Thursday, May 26, 2016

The Favourite from Hell

by Anna Belfrage

There are few men in English history as vilified as Hugh Despenser the younger. This man, it would seem, was Satan come to earth, and it was his evil influence that indirectly caused the situation which led to Edward II being deposed and locked away in Berkeley Castle. Except, of course, that it was Edward II who was the king, not Despenser, and if Edward allowed Hugh to lead him about by a figurative ring through his nose, then how can that be Hugh’s fault?

Edward I and his son, Edward
Hugh Despenser was born in 1286, making him a couple of years younger than Edward of Caernarvon, Edward I’s fifth and only surviving son. Hugh’s father was another Hugh, and accordingly today’s protagonist usually goes by the name of Hugh Despenser the younger so as to differentiate from his father, Hugh Despenser the elder. These two gentlemen had more in common than their name, namely a rapacious greed that quickly made them extremely unpopular with everyone but their king, Edward II.

The Despensers came with something of a stain, seeing as our Hugh’s grandfather had died at Evesham, fighting for Simon de Montfort against the royal forces. Somewhat ironically, this Despenser (also a Hugh) was killed by a Mortimer (also a Roger) thereby laying the grounds to the implacable enmity between the Despensers and the Mortimers. In brief, all of this history resulted in two of Edward IIs most capable barons detesting each other.

Thanks to Hugh the younger’s paternal great-grandmother, all had not been lost to the Despensers after the debacle of Evesham. Hugh the elder worked hard to re-establish himself in Edward I’s favour, and his son was an intelligent and personable young man who found favour with the king – so much favour, in fact, that in 1307 Edward I did Hugh the younger the honour of giving him Eleanor de Clare as his wife. Eleanor was not only beautiful she was also Edward I’s granddaughter. Hugh Despenser the younger had thereby through his marriage become a member of the royal family.

In July of 1307, Edward I died. Rejoicing broke out in both Scotland and (I assume) in Wales, but the English knew they had lost a great king, and looked with some concern at his heir, the newly crowned Edward II. This second Edward was a handsome man, gifted with a vivid intelligence and physically agile and strong. He was brave, he had presence, and appeared to be everything a king should be – had it not been for his odd pastimes. The new English king enjoyed manual work and would happily spend his time in smithies or thatching. And then there was his faiblesse for handsome young men – and especially for Piers Gaveston, the Gascon knight who so easily twirled Edward II round his little finger.

As Piers is not the subject of the post, suffice it to say that this charismatic man effectively became the power behind the throne. This did not please the barons, and soon enough loud voices were calling for the favourite’s exile.

Piers and Edward, Marcus Stone (1876) 

Piers was not only the king’s favourite, he was also Hugh’s brother-in-law, having married Eleanor’s younger sister, Margaret, late in 1307. I’m not sure this endeared Piers to Hugh, and by 1310 or thereabouts Hugh was firmly in bed with the baronial opposition. Hugh the elder, meanwhile, stood by his king. Now and then I wonder if this was a tactic, the two Hughs sitting down and deciding it made sense to have one foot in each camp, so to say.

By 1312, Piers was dead, executed (murdered, some said, among them the distraught king) by the barons led by Thomas of Lancaster, first cousin to the king. Edward was never to forgive him for this. Hugh the younger was not in a position to comfort his distraught king – at least not initially, given his support for the barons – so the king consoled himself elsewhere. But bit by bit, Hugh wormed his way into the king’s confidence, no doubt helped by the fact that Edward was very fond of his niece, Eleanor de Clare.

Bannockburn (Scotichronicon, c:a 1440)
The Scots had been quick to capitalise on the unrest in England, and in 1314 the king decided it was time to show the Scots once and for all that the son of The Hammer of the Scots could do some hammering of his own. Well, we all know how well that worked out for Edward, don’t we? At the Battle of Bannockburn, the English hit the dust, and among the many, many men killed was Gilbert de Clare, Earl of Gloucester – and Hugh the younger’s brother-in-law.

Gilbert left no children, and so his huge estates were to be distributed between his three sisters. In the ensuing free-for-all, Hugh the younger showed his very rapacious side, having no qualms about hogging the lion’s share on behalf of his beloved wife. What Eleanor may have thought about all this is uncertain, but I I suppose she was as dynastic in her approach as her husband – after all, she had the future of her children to consider. Whatever the case, Hugh’s behaviour alienated his sisters-in-law and their husbands. But by now, Hugh was rising rapidly in Edward’s favour, so I dare say he wasn’t all that worried.

Soon enough, Hugh was a constant presence at the king’s side, hungry for more land, more power. The king was more than happy to give it to him, no matter that the barons grumbled. Edward shrugged and made Hugh his royal chancellor. Suddenly, Hugh controlled access to the king, making him the most powerful man around – well, with the exception of his easy-going royal master.

This is where we can return to my initial paragraph: Hugh did not take his power by force. It was freely given to him by the king, who chose to ignore the rumbling protests this caused. Edward had no desire to submerge himself in the details of running his kingdom and was more than happy to let Hugh handle the day-to-day. Besides, I suspect Edward enjoyed twisting the noses of his recalcitrant barons out of joint – and in particular that of Thomas of Lancaster who was predictably enraged at having someone like Hugh wielding power he felt should be his.

So instead of stopping Hugh when he appropriated land that did not belong to him – Edward even looked the other way when Hugh claimed land belonging to the king’s half-brothers, the earls of Norfolk and Kent – instead of curbing his favourites excesses, Edward sat back and enjoyed the ride. He didn’t even intercede when Despenser violated the law, as he did in the case of the Welshman Llewellyn Bren, whom Hugh had hanged, drawn and quartered, without a trial.

