Biographies & Memoirs


The Despenser War

In October 1320, Edward II abandoned the prudent and capable behaviour he had been demonstrating for much of that year, and the latest crisis of his reign reared its ugly head in South Wales. The partition of the de Clare lands among Hugh Despenser, Roger Damory and Hugh Audley in 1317 had, in addition to making all three men rich and influential, perhaps inevitably caused much rivalry, discontent and envy among them. Lanercost says that ‘being a most avaricious man, he [Despenser] had contrived by different means and tricks that he alone should possess the lands and revenues, and for that reason had devised grave charges against those who had married the other two sisters’.1 The Vita agrees, saying that Despenser ‘set traps for his co-heirs; thus, if he could manage it, each would lose his share through false accusations and he alone would obtain the whole earldom [of Gloucester]’.2

Despenser now decided that his lands of Glamorgan and Gwynllwg were not enough, and set his heart on gaining possession of the Gower peninsula, where Swansea lies. Gower belonged to a baron named William Braose, who had no son and who had at various times offered to sell Gower to his son-in-law John Mowbray, Despenser himself, the earl of Hereford, Roger Mortimer and his uncle Roger Mortimer of Chirk. All these men claimed that Braose had sold the reversion of Gower to them.3 By the autumn of 1320, Hugh Despenser stood high in the king’s favour, and Edward was infatuated with him. Geoffrey le Baker wrote a few years later that many people considered Despenser to be ‘another king, or more accurately ruler of the king…in the manner of Gaveston, so presumptuous that he frequently kept certain nobles from speaking to the king. Moreover, when the king, out of his magnanimity, was preoccupied with many people addressing him about their affairs, Despenser threw back answers, not those asked for but to the contrary, pretending them to be to the king’s advantage’.4 According to the Annales Paulini, Edward had also allowed Gaveston to make decisions on his behalf.5 Despenser’s abuse of his position as chamberlain became obvious, and theBrut says that he ‘kept so the king’s chamber, that no man might speak with the king … the king himself would not be governed by no manner of man, but only by his father and by him’.6 The Anonimalle says that ‘no man could approach the king without the consent of the said Sir Hugh’ and calls him haughty, arrogant, greedy, evil and ‘more inclined to wrongdoing than any other man’.7 The Vita says, ‘Confident of the royal favour, he did everything at his own discretion, snatched at everything, did not bow to the authority of anyone whomsoever.’8 Regarding Despenser’s enormous influence over the king, the Flores says that he led Edward around as though he were ‘teasing a cat with a piece of straw’, Lanercost that he was the ‘king of England’s right eye’, and Knighton that he led Edward around for his own aggrandisement.9

The men who had heaved a sigh of relief at the death of Piers Gaveston now realised, to their horror, that Edward had replaced him with a man who was far worse and far more dangerous. Scalacronica says, ‘the great men had ill will against him [Edward] for his cruelty and the debauched life which he led, and on account of the said Hugh, whom at that time he loved and entirely trusted’.10 What the writer meant by ‘debauched’ is unclear, and there is even less evidence than with Piers Gaveston to tell us what kind of relationship Edward had with Despenser. He never referred to him as his brother, as he did Gaveston, and we have none of Edward’s letters where he describes his feelings for Despenser. The favourite was ruthlessly determined to get what he wanted, and prepared to use the king’s infatuation with him as a means to this end. He was, at least, honest about his ambitions, and told John Inge, sheriff of Glamorgan, on 18 January 1321, ‘We command you to watch our affairs that we may be rich and achieve our ends…’11

John Mowbray, who must have been well aware that Despenser was now the king’s favourite, took possession of Gower in the autumn of 1320, even though his father-in-law William Braose was still alive (he died in 1326). A furious Despenser persuaded Edward that, as Mowbray had not received a royal licence to enter the lands, Gower should be forfeit to the king.12 The Marcher lords, the men who owned the lordships in Wales and along the English-Welsh border, protested that in the March, they did not need a royal licence to enter their lands, which was correct; as the old saying ran ‘The king’s writ does not run in the March’, where the lords dispensed their own justice, were not subject to the jurisdiction of the local sheriff, and enjoyed sovereign powers in their lordships. Their role, in exchange for these privileges, was to keep the turbulent Welsh-English border quiescent. Since Edward I’s conquest of Wales in 1282, however, this was no longer necessary; the Marchers thus had wide-ranging privileges but few responsibilities to justify them.13 Edward, ‘who promoted Hugh’s designs as far as he could’, ordered Gower to be taken into his own hands on 26 October 1320, presumably intending to grant it to his favourite.14 However, the sub-escheator of Gloucestershire, Richard Foxcote, was unable to take possession of it thanks to the ‘large multitude of armed Welshmen’ who detested Despenser’s lordship, and who gathered at the chapel of St Thomas at Kilvey near Swansea and prevented Foxcote ‘executing the mandate, so that he could do nothing therein without danger of death’.15

