13 September, 2015

Edward II's Relationship with Hugh Despenser the Younger

One of the most fascinating aspects of Edward II's life, for me, is the way he became infatuated in the late 1310s with a man he had never shown the slightest interest in before, despite having known him for many years: Hugh Despenser the Younger.  Here's a post about it.

Edward II and Hugh Despenser must have known each other for most of their lives.  Hugh was rather younger than Edward, born probably in the late 1280s, though his date of birth is not known (his father was born on 1 March 1261 and his older half-sister Maud Chaworth on 2 February 1282).  His father Hugh Despenser the Elder was high in Edward I's favour and trusted by him and was also a friend and ally of Edward of Caernarfon before and after he became king, and Hugh the Younger's maternal grandfather William Beauchamp, earl of Warwick, was about the same age as Edward I and also close to the king.  Hugh the Younger married Edward of Caernarfon's eldest niece Eleanor de Clare on 26 May 1306 in the presence of her grandfather Edward I, who had arranged the match, and almost certainly of Edward of Caernarfon too.  The later chronicler Jean Froissart says that Hugh was one of Edward's companions in his household before he became king, which is very likely: Hugh's older half-sister Maud Chaworth, who married Edward's first cousin Henry of Lancaster in or before 1297, was one of the future king's noble companions in his youth, and so was Gilbert de Clare, lord of Thomond, who later married Hugh's sister Isabel.

Yet for many years, Edward II acted as though he was mostly unaware of Hugh's very existence.  Edward was always extremely fond of his eldest niece Eleanor, Hugh's wife, and Hugh's father was one of his closest and staunchest allies for the entirety of his reign and had been a friend and ally before his accession as well, despite an age difference of twenty-three years (possibly Edward of Caernarfon saw Hugh the Elder as some kind of father figure).  Yet none of this translated into any kind of favour shown to Hugh the Younger himself for the first eleven or twelve years of Edward's reign, and it was as though the king simply ignored Hugh's existence, perhaps because Hugh followed the political lead of his maternal uncle Guy Beauchamp, earl of Warwick, who was hostile to the king and to Piers Gaveston, rather than that of his staunchly royalist father.  Indeed, in 1311 the Lords Ordainer demanded the removal from the king's household of a group of men who had physically attacked Hugh, perhaps on the grounds of his opposition to the king.  For the first half of Edward's reign, Hugh had no lands and no power at all, despite being a member of the royal family by marriage.  The later chronicler Geoffrey le Baker even claimed that Edward hated Hugh before 1318, which I suspect is something of an exaggeration, but I think it's absolutely clear that the king neither liked Hugh nor trusted him an inch.

Hugh's relationship with Edward II is often misunderstood by modern writers: firstly, they assume that it was Edward who arranged Hugh's marriage to his niece Eleanor de Clare after Hugh became his 'favourite', and secondly they assume that Hugh moved into the position of favourite not long after Piers Gaveston's murder in 1312 and was already close to the king at the time of the battle of Bannockburn in 1314.  I suppose that as Edward arranged the marriages of his other two de Clare nieces to his 'favourites', it seems logical that he arranged Eleanor and Hugh's marriage as well; but he did not.  There is no doubt whatsoever that Hugh and Eleanor married in May 1306 and that Edward I arranged it, and by the time Edward fell for Hugh in the late 1310s, Hugh and Eleanor already had at least half a dozen children.  And the idea that Hugh was Edward's favourite as early as 1314 ignores the existence of the men who were close to Edward II in the mid-1310s: Roger Damory especially, and Hugh Audley and William Montacute.  Damory and Audley married Elizabeth and Margaret de Clare respectively in 1317.  Edward II proved most reluctant to admit that his nephew the earl of Gloucester's widow Maud de Burgh was not pregnant with his child, and didn't order the division of Gloucester's lands among his three sisters and their husbands until 1317, three years after he fell at Bannockburn.  Had Hugh Despenser been in his favour earlier, Edward would have fallen over himself to grant him and Eleanoe de Clare their lands as soon as possible.  Yet he let Hugh beg over and over for them in 1315 and 1316.

