The Early Years
The exact date of Hugh’s birth is not known but it was most likely between 1286 and 1290. He was the eldest son of Hugh Despenser (the elder) who was the son of another Hugh (the even elder) who fought alongside Simon de Montfort against Henry III during the Baron’s war of 1265. He was killed by Roger de Mortimer (grandfather of the Roger de Mortimer who became Queen Isabella’s lover and deposed Edward III) at the Battle of Evesham, thereby starting a feud between the Despensers and the Mortimers which was to have deadly echoes decades later. His mother was Isabelle de Beauchamp, the daughter and sister of two of the Earls of Warwick, so he was certainly well connected.
During his early years, while his father was one of Edward I’s most trusted councillors, Hugh probably grew up at court and would have known the future Edward II and his boyhood companions. He would have been trained in the arts of the knight and been schooled like any young lad of his rank and station. However, unlike many of the other young men, until his father died, he was virtually landless and therefore had no influence at court. How this affected him is not known, but he certainly made up for lost time later on!
Hugh was knighted, alongside 266 others (including Edward of Caernarfon) on 22nd May 1306 at a grand celebration in Westminster, known as the Feast of the Swan. Four days later, on the 26th, he married Eleanor de Clare, the sister of the current Earl of Gloucester, Gilbert de Clare and the eldest grand-daughter of the King. His marriage into the royal circle was arranged by Edward I himself, in lieu of a debt he owed to Hugh the Elder of 2000 marks. Unfortunately, for both Hughs the joy of the occasion must have been marred by the death of the younger Hugh’s mother on the 30th May.
However, despite such a high profile marriage, Hugh the younger was still without many manors to call his own and by 1309, with one child already, he had to ask his father to give him some more land so that he could support his family. The (now) king, Edward II also gifted him a manor, although at this time there is nothing to suggest anything of the closeness they later shared.
The Angry Young Man
Things dramatically changed in 1314 when, at the battle of Bannockburn, Gilbert de Clare, Earl of Gloucester, was killed fighting the Scots. As he left no issue, the three de Clare sisters, Eleanor, Margaret and Elizabeth were now the heirs of the vast de Clare estates. The only problem was, Gilbert’s widow Matilda was claiming that she was pregnant – a claim that continued, bewilderingly, for the next 3 years! Until it could be proved that she was not about to bear another son and therefore heir, the lands could not be redistributed by Parliament. As you can imagine, this must have been very frustrating for Hugh, who stood to inherit a third of the vast de Clare estates by right of is wife and in the next couple of years he became involved in a couple of incidents that showed him as less than angelic.
For starters, in 1315, he attacked and seized the castle of Tonbridge which at the time was being held by the long-time pregnant widow of Gilbert de Clare, Matilda. As it turned out, she in turn held it from the Archbishop of Canterbury, so heaven knows what Hugh hoped to gain from this attack, but he was soon forced to hand it back.
Then, in February 1316, he assaulted John Ros in front of Edward II during a Parliament at Lincoln Cathedral, punching him more than once in the face. The two men were arrested and imprisoned. Hugh’s excuse for the attack that Ros had tried to arrest Ingelram Berenger, a loyal friend and retainer of his father’s. However, Alianore, in her Edward II Blog puts forth an alternative suggestion, one which I think is entirely plausible. Hugh’s brother, Philip had been married to a Margaret Goushill until his death in 1313. Seven months later, she remarried to John Ros. In those days widows were supposed to wait at least a year before re-marriage or else it looked like unseemly haste. Maybe Hugh saw Ros’s quick marriage as an insult to his dead brother’s honour and memory, and, added to the attack on Berenger, thought that Ros needed teaching a lesson. However, to have done it in front of the king was a little foolhardy to say the least and it may be an indication that Hugh was a bit of a hothead in his younger days.
Needless to say, these actions did not much endear him to the King, who did nothing to speed up the division of the de Clare inheritance by investigating the widow Matilda’s now ridiculous gestation. However, it seems that by 1317 the partition issue was solved once and for all and Hugh received his lands. Soon after, in November, the magnates elected Hugh as Edward’s chamberlain. This position was extremely important as it meant that Hugh practically controlled every aspect of the King’s household, including who could have access to him. How Hugh managed to get elected is a matter for debate, especially as Edward still seemed fairly cold towards him. It is even more fascinating then that Hugh was able to change the King’s at best indifference into what amounts to what looks like infatuation. Hugh became Edward’s favourite, pushing aside former favourites such as Roger Damory and Hugh Audley (married to Eleanor de Clare’s sisters, Elizabeth and Margaret respectively), and William Montacute.
The King’s Favourite
Finally Hugh had lands and position. But this was not nearly enough for him. After inheriting the Lordship of Glamorgan, his next actions were to deprive his brothers-in-law, Audley and Damory of some of their lands too, marking the beginning of a long career (in partnership with his father), of grabbing as much land and money as he could get his hands on. Other dubious deeds followed (and I will be looking at these in later posts) and it soon seemed that, because of the King’s affection for him, he could do whatever he liked. It was like another Gaveston had arrived, but unlike Gaveston, Hugh was an intelligent, ambitious and ruthless man. And of course, the consequence of this was that nobody, especially among the aristocracy, liked him very much (and that is probably the understatement of the year!).
