29 August, 2015

The Exile of the Despensers, 29 August 1321

In 1321, Edward II was forced by their baronial enemies, whom Edward shortly afterwards took to calling the Contrariants, to send his 'favourites' Hugh Despenser the Younger, his chamberlain, and Hugh's father Hugh Despenser the Elder into supposedly perpetual exile from England.  The deadline for the two Despensers to leave the country was 29 August 1321, the feast of the Beheading of St John the Baptist in the fifteenth year of Edward's reign, exactly 694 years ago.  Here's a look at what happened.

Edward II, who had little if any capacity for learning from the past and from his own mistakes, showed excessive favouritism towards Hugh Despenser the Younger at the beginning of the 1320s.  Hugh was his nephew-in-law, married to Edward's eldest niece Eleanor de Clare since May 1306, but until he was appointed as the chamberlain of Edward's household in 1318 - apparently against Edward's own wishes - the king had never shown the slightest interest in him or indeed, much awareness that he even existed.  That changed completely after Hugh was placed close to him in the key position in the royal household, and the two men spent much time together.  The exact nature of their relationship cannot be known, but after 1318 Edward became intensely dependent on Hugh in some way, either emotionally or politically or both.  The annalist of a Devon abbey rather revealingly referred to them in 1326 as rex et maritus eius, "the king and his husband."

Just after the October 1320 parliament at Westminster, Edward ordered the peninsula of Gower in South Wales to be taken into his own hands.  To cut a very long story short, the owner of Gower, William de Braose, who had no son, promised the reversion of his land to various people: his son-in-law John, Lord Mowbray, Hugh Despenser the Younger, Roger Mortimer, lord of Wigmore, and his uncle Roger Mortimer of Chirk.  John Mowbray took possession of Gower in the autumn of 1320, which prompted the king to take it into his own hands on the grounds that Mowbray had no royal licence to enter the land, presumably with the intention of granting it to his 'favourite' Hugh Despenser instead, or so a lot of people assumed.  Edward's official Richard Foxcote was in fact unable to take possession of Gower thanks to a "great crowd of armed Welshmen" who prevented Foxcote from "executing the mandate, so that he could do nothing therein without danger of death." (The chancery rolls are amusingly deadpan sometimes.) [Patent Rolls 1317-21, 547-8]

The Marcher lords were furious and concerned; the king's behaviour threatened the privileges they had in the March, extra privileges which English lords did not enjoy (which had originally been granted to them in exchange for keeping the Welsh border safe, but since Edward I had conquered North Wales in the early 1280s, the Marchers had extra privileges but no extra responsibilities to justify them; a "dangerous anachronism" as Professor T. F. Tout called them a few decades ago).  A confederation of allies formed against Hugh Despenser the Younger and by extension the king: the two Roger Mortimers; Edward II's brother-in-law Humphrey de Bohun, earl of Hereford; Edward's two former 'favourites' Roger Damory and Hugh Audley; Roger, Lord Clifford; John 'the Rich' Giffard, lord of Brimpsfield; possibly John, Lord Hastings; Sir John Charlton, formerly Edward II's chamberlain; the earl of Lancaster's younger brother Henry, who was Edward's first cousin and Hugh Despenser's brother-in-law; Maurice, Lord Berkeley and his sons Thomas and Maurice; and a whole host of other lords and knights.  It was a formidable coalition (see here for more background and information).