The Marchers were furious and concerned. This latest infatuation of Edward’s threatened their privileges, and no doubt they knew that Hugh Despenser was a very different proposition from Piers Gaveston, who with hindsight was probably coming more and more to be seen as harmless. ‘Deeply moved by such abuse, the barons departed full of indignation, and meeting in Wales, they unanimously decided that Hugh Despenser must be pursued, laid low and utterly destroyed.’16 Most of the men who owned lands in the Marches turned against Edward and Hugh Despenser: Humphrey de Bohun, earl of Hereford; Roger Mortimer of Wigmore, formerly a close ally of the king and his lieutenant of Ireland, and his uncle Roger Mortimer of Chirk; Roger Damory; Hugh Audley; John Mowbray; Roger Clifford, son of the Robert Clifford killed at Bannockburn in 1314; Edward’s former chamberlain John Charlton; the earl of Lancaster’s brother Henry; and fifty-year-old Maurice Berkeley, who succeeded as Lord Berkeley in July 1321 when his elderly father finally died, with his son Thomas and son-in-law John Maltravers. Edward cared little for the formidable coalition that was building against him; once again, he was prepared to put the wishes of a favourite above all else. ThePolychronicon points out that he was ‘passionately attached to one person, whom he cherished above all, showered with gifts and always put first; he could not bear being separated from him and honoured him above all others’. The Scalacronica agrees, saying that Edward was too familiar with his friends, shy with strangers, and ‘loved too exclusively a single individual’.17

While all this was going on, Edward was still working towards an alliance between himself and Hainault, and in November 1320 wrote again to the pope to ask for a dispensation for his son Edward of Windsor to marry Margaret, daughter of Count William III.18 Evidently, however, William had grown lukewarm on the alliance, and Edward wrote a frustrated letter to him four months later, saying that he would go ahead with other marriage plans for his son if he did not hear from William by 8 July 1321.19 He also wrote to the cardinals who had been abducted and robbed by Gilbert Middleton in 1317 informing them that he could not recover their stolen possessions, on the prosaic grounds that he did not know where the items were to be found.20 In December 1320, Edward paid three shillings and four pence to William, bookbinder of London, ‘for binding and newly repairing the book of Domesday, in which is contained the counties of Essex, Norfolk and Suffolk’, a manuscript dating to 1086 which still exists in the National Archives in Kew and is now known as ‘Little Domesday’.21 He spent Christmas and New Year at Marlborough in Wiltshire, probably with the pregnant Queen Isabella, spending nearly sixty pounds on the festivities for Christmas and Epiphany.22 The Marcher lords left court over Christmas. Hugh Despenser knew how angry they were with him, and told the sheriff of Glamorgan on 18 January 1321 that ‘envy is growing, and especially among the magnates, against us, because the king treats us better than any other’.23 Edward, also well aware of the Marchers’ hostility towards his friend, ordered the earl of Hereford and twenty-eight others not to attend armed assemblies or to make treaties ‘prejudicial to the king and crown’.24 The Marchers found a willing ally in the earl of Lancaster. Lancaster himself had few interests in the Marches but was willing to support anyone against his detested cousin the king, although he took no direct action in the events of 1321, preferring, as always, to lurk at his Yorkshire castle of Pontefract; even so, he was seen as the Marchers’ leader.25 For Lancaster to associate with his former enemies Roger Damory and Hugh Audley must have been anathema, but his desire to coerce the king took priority. For obscure reasons, he loathed Hugh Despenser the Elder, and wanted the Marchers to ‘not only rise against the son, but destroy the father along with him’.26

On 12 January, Edward ordered the arrest, for a third time, of Robert Lewer, a valet of his household and formerly keeper of Odiham Castle in Hampshire, for ‘trespasses, contempts and disobediences’. He had sent sergeants-at-arms to seize Lewer the previous summer, but Lewer resisted arrest and threatened to kill and dismember the men, in Edward’s presence if need be.27 Lewer grew up at court and acted as the king’s water-bearer, responsible for drying his clothes and preparing his bath, though he was also a highly capable soldier. He ‘was always ready for plunder and killing’, which included murdering the husband of his mistress.28 Edward was severely out of patience with him by 1321, describing him as ‘so vile a person’.29 The nature of Lewer’s crimes is unknown, but he might have been angry that he had been replaced as constable of Odiham Castle by Hugh Despenser in February 1320, and his later actions demonstrate that he detested the Despensers and their influence.30 Despenser, for his part, abused his position as constable of Odiham by removing the keeper of the park from his job, because he had once raised the hue and cry against Despenser’s mother Isabel Beauchamp for taking five deer from the park without a licence.31 Isabel died in May 1306; evidently, Despenser had a long memory.

