This post is about a man I've always found absolutely fascinating: the man who was the de facto ruler of England for much of the 1320s, until his hideous execution at Hereford on 24 November 1326. In a recent poll, he was voted most villainous Briton of the 14th century, and got 9% of the vote for the worst Briton ever! Let's face it, a man who extorted money and lands from rich widows (including his own sister-in-law), who became a pirate when he was exiled from England, and who was almost certainly the lover of his wife's uncle, is waaay more interesting to write about than a man who helped little old ladies to cross the road (though maybe he did that too, who knows?)
Hugh Despenser the Younger was born sometime between 1286 and 1290 (by way of comparison, Edward II was born in 1284 and Roger Mortimer, Despenser's greatest enemy, was born in 1287). His mother Isabel Beauchamp (died 1306) was the daughter and sister of Earls of Warwick, and his father Hugh Despenser the Elder was a great landowner in the Midlands and SE England. The elder Despenser's father - called, inevitably, Hugh Despenser - was Justiciar of England and was killed at the Battle of Evesham in 1265, fighting for the baronial opposition to Henry III and the future Edward I (Edward II's father and grandfather). Fortunately for the Elder Despenser - aged only 3 or 4 at the time of his father's death - his maternal grandfather Philip Basset was a royalist baron and close friend of Henry III's brother Richard of Cornwall, and this saved him from ruin. After the death of his mother Alina, Countess of Norfolk, in 1281, the Elder Despenser inherited all the Despenser estates of his father and the Basset estates of his grandfather. Despite - or because of - his father's opposition to the king, the Elder Despenser was a loyal royal servant all his life, the only man who remained loyal to Edward II for the entire length of his reign, and managed the incredibly difficult task of retaining the favour and friendship of both Edward I and the future Edward II during the last years of Edward I's life, when he and his son had conflicts and fall-outs a-plenty. Edward I often sent Despenser on delicate missions abroad, to the Pope or the king of France - he was clearly a talented and able diplomat and adminstrator, skills shared in equal measure by his notorious son.
That the Elder Despenser stood high in Edward I's favour is proved by the marriage of his son in May or June 1306, when Edward I married the younger Despenser to his eldest granddaughter, Eleanor de Clare. It's important to realise that it was Edward I who arranged this marriage, NOT Edward II. Because Edward II arranged the marriage of Eleanor's sister Margaret to his favourite Piers Gaveston in November 1307, it's often assumed that he arranged Hugh and Eleanor's marriage too, but Despenser didn't become Edward's favourite until 1318, when he and Eleanor had been married 12 years and had a brood of children. (I've even read a novel where the author had Hugh and Eleanor marrying as late as 1321, thereby precipitating the Despenser war. Amazing that someone could do so much research, then get a date wrong by a full 15 years!) This marriage brought the younger Despenser into the royal family and gave him a great deal of prestige, though little if any land or money at this point. For the first few years of Edward II's reign, Hugh played practically no role at all, though his father was a close ally and counsellor of the king. Hugh simply wasn't influential or rich enough to play a political role.
All that changed in 1314, when Eleanor's brother Gilbert de Clare, Earl of Gloucester, was killed at Bannockburn at the age of 23. He was childless (although bizarrely his widow claimed to be pregnant for 3 years!!) so his heirs were his 3 sisters. As husband of the eldest sister, Hugh claimed the best lands - Glamorgan, mostly - and this unexpected windfall set him on the path which would ultimately lead to his own execution and the deposition of the king.
A few months after the Clare lands were finally partitioned in November 1317, Hugh was elected as Edward's Chamberlain, the man who controlled access, physical and written, to the king - an enormously powerful position. He used this proximity to Edward to turn the king's former indifference, or even dislike, of him into infatuation. This is what I find most fascinating about Hugh. He and Edward must have known each other all their lives, as Hugh's father was a courtier and Hugh even lived in Edward's household when Edward was Prince of Wales, along with about 10 other young men, including Piers Gaveston. Hugh's wife was Edward's eldest niece, whom he was very fond of, and his father a close friend and ally of the king. Despite all that, there's not a shred of evidence that Edward ever liked Hugh or did anything for him, except for awarding him one manor in 1309. How did Hugh do it - turn Edward's dislike into infatuation? I'd love to be a fly on the wall to observe this, especially as Edward had other favourites between Gaveston and Despenser - Roger Damory, Hugh Audley and William Montacute, who Hugh ousted from Edward's affections. The first two were married to Eleanor de Clare's sisters to share in the Clare inheritance, as a sign of Edward's great favour.
