28 March, 2021

Edward II and Hugh Despenser the Younger (1)

I'm not sure I've ever written a post about Edward II's relationship with Hugh Despenser the Younger, or at least not for a very long time. Here's the first part of two or three posts about the two men's relationship.

A later chronicler stated that Edward and Hugh were companions in childhood. There's no confirmation of this that I know of, though Hugh's older half-sister Maud Chaworth (b. 1282) was certainly one of Edward's noble companions in childhood. Hugh's maternal grandfather was William Beauchamp, earl of Warwick (c. 1240-98), who was close to Edward I's age and was one of the great English magnates between the 1260s and late 1290s, and William's younger brother Sir Walter Beauchamp, Hugh Despenser's great-uncle, was steward of Edward I's household from 1289 until his death in 1303. Hugh's father Hugh the Elder was often at court from the mid-1280s until Edward I's death in 1307, and the king frequently sent him as an envoy overseas, to the pope, the king of France, and so on. So even if Edward of Caernarfon and Hugh weren't companions as such, Edward would certainly have known exactly who Hugh was from the earliest years of Hugh's life.

Hugh the Younger's date of birth isn't known, but his parents Hugh the Elder (b. 1261) and Isabella Chaworth née Beauchamp (b. c. 1263/65) married without a licence from Edward I in or shortly before December 1285, and he was almost certainly their second child after Alina, later Lady Burnell. So probably, in my opinion, Alina was born around 1286/87 and Hugh around 1288/89. If I'm correct on that, he was about four or five years younger than Edward II, and this would mean he was a bit too young to be a companion of Edward's in childhood and adolescence. None of Edward of Caernarfon's letters of 1304/05, a year when his correspondence fortuitously survives, mention Hugh the Younger, though Edward did correspond with his father Hugh the Elder. Edward, as prince of Wales and duke of Aquitaine, attended Hugh the Younger's wedding to his eldest niece Eleanor de Clare on 26 May 1306, four days after he had knighted Hugh (and more than 250 others) in Westminster Abbey shortly after his own knighting. Hugh the Younger was about 17 or 18 in 1306, and that year is the first time he appears on record that I've been able to find: he was knighted, married, and summoned to his first military campaign, receiving letters of protection on his wedding day from his new grandfather-in-law Edward I to fight in Scotland.

Although he was the grandson and nephew of earls of Warwick, Hugh wasn't in line to inherit the earldom, and although his father was a very wealthy baron, Hugh the Elder lived to a good age (he was sixty-five when he was executed in 1326) and Hugh the Younger never came into any of the extensive estates which Hugh the Elder inherited from his father Hugh (d. 1265) and his mother Aline Basset, countess of Norfolk (d. 1281). Sometime before early 1310, Hugh the Elder granted his son and heir the revenues of six of his manors in Essex, Suffolk and Cambridgeshire, but didn't actually give him the manors. Hugh the Elder had promised Edward I in 1306 that he would give his son and daughter-in-law Eleanor an income of £200 a year, though I've worked out that the combined revenues of the six manors only came to about £155 a year. So Hugh owned no lands at all, and had an income that was tiny by the standards of his peers and of his own family. By way of comparison, his brother-in-law the earl of Gloucester earned close to £7,000 a year, and Piers Gaveston, another brother-in-law, £4,000. As I pointed out in my bio of Hugh, his comparative poverty and his rather humiliating lack of any lands whatsoever until he was almost thirty might go some way to explaining his appalling behaviour as royal favourite in the late 1310s and 1320s. I don't mean that it justifies it - nothing can justify the things Hugh did: piracy, extortion, false imprisonment, and so on - but perhaps does go some way to explaining why he behaved like that.

But all of that lay years in the future, and I cannot possibly exaggerate just how obscure and completely powerless Hugh Despenser the Younger was for the first few years of Edward II's reign. For most of those years, I have no idea where he and Eleanor lived or what they were doing, apart from producing a large brood of offspring. Hugh attended the famous jousting tournament held in Dunstable in the spring of 1309, and it's revealing that all the knights in his retinue there were his father's knights, not his own. As the husband of Edward II's eldest niece, Hugh the Younger was a member of the royal family and one of the highest-ranking barons in England, but disappears from the record for years on end. Very occasionally, he appears in the chancery rolls when Edward II granted a favour at his request, and when I say 'occasionally', I mean once in 1309 and three times in 1312/13, and that's it. For all that Edward was deeply fond of Hugh's wife and often invited her to visit him, and Hugh's father was one of the king's closest and most allies, Edward almost completely ignored Hugh the Younger's existence. For the first few years of Edward's reign, Hugh the Elder was usually just called 'Hugh Despenser' as though he was the only one, though from about 1313 he became known as 'Hugh Despenser the father' or 'Hugh Despenser senior'. On the rare occasions when Hugh the Younger appeared on record, he was called 'Hugh son of Hugh Despenser'.