The situation came to a head in 1320 when Hugh seized Gower for the Crown. His reason was that John de Mowbray had bought the lands from his father-in-law, William de Braose without royal consent. As it stood, under Marcher Law, de Mowbray didn’t actually need Edward’s say-so, but Despenser decided to ignore this age old right, thereby infuriating the rest of the Marcher Lords, including the Earl of Hereford and Roger de Mortimer. The anti-Despenser lobby grew, with Despenser lands in Wales being attacked in what became known as the Despenser wars. Eventually, pressure from the magnates proved too much and Edward was forced to exile Hugh and his father from the Kingdom. Hugh the elder went quietly enough, settling in Bordeaux but his son became a pirate in the English Channel and even managed to capture two important ships crying much wealth.
Due to divisions in the ranks of the rebels and a great deal of dissembling, bribes and threats on Edward’s part, the period of exile did not last long and within two months he had his two favourites back by his side again. Thereafter, they set about gaining vengeance on those who had forced Edward to put them aside. To cut a long story short, England was all but plunged into a civil war as the Crown sought to defeat the rebels – or Contrariants as they were also known. With support from his Welsh allies, Edward soon wiped out all opposition in south Wales and thence turned his attentions towards the northern March. Soon, Roger Mortimer surrendered and was taken to the Tower of London as a prisoner. The rest of the rebel Lords faced a showdown with Edward at Boroughbridge in March 1322. At this battle, the Earl of Hereford was killed and the powerful Earl of Lancaster was captured, attainted of treason and executed.
Tyranny and Defeat
At last, with all opposition either dead, imprisoned or exiled, the Despensers found themselves with total power over the country – the King preferring to leave most of the business of government to them. As before this included who had access to Edward. They made sure that the King never saw anyone, even his own wife, Isabella, without one of them being present. Of course all this led to many serious abuses of power, with the Despensers gaining lands and money by any means possible, including imprisonment and extortion. Their power and tyranny was far greater than before and it seemed that no one could now stop them.
However, fate was about to turn against them in the form of Hugh’s greatest enemy, and also Queen Isabella herself. In 1323, Mortimer managed to escape from the Tower of London and fled to France where he spent his time as a sword for hire. In 1324 with war against France over Gascony looming, Despenser also persuaded Edward to confiscate many of Isabella’s properties and to cut her allowance. This must have made the Queen absolutely hate Hugh and his father – she hadn’t liked them much before as it was. Nevertheless, she managed to persuade Edward that all was well and so he sent her to her brother in France to act as a mediator to sue for peace. Once over there she claimed that her life had been in danger from the Despensers and refused to return until Edward agreed to put them aside from court.
Of course, that was something that Edward was never going to do and so the position seemed to be stuck at stalemate, with the Queen in France becoming a magnet for all those who had fled England in exile before. Before long this circle also included Roger Mortimer who became her secret (and then not so secret) lover. In the meantime the King of France demanded that Edward come to him to pay homage for Gascony. Edward hesitated, fearing that if he left, the Despensers would be vulnerable. Instead, in a foolish move he sent his son and heir, Edward instead. Of course, once in France the boy was in his mother’s, and Mortimer’s hands and they were determined that he should not return to his father.
In September 1326, Isabella and Mortimer had managed to summon up an army, mostly from Hainult, and invaded England. Tired of the tyrannical regime, English barons, lords and knights joined them, haemorrhaging support from the Crown. Edward and the younger Hugh fled London for south Wales and there boarded a boat. Unfortunately the stormy weather was against them and they were forced to put into land again. They were captured during a terrible storm; Edward was taken to Kenilworth while Hugh was taken to Hereford. The older Despenser, who was holding Bristol Castle for the King was also captured, tried and executed.
The younger Hugh, knowing what sort of punishment lay ahead of him at the hands of Mortimer and Isabella, tried to starve himself. The Queen had wanted him to be executed in London, but due to his weakening state it was thought that he wouldn’t live that long. Therefore he was put on trial in Hereford where he was not allowed to speak and a long list of charges was read out – some of which he was guilty of and some of which were utterly ridiculous. After the inevitable sentence he was drawn to the gallows by four horses instead of the usual two and hung on a 50-foot scaffold. Then, still alive, he was cut down, tied to a ladder, castrated, disembowelled and finally beheaded. At one point he was heard to call out for forgiveness before the pain finally took over. It is also said that Isabella and Mortimer feasted as they watched his death – the sight obviously didn’t put them off their food! Hugh’s head was then displayed on London Bridge and the rest of his body parts similarly exhibited at York, Bristol, Carlisle and Dover. These parts were finally reunited and buried four years later by Eleanor (and with permission from Edward III) at Tewkesbury Abbey.
The King’s Lover?
Before I finish – just a little note on Hugh’s sexuality. The majority of historians have assumed that Hugh had a homosexual relationship with Edward. If so, it certainly would go a long way to explaining Edward’s completely blind obsession with him. Some chroniclers of the time have also hinted at it but there is no evidence that can prove the issue one way or the other. Sexuality was looked at in a very different way in the 14th century to what it is now and it must also be noted that both men also seemed to have had very healthy heterosexual relationships too (especially Hugh as he had about nine children with Eleanor and probably one illegitimate son too). As is often the case, the long lens of history tends to blur the facts and nothing is ever as black or white as it seems. However, this is a subject I intend to return to in more detail in a later post.