12 December, 2018

Hugh Despenser the Elder (1)

First part of a two-part post about Hugh Despenser the Elder, who was earl of Winchester for four and a half years in the 1320s and who was executed in 1326 when he was sixty-five.

Hugh, known to posterity as Hugh Despenser the Elder to distinguish him from his son of the same name, was born on 1 March 1261. [Cal. Inqs. Post Mortem 1272-91, nos. 101, 389; Fine Rolls 1272-1307, p. 152] He was the only son of Hugh Despenser, justiciar of England, and Aline Basset, who was probably Hugh the justiciar's second wife (though the identity of his presumed first wife has never been established). Hugh the Elder had at least two sisters or half-sisters, Eleanor and Joan, and possibly Anne and Hawise as well. His father Hugh the justiciar was born around 1220/23 and was, inevitably, the son of a man also called Hugh Despenser, who died in 1238. Aline Basset was many years her husband's junior and was born sometime in the 1240s; she was said to somewhere between twenty-two and thirty years old in late 1271. [CIPM 1216-72, no. 807] As she gave birth to her son Hugh in early 1261, she is unlikely to have been born after 1245. (Aline may have been the mother of one or several of Hugh the justiciar's daughters as well, but their dates of birth are unknown, as is the date of Aline and Hugh's marriage.) Aline was one of the two daughters of Philip, Lord Basset (d. 1271) and his first wife Hawise Lovaine (d. 1254 or before), and as her sister Margery FitzJohn died childless sometime before their father, Aline was Philip's sole heir. His sizeable inheritance across the south and midlands of England, from Wiltshire in the west to Essex and Suffolk in the east, thus passed entirely to the Despenser family.

Hugh 'the Elder' was three years old when his father Hugh the justiciar fought at the battle of Lewes in May 1264, on the side of Simon de Montfort, earl of Leicester, against Leicester's brother-in-law King Henry III and Henry's brother Richard of Cornwall and son the future Edward I. Philip Basset fought for the king against his son-in-law Hugh the justiciar, and was badly wounded and captured. Hugh 'the Elder' was four years old when his father was killed at the battle of Evesham on 4 August 1265, again fighting for Simon de Montfort against Lord Edward. Hugh's maternal grandfather Philip Basset, as a royalist baron, had enough influence with the king to ensure that, although Hugh the justiciar died fighting against the king and his son, Henry III granted three of the late Hugh's manors in Leicestershire to Aline Despenser née Basset two months after Evesham.

Hugh the Elder lost his Basset grandfather in October 1271 when he was ten years old, and he was eleven when Edward I succeeded his father Henry III as king in November 1272. By then, Hugh had acquired a stepfather: Roger Bigod, born c. 1245, last of the Bigod earls of Norfolk, nephew and heir of Roger Bigod the previous earl of Norfolk (d. 1270). Hugh's mother Aline had a stepmother, Ela Basset née Longespée, daughter of Henry II's illegitimate son William Longespée, earl of Salisbury (c. 1176-1226), and dowager countess of Warwick by her first marriage. Aline Despenser née Basset - rather interestingly, she kept her first husband's name throughout her second marriage to the earl of Norfolk even though Norfolk was of higher rank than Hugh Despenser the justiciar - died in early April 1281, and Hugh Despenser the Elder, as Aline's only son, was her heir. He was allowed, on acknowledgement of a payment of 500 marks, to take possession of his mother's lands though he was still a few months underage. The rest of the Basset lands passed to him sixteen years later when his step-grandmother the elderly Ela died in 1297, when she must have been in her early seventies or older. Hugh held lands in Wiltshire, Northamptonshire, Buckinghamshire, Oxfordshire, Surrey, Cambridgeshire, Essex and Suffolk, inherited another three manors in Worcestershire and Leicestershire from his father's childless first cousin John Despenser (d. 1275), and from his father the justiciar several more in Leicestershire, Lincolnshire and Yorkshire. Over the years and decades, Hugh the Elder added considerably to his already large estates and by the early 1320s held close to seventy manors across the south and Midlands. Even before his son Hugh the Younger rose high in Edward II's affections in the late 1310s and both men were able to augment their estates by force, coercion and other illegal and quasi-legal methods, Hugh the Elder was already a wealthy landowner who in 1291 shortly before his thirtieth birthday was able to make a loan of £500 to the perpetually impoverished young earl of Arundel, Richard Fitzalan.

As the stepson of the earl of Norfolk and in possession of a sizeable inheritance, Hugh the Elder was a baron of some substance. Probably in 1286, though the date is not recorded, Hugh married Isabella Chaworth née Beauchamp (b. c. 1263/66), eldest daughter of William Beauchamp, earl of Warwick (c. 1240-98) and Maud FitzJohn (d. 1301), and widow of the Marcher lord Patrick Chaworth (d. July 1283). Isabella had one child from her first marriage, Maud Chaworth (1282-1322), who married Edward I's nephew Henry of Lancaster in or before early 1297 and was the mother of Henry of Grosmont, first duke of Lancaster, and great-grandmother of King Henry IV. Hugh Despenser and Isabella married without a licence from Edward I, and in January 1287 Hugh acknowledged liability for a fine of 2,000 marks for doing so. His father-in-law William, earl of Warwick, died in 1298, and was succeeded as earl by his son Guy, Isabella's younger brother.

