24 November, 2018

Hugh Despenser the Younger, Pirate and Extortionist

To celebrate the publication of my biography of Hugh Despenser the Younger this month, and to mark the anniversary of his execution in Hereford on 24 November 1326, here are some snippets about him.

- Hugh was probably born around 1288/89, so was about five years younger than Edward II. The date of birth you almost always see for him online, 1286, is too early; his parents probably married that year (or perhaps in late 1285), and he had an older sister.

- He had one older sister (Alina Burnell), three younger sisters (Isabella Hastings, Margaret St Amand and Elizabeth Camoys), an older half-sister (Maud of Lancaster née Chaworth, born 1282), and a younger brother, Philip. Philip Despenser died in September 1313 at the age of barely twenty, long before Hugh's period of power, though I do find it interesting to speculate what kind of role Philip might have played in his brother's regime.

- Hugh was an ancestor of Henry VIII's sixth wife Katherine Parr, and his younger brother Philip was an ancestor of Henry's third wife Jane Seymour. (Hugh - Edward, d. 1342 - Edward, d. 1375 - Margaret, d. 1415 - Philippa Ferrers, d. 1434 - Thomas Greene, d. 1462 - Thomas Greene, d. 1506 - Maud, d. 1531 - Katherine Parr, d. 1548.) (Philip, d. 1313 - Philip, d. 1342 - Philip, d. 1401 - Philip, d. 1423 - Margery, d. 1478 - Philip Wentworth, d. 1464 - Henry Wentworth, d. 1501 - Margery, d. 1550 - Jane Seymour, d. 1537.)

- Henry of Grosmont (c. 1310-1361), first duke of Lancaster, grandfather of King Henry IV, was Hugh's nephew, his half-sister Maud's son. Sir Hugh Hastings of Elsing in Norfolk (c. 1310-1347), whose remains were examined a few decades ago - he was found to have stood five feet ten inches tall and to have suffered a severe blow to the mouth - was another nephew, son of Hugh's sister Isabella.

- The man who abducted Edward II's beloved Piers Gaveston, earl of Cornwall, in June 1312 - Guy Beauchamp, earl of Warwick - was Hugh's uncle, younger brother of his mother Isabella Beauchamp (d. 1306). Hugh was the grandson of William Beauchamp, earl of Warwick (c. 1240-98) and step-grandson of Roger Bigod, earl of Norfolk (c. 1245-1306).

- Hugh often kept copies of his own letters and stored them at the Tower of London, with the happy result that much of his correspondence survives today and reveals that he was eloquent, intelligent, sarcastic, and distressingly prone to threatening people. All his letters were written, or rather dictated, in French, and as it's usually the drafts that survive, you can see how he had certain phrases added or struck out as he went along, revealing his thought processes. ("Blah blah blah Robert Bruce, king of Scotland...oh no, wait, we don't call him that, do we? Strike those last words out.") Several of his letters state that he had read out his correspondent's previous letters to Edward II and his council, so he was obviously a fluent reader.

- Hugh was one of the 266 men knighted with Edward of Caernarfon on 22 May 1306 when he was about seventeen, and married Edward's eldest niece, thirteen-year-old Eleanor de Clare, four days later in the presence of her grandfather Edward I. They had been married for twenty years and six months at the time of his execution on 24 November 1326. His mother Isabella Beauchamp died around the time of his wedding, sometime before 30 May 1306 when the writ for her inquisition post mortem was issued. Hugh the Elder never remarried.

- Hugh often sent letters to the sheriff of his lordship of Glamorgan, Sir John Inge, telling him to do this, that and the other as though Inge was his own personal servant who existed only to do his bidding rather than a royal official. A few of these long letters still survive, and show how Hugh micro-managed affairs in Glamorgan and took a deep interest in his lordship. They also show his disdain for his Welsh tenants.

- Other letters reveal that Hugh was not shy about writing things like 'it seems to our lord the king and to us that...' and 'the king and ourselves think that...', and  thus coupling himself with God's anointed. The tone of his letters to John Inge was often hectoring and menacing; when writing to other people, he often comes across as haughty and self-important, though he was capable of humour as well and wielded sarcasm like a weapon. The few surviving letters of his wife Eleanor née de Clare (1292-1337), by contrast, are extremely courteous and amiable.

- He was, however, careful always to use people's correct titles: even in 1324/25, after Roger Mortimer of Wigmore had supposedly sent assassins to kill Hugh and his father, he referred to him as 'Sir Roger Mortimer'. Edward II and others, by contrast, called him 'the Mortimer'. Hugh referred to his wife's sister Elizabeth de Burgh née de Clare as la dame de Bourgh, 'the lady de Burgh', and to himself as 'Hugh le Despenser the son'. He sent a few letters to his cousin Ralph, Lord Basset of Drayton, and a certain amount of affection for Basset is apparent: he often called him 'fair cousin' or 'beloved cousin.'

