It has always been a puzzle to me why there has never been a biography of Hugh Despenser the Younger before. A man who changed the course of English history during the early fourteenth century, who was the hated favourite of Edward II, and who was voted as one of the ten worst Britons in history. Declared as the ‘most evil’ person of the fourteenth century by professor Nigel Saul, he was portrayed as being just as bad as the likes of King John, Jack the Ripper and Oswald Moseley. The question is, was that accolade deserved? This is the book which explores that very question – and not all is as black and white as it might first appear.
Most people know Hugh as being the favourite and lover of Edward II (although the latter can never be proved), yet it seems from the evidence that Edward was at least indifferent to him until about 1319/20, and may have even have seen him as a bit of a thorn in his side. However, once Hugh gained the position of Edward’s chamberlain in 1317, meaning that he was constantly by the king’s side, it seems that Edward began to change his mind about his nephew-in-law (Hugh was married to Edward’s niece, Eleanor de Clare).
What came next was a long list of land grabs and extortion. It seemed that no nobleman was safe from Hugh’s grasping, ambitious reach, and Edward did everything in his power to give his favourite whatever he wanted. Of course, this did not sit well with the other magnates, and in 1321 they forced Edward to send the chamberlain and his father into exile. Of course, being Hugh Despenser the younger, he didn’t just go abroad quietly like his father, but became a pirate and a ‘terror of the seas’ , all the while visiting Edward in secret and plotting against the rebel lords.
On his return from exile, and after the defeat of the rebels at Boroughbridge, Hugh ramped up his campaign of tyranny and fear, even targeting widows and other vulnerable individuals for their lands. Such behaviour was bound to have consequences, and In 1326, it all came to a head, when Edward’s wife,Queen Isabella, and Roger Mortimer, along with a small army invaded England. Thousands flocked to her banner, and soon Edward and Despenser were on the run in their own country. Finally they were caught: Edward was sent to be imprisoned in Kenilworth, and Hugh was executed in the most grisly way in Hereford.
I have been studying Hugh Despenser the Younger for many years now, with much of my research on this blog, so you could say that I am well placed to judge the quality of this book. Even though Kathryn has been a friend for many years, she knows I wouldn’t let her off any historical mistakes in the text. Of course, there were none. The depth and scope of research done for this book is staggering – and Kathryn has come up with much new stuff through transcription and translating little-known manuscripts. I was constantly being surprised by snippets of information that were completely new to me.
Because of the sheer amount of information contained, this book is not necessarily a quick or easy read like many ‘popular history’ books. But it is a fantastic treasure trove of fourteenth century politics and personalities, and well worth taking the time to absorb the information presented here. I know that I shall be reading it a second time and making lots of notes for my own research purposes. All in all, a great read and a well-deserved ten out of ten for the first ever narrative portrait of one of medieval England’s ‘bad boys’.
Hugh Despenser the Younger & Edward II: Downfall of a King’s Favourite
Pen and Sword History, 2018