By 1320, Hugh was as high in Edward's favour as Gaveston had been, but far more dangerous. Far, far more dangerous. Gaveston had never been interested in political power, only in the money and prestige being the favourite of the king gave him. Hugh, on the other hand, was a highly intelligent and capable man who knew exactly what he wanted. And that was land, more land, more money, and power. Lots of power. He was ruthless, greedy and totally without scruple. The barons who'd killed Gaveston and banished the king's other favourites Damory, Audley and Montacute from court must have been kicking themselves, that they'd opened the door for someone who was so much worse. I don't have the time to go into a full explanation of his many misdeeds, but by 1321 he'd provoked the Marchers (the barons in Wales and along the border) into what is known as the Despenser War, when thousands of people attacked the lands of Hugh and his father in Wales and England, destroying and stealing whatever they could. Hugh and his father were exiled from England for a few months, during which Hugh became a pirate in the English channel - a successful one, as Edward III had to pay compensation to Genoese merchants many years later.
After some complicated machinations and a military operation in 1321-22, the Despensers were recalled from exile, and all Hugh's and Edward's enemies were either dead, imprisoned or had fled abroad. It's interesting to note that almost all of the men Edward II treated his enemies in this period - with the notable exception of his cousin, the Earl of Lancaster - were in fact Hugh's enemies and rivals, many of whom had always been loyal to the king until Hugh's rise and rise to power. Men like Roger Mortimer, whose family had a long-standing feud with the Despensers, Damory and Audley, Hugh's rivals for the Clare inheritance, Mowbray and the Earl of Hereford, rivals for land and influence in Wales.
By the end of March 1322, Hugh Despenser the younger was all powerful in England and Wales. His father, a friend of Edward II but never at the centre of government, joined him in his triumph. They didn't allow anyone access to Edward unless at least one of them was present - including, amazingly enough, Queen Isabella, who was not allowed to see her husband alone. To cut a very long story short, the Despensers didn't dominate the government in the period 1322-26 - they were the government. This might not have been so bad, as they were both able, intelligent men with a talent for administration. But - they were overwhelmingly avaricious, extorted anyone they could - imprisoning people if they had to, till they handed over their lands - and in a short time made themselves absolutely detested by absolutely everyone. Roger Mortimer escaped from the Tower in 1323 and fled to France, where 2 years later he became the lover of Queen Isabella. In September 1326 they invaded England, just about anyone who was anyone joined them, and the Despensers were horribly executed: the elder at Bristol in October, hanged in his armour and his body fed to the dogs, and the younger at Hereford 4 weeks later, hanged 50 feet high, castrated, disembowelled and beheaded. Edward II was deposed and (almost certainly) murdered. He was so closely associated with them that it was impossible to bring down the Despensers without bringing down the king.
This begs the question: how exactly did Hugh the younger exert such overwhelming control over Edward? Why did he let them behave like that? As stated at the beginning of the post, I believe that Edward and the younger Hugh were lovers - it's difficult to account for Hugh's hold over him any other way. In 1321, the Earl of Pembroke, an ally of Edward's who died in 1324, told him (quoting the Bible): 'he perishes on the rocks who loves another more than himself'. This certainly seems to indicate that Edward and Hugh were more than just friends and allies. Edward II's most recent biographer, Roy Martin Haines, has also stated his belief in the sexual nature of the relationship. A contemporary chronicler of the Low Countries believed that Edward was involved in a menage a trois with Hugh the younger and his wife - Edward's own niece Eleanor. While it's impossible to prove or disprove the story, I believe the sexual politics of Edward's reign are fascinating. Edward and Isabella's unhappy marriage, and the lovers they both took, are vital to an understanding of Edward's downfall.
So there you are - the man who became the lover of a king, and destroyed both of them. Did Hugh genuinely love Edward, or did he just use him for power, the way his great enemy Mortimer (probably) did with Queen Isabella? I just wish someone would write a biography of this important and fascinating man... :)