Edward II spent much of the early months of 1321 attempting to reconcile the disgruntled Marchers and calm the situation, but with Hugh Despenser permanently at his side, this was bound to fail.  On 4 May 1321, the Marcher lords began a massive attack on the Welsh lands belonging to the younger Despenser, followed by an attack on his and his father's English lands as well.  For weeks, the Marchers indulged themselves in vandalism and plunder on an almost unimaginable scale, murder (of the constables of Despenser the Younger's castles and fifteen unnamed Welshmen, among others), assault, extortion, false imprisonment and theft.  The Despensers were the intended target of their rage and greed, but it was the innocent who suffered most: the priory of Brecon, the 'poor people' of Swansea and the 'poor people' of Loughborough, chased out of their homes for three months by the terribly valiant Marchers, were among those who petitioned the king for help.  The author of the Vita Edwardi Secundi, though he loathed the Despensers and condemned their brutality, greed and penchant for extortion, thought that the Marchers had gone too far: "Why did they destroy their manors, for what reason did they extort ransoms from their retinues? Though formerly their cause had been just, they now turned right into wrong." (ed. Denholm-Young, p. 115).  The Despensers may well have deserved such treatment, but their tenants and others who had done nothing wrong except live near the areas where the Despensers held lands did not, and although Edward II's foolish favouritism pushed the Marchers into rebellion, they put themselves equally in the wrong by inflicting endless misery and suffering on innocents.  The bishop of Worcester, Thomas Cobham, informed the pope that the Marchers were capturing castles and committing homicides, and admitted that he had no idea why.  The letter of Cobham, who as a bishop was better-informed than most, probably demonstrates that few people understood the Marchers' aims, and it is doubtful that many cared; the loss of their anachronistic privileges, such as the right to enter their lands without royal permit, was of minimal concern or interest to anyone besides the Marchers themselves. The Brut (ed. Brie, p. 213) says "when the king saw that the barons would not cease of their cruelty, the king was sore afraid lest they would destroy him and his realm." This may not be an exaggeration; the Despenser War, although short in duration, was terrifically violent.

On 28 June 1321, Edward II's first cousin and nemesis Thomas, earl of Lancaster met the Marchers, or some of them, at Sherburn near Pontefract in Yorkshire, where an indenture was drawn up approving their actions against the Despensers.  Subsequently, the Marchers headed for London to attend the parliament which was due to begin on 15 July and to demand the Despensers' exile. The Marchers seized victuals from local inhabitants and pillaged the countryside – not only Despenser manors – all the way from Yorkshire to London.  John Mowbray, Stephen Baret, Jocelyn Deyville and Bogo Bayouse stole livestock, goods and chattels from the townspeople of Laughton-en-le-Morthen in Yorkshire and took all the items to the Isle of Axholme in Lincolnshire, which belonged to Mowbray. They even robbed the church. [National Archives SC 8/7/301] Adherents of Roger Mortimer destroyed the houses of John Bloxham in Oxfordshire, stole his goods and assaulted his servants, while the monastery of St Albans, according to its chroniclers, was only saved from the general pillaging because one of the Marcher leaders (unnamed) fell ill at Aylesbury.  The Marchers were not above using coercion and violence to compel men, including their own followers, to join them: Roger Mortimer forced his retainer John Mershton to ride in arms with him to London, but Mershton escaped and went home. Nor was this an isolated example; Mortimer, Hugh Audley, John Giffard, Henry Tyes and John Maltravers broke into Roger Chandos's castle at Snodhill in Herefordshire around Easter 1321, assaulted his servants, and threatened to burn his manors if he didn't join them. They took Chandos with them as a prisoner, but as soon as he could, he escaped. The rebels also forced a local rector to ride to London with them, tried to buy people's allegiance with money, and seized the property of those who refused to join them.  [Scott L. Waugh, 'The Profits of Violence: the Minor Gentry in the Rebellion of 1321-22 in Gloucestershire and Herefordshire', Speculum, 52 (1977), p. 849; Roy Martin Haines, Edward II, p. 149]

The Marchers arrived outside London on 29 July, two weeks late for parliament, perhaps because all the pillaging and terrorising people had delayed them.  The citizens refused to let them into the city.  Edward also refused to meet them or even to listen to their demands that the Despensers be perpetually exiled from England, and they and their heirs disinherited "as false and traitorous criminals and spies."  (Spies?)  The barons therefore placed themselves and their armies outside the city walls, at strategic locations, to prevent the king leaving.  [Annales Paulini, ed. Stubbs, pp. 294-6; Vita, p. 112]  They sent two knights as envoys to Edward, to tell him that they held both Hugh Despensers "enemies and traitors to you and to the kingdom, and for this they wish them to be removed from here."  Edward refused to meet the envoys, offering the rather feeble excuse that they had no letters of credence.  [J.R. Maddicott. Thomas of Lancaster, 283-5]

