22 September, 2018

Edward II and Hugh Despenser the Younger

For me, one of the great fascinations of Edward II's reign is his relationship with Hugh Despenser the Younger. Considering this was a relationship which was a major factor in bringing down a king, very little is known about it.

What is often missed in accounts of Edward II's reign is that Edward and Hugh the Younger must have known each other for most of their lives, not necessarily particularly well, but it's hardly as though Hugh was a stranger to Edward when he was appointed his chamberlain in or before October 1318. Hugh's father Hugh the Elder was a consummate courtier whom Edward I often sent on important diplomatic missions abroad, to, for example, the pope, the king of Germany and the archbishop of Cologne, beginning in 1286 when Hugh the Elder was twenty-five and for the rest of his reign. Hugh the Younger's maternal grandfather was William Beauchamp, earl of Warwick, who was almost exactly Edward I's own age, and Warwick's younger brother Sir Walter Beauchamp, Hugh's great-uncle, was steward of Edward I's household from 1289 to 1303. Hugh's older half-sister Maud Chaworth (b. 1282) was one of the young Edward of Caernarfon's noble companions in 1290 and perhaps in other years, and so was their second cousin Eleanor de Burgh, one of the many daughters of the earl of Ulster.

Hugh Despenser the Younger himself was probably born in 1288 or 1289 so was about four or five years younger than Edward II, a little too young to be his companion in childhood, but he and his close family were part of the court, which I feel is a point too often missed. There seems to be an assumption on occasion that the Despensers were little more than nobodies and an unimportant or even non-baronial family, or that Hugh and his father were merely humble country knights. Hugh the Elder was in fact the stepson of the earl of Norfolk and the son-in-law of the earl of Warwick, and as I've pointed out before, it was Edward I who arranged Hugh the Younger's marriage to his eldest granddaughter Eleanor de Clare in 1306, the year before his death. Edward I was not a man to marry his granddaughter off to a mere nobody. Edward of Caernarfon attended Hugh and Eleanor's wedding on 26 May 1306 - Eleanor, his eldest niece, was thirteen at the time and Hugh about seventeen - but he certainly didn't arrange it after Hugh became his favourite many years later, as often assumed.

Growing up in the 1290s and early 1300s, Edward of Caernarfon would have known exactly who Hugh Despenser the Younger was. The later chronicler Geoffrey le Baker claims that Edward II hated Hugh before he was made his chamberlain 1318. This may well be an exaggeration, but it seems to me that Edward, at the very least, did not like or trust Hugh at all before Hugh inherited his wife Eleanor's third of the de Clare lands in late 1317 and before Hugh was made his chamberlain a few months later, and he was forced to work with him. It's remarkable, given Hugh's dominance of the government and foreign policy and of Edward himself, especially after his return to England from piracy in 1322, how little Hugh appears on record in the first ten years of Edward II's reign. His father Hugh the Elder was often at court and was one of the godfathers of Edward's son Edward of Windsor in 1312; his wife Eleanor née de Clare was Edward's oldest niece and often visited the king and received generous gifts from him; Hugh, by contrast, was almost entirely ignored by the king for many years. A large part of that was because Hugh had no lands of his own and no political influence whatsoever - he was only summoned to parliament for the first time after the death of his brother-in-law the earl of Gloucester in 1314 - but some of it was surely personal. For example, when Edward II gave Hugh's wife Eleanor gifts of money in 1313 and 1314, he had to give the money to Hugh as he was Eleanor's husband and that was how it worked, but he pointedly declared that the money was a gift to Eleanor only. The Lords Ordainer complained in late 1311 that two knights and unnamed others of the royal household had left court with the specific intention of assaulting Hugh Despenser the Younger, and while it's not clear whether Edward told them to do it or not, he certainly knew about it.

