18 January, 2007

Some letters of 1321, and their consequences

Exactly 686 years ago today, on 18 January 1321, Hugh Despenser the Younger wrote another of the frequent letters he sent to the Sheriff of Glamorgan, Sir John Inge. Despenser was Lord of Glamorgan - his share of his wife's de Clare inheritance - and Inge was one of his supporters. Despenser's letters to him are fascinating to read, as they reveal something of Despenser's arrogance, avarice and self-confidence.

The letter begins the same way Despenser always wrote to Inge: Hugh' le Despenser, le fuiz, a nostre cher and bien amé bach[elier], Monser Johan Inge, nostre visc[onte] de Glamorg', saluz. ("Hugh le Despenser, the son, to our dear and well-loved bachelor Sir John Inge, our sheriff of Glamorgan, greeting.")
'Bachelor' was a kind of knight, a low-ranking one. The use of 'we' and 'our' was a convention of letter-writing at this time, and isn't Despenser using the royal plural (or maybe he was... ;)

Despenser writes:
"The times change from one day to another. Envy is growing, and especially among the magnates against us, because the king treats us better than any other; wherefore it is necessary for us, while times are good, that our affairs go well, and that they be wisely guided for our honour and good, especially by you, whom we regard as chief over our other ministers in these parts. Wherefore we command you to watch our affairs that we may be rich and may attain our ends, of which you have good cognisance; and this cannot be attained without pain and diligence on your part...

...We command you to certify us clearly about all our affairs by letters by our messenger, and about the bearing of the men of Gower according as you are able to inquire.

A Loundr’ le xviii iour de Janever"

Despenser is quite open here about his aims; he wants to be rich. His enormous greed was in fact pushing many magnates towards rebellion. Not content with the vast lands he and his wife Eleanor had inherited, he had forced his sister-in-law Margaret de Clare and her husband Hugh Audley to exchange some of their South Wales lands, including Gwynllwg, for some English manors of lesser value. In late 1320, he persuaded Edward II to take the rich Gower peninsula into royal hands, against the customs of the Marches - this last act was the final straw for men who were terrified of the consequences of Despenser's complete control over the king. By this stage, Despenser was abusing his position as Edward's chamberlain by refusing to allow anyone to see the king unless either he or his father was present.

Edward II's foolishness in taking another favourite, and acting on Despenser's behalf against the wishes of anyone else in the kingdom, was a potent threat. The Marcher Lords, traditionally staunchly royalist, saw no other option but to take arms against Despenser, and thus against the king.

Despenser's letter of 6 March 1321 reveals the growing tensions:

"We have often reported to you the marvellous tales that are now current, advising you to put good guard in our castles and towns, so we are not surprised by our enemies, to our shame and damage. We now send to you copies of two letters which came to the king and to us at Windsor on March 6 from Master Robert Baldock, from which you can understand how tales and menaces grow from day to day in the north and in the south, especially against us.

We are informed by several of our friends that all this plotting on the part of certain magnates is planned to begin and to do damage to us in our said lordship, in order to cover themselves that this is not done against the king, and with the intent that he shall interfere in the matter, and thereby take sides.

We therefore rely on you to take all the necessary steps to safeguard us, for we have sufficient power, if we are well arrayed and carefully served, to guard against our enemies, and it cannot be, when tales are growing daily, that there is nothing in them. We reprove you sharply for not sending more frequent reports of news, and we order you not to spare expense in sending us frequently information which concerns us.

We order you to put good spies on the borders of Breghenok, for it is commonly reported that the earl of Hereford has gone thither with a strong force of men-at-arms, in order to begin some attack upon our land. You are also bidden to warn all the constables of Glamorgan and Cantrefmawr to remain at their posts, so that danger may not ensue, and you yourself are ordered to remain at peace within our lands, without going outside them, although we had recently given you orders to the contrary...

...And if it happen that it be necessary to put more therein in order to save our honour, if you will certify us as soon as possible by your letters, we will make order by your counsel. And as there are strong rumours that our Welshmen are allied with the men of Breghenok, it seems to us that it would be a very good thing if you would in the most subtle manner possible obtain from each commote of our lordship certain hostages to assure us of the good will which they say they have towards us, and to give the lie to those who tell so many tales about them; and if you can get these hostages you are to dispose of them among our castles and at Bristol, as you shall think wise. And if you think it necessary that we send men-at-arms for the garrisons of our castles, if you will inform us speedily, we will send some of the king’s men and our own, as many as shall be necessary. For many reasons we do not wish again to extend any March-day to the men of Breghenok, as we will more fully certify you later...

