intimate relationship. Propaganda may have hinted at it, but that was par for the course when besmirching someone’s character. It must also be remembered that Hugh had ten children with Eleanor and also maybe one illegitimate child as well. Edward had four legitimate children with Isabella and one illegitimate son – so neither of them disliked sex with women.
- Hugh was not a Welsh boy – he was Anglo-Norman, probably born on one of his father’s estates in the Midlands. He inherited most of his Welsh lands from his marriage to Eleanor de Clare, one of the joint heirs of Gilbert de Clare, earl of Gloucester and Hertford, in 1317 when the late earl’s lands were divided between his three sisters. It is possible that, in his quest for more Welsh lands, Hugh was trying to form a marcher earldom and perhaps be granted the title of earl of Gloucester. It is interesting to note that Edward never granted him a title.
- Mortimer would not have unleashed ‘serfs’ to fight his wars – he had retainers, mainly nights and minor nobility, plus their own retainers – all trained fighting men. Serfs, as you call them, otherwise known as villeins, were tied to the fields and so the crops were not left to rot, as you have put. There was not a famine as such in 1322 either, (although the areas plundered by the Contrariants would certainly have suffered). However there was a great animal murrain which swept through cattle and sheep herds across the country, and that would certainly have led to a shortage in meat.
- The Contrariants arrived outside London on 29th July, and the Despensers were formally exiled on the 18th August, so they hardly besieged the capital throughout the summer. I’m surprised you didn’t mention that during the time of his exile, Hugh actually became a pirate and started to terrorise merchant ships in the Channel.
- There is no record of Lady Badlesmere of Leeds Castle begging for mercy on her knees. Only 13 od the garrison were executed and that was by drawing and hanging.
- No Welsh revolt forced Mortimer home in 1322. In fact he had already been in the north to meet with the Contrariant leader, the earl of Lancaster. When the Mortimers heard that the king was gathering his army at Cirencester, they headed for Wales in case Edward cut them off from their castles. However, as the king moved north against them, they withdrew behind the Severn, hoping to hold the royal forces at Shrewsbury. There were certainly revolts by the Welsh, but it was more that they saw an opportunity to attack their oppressive overlords rather than any food shortage.
- Around 22 Contrariants of noble birth were executed after the Battle of Boroughbridge, and the earl of Hereford was killed at the battle itself. Aristocratic corpses didn’t usually get put into gibbets, but their heads could be placed on a spike in a public place.
- Hugh did not place the queen under house arrest etc. Edward was the only one who had power to do that, although he may certainly have been influenced by Hugh Also the children were not dragged from her. Noble children of that period had their own households and were certainly not hanging around the skirts of their mothers. The children were placed into the care of Eleanor de Clare and Isabella Hastings (Hugh’s sister) but there were others who took over the running of the children’s households too. This was normal for all royal children during the medieval period – Isabella’s sons and daughters were certainly not dragged from her. Edward also reduced her income, an action which definitely caused her anger towards her husband.
- The Despensers did not want Edward to go to France because they were frightened of being assassinated in his absence – nothing to do with the possibility of Edward finding another ‘boyfriend’! Edward was also worried about his own safety on the continent. And it was Edward who chose to send his son (unwisely) – the king of France had no hand in suggesting it.
- Isabella and Mortimer certainly developed a strategic relationship, but there is no evidence at all that there was a great love affair. She saw him in her chambers, certainly, but she also saw many other advisors there too (a chamber was not just for sleeping in, it was a place where business was done). So whatever was going on between them, they were definitely not ‘living together’ in the modern sense of the word – that would have been far too scandalous and would have alienated many of those who were supporting them.
- Hugh’s father WAS the earl of Winchester.
- Edward did not know at the time that he would be an ex-king as no king before had ever been deposed.
- I’ve not read anywhere that Edward and Hugh were chased by dogs, although the storm bit is accurate.
- Hugh was due to be executed in London, but because he starved himself from the time of his capture it was decided that, because he probably wouldn’t survive that long, he would die at Hereford instead.
- At his trial there were no accusations of any untoward behavior with Edward, although there were plenty of other charges concerning his behavior whether true or trumped up. The charge of Hugh being held to be guilty of unnatural practices with the king’ is one that I’ve not been able to find anywhere. The view that his genitals were cut off ‘because he was a heretic and a sodomite, even, it was said, with the king’ was one that was written by a chronicler called Jean le Bel, who, although contemporary, had not been in England at the time of Despenser’s execution. This wording was then later copied by another chronicler, Froissart. The removal of the genitals is, in fact, symbolic of the destruction of his family line. Simon de Montfort and William Wallace suffered the same fate. The Bishop of Hereford, Adam Orleton, also preached a sermon against Edward, saying that he was a ‘tyrant and a sodomite’, although he later claimed he had meant these words to be aimed at Hugh Despenser. Even so, at neither man’s trial was sodomy mentioned, and as sodomy is one of those vices used to defame an ‘enemy’, it cannot be see as proof of the act. Whether or not it is actually true is, of course, another matter – one that we will never know for sure.
- It is very doubtful that Isabella would have ordered Edward’s death (read Kathryn Warner’s Edward II) for more details. The orders would most likely have come secretly from Mortimer. The red hot poker theory can, with 99.9% surety, be discounted – this story came only from one source and from a long time after the event. It doesn’t match up with other versions of Edward’s death. Of course, it is a juicy tale that provokes much response, so it gets repeated over and over, much to the frustration of true historians.
- Huchon , or Hughelyn, was an affectionate nickname given to Hugh’s eldest son, who was also called Hugh, which makes it so much easier when writing about them. Felton saved his life by refusing to surrender the castle until a promise could be obtained that the younger Hugh would not be executed. Huchon was imprisoned until 1331.
Various posts in this blog.
Edward II, the Unconventional King – Kathryn Warner
Edward II – Seymour Phillips
The Greatest Traitor – Ian Mortimer
It is also worth visiting Kathryn Warner’s Blog at http://edwardthesecond.blogspot.com and keep an eye out for her book about Hugh Despenser the Younger which is out next October