- Hugh's downfall in 1326 brought a veritable flood of petitions complaining that he had taken manors from lots of people, threatened them, forced them to pay him large sums of money, imprisoned people until they paid ransoms, and much more. His behaviour as royal favourite in the 1320s was frankly appalling, and his greed for lands and money was insatiable. Both men and women, rich and not nearly as rich, were his victims; he was an equal opportunities extortionist.

- One of his letters made me bark with laughter when I saw it. He threatened Sir John Botetourt with having him hanged, drawn and quartered if Botetourt did not hand over a manor to him, and *literally in the very next sentence* added cheerily "May God keep you."

- He was probably already a grandfather when he was executed in November 1326, though he was only about thirty-seven: his eldest daughter Isabella gave birth to her son Edmund Arundel, also the grandson of the earl of Arundel, in or before December 1326. Hugh left nine children: Hugh, Edward, Gilbert, John, Isabella, Joan, Eleanor, Margaret and Elizabeth. He may also have been the father, from a relationship with a mistress called Joan, of Nicholas de Litlington (1312/15-1386), abbot of Westminster.

- There is no evidence whatsoever that Hugh raped Queen Isabella, an invention of the twenty-first century. Despite his appalling greed and penchant for imprisoning people, I very much doubt that he had anyone called 'Lady Baret' tortured, as claimed at his trial. The charges against him read out at his trial, while containing some kernels of truth, are to a great extent absurd.

- Hugh's great-uncle Sir Walter Beauchamp, one of the younger brothers of his grandfather the earl of Warwick, was steward of Edward I's household from 1289 to 1303.

- When Hugh was growing up - wherever that was - he must have grown accustomed to his father Hugh the Elder's frequent trips abroad, to the pope, the king of France, the Guardians of Scotland and other important men, on Edward I's business.

- Hugh spent much of the year 1310 jousting on the continent, defying an order from Edward II at the end of 1309 that English knights were not to leave the country to joust abroad. He took part in a tournament in Mons in July 1310, and had also participated in a tournament at Dunstable in the spring of 1309 so evidently was a fan of jousting. His wife Eleanor most probably accompanied him abroad, and may have given birth to their second son Edward Despenser in October 1310 after they returned. Their eldest, Hugh or 'Huchon', was born in 1308 or the first half of 1309, and their eldest daughter Isabella was born in 1312 or the beginning of 1313 and was named after Hugh's mother. Their second daughter Joan was named after Eleanor's mother Joan of Acre and may have been born around 1314/15. Their third son Gilbert first appears on record in July 1322 though was probably a few years old by then, and their youngest son John first appears on record in November 1324 though was certainly several years old then. Their youngest child was born in December 1325.

- Hugh and his father Hugh the Elder, born 1 March 1261, fought at the battle of Bannockburn on 23 and 24 June 1314, and both were among the 500 knights who galloped to Dunbar Castle with Edward II after Edward lost the battle. Hugh the Younger must have acquitted himself bravely and honourably during the battle, as Edward made him a knight banneret soon afterwards, even though he still seems to have disliked and distrusted Hugh. If he didn't actively dislike Hugh, he was at the very least entirely indifferent to him for many years.

- Although numerous records of payments made to messengers for carrying Edward II and Hugh's letters to each other survive, I've only ever found one letter they sent each other that still exists. It dates to May 1324 and is more of a note, and in it Hugh informed Edward about ships in the Gower Peninsula. The letter opens "Honours and reverences, very honourable lord."

- Hugh enthusiastically took up piracy in the English Channel after his enemies the Marcher lords forced him into (supposedly permanent) exile in August 1321, and the Vita Edwardi Secundi calls him a 'sea-monster.' As late as 1336, Edward III paid compensation to some Genoese merchants whose ship Hugh had captured and robbed off the dunes of Sandwich. He may even have attacked Southampton on 30 September and 1 October 1321 with Robert Batail of Winchelsea, baron of the Cinque Ports. [The National Archives SC 8/17/833]


sami parkkonen said...

Certainly what a chap he was!

It is strange how greedy people get once they are in a position to abuse power even though one might think that Hugh had seen enough around him to make him more careful in his actions. Obviously he could not believe Isabella and Mortimer are any real threat to him.

I often wonder what made Edward turn to him after so many years of being at least lukewarm towards this clearly ambitious man.

Anyone reading this, get Kathryn's book about Hugh. It is a gem.

Unknown said...

I enjoyed that read, thanks Kathryn :)

Kathryn Warner said...

Thanks, Sami and John :-)