In the autumn of 1318, Hugh Despenser the Younger was appointed as the chamberlain of the king's household, a very powerful position, at the request of the magnates and apparently against Edward II's wishes.  Somehow over the next year or two, and how he did it is not known, Hugh rose ever higher in Edward's affections.  The physical proximity, having to work closely with Hugh whether he wanted to or not, had its effect on Edward, and within two years he had become extremely dependent - politically or emotionally or more likely both - on a man whose existence he had always previously ignored for the most part.  The relationship between the two men, whatever the true nature of it was, continued until Hugh's grotesque execution, ordered by Edward's wife Isabella, on 24 November 1326.  Only death tore them apart.

Whether Edward II and Hugh Despenser the Younger's relationship was sexual and romantic or not, I don't know.  I don't pretend to know.  Unfortunately we will never know.  Jonathan Sumption (who's written an excellent series of books about the Hundred Years War) most peculiarly claimed in a book review that their relationship was "certainly not sexual."  How on earth he can possibly know that, I cannot imagine.  In fact, we cannot say that their relationship was certainly anything, and making such dogmatic statements about a personal relationship of 700 years ago is a gross error, and frankly quite daft.  It appears as though Edward was infatuated with Hugh, and did everything he could in 1321/22 to bring him and his father back to England after they had been exiled by the Marcher lords.  In 1326, the annals of an abbey called the two men rex et maritus eius, 'the king and his husband'.  Unlike Piers Gaveston, Hugh Despenser was an insider, an English nobleman and completely at home with court politics, related by blood or marriage to all the important people in the realm.  In literature, Piers and Hugh are often fairly interchangeable, but in reality, they were very different men and their relationships with Edward were also, presumably, very different.  Queen Isabella tolerated her husband's relationships with his previous favourites, but loathed Hugh (the book review linked above claims that Isabella had a 'mortal hatred' for Piers according to 'recently published documents', whatever they may be.  I really doubt this is true).

The chronicler Geoffrey le Baker wrote a few years later that many people considered Hugh Despenser to be "another king, or more accurately ruler of the king…in the manner of Gaveston, so presumptuous that he frequently kept certain nobles from speaking to the king. Moreover, when the king, out of his magnanimity, was preoccupied with many people addressing him about their affairs, Despenser threw back answers, not those asked for but to the contrary, pretending them to be to the king’s advantage."  The Brut says that Hugh "kept so the king’s chamber, that no man might speak with the king…all men had of him scorn and despite; and the king himself would not be governed by no manner of man, but only by his father and by him."  The Annales Paulini claim that Hugh Despenser, as chamberlain, replaced members of Edward's household without the magnates' consent, and the Anonimalle says that "no man could approach the king without the consent of the said Sir Hugh" and calls him haughty, arrogant, greedy, evil and "more inclined to wrongdoing than any other man."  The Vita Edwardi Secundi says "confident of the royal favour, he did everything at his own discretion, snatched at everything, did not bow to the authority of anyone whomsoever."  Regarding Hugh Despenser's enormous influence over the king, the Flores Historiarum says that he led Edward around as though he were "teasing a cat with a piece of straw," Lanercost that he was the "king of England’s right eye," and the rather later Lancastrian chronicler Henry Knighton that he led Edward around for his own aggrandisement.  The men who had heaved a sigh of relief at the death of Piers Gaveston now realised, to their horror, that Edward had replaced him with a man who was far more dangerous. 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."  (This chronicle was written by Sir Thomas Gray, whose father of the same name served in Hugh the Younger's retinue in the 1320s.)  What the writer meant by 'debauched' is a matter for speculation, and there is even less evidence than with Piers Gaveston to tell us what kind of relationship Edward had with Hugh Despenser.  He never referred to him as his brother, as he did Piers, and we have none of Edward's letters where he describes his feelings for Hugh.

