I wrote a post recently about some letters written by Hugh Despenser the Younger in 1321, which show how England was sliding towards civil war at this time - thanks entirely to Despenser's actions, and Edward II's infatuation with him.
In this post, I'll be looking at the background and build-up to the so-called 'Despenser War'; I'll cover the war itself, its aftermath and far-reaching consequences in later posts.
The years 1318 to 1320 were, at least on the surface, some of the calmest of Edward II's turbulent reign. However, since the younger Despenser had been elected by Parliament as Edward II's Chamberlain in the summer or early autumn of 1318, he had been tirelessly working himself into the affections of a man who'd never shown him any great favour before, despite their close familial relationship (Despenser was of course married to the king's eldest niece) and the fact that they'd partly grown up together. Despenser managed to displace Edward's other favourites, Hugh Audley and Roger Damory, who had married Edward's other de Clare nieces, from the king's affections.
Despenser's close personal relationship with Edward II was a threat to the English barons for several reasons. Firstly, they knew by then exactly what Edward was like; they had seen his infatuation with Piers Gaveston and, later, with Audley and Damory. Edward allowed his favourites to wield enormous influence over him - in 1317, he let Damory persuade him to attack the earl of Lancaster at his stronghold of Pontefract, an incredibly foolish and dangerous action. Fortunately, the earl of Pembroke managed to talk Edward out of it at the last minute, but the king's habit of allowing himself to be swayed by those closest to him, men with ulterior motives, unbridled ambition and a high degree of selfishness, could not be viewed with anything but the gravest concern.
Secondly, Despenser's determination to build himself a huge 'empire' in South Wales was a huge problem. In the Middle Ages, land was power, and every landowner's greatest fear was that a neighbour or an enemy would take over his land with impunity, without being stopped by the king. Therefore, Despenser's actions in South Wales worried many. He didn't let even family ties stop him; in May 1320, he forced his sister-in-law Margaret de Clare and her husband Hugh Audley to exchange their valuable lordship of Newport for some of his English lands of lesser value, and his machinations against them had begun almost as soon as the Clare lands were divided in 1317. At first, Edward II had tried to protect Audley, but as time went on and his infatuation with Despenser developed, he allowed his new favourite to gain control of Newport.
Edward II was prepared to sacrifice the well-being of a former favourite to satisfy his current one. Despenser was by now as important to him as Gaveston had ever been, but Despenser was far more dangerous than the Gascon - and cleverer, more ruthless and unscrupulous than Audley and Damory.
Thirdly, Despenser was abusing his position as Chamberlain by refusing anyone permission to see the king unless he himself or his father were present. He was controlling patronage and depriving the barons of their influence over Edward, and he frequently demanded bribes before he would allow anyone to see the king. He answered petitions as he wanted, 'throwing back answers', replaced Edward's household officials with his own supporters, and didn't allow Edward to take advice from anyone but himself or his father.
By the autumn of 1320, the situation in England was already very tense. At this time, Roger Mortimer returned to England from Ireland, where he had served as King's Lieutenant and Justiciar. Now thirty-three, about the same age as Despenser, Mortimer must have been horrified when he saw the situation in England. The dominant force in the country was Hugh Despenser, his enemy; the Despensers and Mortimers had a long-standing feud, and Despenser had sworn revenge on Mortimer because of the death of his grandfather, who had apparently been sought out and killed on the battlefield of Evesham in 1265 by Mortimer's grandfather. [The grandfathers were named, inevitably, Hugh Despenser and Roger Mortimer.]
In the autumn of 1320, Hugh Despenser set alight the powder keg that was contemporary England by his actions regarding the Gower peninsula in South Wales. Gower belonged to an impecunious baron named William de Braose, who had no son, and had since about 1315 been trying to sell it, in a series of rather spectacular double dealings. Edward II's brother-in-law Humphrey de Bohun, the earl of Hereford, was keen to buy it for one of his sons, and had in fact made a down payment. Roger Mortimer was interested, as was his uncle, Roger Mortimer of Chirk. However, Hugh Despenser had also shown interest in Gower, since at least 1319. As the owner of Glamorgan, and now Newport, Cantref Mawr, Dryslwyn and many other lands in the area - and as the greedy, ambitious man he undoubtedly was - he probably felt that Gower should rightfully be his, as it would nicely round off his estates in the area. And Edward II agreed with him.