The Marchers finally entered London on 1 August 1321. The Annales Paulini (pp. 296-7) say that Hugh Despenser the Younger was sailing along the Thames off Gravesend at this time, visiting the king at night and urging him to delay any agreement with the Marchers.  Apparently incapable of reacting to anything except with violence and destruction, the Marchers threatened to burn the city from Charing Cross to Westminster if Despenser didn't desist. Edward's allies the earls of Pembroke, Richmond, Surrey and Arundel finally brought the Marchers' demands to Edward. If he refused to consent to the Despensers' exile, he would be deposed. The events of almost exactly ten years before, when the Ordainers had threatened him with deposition if he did not consent to Piers Gaveston's exile, were repeating themselves. The royalist earl of Pembroke, doing his best to help Edward, told him "Consider, lord king…the power of the barons; take heed of the danger that threatens; neither brother nor sister should be dearer to thee than thyself. Do not therefore for any living soul lose thy kingdom," and, quoting the Bible, "He perishes on the rocks that loves another more than himself." He went on to advise the king "if you will listen to your barons you shall reign in power and glory; but if, on the other hand, you close your ears to their petitions, you may perchance lose the kingdom and all of us."  [Vita. 113]

Even these heartfelt words and the renewed threat of deposition did not move Edward. Anguished at the thought of his friends being sent into exile, he continued to refuse, declaring that it was unjust and contrary to his coronation oath to exile the Despensers without giving them a chance to be heard. He suggested that they go to Ireland until the anger of the Marchers had cooled, and declared that it was deplorable for noblemen to be judged in such a manner and that he knew they were not traitors. He did have a point: nothing Hugh Despenser the Elder and Younger had done up to May 1321, for all that they irritated the Marcher lords and others beyond measure, merited perpetual exile and disinheritance of themselves and their heirs.  Pure spite and envy motivated their enemies. It fell to Queen Isabella, only a few weeks after bearing her youngest child Joan, to break the deadlock: she went down on her knees before her husband and begged him, for the good of his realm, to exile the Despensers. Finally accepting that he had no choice, Edward II entered the great hall of Westminster on 14 August, with his cousins the earls of Pembroke and Richmond on either side of him, met the barons, and agreed to banish his friends. Chroniclers Adam Murimuth and Geoffrey le Baker both make the point that Edward was afraid of civil war if he did not do so, but never consented inwardly to the barons’ demands, while the Rochester chronicler says that he was compelled by force and fear.

In the presence of Edward, but not the Despensers themselves, judgement was given against them.  They were accused, among many other things, of "evil covetousness," accroaching to themselves royal power, guiding and counselling the king evilly, only allowing the magnates to speak to Edward in their presence, "ousting the king from his duty," removing good counsellors from their positions and replacing them "by other false and bad ministers of their conspiracy," and "plotting to distance the affection of our lord the king from the peers of the land, to have sole government of the realm between the two of them."  Hugh Despenser the Younger's illegal killing of the Welsh nobleman Llywelyn Bren in 1318 was one of the charges against him, as were his attempts to disinherit Roger Damory and Hugh Audley.  The judgement decreed that the Despensers "shall be disinherited for ever as disinheritors of the crown and enemies of the king and his people, and that they shall be exiled from the realm of England, without returning at any time," saving only the consent of the king, prelates, earls and barons in parliament. They were convicted by notoriety, with no chance to speak in their own defence.  The date of their departure – to take place from Dover and nowhere else, as with Piers Gaveston in 1311 – was set as the feast of the Beheading of St John the Baptist, or 29 August 1321.  [Close Rolls 1318-23, pp. 492-494, 541-3; Parliament Rolls of Medieval England]  Hugh the Elder left England immediately; where he went is not certain, but perhaps to one of Edward II's French territories, Gascony or Ponthieu.  Hugh the Younger, meanwhile, famously became a pirate in the English Channel.  (Hugh had a certain...panache.)