Edward had returned to Westminster by 17 January 1321, and spent the next three weeks there. He attended a mass on 8 February at the church of Stratford, London, in memory of the late countess of Pembroke.32 That afternoon, he rode to Havering-atte-Bower in Essex, a royal manor, where the following day he attended the wedding of one of his great-nieces: Hugh Despenser’s eldest daughter Isabel, who married Richard, son and heir of Edmund Fitzalan, earl of Arundel. Isabel was eight, Richard seven.33Edward paid for a piece of Lucca cloth to make a veil for spreading over the heads of the child-couple during their nuptial mass, and gave two pounds in pennies to be thrown over them at the chapel door.34

The king left Westminster on 1 March with Hugh Despenser, and travelled slowly towards Gloucester. While at Fulmer in Buckinghamshire, he asked the Dominicans of Florence to pray for the good estate of himself, his family and his realm.35 He took his mind off his troubles by attending to marital business, and wrote to King Jaime II of Aragon regarding the marriage of his eight-year-old son Edward of Windsor.36 Jaime – to whose elder brother Alfonso III Edward’s sister Eleanor had been betrothed from 1282 until Alfonso’s sudden death in 1291 – had proposed his youngest daughter Violante, who was ten or eleven in March 1321, as a bride for the future king of England.37 Edward also wrote to the pope asking him to grant a dispensation for the marriage of his widowed cousin the earl of Pembroke to another of his cousins, Marie, daughter of the count of St Pol.38 On 28 March, Edward ordered the Marchers to come to him at Gloucester, but they failed to attend, which marks their transition from truculence to open hostility and defiance.39

The Vita says that the Marchers asked Edward to send Despenser away from him and have him come to trial to answer their complaints against him, ‘otherwise they would no longer have him as king, but would utterly renounce their homage and fealty and whatever oath they had sworn to him’.40 They also asked Edward to commit Despenser to the custody of the earl of Lancaster, and declared that they would guarantee to bring him safely to parliament to answer their complaints against him. With the example of Piers Gaveston, whose safety had been guaranteed by the earls of Pembroke and Surrey yet was killed by the earls of Warwick and Lancaster, still in his mind, Edward declared himself ‘not without great wonder’ at this demand, and responded ‘it would be unfitting and dishonest to remove Hugh from the king’s company’.41 Both Edward and Despenser drastically underestimated the Marchers’ discontent and willingness to use force and violence. Despenser, suffering one of his usual bouts of over-confidence, told the sheriff of Glamorgan ‘do not doubt that neither he [Hugh Audley] nor any of his allies have the power to hurt any of us’.42 An overly optimistic Edward wrote on 10 April to his friend William Aune, constable of Tickhill Castle and formerly of Piers Gaveston’s household, ‘Know that all things go peaceably and well at our wish, God be thanked’.43 The king left Gloucester on 16 April, spending Easter Sunday, 19 April, at Bristol and his thirty-seventh birthday at Queen Isabella’s Wiltshire castle of Devizes, where he gave ten shillings each to two minstrels the earl of Arundel had sent to him for their performance in his chamber.44 Edward arrived at Westminster on 7 May and was probably reunited here with Isabella, now seven months pregnant, though the Vitasays that Edward ‘returned to London with his own Hugh always at his side’, which can hardly have pleased the queen.45

Edward’s commands fell on deaf ears. The Despenser War began on 4 May, when the Marchers, wearing a special tunic of green with the right quarter in yellow with white bends, attacked Despenser’s castle at Newport, which fell three days later.46 On the day the attacks began, Edward, oblivious, informed William Aune that ‘we have nothing but good news before us’.47 He also responded to a letter from some of his officials in Gascony, authorising the sale of a house in Condom known as the ‘Earl’s Hall’ (aulacomitis) on the grounds that it had become a ‘brothel of worthless women’, and gave a pound to the earl of Richmond’s violist Merlin for performing for him.48 Meanwhile, the Marchers rode through Glamorgan and besieged Cardiff, Swansea, Caerphilly and Despenser’s six other Welsh castles, which also fell within a few days, and his towns.49 They and their men tried to burn down the castles, and he later claimed a loss of £14,000 on twenty-three manors.50 Innocents suffered from the general theft and pillaging; the prior and convent of Brecon informed Edward that ‘they are greatly impoverished by the trouble there has been in the region’, and the poor people of Swansea also petitioned the king for help.51 Their rage and greed not yet sated, the Marchers and their followers then went on a rampage through the English lands of Hugh Despenser the Elder, sixty-seven manors in seventeen counties. Despenser later claimed losses of £38,000.52