...We have already so often sent letters on this subject in the past that we are quite tired of it, and we inform you that we will send no further instructions about it until we have need to write in answer to your letters, and therefore the instructions we have given before this must suffice. You are to act so that we are without damage and you without blame, for mitte sapientem et nihil et dicas. We have kept a copy of our letter word for word, to bring it up against you at another time if there is any default."

This letter ends: A Dieu, qe vous gard! - literally, 'to God, who keeps you!'

In one of the letters, Despenser refers to Edward II's brother-in-law the earl of Hereford as "mornes et pensifs plus qu'il ne soleit" ["even more gloomy and thoughtful than usual"], which is a lovely, and sadly rare in the fourteenth century, comment on someone's character.

The tensions evident in Despenser's letters - tension that he himself was solely responsible for - would shortly lead to the outbreak of the 'Despenser War', which I'll write about soon.


Susan Higginbotham said...

I love the line about him having sent so many letters that he was "quite tired of it." Inge was probably equally tired of it--he must have hated the sight of Hugh's messenger riding up!

Kathryn Warner said...

I know, poor man! That's my favourite line from the letters, too. Wonder how Inge felt when he read the line "We reprove you sharply"? At least Hugh was honest - "I want to be rich"!

Gabriele Campbell said...

I think he's tired of having to write so many letters because Inge sent him so many and asked all sort of questions. ...we will send no further instructions about it until we have need to write in answer to your letters...

What I find interesting are the referals to 'shame' resp. 'honour' in context of finding his places under attack by enemies. It's such a wonderfully Mediaeval attitude - it's ok to snatch possessions of your female relations, execute a few people and all that, but suffering an attack was a 'shame'.

Another interesting point is that Despenser can call upon the king's men to man his castles. No wonder some people didn't like him. :)

Susan Higginbotham said...

Oh, and obtaining those hostages in the most subtle manner possible--that's a classic too. "Mama, where'd Papa go?" "Sir Hugh took him hostage, but don't worry, he's being subtle about it."

Do they have those books on management techinques in Europe that they do in the US? You know, Who Moved My Cheese and the like? I feel a blog post coming on with Hugh teaching a management class . . .

Kathryn Warner said...

Very true, Gabriele - I like how he just casually drops in we will send some of the king’s men and our own, as if it's nothing. And that's a great insight about the 'shame' of suffering an attack - I hadn't thought of it like that. Depriving your sister-in-law of a big part of her inheritance was OK, apparently, but having your castles attacked was a 'shame'! :)

Susan: yep, those management books sell in piles over here, too. I'd love to see 'Hugh Despenser's Guide to Management'!

I know, how do you 'subtly' take hostages?! "You are cordially invited to Lord Despenser's castle-warming at Bristol", then when you get there, it's "ha-ha, fooled you, welcome to the dungeon!" or something?

Carla said...

"Depriving your sister-in-law of a big part of her inheritance was OK, apparently, but having your castles attacked was a 'shame'!"

Does that reflect the importance of being seen to have power, do you think? So doing your sister-in-law out of her inheritance demonstrated you were powerful, having your castle attacked demonstrated you were powerless, or at least less powerful than the attackers. So it was a source of shame because it showed your weakness. Is that plausible?

Kathryn Warner said...

That's a very perceptive comment, Carla - I think you're absolutely right. After all, Hugh's ability to deprive women of their lands, imprison them till they signed lands over to him, and to use all kinds of legal, quasi-legal and illegal methods to achieve all this, does prove that he could get away with anything he wanted - because he was the king's favourite and therefore immensely powerful and untouchable. But for everyone to see that his lands had been attacked and he hadn't been able to defend them - yes, he'd definitely see that as weakness. I wonder if his appalling behaviour from 1322 onwards was at least in part a reaction to this perceived humiliation? Not that that excuses it, of course, but people's motives are always fascinating.