Between 20 August and late September 1321, Edward II was forced to grant a pardon to more than 400 men for the murders, abductions, thefts and vandalism they had committed in the Despensers' lands, which crimes the Marchers claimed were "a case of necessity, [and] ought not to be corrected or punished by the rigour of the law, nor could this happen without causing too much trouble." [Patent Rolls 1321-4, pp. 15-21; TNA DL 10/234; PROME] (That's pretty convenient, isn't it? Break the law on an epic scale and cause untold harm to untold people, then say 'Ah, but you see, it was a case of necessity, and besides, prosecuting us would cause too much trouble.')  Edward, not surprisingly, later protested that he had done this unwillingly and that any pardon he had given under coercion was invalid and contravened his coronation oath; the barons tended to use the oath against Edward when it suited them and ignore it when it didn't.  [Vita, 116]  Edward, the following morning at breakfast, talked to his ally Hamo Hethe, bishop of Rochester, "anxious and sad."  He swore that he would "within half a year make such an amend that the whole world would hear of it and tremble," and he was as good as his word. In December 1321, he set off on a military campaign against the Marchers, the Despensers were back in England from their supposedly perpetual exile by early March 1322, and at least twenty of the leading Contrariants were executed, including the church-robbing John Mowbray, Stephen Baret and Jocelyn Deyville.  For all the wrongs that the Despensers committed, it's hard to shed too many tears for their vanquished foes.


Anerje said...

Can't blame Edward for wanting the Gower - it's so beautiful:). The reference to Despencer as the king's husband - is that a correct translation? I just find it a bizarre reference - even if the chronicler suspected a sexual relationship - or is it meant to be wit/ sarcasm? Edward and Thomas clearly were determined to play the exile game until either was the ultimate winner (sigh)

Sonetka said...

Did the Marchers have to provide any compensation to the people they despoiled or was it just a case of tough luck for them? I'm also curious about the deadline set -- was August 29th a particularly notable feast day, like Michaelmas, or was it just the next one on the calendar? (I'm tempted to think that the deadline being based on the anniversary of someone's beheading was intended as a hint to the Despensers, but that's probably anachronistic. A lot of notable saints met with pretty unpleasant ends, after all, so the odds were good that whatever saints' day they picked would be the anniversary of someone's gruesome execution).

Kathryn Warner said...

Anerje. yes, that's the right translation. It's cited in Seymour Phillips' book, and I used it in mine too, citing him. I don't know if it was meant seriously or sarcastically.

Anerje, nah, they were just common people so their suffering didn't count. :P I think 29 August was just the next useful feast to set as a deadline.

Sami Parkkonen said...

I think the chronicle wroter intented that as an insult to Edward, as it seemed to many that Despenser was running the court and making desicions on kings behalf.

The whole story shows how difficult it was to rule in medieval times and it also reveals how many men were trying to play the field for their own advantage, regardless of anything else. Earl of Lancaster, Despensers, various barons... Terrible mess.

And poor Eddie, he propably had given his word to Despensers or something and could not bring himself to be cynical ruler and play everybody else against themselves. He did not know how to divide and conquer.

Once again, marvelous piece of histor! Thank you, Kathryn.

Anonymous said...

Great post. Other than "the king and his husband" comment, is there any other evidence of the nature of Edward's relationship with Hugh the Younger? IIRC, there was a great deal of commentary on how much Edward loved Piers, for example.


Kathryn Warner said...

Hugh was called Edward's 'right eye', it was said that he led him around like 'a cat with a piece of straw'. and quite tellingly, the Scalacronica says "the great men had ill will against him [Edward] for his cruelty and the debauched life which he led, and on account of the said Hugh, whom at that time he loved and entirely trusted." The Scalacronica was written by the son of a man who served in Hugh's retinue. Froissart said much later that through Hugh everything was done and without him nothing was done, and the king trusted him more than anyone. Jean le Bel, who witnessed Hugh's execution, says he was emasculated because 'he was a sodomite, even, it was said, with the king'.

Sami Parkkonen said...

Just came to my mind, I wonder if the very ideology of knighthood influenced on Edwards desicions? We must not forget that it really did meant a lot to these men, even if their actions do not always confirm that.

A knights word was his bond, his honor was paramount and breaking ones oath was really shameful act. Also a knight usually had to find a Great romantic love for himself, not his wife by all means, whom he dreamed about, in whose name he did his valiant deeds etc. This ideal knightly love usually remained untouched because it was idealistic and supposedly pure. But it is knonw across the Europe that many a knight got himself killed because of this idea of knightly love (was it Minne in german??).

Just a thought, but I think one aspect of the lives of all these men which should not be forgotten either when we try to understand their actions and behavior. Gilles D'Argentain committed a suicide in every sense when he rode back to the battle at Bannockburn. He rode alone to the schiltron of Robert the Bruces brother and was killed at once because his "honor did not allow him to leave the field".