24 October, 2014

The Earl of Norfolk Tries to Steal his Stepson's Lands

A post about an incident which I first discovered in Marc Morris's excellent and scholarly book The Bigod Earls of Norfolk in the Thirteenth Century (Boydell and Brewer, 2005), pp. 124-5.

Roger Bigod, who was born in about 1245 and died in 1306, was the last in the line of Bigod earls of Norfolk dating back to about a century before his birth.  He succeeded his childless uncle, also Roger, as earl in 1270, and around the same time, married a woman called Aline Basset.  She was the only child and heiress of Sir Philip Basset, a landowner in the the Midlands and south of England, and had previously been married to Hugh Despenser, justiciar of England.  Hugh was a staunch supporter of Simon de Montfort, earl of Leicester, against Henry III and his son the future Edward I, and was killed with Simon at the battle of Evesham in 1265.  Aline's son Hugh Despenser would become earl of Winchester in 1322 and is the man known to history as Hugh Despenser the Elder, father of Edward II's notorious favourite Hugh Despenser the Younger.  (I tend to refer to Justiciar Hugh as Hugh Despenser the Even Elder.)  Hugh 'the Elder' was only four years old when his father was killed at Evesham.  It's interesting to note that his mother continued to use her first husband's name and was always known as 'Aline la Despensere' throughout her second marriage, even though Roger Bigod was of higher rank than Hugh.

Although Aline Basset Despenser had a son and at least one daughter with her first husband, she and Roger had no children.  Aline died shortly before 11 April 1281, when her seventeen manors were taken into the king's hand (Fine Rolls 1272-1307, p. 146).  Her heir was her only son Hugh, then aged twenty (born 1 March 1261).  Roger Bigod had enjoyed the income from his wife's lands during their marriage, and the loss of them was a big blow, especially as he had large debts.  Dishonestly, he decided to try to make use of a custom called 'the courtesy of England', whereby the widower of a woman who had held lands in her own right could make use of them for the rest of his life, as long as the couple had had at least one child together.  In short, this meant that Aline's lands would not pass to her son Hugh but would remain under Roger's control as long as he lived, and he ended up outliving Aline by a quarter of a century.  Under the 'courtesy of England', the child didn't have to be living, just had to have been born.  Roger therefore claimed that Aline had borne him a child at Woking, who died shortly afterwards.

Knowing this to be untrue, Hugh Despenser took his stepfather to court.  A jury was appointed to decide if the child had been male or female, where it had been born, whether it had been baptised, if it had given voice before death, and so on.  Faced with the prospect of having to lie through his teeth and invent numerous details, and without a shred of evidence to show that a child had ever existed, Roger was soon forced to drop his claim.  Edward I granted the marriage of Hugh Despenser 'the Elder' to William Beauchamp, earl of Warwick, on 28 May 1281, and on the same day Hugh was allowed to take control of his inheritance despite still being a few months under age (Patent Rolls 1272-81, p. 439; Close Rolls 1279-88, p. 88; Fine Rolls 1272-1307, p. 149).  Probably in 1286, Hugh married the earl of Warwick's daughter Isabel, widow of Patrick Chaworth, and they had six children: Aline, Hugh the Younger, Isabel, Philip, Margaret and Elizabeth.

Roger Bigod, presumably, was infertile; he had no children with either Aline Basset or his second wife Alicia, sister of Count William III of Hainault and Holland and aunt of Edward III's queen Philippa.  He died in 1306, having made arrangements with Edward I about his earldom, which passed to the king's son Thomas of Brotherton: Edward II bestowed the earldom of Norfolk on his half-brother in December 1312 when Thomas was twelve, shortly after the birth of the future Edward III had displaced him as heir to the throne.  The earldom, later dukedom, of Norfolk passed to Thomas's daughter Margaret and thence to her descendants the Mowbrays (her elder daughter and co-heiress Elizabeth Segrave married John, Lord Mowbray).


Anonymous said...

Great post! The Earl of Norfolk sounds like a nice guy ... wonder if his attempt somehow traumatized the Despenser family -- or gave them ideas. (Seriously ... couldn't the Despensers think of other first names besides "Hugh" for the heirs?)


Kathryn Warner said...

Absolutely! In the mid-1320s, three of them were active: Hugh the Elder, Hugh the Younger, and Hugh the Younger's son Hugh. Guh.

Anerje said...

Enjoyed finding out about the earlier history of the Despencer family. Perhaps they could have gone on to have 'Hugh the even younger'? :)

Sonetka said...

I'm reminded of a passage in John Julius Norwich's book about Venice where he mentions a family who named all of their sons Alvise. Not just all of their eldest sons, ALL of their sons. He said he had renewed respect for Venetian genealogists after trying to untangle them from each other.

As for the delightful Earl of Norfolk -- I understand why such a law would exist if there were a living child of the marriage, but what was the justification for giving the surviving spouse rights if the child had died long ago? Was a loophole beloved by the unscrupulous or was it intentional?

Kathryn Warner said...

Anerje, 'Hugh the even younger' was Hugh the younger's son, who was active from the mid-1320s to his death in 1349 ;)

Sonetka, I'm not sure about the law, though I remember Thomas, Lord Berkeley (1353-1417) being a beneficiary of it, and holding the Lisle lands of his late wife Margaret for a quarter of a century after her death.

chris y said...

It is perhaps a bit hard to criticise the Despencers for lacking imagination in names at a time when the royal family produced four Edwards in a row. (Is it true, as I've heard, that the practice of numbering English kings arose because identifying them by patronymics became confusing when you had two Edward fitz Edwards in succession?)

Anonymous said...

Thank you, that was very interesting- as is your whole blog.
I have a question, though. Do you know why Hugh the Elder`s mother was, even after marrying again, still called "la Depensere"? Is there any indication it was perhaps her own choice? Or am I being obtuse and the reason is obvious?
Anyway, really fascinating.

P.S. Regarding the names: I think the Bigods were not a whole lot more creative than the Despensers; as far as I recall, their heirs were, in turn, called Roger and Hugh since the early 12th century until the Roger you mentioned. Imagine he had also been called Hugh...

Kathryn Warner said...

To be fair, Edward II was only the fourth son of Edward I. Edward I chose the names John, Henry and Alfonso for his first three. One of them would have become king instead of another Edward if he'd lived.

Yeah, documents of Edward II's reign call him 'King Edward son of King Edward' whereas his father was 'King Edward son of King Henry'. 'King Edward son of King Edward son of King Edward' for Edward III was getting a bit much.

Kathryn Warner said...

Hi Michi! Sorry, I missed your comment before! Women often kept the name of their first husband during later marriages, but this was normally when their first husband was of higher rank. It's interesting that Aline kept Hugh's name, which must have been her own choice and tends to indicate that she remembered him with affection.

Yes, like the Mortimers with Roger and Edmund, another example!