A few months after the Clare lands were finally partitioned in November 1317, Hugh was elected as Edward’s Chamberlain, the man who controlled access, physical and written, to the king – an enormously powerful position. He used this proximity to Edward to turn the king’s former indifference, or even dislike, of him into infatuation. This is what I find most fascinating about Hugh. He and Edward must have known each other all their lives, as Hugh’s father was a courtier and Hugh even lived in Edward’s household when Edward was Prince of Wales, along with about 10 other young men, including Piers Gaveston. Hugh’s wife was Edward’s eldest niece, whom he was very fond of, and his father a close friend and ally of the king. Despite all that, there’s not a shred of evidence that Edward ever liked Hugh or did anything for him, except for awarding him one manor in 1309. How did Hugh do it – turn Edward’s dislike into infatuation? I’d love to be a fly on the wall to observe this, especially as Edward had other favourites between Gaveston and Despenser – Roger Damory, Hugh Audley and William Montacute, who Hugh ousted from Edward’s affections. The first two were married to Eleanor de Clare’s sisters to share in the Clare inheritance, as a sign of Edward’s great favour.
By 1320, Hugh was as high in Edward’s favour as Gaveston had been, but far more dangerous. Far, far more dangerous. Gaveston had never been interested in political power, only in the money and prestige being the favourite of the king gave him. Hugh, on the other hand, was a highly intelligent and capable man who knew exactly what he wanted. And that was land, more land, more money, and power. Lots of power. He was ruthless, greedy and totally without scruple. The barons who’d killed Gaveston and banished the king’s other favourites Damory, Audley and Montacute from court must have been kicking themselves, that they’d opened the door for someone who was so much worse. I don’t have the time to go into a full explanation of his many misdeeds, but by 1321 he’d provoked the Marchers (the barons in Wales and along the border) into what is known as the Despenser War, when thousands of people attacked the lands of Hugh and his father in Wales and England, destroying and stealing whatever they could. Hugh and his father were exiled from England for a few months, during which Hugh became a pirate in the English channel – a successful one, as Edward III had to pay compensation to Genoese merchants many years later.
After some complicated machinations and a military operation in 1321-22, the Despensers were recalled from exile, and all Hugh’s and Edward’s enemies were either dead, imprisoned or had fled abroad. It’s interesting to note that almost all of the men Edward II treated his enemies in this period – with the notable exception of his cousin, the Earl of Lancaster – were in fact Hugh’s enemies and rivals, many of whom had always been loyal to the king until Hugh’s rise and rise to power. Men like Roger Mortimer, whose family had a long-standing feud with the Despensers, Damory and Audley, Hugh’s rivals for the Clare inheritance, Mowbray and the Earl of Hereford, rivals for land and influence in Wales.
By the end of March 1322, Hugh Despenser the younger was all powerful in England and Wales. His father, a friend of Edward II but never at the centre of government, joined him in his triumph. They didn’t allow anyone access to Edward unless at least one of them was present – including, amazingly enough, Queen Isabella, who was not allowed to see her husband alone. To cut a very long story short, the Despensers didn’t dominate the government in the period 1322-26 – they were the government. This might not have been so bad, as they were both able, intelligent men with a talent for administration. But – they were overwhelmingly avaricious, extorted anyone they could – imprisoning people if they had to, till they handed over their lands – and in a short time made themselves absolutely detested by absolutely everyone. Roger Mortimer escaped from the Tower in 1323 and fled to France, where 2 years later he became the lover of Queen Isabella. In September 1326 they invaded England, just about anyone who was anyone joined them, and the Despensers were horribly executed: the elder at Bristol in October, hanged in his armour and his body fed to the dogs, and the younger at Hereford 4 weeks later, hanged 50 feet high, castrated, disembowelled and beheaded. Edward II was deposed and (almost certainly) murdered. He was so closely associated with them that it was impossible to bring down the Despensers without bringing down the king.
This begs the question: how exactly did Hugh the younger exert such overwhelming control over Edward? Why did he let them behave like that? As stated at the beginning of the post, I believe that Edward and the younger Hugh were lovers – it’s difficult to account for Hugh’s hold over him any other way. In 1321, the Earl of Pembroke, an ally of Edward’s who died in 1324, told him (quoting the Bible): ‘he perishes on the rocks who loves another more than himself’. This certainly seems to indicate that Edward and Hugh were more than just friends and allies. Edward II’s most recent biographer, Roy Martin Haines, has also stated his belief in the sexual nature of the relationship. A contemporary chronicler of the Low Countries believed that Edward was involved in a menage a trois with Hugh the younger and his wife – Edward’s own niece Eleanor. While it’s impossible to prove or disprove the story, I believe the sexual politics of Edward’s reign are fascinating. Edward and Isabella’s unhappy marriage, and the lovers they both took, are vital to an understanding of Edward’s downfall.
So there you are – the man who became the lover of a king, and destroyed both of them. Did Hugh genuinely love Edward, or did he just use him for power, the way his great enemy Mortimer (probably) did with Queen Isabella? I just wish someone would write a biography of this important and fascinating man… 🙂