06 March, 2016

Hugh Despenser the Younger Rescues Margaret Badlesmere, 1319

Firstly, credit must go where it's due: it was Lady D who brought this incident in the Patent Rolls to my attention a few years ago, and she herself has written a blog post about it. I've been meaning to write a post about it for years too, but somehow didn't get round to it until now. It's an incident which shows Hugh Despenser the Younger in a rather better light than most of his actions do.

On 6 and 10 December 1319, when Edward II was in York and at the royal manor of Burstwick near Hull, the following entries were recorded on the Patent Roll: "Commission of oyer and terminer ['to hear and to determine'] to Robert de Maddyngle, John de Bousser, and Geoffrey de la Lee on complaint by Bartholomew de Badelesmere that [list of dozens of men's and several women's names], with others, took and carried away his goods at Chesthunt, co. Hertford, and assaulted [ten men's names], his servants." Also "The like to Robert de Maddyngle, John Bousser and Geoffrey de la Lee on complaint by Bartholomew de Badelesmere and Margaret, his wife, that John Jonesservant, etc as set forth above, having approached a messuage at Chestehunte, co. Hertford, wherein the said Margaret was lodging, assaulted her and her servants, and imprisoned and besieged them until Hugh le Despenser, the younger, on the following day rescued them." The third entry is similar, adds a few more names, and comments that this large group of people "having gone by night to a messuage [i.e. a house with outbuildings] at Chesthunt, co. Hertford, wherein the said Margaret was lodged, made an attack upon her and on the men and servants of the said Bartholomew, besieged them therein, until Hugh le Despenser the younger on the following day rescued them" and that they "besieged and imprisoned her therein until she should have made a fine of 100l [pounds] with them." [Calendar of Patent Rolls 1317-21, pp. 467-8, 473]

Bartholomew Badlesmere was a high-ranking baron of Kent who became the steward of Edward II's household in October 1318 and who in April 1322 suffered the traitor's death for taking part in the Contrariant rebellion against Edward, the poor man. His wife was Margaret de Clare, sister and co-heir, with her sister Maud, Lady Clifford, of Gilbert de Clare, lord of Thomond (1281-1307). Hugh Despenser the Younger was married to Margaret's first cousin Eleanor de Clare, daughter of Gilbert 'the Red' de Clare, earl of Gloucester, who was the older brother of Margaret de Clare Badlesmere's father Thomas. At the time of the incident in 1319, Bartholomew Badlesmere was Edward II's steward and was thus in an excellent position to ask the king to do something about his wife's appalling experience. Hugh Despenser the Younger was Edward's chamberlain. The two men, cousins by marriage, were thus the two most important secular members of the king's household.

We have no exact date when the unfortunate Margaret Badlesmere was imprisoned overnight by fifty or more people at Cheshunt in Hertfordshire, but as her husband was the king's steward when this happened to her, and as her rescuer was the king's chamberlain, I can't imagine too much time had passed between her imprisonment and Edward ordering an investigation into it. Edward II spent the first half of 1319 in and close to York; in August he was in and around Newcastle and in September led the unsuccessful siege of Berwick-on-Tweed; after a short visit to Durham he was back in York by early October, and stayed there and in Lincolnshire and Burstwick for the rest of the year. Edward didn't go anywhere near the south of England in the whole of 1319, so it seems that Hugh Despenser the Younger must have been a good way away from him at some point that year. I've found from my own research that in 1325/26 Hugh was also often away from Edward, far more than you might expect, which is an interesting revelation. In 1319 he was rising more and more in the king's favour, ousting Roger Damory, and I find it quite surprising that he was so far away from Edward during this period of jockeying for power and the king's favour. Hugh was definitely present at the siege of Berwick in September 1319, when he sent a letter (Hugh was an enthusiastic correspondent) to the sheriff of Glamorgan telling him "we doubt that things will go as well for our side as is necessary," a nicely laconic way of expressing that the siege was going really badly for the English. Really, really badly. If I had to guess, I'd say that Margaret's ordeal happened after the siege of Berwick, so probably in October or November 1319. The manor of Cheshunt where she was temporarily besieged had once belonged to Edward II's mother Eleanor of Castile, and passed to her nephew-in-law John of Brittany, earl of Richmond, son of Edward I's sister Beatrice. It still belonged to Richmond in 1319.