I'll leave the last word to Edward's queen Isabella of France, who in about October 1325 refused to return to England from France, and declared "I feel that marriage is a joining together of man and woman, maintaining the undivided habit of life, and that someone has come between my husband and myself trying to break this bond; I protest that I will not return until this intruder is removed, but discarding my marriage garment, shall assume the robes of widowhood and mourning until I am avenged of this Pharisee."  By this, she meant Hugh Despenser the Younger, and evidently believed that he had come between her husband and herself and had tried to destroy her marriage.  This would seem to mean that Edward and Hugh did have a sexual/romantic relationship, and it lasted for a good long while, from about 1319 until Hugh's execution in 1326.  How Edward II became so infatuated with and dependent on a man he had neither liked nor trusted for many years fascinates me.


Anonymous said...

Great post! I doubt that Isabella's comments indicate a sexual relationship -- she never spoke of Piers or any other of Edward's favorites as coming between her and her husband. I think, instead, that Isabella was referring to Hugh's dominating Edward; none of Edward's other favorites tried to interfere with her in any way.


Kathryn Warner said...

I really wonder who was, or wasn't, sleeping with whom. In his book review that I linked to, Sumption refers to Roger Mortimer as Isabella's 'lover'. Interesting the way pretty well everyone nowadays assumes that Isabella and Roger were physical lovers, while Edward and Piers and Hugh were not.

Jules Frusher said...

Brilliantly well written - and just as I would have put everything too. I think the sexual, or not, relationships between Edward, Hugh and Eleanor will always be a tantalising mystery, although Edward was certainly completely dependent upon Hugh for the administrative side of his reign. I'm also interested in Isabella's use of the word 'Pharisee' in that context. It insinuates that Hugh was haughty (yes, we know that) and self-righteous - a sort of jobs-worth. I don't think I've ever seen him described as that before - he tended to twist rules rather than stick to them at any price. And.... once more you beat me to it! I was about to do a similar post but I'll leave it a while now :-)

Anerje said...

I think there's a huge hunk of history missing:) It is difficult to fathom how Hugh rose to power. As Esther says, Isabella tolerated what seems to have been a close, intense relationship between Edward and Piers, and the likes of Audley etc. so what had happened for Isabella to hate Hugh as much as she did? Maybe as Piers wasn't that interested in 'cashing in' on his relationship with Ed, and was hated as an 'out-sider'. Did she blame Hugh for stoking anti -French politics - encouraging Ed when he should have been seeking reconciliation? It's so frustrating we won't know! Great post, btw!

Jerry Bennett said...

I wonder if I can speculate a bit here (again). Hugh's appointment as Chamberlain came late in 1318, so was this part of the settlement between Edward and Thomas of Lancaster now known as the "Treaty of Leake"? I can't see anything definite in the few history reference books to which I have access, but the complex negotiations that were led by the earl of Pembroke had to be revised several times before agreement was finally reached. If "The Magnates" who suggested Hugh for the post of Chamberlain were the same magnates that had thrashed out the Leake agreement, then Hugh could have been a compromise choice. He would be acceptable to Edward who already enjoyed the support of Hugh's father, and who was by all accounts on good terms with Hugh's wife, Eleanor de Clare, and if Hugh had a history as a former ordainer and supporter of the earl of Warwick, then he would have been acceptable to Lancaster as well.

Once Hugh was in place as chamberlain, Edward may well have found him easy to work with, whatever his previous misgivings, and as the treaty of Leake unravelled after the failed attempt to recapture Berwick, then Edward would have welcomed Hugh's support against Lancaster. The closeness between them could have developed from there.

But please note that this is speculation.

Anerje said...

Lol - I've just seen my post - I meant chunk of history - although I'm sure lots of historical hunks missing as well!

Anonymous said...

I just thought of something ... was Hugh ever accused of witchcraft? (I've been reading some blogs about how many women were accused of that crime when they were influential with the king)