25 January, 2019

Hugh Despenser the Elder (2)

Second part of a two-part post about Hugh Despenser the Elder; the first part is here.

As we saw in the first part, for twenty-one years from 1286 until the king's death in 1307, Edward I sent Hugh Despenser the Elder on more or less annual diplomatic visits to important people such as the pope, the king of France, the archbishop of Cologne, and so on, and evidently thought very highly of Hugh's abilities. As well as his loyal support of Edward I for many years, Hugh the Elder managed the difficult task of remaining a supporter and friend of Edward's son and heir Edward of Caernarfon as well in the last years of the old king's life. Edward of Caernarfon's extant correspondence of 1304/5 reveals that he called Hugh one of his friends and treated the older man with respect and affection. One letter states that Hugh had sent Edward a gift or raisins and wine, which, Edward declared, could not have arrived at a better time. Hugh was twenty-three years Edward of Caernarfon's senior, and possibly a kind of father figure to him.

Hugh the Elder's many years of excellent service to Edward I reaped great rewards for his elder son and heir Hugh the Younger, when King Edward I arranged the latter's marriage to his eldest granddaughter Eleanor de Clare in May 1306 and promised Hugh the Elder £2,000 for his son's marriage. Just days after this great triumph, however, Hugh the Elder suffered a great loss when his wife of twenty years, the earl of Warwick's sister Isabella née Beauchamp, died. She was only in her early forties or thereabouts, and Hugh forty-five, but although he outlived her by twenty years, he never re-married. His eldest grandchild, inevitably named Hugh Despenser but known by the nickname 'Huchon', was born in 1308 or early 1309, and became lord of Glamorgan on his mother Eleanor de Clare's death in 1337. Another grandson named after Hugh the Elder was his second daughter Isabella's son and heir Sir Hugh Hastings, probably born in 1310, and another was his youngest daughter Elizabeth's third and youngest son Sir Hugh Camoys, born around 1322/24. Hugh the Elder arranged good marriages for all his children. Alina, the eldest, wed Edward Burnell, a landowner in numerous counties and the great-nephew and heir of Robert Burnell, bishop of Bath and Wells, in 1302; Isabella wed Gilbert de Clare, lord of Thomond, in c. 1306 and secondly John, Lord Hastings, in c. 1308/9; Philip wed the Lincolnshire heiress Margaret Goushill in 1308; Margaret wed the Bedfordshire nobleman and law graduate John St Amand in 1313; and Elizabeth married the widowed Ralph Camoys, a long-term Despenser adherent, probably in 1316 or a little earlier. Via his five children who had children of their own - Hugh the Younger, Isabella, Philip, Margaret and Elizabeth - Hugh the Elder had at least twenty grandchildren, and has numerous modern-day descendants.

Edward I died in July 1307, and Hugh the Elder was one of the new king's closest allies in the difficult first year of his reign. He attended Edward II's wedding to Isabella of France in early 1308 and was one of two men invited to accompany the king in his barge when Edward came ashore at Dover on his return to England, a sign of the highest favour. The Vita Edwardi Secundi names Hugh the Elder as the king's only noble supporter in 1308 when many of the English barons demanded Piers Gaveston's exile, and although this is not strictly true, it does demonstrate how close Hugh was known to be to the king. Edward II made Hugh justice of the forest south of the River Trent for life, and Hugh held that position for much of the period from 1297, when Edward I first appointed him, until 1326. He was accused of brutality and corruption in his role as justice, and a man called Saer le Barber was imprisoned in Newgate in London in 1298 for stating that Hugh the Elder kept more robbers with him than any other man in England and was 'unworthy of praise'.

Hugh remained one of the king's closest allies throughout the difficult period in 1311/12 when the Lords Ordainer imposed forty-one reforms on Edward II's household and government, and when Piers Gaveston was abducted by Hugh's brother-in-law the earl of Warwick and killed. Hugh was one of the advisers who met Edward in London in the aftermath of Piers' murder (or execution), and in December 1312 accompanied the king to the continent when Edward met his father-in-law Philip IV of France. Edward II bestowed great honour on Hugh the Elder in November 1312 by making him one of the seven godfathers of his and Isabella's newborn son Edward of Windsor, the future Edward III.

Hugh the Elder, as I pointed out in a recent post, indulged himself in some pretty lawless behaviour in February 1312, when he abducted a girl called Elizabeth Hertrigg from the custody of her guardian George Percy in Dorset. The author of the Vita Edwardi Secundi criticised Hugh harshly for his brutal, corrupt behaviour, especially in his position as justice of the forest. In c. 1313, the Vita wrote that the whole of England had 'turned to hatred' of Hugh the Elder. He and his son Hugh the Younger fought for Edward II at the battle of Bannockburn in June 1314, and were among the 500 or so knights who accompanied Edward during his long and desperate gallop to Dunbar Castle after the battle. Edward II's cousin Thomas, earl of Lancaster, seems to have detested Hugh, and when Edward fell under his cousin's power after his defeat at Bannockburn, Thomas demanded that Hugh the Elder leave court. The evidence of charter witness lists reveals that he did: from August 1314 until May 1316, he was hardly ever at court, except for attending Piers Gaveston's funeral at the beginning of 1315 and making a brief visit to the king at Westminster a few months later.