In 1320, William de Braose sold Gower to John, Lord Mowbray (born 1286), the husband of one of his daughters, Alina. Knowing full well how furious Hugh Despenser would be at losing this prime piece of land, Mowbray took immediate possession. Despenser persuaded the pliant king that Mowbray had broken the law by taking possession of the land without a royal licence. In England this was technically correct, but Gower was a Marcher lordship, and no royal licence was necessary (although Natalie Fryde in The Tyranny and Fall of Edward II states that the original grant of Gower in the thirteenth century was as a royal lordship.) Hugh Despenser declared that any baron who disagreed with him on the issue was guilty of treason.
On 26 October 1320, Edward II confiscated Gower from John Mowbray and took it into royal hands. The implication was clear: he would re-grant it to his favourite. The Marcher lords were furious at this attack on their privileges, the unfairness of Edward's actions in blatantly acting in Despenser's interests, and being accused of treason by the royal favourite. On top of Despenser's other abuses, it was the final straw. In late 1320 and early 1321, they gradually left court. Roger Mortimer - a long-term supporter and friend of the king - was one of the last to leave, in February 1321, but even he realised that there was no negotiating with Edward, whose stubbornness and determination to protect Despenser must have been exasperating.
Edward II, in fact, found it very difficult to obtain seisin of Gower - in late November, his officers met armed resistance, and it wasn't until the 14th of December that royal sergeants managed to take possession.
Hugh Despenser had built up a powerful alliance against himself. The earl of Hereford and Roger Mortimer were the leaders. Edward II's former favourites Hugh Audley and Roger Damory also abandoned him, not surprisingly. Other important enemies of Despenser included John Giffard of Brimpsfield and Roger, Lord Clifford, whose inheritance from his de Clare mother had been taken by Despenser. (John Mowbray's mother was also a de Clare). Maurice, Lord Berkeley and his son Thomas, who had recently married Roger Mortimer's eldest daughter Margaret, formed an important part of the coalition.
Interestingly, Aymer de Valence, the earl of Pembroke, left England at this time. A staunch royalist who had no wish to go against the king, he nevertheless sympathised with the Marchers (he was one himself) and, rather than take sides, preferred to leave the country. The man best able to negotiate between the two parties was gone.
On 30 January 1321, twenty-eight men were ordered not to attend an assembly held by Edward II's greatest enemy, the earl of Lancaster. This pointed to a powerful and dangerous confederation of the Marcher Lords, led by Hereford and Mortimer, and the northern barons, led by Lancaster. Lancaster played no active role in the coming war and the destruction of Despenser lands - perhaps it was too strange for him to make common cause with men he hated and had until recently been his enemies, i.e., Damory and Audley, and also Bartholomew Badlesmere, as we'll see. However, Lancaster held a meeting at Pontefract on 22 February with other (unnamed) magnates, where it was decided to attack the Despenser lands.
Edward II and Hugh Despenser put their Welsh castles into a state of readiness. They left Windsor around the 6 March and were in Gloucester by the 27th, attempting to negotiate. It was on the 6th that Despenser sent the letter to John Inge that I quoted in a previous post; he was 'subtly' taking hostages (?!). Despenser's over-confidence is obvious - he over-estimated his ability to defend his lands and drastically under-estimated his enemies' hatred of him and determination to hurt him.
Around this time, Sir John Inge described the earl of Hereford in a letter to Despenser as mornes et pensifs plus qu'il ne soleit, "even more gloomy and thoughtful than usual". Despenser retorted that it was hardly a wonder if he was, as he was taking against his liege lord who had done him much honour ("n'est mye mervaille sil est, quar il se ad si portez en contenances devers son lige seignour...")
Hereford refused to come into Edward's presence while Despenser was with him, allegedly for fear of being murdered - an excuse previously used by Lancaster in the Gaveston years. Hereford suggested that Despenser should be placed in Lancaster's custody until he could appear before Parliament to explain his actions - a suggestion which must have worried Edward enormously, given Gaveston's fate. He sent Hereford a cleverly-written letter reminding him that Despenser had been elected Chamberlain by Parliament (including Hereford himself) and no official complaints had been registered against him, and that it would be against Magna Carta, the Ordinances and Edward's coronation oath to put Despenser into someone's custody without just cause.
In early April 1321, Edward II confiscated the lands of Hugh Audley, his former favourite and nephew by marriage. On 1 May, he received intelligence that the Marchers were planning to sack Despenser's lands, and he forbade the men to touch them. He also summoned the earl of Hereford and Roger Mortimer to a council at Oxford on 10 May. But the time for negotiation and reasoned debate was long past.