By 1321, the barons had had enough. Their attempts to reach an amicable solution with the king had failed, and consensus among them was that Hugh Despenser – both of them – had to go. The rebellious barons devastated Despenser land and marched in force against the king, throwing a cordon of armed men round the royal court. Led by Thomas of Lancaster, Humphrey de Bohun and Roger Mortimer, they demanded that the king exile his favourite – and Papa Hugh – that he allow himself to be counselled by his barons, and that order and the rule of law be restored within the realm. This last was a not-so-oblique reference to the unjust killing of Bren. The king was trapped and had no choice but to comply.

Hugh the younger and elder left – but they did not go far. For the coming months, they took up a career as Channel pirates, while in England the king plotted his revenge. For once, Edward II showed an impressive capacity for swift action, and come late autumn he had the tables turned on the victorious barons.

Had Lancaster ridden to Mortimer’s aid, the king might not have had such an easy win, but Lancaster preferred to stay in the north, thereby giving Edward the opportunity to pick his enemies off one by one. Mortimer ended up in the Tower, Lancaster was executed, and Hugh Despenser returned to his beloved king. And this time, Despenser and the king thought they had won for good.

Turns out they hadn’t. In 1323, Mortimer escaped from the Tower and fled to France, where he was warmly welcomed by Queen Isabella’s brother, King Charles.  Edward II and Despenser went into a frenzy. It became paramount to cleanse the realm of England of any potential traitors, a.k.a. Mortimer supporters, and so a large number of men were hauled before the assizes, in many cases subjected to crippling fines, but just as often found guilty of treason and executed. Family members of these traitors – wives, children – were confined or thrown out to starve. Dark, dark years for the English – and most blamed Hugh Despenser.

By now, Hugh had also earned the enmity of the queen, firstly by marginalising her at court, secondly by suggesting to the king that he take back her dower lands and exile her French household. Seeing as England was at war with France over Gascony, exiling potential French spies made some sense, but Isabella had been Edward’s loyal wife for sixteen years, and she took it badly. Very badly.

The war in France did not go well, and Edward saw no option but to send Isabella to negotiate with her brother. Which she did, brokering a peace treaty which called for Edward to do homage for his French lands – in France. Not a good idea, as per Hugh, because with the king gone, God knew what might happen to him, poor unprotected favourite left behind in England? Hmm, the king said, but he loved Hugh, and these last few years of tyranny had not endeared Hugh to the barons – rather the reverse.  So instead, Edward sent his son, the future Edward III to France.

In retrospect, Edward could just as well have tightened a noose around his own neck. Waiting for Prince Edward in France was not only the disgruntled queen, but also Roger Mortimer – and Mortimer had scores to settle, especially with his personal enemy, Hugh Despenser.

An artistic interpretation of Edward II's arrest
In 1326, Mortimer and Isabella returned to England, bringing with them a small invasion force – and the young prince. The people of England flocked to their banners, tired of living under the heavy Despenser yoke. The king could easily have raised an army to meet them, but Despenser panicked and suggested they flee west, make for Ireland before it was too late. Edward did as his favourite asked, but they never made it to Ireland. Instead, the king and his favourite were captured in Wales. Edward was hauled off to Kenilworth as a prisoner. Hugh Despenser was hauled off to Hereford, there to die.

On November 24, 1326, Hugh Despenser the younger stood some sort of trial in Hereford. The verdict was never in doubt, and the naked man was attached to four horses that dragged him towards the waiting gallows, built very high so that everyone could see how the king’s favourite, the rapacious and greedy Despenser, died. He was hanged, taken down while alive, castrated and disembowelled. Purportedly, Mortimer and Isabella sat watching the spectacle while partaking of food and wine. Hugh, they say, died well – whatever that means when you’re being tortured to death.


Following Despenser’s death, Queen Isabella had Despenser’s wife incarcerated in the Tower. Three of Hugh’s daughters were forcibly veiled as nuns (the oldest of them was about ten), and his sons were locked up. And as to Hugh, his bodily remains were quartered and hung from the city walls in York, Bristol, Dover and Carlisle, while his parboiled head adorned London Bridge. By then, of course, Hugh was no longer in a position to care.

Hugh Despenser was not a nice man. Once in power, he stopped at little to further his own interests, whether that meant disinheriting orphans and widows, or killing men without trial. But ultimately, he was a product of his king, a sovereign too weak to keep his favourite in check.

All images from Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain

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Had Anna been allowed to choose, she’d have become a professional time-traveller. As such a profession does not exist, she became a financial professional with two absorbing interests, namely history and writing. 

Presently, Anna is hard at work with The King’s Greatest Enemy, a series set in the 1320s featuring Adam de Guirande, his wife Kit, and their adventures and misfortunes in connection with Roger Mortimer’s rise to power. And yes, Hugh Despenser plays a central role.

The first book In The Shadow of the Storm was published in 2015, the second, Days of Sun and Glory, will be published in July 2016.

When Anna is not stuck in the 14th century, she's probably visiting in the 17th century, specifically with Alex and Matthew Graham, the protagonists of the acclaimed The Graham Saga. This is the story of two people who should never have met – not when she was born three centuries after him. 

More about Anna on her website or on her blog



1 comment:

  1. Edward II certainly didn't seem to do his people any favors. I always picture him as portrayed in Braveheart now:)

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