A post about a peculiar piece of lawlessness in 1315 carried out by the man who later became Edward II's last great favourite...
Edward II's nephew Gilbert de Clare, earl of Gloucester, was killed at the battle of Bannockburn on 24 June 1314, aged twenty-three. Gloucester, one of the greatest noblemen of the realm, left as his heirs his three sisters: Eleanor, born in 1292 and married to Hugh Despenser the Younger since May 1306; Margaret, born in 1293 or 1294 and widowed from Piers Gaveston in June 1312; and Elizabeth, born in 1295 and widowed from the earl of Ulster's son and heir John de Burgh in June 1313. The division of Gloucester's vast inheritance in England, Wales and Ireland, which was always going to take a long time anyway, was delayed by the claims of his widow Maud - who received her dower, the customary third of her late husband's lands, on 5 December 1314 - to be pregnant, and also by confusion among various jurors of the inquisitions post mortem, who wrongly named Gloucester's sister Elizabeth as Isabel. This apparently was a confusion with Isabel, the elder of Gloucester's much older half-sisters (the other being Joan, countess of Fife), neither of whom was one of Gloucester's rightful heirs. (To the annoyance of the widowed Maurice Berkeley, who married the rather elderly spinster Isabel de Clare in about 1316 presumably in an attempt to force himself into a share of the late earl's inheritance.) Another reason for the long delay - the lands weren't shared out until November 1317 - was Edward II's need to marry off his two widowed nieces to men he trusted, which he duly did in April 1317 when Margaret and Elizabeth married Hugh Audley and Roger Damory.
In 1315, Hugh Despenser the Younger, husband of the eldest sister Eleanor de Clare, was a young man (about twenty-six or twenty-eight) with grand ambitions and a great need for money. Although married to the king's eldest niece, he had little if any political influence; oddly, given Edward II's later infatuation with him, the king doesn't seem to have liked or trusted Hugh much at all before 1318. Hugh was, to all extents and purposes, landless: his father Despenser the Elder granted him the revenues of half a dozen of his manors in Essex, Suffolk and Cambridgeshire sometime before February 1310, and that was about it. Despite his lack of means, Hugh acknowledged on 17 April 1315 that he owed 'John Giffard of Weston, the elder' a whopping £2000, and must have been desperate to get his hands on his wife's share of her brother's rich inheritance. Around the middle of May 1315, nearly eleven months after the earl of Gloucester's death when it must have become apparent to him that Gloucester was not going to leave a posthumous child, Hugh took matters into his own hands and set off for Tonbridge in Kent, one of the many castles and honours formerly belonging to Gloucester.
On 20 May 1315, Edward II, from Hadleigh in Essex, ordered Hugh Despenser "to surrender without delay to the king's escheator the castle and honour of Tunebrigge, which he has seized...". Edward told his escheator, John Abel, "to go in person and take the said castle and honour into the king's hand," and ordered several men who were in Tonbridge Castle with Hugh - Sir John de Penrith, Sir John Haudlo, Sir Walter Haket and unnamed others - to surrender possession of it to Abel. On the following day, 21 May, Edward issued a writ of privy seal to his council, asking them to "ordain speedy remedy and punishment for the outrage." John Abel, the escheator, returned on the 22nd with the news that Hugh and his men had refused to hand Tonbridge Castle over to him: Abel "delivered the above writs to Hugh and John etc and demanded livery of the castle, which they altogether refused; and that in the presence of witnesses he placed his hands on the wicket by way of taking seisin, but that they were removed by the said Hugh and John etc, who raised the drawbridge, so that he could not enter the castle. But in words he seized the castle, and he took the borough and the foreign lands of the honour into the king's hand without impediment."
This curious little incident in fact ended shortly afterwards, when Hugh and his men left the castle on Friday 23 May, and Edward told John Abel "to resume into the king's hand the castle and honour of Tonebrigg, late of Gilbert de Clare, earl of Gloucester and Hertford, deceased, tenant in chief, which Hugh le Despenser the younger of his own authority forcibly entered, the king having ordered him and others in the castle to deliver the same to the escheator and to be before the council at Westminster on this day of Friday to answer touching the premises and to do and receive what the court should decide, and Hugh having appeared in person and rendered the same to the king."