Margaret's temporary imprisonment and her rescue the following day by her cousin Eleanor's husband Hugh Despenser raises more questions than it answers. Why was Hugh not with Edward and what was he doing in Hertfordshire? Did Margaret manage to get a messenger to him asking for his help, knowing that he was in the vicinity, or was it mere coincidence that he came to hear of her plight? How did he rescue her? I assume he had a sizeable contingent of men with him; after all, the king's nephew-in-law and chamberlain, then in possession of Eleanor's third of the de Clare fortune, would hardly have travelled without a large retinue. I wonder if there was any fighting, or whether the arrival of a powerful high-ranking nobleman and his men was enough to make the people holding Margaret hostage surrender to Hugh, and to let Margaret go, without any further action necessary. It does strike me as rather unlikely that the chamberlain of the king's household and the wife of the steward of the king's household just happened to be in the same small area of England at the same time by complete chance, especially when the king himself was a couple of hundred miles away in the north. It would be interesting to try to trace the names of some of the men involved and see what connections they may have had to Bartholomew; was this personal, an attempt to hurt Bartholomew himself, planned in advance, or was it more spontaneous, with Margaret taken simply because she was there and convenient, as it were? I really hope the men didn't hurt or assault her too badly, though it must have been a most alarming and unpleasant experience. The original entry on the Patent Roll does say that the crowd of malefactors "assaulted her and her servants," and clearly this was a case of false imprisonment and extortion: the men were intending to hold her hostage until Bartholomew Badlesmere paid them a hundred pounds, a large sum of money (though not that much when shared between so many dozens of people, given the huge risks involved in the whole exercise - how did they all think they were going to get away with it and keep the money?).

As well as the at least fifty or sixty and perhaps more men named as being involved in this incident, several women took part: Idonia de Kent, Margaret le Barber (whose husband John was also involved), Alice le Serjaunt (whose husband John was also involved), Katerina atte Newehouse and Margaret or Margery Scot. In October 1320, ten months later, nineteen men "who were convicted of certain trespasses against Bartholomew de Baddelesmere and Margaret his wife at Chesthunt" were moved from prison at Hertford Castle to the Tower of London, at their own expense, because "Bartholomew has prayed the king to cause them to be transferred to a safer prison, as the said prison [Hertford] is insufficient for their custody." [Calendar of Close Rolls 1318-23, p. 267] Not long after this, Bartholomew Badlesmere joined the Marcher lords and Edward's cousin Thomas of Lancaster in the Contrariant rebellion against Edward II and the Despensers, probably after Edward sent him north to spy on the Marchers' meetings. Edward, who always reacted extremely emotionally to betrayal, thereafter utterly loathed Bartholomew, and pointedly excluded him by name from safe-conducts granted to other Contrariant lords. It is therefore not surprising to note that in November 1321, he pardoned seventeen men and one woman (Margery Scot) "of their outlawry in the county of Hertford" for failing to appear at the original commission of oyer and terminer regarding the "trespass committed by them against Bartholomew de Badelesmere and Margaret his wife" he had ordered two years before. This was done at the request of his first cousin the earl of Richmond, owner of the manor of Cheshunt. [Calendar of Patent Rolls 1321-4, p. 37]

Anyway, it's a most interesting and intriguing event, to my mind, and I rather like the idea of Hugh Despenser being heroic and riding to the rescue of a damsel in distress. It'd be an ideal situation to explore in a novel, and I'd love to read Lady D's fictional take on it!


Jules Frusher (Lady D) said...

Thanks for the mention :-). Yes, it is certainly an interesting incident with many more questions than answers. I have written several fictional scenarios so far for this event but none are quite right yet! :-( I do however seems to remember reading while researching this that some of the malefactors were from a neighbouring manor, I think belonging to the John of Brittany, the earl of Richmond. But again, why they were there and why they thought they could ever get away with such a massive crime is beyond me. I also think this episode shows that not only was Hugh away from Edward more than often thought, he was also capable of leading armed men (successfully) albeit against a rabble.

Anerje said...

Great post that shows Hugh in a good light - typically it rarely gets a mention. It makes me wonder how many other actions etc are waiting to be discovered. If Lady D doesn't write a novel around this, no-one will!

Anonymous said...

Great post, although I am a little relieved that certain writers have ignored it, lest they twist things so this wouldn't conflict with the "Hugh as Satan incarnate" meme -- I'm quite sure that Ms. Weir (for example) would be arguing that Hugh had some nefarious motive when he rescued the lady, or perhaps planned the whole thing so he could get credit for playing the hero!


sami parkkonen said...

Or maybe, just maybe, Hugh had an earful and had to do it? Or perhaps he and Margaret had something else going on on the sly and Hugh thoughed: "I don't give a damn what ever anyone thinks, I rescue her no matter what!"?

I have no idea. Very interesting indeed, though. And in the very deep heart of the administration of the king.

Thank you once again!