The Marchers no doubt felt that they had no other option but violence and attack. One of Despenser's letters contains the line "...and if you think it necessary that we send men-at-arms for the garrisons of our castles, if you will inform us speedily, we will send some of the king’s men and our own, as many as shall be necessary", which shows how closely associated he and the king were, that the Marchers could not defend themselves against his abuses without attacking the king, too. If Edward refused to protect them, their rights, and their lands, and favoured one man above all others, allowing him to behave in any way he wanted, he would face the consequences.
On 4 May 1321, the Marchers began sacking, looting and pillaging numerous Despenser properties in South Wales. The Despenser War had begun in earnest...
(to be continued soon...;)
Hehe, Despenser so deserved his execution, though I think they way it was done smells of Isabelle's petty revenge on something other than violated Marcher rights.
One really wonders how Despenser managed to turn the king's favours so thoroughly since he wasn't a favourite in the beginning - other than fe. Gaveston.
Never has anyone's execution been so justified, Gabriele. ;) (Although the motives of those who had him executed were hardly pure!)
I find it really fascinating how Despenser managed to work his way into Edward's favour, to the extent that Edward was absolutely infatuated with him - Edward had never even liked him that much before. (At least, there's no evidence that he did.)
Great post. I am surprised Edward wasn't killed off earlier as it must have been very frustrating for those who wanted the best for England to watch one man have so much power who wasn't the King. It was an interesting time with so many personalities coming into play. Especially when the loyalties of marriage are concerned. The mob would have been absolutely braying for Despensers blood by the time his execution arrived. He was a fool. Smart, but a fool nonetheless.
Can't wait to read the next installment.
Thanks, Kate. Yes, Despenser frustrates me, because he had a lot of intelligence and ability and could have 'saved' Edward II's reign, but he misused it. Same with Roger Mortimer later - he also had a lot of ability, but made exactly the same mistakes as his predecessor.
Interesting post, and very informative! It seems to be an overlooked 'war' in England's history, sandwiched between the Matilda/Stephen war and the Peasants Revolt . . .
Since so many people believed in the divine right of kings back then, what can they have thought of a king like Edward II? It could hardly have been God's will that his representative be so dominated by a man like Despenser!
Alianore - In one of the letters you quoted earlier, Despenser says something to the effect of intending to grab as much as he can while he has the chance, and yet he must have known that he was taking bigger and bigger risks and that sooner or later he was going to push his enemies one step too far and precipitate a disaster. Why do you suppose he never knew when to stop? Mortimer and Isabella were the same later, so it's almost as if it was something embedded in the social culture. Maybe because if you ever stopped, or even slowed down, it would be seen as a sign of weakness?
Liam - that tends to puzzle me, too. I wonder if it might underlie the tendency to blame "the advisers" rather than the king, which you see in the Simon de Montfort rebellion against Henry III and again in the Peasants' Revolt. Almost as if it was impossible to imagine that a king, who ruled by divine right, could be at fault.
Liam and Carla: thanks for making some really interesting points. Quite often in Ed II's reign, his favourites were blamed for his own misdeeds and shortcomings, presumably because it was much easier than criticising the king directly. (Although in 1315, a royal messenger was arrested for making derogatory remarks about the king.) Ed II's biographer RM Haines points out that the charges against Despenser put all the blame for the ills of the reign on one man and his father, and make him the 'villain of the piece' - though he *was* guilty of many of the charges, of course!
Carla: you make a good point about not wanting to show any weakness. I also wonder if Despenser's (and Mortimer's, etc) behaviour is that people with almost absolute power gradually lose their sense of reality and proportion. It seems so obvious with hindsight that both Despenser and Mortimer were heading for a fall, but they don't seem to have been aware of the hatred for them - or they were aware of it, but under-estimated it and over-estimated their abilities to deal with it.
Ed II's reign (and the beginning of Ed III's) would make a fascinating study of how power affects those who wield it! :)
What a shame you never completed it! Living in Caerphilly, an researching the civil war between Edward and Isabella, which culminated in a siege of the castle that dominates my town, I was loving this! Vast quantities of immensely detailed information, providing insights neglected by most others. Thank you for your efforts, and I do hope you can finish the rest.
Hi Andrew, thank you! Oh yes, I never did write part 2, did I? Oooopsie :-)
How lucky you are to live in Caerphilly! You might be interested to know that my bio of Hugh Despenser the Younger will be out next year, and of course I talk about Caerphilly Castle and the siege of it in 1326/27 (there's also a blog post about it here)!
Thanks. I'll be interested to read it when it's issued.
Thanks. I'll be interested to read it when it's issued.
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