Hugh the Younger was chosen as Edward II's chamberlain in or before October 1318, "at the request of the magnates," as the records of the parliament held that month indicate. The chamberlain was the man responsible for controlling access to the king, and after Hugh and Edward began spending a lot of time together, Edward's feelings changed dramatically. How this happened, I don't know; it's not visible in the extant records. It is clear, though, that by the following year, 1319, Hugh had worked his way into the king's favour, and from then until the end of the reign was to remain there. Having written this post, I'm still not entirely sure what my point is or how to end the post, except to emphasise that Edward II and Hugh Despenser had known each other for a realllllly long time before Hugh became Edward's chamberlain in 1318, that Edward might well have disliked Hugh before the two men began spending lots of time together (or at the very least was indifferent to him), and that however Hugh managed to work his way into Edward's favour, he did it so brilliantly that Edward refused to give him up in 1325/6 even when faced with an invasion of his kingdom.


Anerje said...

It's an intriguing relationship. Was there some sort of 'event' that happened? Did Hugh prove his loyalty in some way? Or does Edward's niece Eleanor have a part to play? We may never know, but just speculating about is so interesting.

Kathryn Warner said...

It is intriguing, isn't it? I also often wonder what role Eleanor played - she was herself extremely close to her uncle, perhaps too close! Ahem!

Anonymous said...

I wonder what the magnates who requested that Hugh become Edward's chamberlain thought about their recommendation when the Edward-Hugh relationship began to change.


Anonymous said...

I hadn't realised that it was the magnates who appointed Hugh as chancellor. There's a case of 'be careful what you wish for'!


Kathryn Warner said...

Esther, Jo - fascinating, isn't it? :o I wonder why they started realising what a horrible mistake they'd made!

sami parkkonen said...

Let us assume that Eleanor was too close to her uncle, like really really too close, and the rumors etc. were beginning to pop up too regularly around the court. Hugh had learned the court politics from his father and obviously mastered them to some degree as the magnates had no clue what kind of a guy he was behind what ever public facade he had. So they pointed him as a chancellor.

Now Hugh puts down the rumors about the king and Eleanor, meaning he tells everybody that rumors are just big pile of BS and when the barons rise up against the king again he proves himself as being a rock solid ally for the king. Two points for Hugh. Plus he could have been really charming and funny guy when he wanted to be, we simply do not know, and that would have endeared him even more to the king. As his letters prove he was a witty and quick minded guy who had that sarcastic way of seeing things. As was Piers. So could it be possible that Edward somehow saw some Piers in him? Maybe. Hugh was not as funny as far as we know but perhaps privately?

As for later on and after the Lancaster revolt in 1322 Hugh might have been one the very few men Edward could trust at all. Or he felt like that. And Hugh saw his chance in that to advance his own interests. Btw, this has happened many many times in history. If you look at the court of Joseph Stalin (and I am not suggesting he was anything like Edward whom I like) and the dynamics in his inner circle of power it was just like so many other court intrigues etc. around the world and through history. So this was not exceptional.

As for Edward, just like with Piers, once he made up his mind, the world could not turn it. He was a bull and mule and a donkey when chose to be. Nothing would or could change his mind. Stubborn to the end.

NOW, what part Eleanor played in all of this? She must have been at least the glue and most likely even more. If and when she was a real favorite of her uncle it could have been her who also advanced the career of Hugh. She might have been able to convince Edward that Hugh is solid supporter and the one to have around. Too often we ignore the hand of women in these events simply because in medieval world they were largely ignored when it came to politics and yet we have many women who actually were extremely powerful across Europe during the whole epoch.

I also wonder if Hugh played a part of a "beard" and the real relationship was not between him and Edward BUT between Eleanor and Edward? That was also very common practice even in 1900's New York. You have an official marriage where the husband is simply hiding the fact that the "wife" is a lover of a powerful and well known man. The husband reaps the benefits economically etc. and the secret relationship can go on as nobody dares to suggest that the official husband is a cuckold. This would explain the talk about kings "wife" etc.

Granted, this is all pure speculation BUT it is interesting to think this triangle between Edward, Eleanor and Hugh. I am fairly convinced that it was not as simple as many believed then and think today. Too many oddities in the story if it was just what we know from the written sources.

And as always, everybody seems to down play the role of Eleanor despite the history between her and Edward. Just like everybody forgets what role Isabella could have played in the down fall of Mortimer. I mean, she was just a girlfriend of Mortimer, right? And Eleanor, well, she was just a girl, right? Duh...