Hugh the Elder and Isabella née Beauchamp had six children: in probable birth order, they were Alina, who married Edward Burnell in May 1302; Hugh the Younger, who married Edward I's eldest granddaughter Eleanor de Clare in May 1306; Isabella, who married Gilbert de Clare, lord of Thomond, in c. 1306 and later married John Hastings in c. 1308/9 and thirdly Ralph Monthermer in 1318; Philip, who married Margaret Goushill in or before June 1308; Margaret, who married John St Amand in December 1313; and Elizabeth, who married Ralph, Lord Camoys in or before May 1316. Hugh the Younger, the second child and first son, was the Despenser/Basset heir after his father. Five of the six Despenser children had children of their own; Alina was the exception. She lived until May 1363 when she was in her mid-seventies, and was almost certainly the last surviving child of Hugh the Elder, though the death dates of her younger sisters Margaret St Amand and Elizabeth Camoys are not known for sure. Neither are the dates of birth of any of Hugh the Elder's children, even Hugh the Younger's, though Alina was probably born c. 1287 and Hugh the Younger c. 1288/9. Elizabeth the youngest may have been born as late as c. 1300/02, and was almost certainly only a young child when her mother died in May 1306.

Hugh the Elder's father had died in rebellion against Henry III and his son the future Edward I, but Hugh himself followed an entirely different career path, and served Edward I and his son Edward II faithfully for four decades. He was first summoned to parliament in 1283 when he was only twenty-two, and fought in Edward I's Welsh wars of the early 1280s and in his Scottish wars of the 1290s and early 1300s. He fought at the battle of Falkirk in July 1298, took part in the siege of Caerlaverock in the summer of 1300, and fought for Edward II at the battle of Bannockburn in June 1314 when he was fifty-three. He and his son Hugh the Younger were among the 500 or so knights who accompanied Edward II during the king's long and desperate gallop to Dunbar Castle after the loss at Bannockburn. Hugh the Elder also sailed to Flanders with Edward I when the king led a campaign there against Philip IV of France in August 1297, and is often mentioned as one of Edward I's closest allies in that difficult, crisis-ridden year, unlike his father-in-law the earl of Warwick and stepfather the earl of Norfolk.

Between 1286 and 1307 when Edward I died, the king often - just about every year - sent Hugh the Elder abroad on important diplomatic missions to the pope, the king of France, the king of Germany, the archbishop of Cologne, the Guardians of Scotland, and so on. Hugh was evidently a talented and capable diplomat, and in early 1297 was appointed justice of the forest south of the river Trent as well, a position he held for many years. He was accused of brutality and corruption in his capacity as justice of the forest, and from the 1290s onwards increased his lands by a series of perhaps rather dubious deals with others. Hugh was not exactly overburdened with scruples, and in 1298 a Londoner called Saer le Barber was sent to Newgate prison for stating that he "kept more robbers with him than any other man in England." [Early Mayor's Court Rolls, 23] In 1315, Edward II - or it may have been his cousin Thomas of Lancaster, then in semi-control of the English government - ordered an investigation into the 'oppressions' Hugh the Elder was alleged to have committed as justice of the forest. Basically, Hugh was an intelligent and immensely able man, a talented diplomat, politician, soldier, and estate manager, and if he had been able to rein in his and his son's greed and had not been so prone to brutality and corruption, the story of his life would make for far more pleasant reading and he might well not have ended his life on the public gallows in Bristol. There is much to admire about Hugh the Elder; there is also much to condemn him for. Second part of this post coming soon!


sami parkkonen said...

Wonderful stuff once again!

I always wonder what on earth made these seemingly smart, intelligent and clever men get so greedy and ruthless. If they had only curbed some of that side, they would have most likely achieved even more wealth and power in the long run.

But perhaps such thinking was not too common in medieval world in general. People tried to get land and wealth now rather than later or for the future generations.

But still I wonder... Hugh sr. must have been very capable guy, speaking foreign languages most likely, well educated most like, hence the business side, and yet he, just like his son, got too greedy too fast. Strange phenomena that one.

matt said...

Excellent summary
I look forward to seeing the next episode

Anonymous said...

Great post, as always. Was "Hugh" a particulary popular name, or, were the Despensers unique in having so little imagination, or was it usual to have 5 generations of the same name?


Kathryn Warner said...

Thank you, everyone! Unfortunately, the lack of creativity re: given names afflicted almost all medieval noble families, with the result that we get about nine consecutive generations of men called John Maltravers, or John Arundel, or Humphrey de Bohun, or whatever.