Hugh Despenser, as far as I can tell, wasn't punished for illegally seizing Tonbridge Castle, although on 6 July the sheriff of Kent was ordered to "distrain Robert de Haudle and John le Clerk by all their lands and goods to answer before the king and council on the morrow of St Margaret next for the seizing of the castle of Tonbrugge and other enormities." Shortly after the seizure of Tonbridge, Edward II received Hugh's petition "asserting that the time had long passed and Maud late the wife of the said earl had not borne a child," and told Hugh, his wife and her sisters to appear before chancery also "on Monday the morrow of St Margaret next." Natalie Fryde says in The Tyranny and Fall of Edward II 1321-1326 that "Despenser, with characteristic brutality, seized Tonbridge castle in Kent from her [Countess Maud]". I don't know of any source which places Maud in the castle at the time that Hugh seized it - it wasn't one of the properties assigned to her in dower in December 1314 - and there is no evidence I've seen which says that Hugh took the castle violently and that anyone was physically hurt in his doing so (unless you count the escheator John Abel's hands being 'removed' from the 'wicket'). I'm not sure therefore why this is proof of Hugh Despenser's 'brutality', and Ms Fryde wrongly states that Hugh in June 1315 "allege[d] that he had taken the castle for the king." In fact, the relevant entry on the Patent Roll (not the Close Roll as Ms Fryde's footnote says) says "Afterwards Hugh le Despenser the younger intruded on the castle, and subsequently restored it to the king." Restoring a castle you've seized to the king on demand and taking a castle on the king's behalf - not the same thing.
Several things puzzle me about all this. Firstly, why, of all the earl of Gloucester's former possessions, Hugh chose to seize Tonbridge. Merely geographic proximity to where he happened to be when he decided to do it, or because, as this website says, the castle was "such a prize, such a symbol of power"? The castle and honour of Tonbridge weren't granted to him and Eleanor in the land division of November 1317 anyway, but to her sister Margaret and Hugh Audley (and passed ultimately to their daughter Margaret Audley's Stafford descendants). Secondly, what Hugh hoped to achieve by seizing the castle. Did he think Edward would meekly let him keep it, or was he just trying to get the king's attention and force him to attend to the issue of the dowager countess of Gloucester's non-pregnancy? And why did he hold it only for a few days? And thirdly, two of the three knights named with Hugh as taking part in the seizure (excluding Sir John Haudlo, certainly a long-term Despenser adherent) had no connections to the Despenser family that I know of. Sir John de Penrith came from Cumberland, far from the Midlands and the south-east where the Despenser lands lay, and Sir Walter Haket, knight of Worcestershire, was pardoned in 1318 as an adherent of Earl Thomas of Lancaster. What was Hugh doing in the company of men who apparently had nothing to do with him or his family at any other time?
This little escapade availed Hugh Despenser nothing, and it was lucky for him that a) he wasn't punished and b) he didn't know at the time that he would have to wait another two and a half years before he and his wife would finally receive their lands and income. At the Lincoln parliament of January/February 1316, the dowager countess Maud was still claiming to be pregnant by her late husband, and two royal justices told Hugh that "although the time for the birth of that child, which nature allows to be delayed and obstructed for various reasons, is still delayed, this ought not to prejudice the aforesaid pregnancy." Marvellous stuff.
Calendar of Patent Rolls 1313-1317, pp. 306-307
Calendar of Fine Rolls 1307-1319, p. 248
Calendar of Inquisitions Post Mortem, vol. 5, pp. 325-354
Calendar of Inquisitions Miscellaneous 1308-1348, p. 20
Calendar of Close Rolls 1307-1313, p. 198; Ibid. 1313-1318, pp. 131-138, 222
The Parliament Rolls of Medieval England
Natalie Fryde, The Tyranny and Fall of Edward II 1321-1326, p. 33.