22 April, 2020

Hugh Despenser the Younger's Letters to the Sheriff of Glamorgan

Between September 1319 and c. September/October 1322, Hugh Despenser the Younger sent a number of long, detailed letters to Sir John Inge, sheriff of Hugh's lordship of Glamorgan. For more information, see also my book Hugh Despenser the Younger and Edward II: Downfall of a King's Favourite and my article ''We Might be Prepared to Harm You': an Investigation into Some of the Extortions of Hugh Despenser the Younger' in the second volume of the Journal of the Mortimer History Society, 2018.

Some of Hugh's letters are printed in English translation in Calendar of Ancient Correspondence Concerning Wales, ed. J. G. Edwards (1935); one is in W. H. Stevenson's article 'A Letter of the Younger Despenser on the Eve of the Barons' Rebellion, 21 March 1321', English Historical Review, 12 (1897), in the original Anglo-Norman; and three are in Cartae et Alia Munimenta quae ad Dominium de Glamorgancia Pertinent, vol. 3 (1910), also in the original Anglo-Norman. The original handwritten letters are mostly now in the National Archives in Kew. Anyone interested in Hugh's correspondence also needs to get hold of the book The War of Saint-Sardos: Gascon Correspondence and Diplomatic Documents, edited by Pierre Chaplais in 1954, which contains dozens of Hugh's letters, in Anglo-Norman.

The start of one of Hugh's letters to Inge, dated March 1321. Hugh always called himself 'Hugh le Despenser the son' ('le fuiz') in his correspondence.

Hugh's letters to John Inge reveal a lot about him as a person, including that he was highly articulate. They also reveal that he micromanaged his affairs in the lordship of Glamorgan, which came to him in November 1317 as part of the inheritance of his wife Eleanor de Clare from her late brother the earl of Gloucester, and that he took a deep interest in the lordship. One of the letters, dated 18 January 1321, contains Hugh's famous order to Inge that the sheriff should act so that "we may be rich and achieve our aims", "qe nous puissoms estre riches et ateindre a nostre entente". Referring to oneself as 'we' in letters was standard at the time and was not Hugh using the royal plural, though his opinion of himself and his position as Edward II's 'favourite' is pretty obvious from his numerous references to "the king and ourselves" and "it seems to the king and to us that...".

The letters tend to be impatient, hectoring and often threatening, and stand in stark contrast to the few surviving letters of Hugh's wife Eleanor, which paint her as someone courteous, patient, and considerate. In Hugh's last, or at least the last that I'm aware of, letter to John Inge, dated c. September or October 1322, Hugh wrote, seemingly casually in the middle of the letter, before moving onto something else:

"And know that we trust you more the more you advise us, but we are very worried about having some reason for which we might be prepared to harm you in some way, or for which we might lose the good will which we have for you."

We might be prepared to harm you. I laughed out loud when I first translated that bit, but poor John Inge! He falls over himself for years trying to comply with Hugh's endless orders, then he has to read that. On another occasion, Hugh told Inge that he was keeping a copy of his own letter to bring it up against the sheriff later if necessary, if Inge made any error regarding Hugh's instructions. This letter also contained the sarcastic line "it seems a great marvel to us that you so rarely send us news of our affairs" and the impatient line "we have so often sent you our letters on this matter that we are entirely weary of it."

The first extant letter Hugh Despenser the Younger sent to Sir John Inge dates to 22 September 1319 and was written during Edward II's unsuccessful siege of the port of Berwick. This letter was a long one, and was as detailed as most of Hugh's letters to Inge were. One of the most fascinating parts of the letter reveals that Hugh was engaged in a vendetta against Geoffrey Fromond, abbot of Glastonbury in Somerset. He told Inge to continue behaving towards the abbot as Hugh had previously ordered him to do (presumably in a letter which no longer exists), so that "the said abbot may be aware that we have the power to harm him." Heh. Hugh also told Inge to "harm and harass" a knight named Sir Roger Seyntmor (or Seymour) as much as he possibly could, on the grounds that Seyntmor had always been an enemy of Hugh. The lord of Glamorgan revealed his disdain for his Welsh tenants: he told John Inge to keep an eye on the woodland in his jurisdiction in case dangers occurred there, "bearing in mind how the people of those parts are often of frivolous resolve and reckless character." This disdain was further made apparent in a letter of 1321 when Hugh told Inge to take Welsh hostages "subtly" - how one was meant to take hostages "subtly" was not explained - and added that he did not wish any of the men to be given horses, and that they would have to travel to him on foot.

I'll give Hugh one last word, and quote from a letter he sent in 1325. This one wasn't sent to John Inge, but to one of the men Hugh had sent to Gascony during the War of Saint-Sardos. Hugh stated "as a result of your good conduct, the king and ourselves might discuss continuing our good will towards you." No comment or interpretation required...


Undine said...

I must say, I'm not surprised people wanted to string this guy up.

Kathryn Warner said...

Yeah. I love him but...yeah. :D

sami parkkonen said...

Sometimes I wonder if Edward was thinking it was just funny to see how Hugh made some people to squirm. I have no idea how many of Hugh's "victims" had been at odds with Edward but if they had been it would not be totally sensational to think that Edward found it funny how the same people who had been annoying him perhaps for years and decades were now gagging and explaining and otherwise very uncomfortable with this G.

Let's face it: he was a sort of gangster or if not a gangster then a racketeer of the highest order. He might have been nice guy and even funny but for those he chose to step on he was not.

Anonymous said...

I wonder if, after this kind of treatment, Hugh really expected support.