 According to the later chronicler Geoffrey le Baker, Edward II hated Hugh the Younger at first. Whether that's true or not, I don't know, but I think it's blazingly obvious that for many years he neither liked nor trusted him, and for the most part, acted as though his nephew-in-law didn't even exist. Hugh was only very rarely at court: he was in Edward II's presence once, with his father, during the parliament held in Stamford, Lincolnshire in August 1309, and appears to have visited the king briefly at Windsor Castle in late 1312 also when his father was there, but he didn't witness a single royal charter until May 1316, almost nine years into Edward's reign. By 1326, he was witnessing almost all of them.

Hugh the Younger and his father both fought at the battle of Bannockburn in June 1314, and were both among the 500 or so knights who accompanied Edward II during his gallop to Dunbar Castle to evade capture after the battle. It was Bannockburn that changed Hugh the Younger's fortunes forever, because his extraordinarily wealthy brother-in-law the earl of Gloucester was killed, and left no children (I've discussed his widow Maud's hilarious pretence to be pregnant for years on end here before). Some writers have claimed that Hugh was already Edward's 'favourite' at the time of Bannockburn, or rose in his affections shortly afterwards, but this is emphatically not the case. For one thing, it ignores the existence of the influential courtiers Roger Damory and Hugh Audley and their importance in the king's life between 1315 and 1318/19, and for another, it is apparent from the way Edward made Hugh the Younger beg over and over and over from 1315 to 1317 to receive his and Eleanor's share of her late brother's inheritance that the king still did not much like Hugh. If Hugh had already been a royal favourite, Edward would have fallen over himself to give him the lordship of Glamorgan as soon as possible, and wouldn't have repeatedly humiliated Hugh in public by pretending to believe that a woman was pregnant by her husband twenty months after his death.

In the next post, I'll take a look at what happened between Edward II and Hugh Despenser the Younger in and after 1316.


Chris Klein said...

Hi Kathryn -

And the specter of Eleanor rises again. As his favorite niece, why did he ignore her husband, and mock him by denying his inheritance through the "20 month pregnancy"? And when Hugh became a favorite, what role did she play in putting him (Hugh) in that situation? The triangle that was Edward II/Hugh/Eleanor is more puzzling than the Edward II/Isabella/Roger triangle. In latter, historians have essentially invented the romance when the just political partnership is well established, but in the former, we have, "Ma Dame"...oh, to be a fly on the wall...

Kathryn Warner said...

Chris, the Eleanor/Hugh/Edward triangle fascinates me, and I think it's far more interesting than the supposed Great Love Affair of Isabella and Roger. I wonder how Edward behaved towards Eleanor in the years when he refused to give her and Hugh and her sisters their rightful inheritance, given their obvious closeness.

sami parkkonen said...

I wonder if Edward was infatuated with Eleanor from early on and was just jealous. Most of all: I think this Hugh and Edward thing was far more complex than previously seen. There certainly was a triangle, it seems, and if Hugh knew about and/or had any evidence of it he had Edward literally by the b***s. Yes, Edward could have been enamored with Hugh for sure, BUT it begins to look like he was more interested in his wife. And if that was the real case behind the curtains no wonder Hugh had such a leverage on the king.

This is very interesting, indeed. It could also explain why Hugh saw Isabella as an enemy because she was the only woman around who could have eliminated or lessen the influence of Hugh's wife on the king. And if Isabella knew about the secret affair she could have ignored it as she had done with other incidents like it but since she was very clever woman she knew that Hugh used this to get ahead. And Hugh knew she knew it.

As for Eleanor, she could have been accomplish to Hugh but I think she was just swept away by Edward II who could be very charming and funny guy. How she saw her husband in all of this is very interesting. This whole thing is very interesting indeed and proves that things
were never as simple as we believe. Human lives are far more complex and strange than some historians and "historians" want them to be.

Kathryn Warner said...

Sami, you're so right, these people and their relationships and lives were far more complex than the childishly simplistic narratives usually told about them.