Hugh the Elder's second son Philip had died in September 1313, aged barely twenty, leaving his five-month-old son Philip. The two manors in Yorkshire and Lincolnshire which Hugh had given to his second son, which he himself had inherited from his father Hugh the justiciar (d. 1265), reverted to him. Hugh the Elder already held a sizeable inheritance from his parents, grandfather and his father's cousin, and by 1321 had close to seventy manors in fifteen counties across England, though held some of them as wardships. Hugh's elder and only surviving son Hugh the Younger became probably even wealthier than his father in late 1317 when his wife Eleanor inherited many lands, including the lordship of Glamorgan, from her late brother the earl of Gloucester. The younger Hugh's appointment as the king's chamberlain a few months later - supposedly against the wishes of Edward II himself, who was hugely fond of Hugh the Elder but had never shown the slightest interest in his son, Edward's nephew-in-law - enabled him to exert a huge amount of influence. Hugh the Younger, according to the Despensers' enemies in 1321, supposedly also allowed his father to wield influence over the king to which he had no right, and by 1321 a few of the English barons - the Marcher lords, though few others at this point - were fed up with both Hugh Despensers.

The Marcher lords, the 'Contrariants' as Edward II soon took to calling them, attacked the lands of Hugh Despenser the Younger in South Wales and England in May 1321, and in June invaded and sacked the lands of Hugh the Elder as well, right across England. The scale of the violence, theft, murder and mayhem is hard to take in. At the parliament held in London in August 1321, the Marchers threateningly placed their armies by the gates into the city and demanded that Edward II exile both Despensers. With little other choice, Edward had to agree. Hugh the Younger became a pirate in the English Channel; Hugh the Elder went overseas somewhere, though where is not known. Natalie Fryde claimed in 1979 that he went to Bordeaux - one of Edward II's cities - which is certainly possible, though there is no evidence of it. The king had no intention of allowing his Contrariant enemies to dictate to him, conducted a successful campaign against them in the winter of 1321/22, and brought them both back.

Edward II made Hugh the Elder earl of Winchester in May 1322, when Hugh was sixty-one. This may well point to a connection between the Despensers and the de Quincys, the family who formerly held the earldom of Winchester; the identity of Hugh the Elder's grandmother, the mother of Hugh Despenser the justiciar (d. 1265) and wife of the Hugh Despenser who died in 1238, is uncertain, and it may be that she was a de Quincy. Alternatively, it may simply be that Winchester was a conveniently dormant earldom for Edward II to bestow on Hugh in 1322, and there was no connection between the two families.

Hugh's son Hugh the Younger was all-powerful in England between 1322 and 1326, and it seems from numerous petitions presented after the downfall of the two Despensers that Hugh the Elder was just about as enthusiastic about misusing power and grabbing whatever lands he could as his son was. The elder Hugh was accused of abducting the Scottish noblewoman and heiress Elizabeth Comyn (1299-1372) and imprisoning her for about eighteen months at his manor of Pirbright in Surrey until she handed three of her manors over to himself, his son and Edward II. It is possible that one favourite tactic of both Despensers was to accuse men of adherence to the executed Thomas, earl of Lancaster (d. 1322) as an excuse to take lands and money from them, and perhaps they did, or perhaps this proved to be a convenient fiction after both men's downfall when Thomas was being rehabilitated. I don't have space to go into all the claims against Hugh the Elder here, and it may be that on occasion his name was used in and after late 1326 as a way of getting a favourable response from the ruling regime to a petition. On the other hand, Hugh the Elder did have a history of unscrupulous means of adding to his already large inheritance, going back to the 1290s, so I'd be astonished if at least a few of the petitions complaining about him weren't true. See this one, for example, which I've more or less chosen at random from several dozen others, where Hugh the Elder is stated to have accused a parson of adherence to Roger Mortimer of Wigmore as a way of forcing him to exchange his benefice for a less valuable one. There was a pattern to the Despensers' behaviour in the 1320s, and even if some of the petitions were perhaps exaggerated or outright fabricated, not all of them can have been.

The evidence of charter witness lists, Edward II's accounts and the chancery rolls reveals that Hugh was at court pretty often between 1322 and 1326. Numerous letters dictated by his son survive and reveal that Hugh the Younger was basically in charge of the English government and of foreign policy, though it's a lot harder to say what Hugh the Elder was up to during the years of his son's dominance. The Vita Edwardi Secundi states in 1325 that everyone in England hated Hugh the Elder (as well as the author's comment a few years earlier that he had made himself widely hated), even Edward II's elder son and heir Edward of Windsor, so it seems that public opinion held him jointly responsible for Hugh the Younger's misdeeds. At any rate, Hugh the Elder was so close to his son and to the king that when Queen Isabella came to England to bring down Hugh the Younger, it destroyed Hugh the Elder as well. He was captured in Bristol on 27 October 1326, given a show trial at which he was not allowed to speak, and immediately hanged in his armour on the public gallows. His head was taken on a spear for public display in Winchester, where he was earl. He was sixty-five years old - not ninety, as invented by Jean le Bel and Jean Froissart - and his son survived him by less than a month. Hugh the Elder was certainly an intelligent and very able man, but his greed and his corruption got the better of him, and four decades of loyal service to Edward I and Edward II ended on the public gallows.


matt said...

Hanged in his armour! Sounds like a quick trial!

Kathryn Warner said...

The 'trial' was very quick, yes, a few charges read out in French then he was hanged immediately.

sami parkkonen said...

Stunning amount of info once again! Wonderful stuff!

It seems to me like father the son. Both Hughs were rather unscrupulous men and the son behaved like his father had done all through his life. Junior had seen what his father was doing and most likely saw it as the way to conduct ones business and life in general. Perhaps junior tried to be even more powerful and wealthier or at least more powerful but both displayed the same qualities in land grabbing and other fields.

I have no doubt that they had enemies all over the place and if Hugh jr controlled the king and his court, no wonder Edward III hated him or at least did not like him at all. When he eventually sat on the throne he did his best to avoid similar situation during his rule. There was no hugh controlling him or his policies for certain.

Tor said...

Just discovered this blog. One of my favourite periods in history. Plus, Hugh Despencer is my 22nd great grandfather.