The author of the Vita, despite his strong dislike of the Despensers, thought the Marchers had gone too far: ‘Why did they destroy their manors, for what reason did they extort ransoms from their retinues? Though formerly their cause had been just, they now turned right into wrong.’53 The Marchers themselves might have felt that their cause was a noble one. Given their violent and destructive behaviour, it is hard to agree. Claiming to be acting in Edward II’s best interest and within the law, they killed and plundered his subjects and caused them untold distress. The Despensers may well have deserved such treatment, but their tenants did not, and although Edward’s imprudent behaviour pushed the Marchers into rebellion, they put themselves equally in the wrong by inflicting misery on innocents. The bishop of Worcester, Thomas Cobham, informed the pope that the Marchers were capturing castles and committing homicides, and admitted that he had no idea why. He even said that only one of the marauding barons knew the real reason for the attacks, though what he meant by this is uncertain.54 The letter of Cobham, who as a bishop was better-informed than most, probably demonstrates that few people understood the Marchers’ aims, and it is doubtful that many cared; the loss of their anachronistic privileges was of little interest to anyone besides the Marchers themselves.

The Marchers took the king’s sergeant-at-arms Guy Almavini prisoner, and stole the treasure Edward had stored at Neath Castle.55 Around the same time, they committed far more serious acts of lawlessness: they captured John Iweyn, Despenser’s constable of Neath, with his servant Philip le Keu, beheaded them at Swansea, and stole their goods.56 The Marchers also killed at least sixteen other men, and wounded and imprisoned many others.57 Roger Mortimer went to Clun and took over the castle there, which belonged to the earl of Arundel, the king and Despenser’s ally. An indignant Arundel sent a letter on 4 June 1321 to ‘the good and wise men of Shrewsbury’ regarding a sum of money which he had asked them to guard and which he, probably not unreasonably, suspected Mortimer of wanting to steal. He begged them that ‘you should keep safely for our use the money which you have received in our lord’s [Edward’s] town, for we do not under any circumstances intend that our cousin of Mortimer, who is so close to us in blood, should do us such a great injury, which we have in no way merited’.58 Arundel had a long-running feud with his kinsmen the Mortimers, and even before the outbreak of the Despenser War, they were assailing his lordships in North Wales.59

Edward was evidently debating sending Despenser abroad for his own safety, as between 30 May and 12 June 1321, he granted safe-conducts to Despenser to go overseas, supposedly ‘on the king’s business’.60 The steward of Gascony, Amaury de Craon, sent two envoys to England sometime in May with questions he required Edward to answer, but although the envoys spent three weeks with Edward, they reported that neither he, Despenser nor the earl of Pembroke had time to talk to them.61 Edward has been criticised for this, on the grounds that he cared about nothing but his favourite’s lands, but this is hardly fair; thousands of men were committing horrific acts of violence and plunder over a large part of his kingdom, killing, wounding and robbing his subjects, and no doubt he judged that any questions the steward of Gascony might have would have to wait.62 Edward did find time on 21 May to give ten pounds to the messenger who brought him news of the birth of his latest great-nephew, the future Count Henri IV of Bar, son of Edward’s nephew Edouard and Marie of Burgundy. Three days later, he purchased six pairs of boots ‘with tassels of silk and drops of silver-gilt’, which cost five shillings a pair, from Robert le Fermor, bootmaker of Fleet Street, and spent over twenty pounds to celebrate Ascension on 28 May.63 He was, however, unable to attend the translation of St Thomas Cantilupe at Hereford Cathedral on 14 June, as he had wished.

The Brut says, ‘When the king saw that the barons would not cease of their cruelty, the king was sore afraid lest they would destroy him and his realm.’64 This may not be a gross exaggeration; the Despenser War, although short in duration, was terrifically violent, and as reports came to Edward of yet another manor attacked in yet another county, it must have seemed that his kingdom was descending into total anarchy. The earl of Lancaster remained in the north while his allies marched towards London. The Marchers seized victuals from local inhabitants and pillaged the countryside – not only Despenser manors – all the way from Yorkshire to London. John, Lord Mowbray and the knights Stephen Baret, Jocelyn Deyville and Bogo de Bayouse, for example, stole livestock, goods and chattels from the townspeople of Laughton-en-le-Morthen in Yorkshire, and even robbed the church.65 Adherents of Roger Mortimer destroyed the houses of John Bloxham in Oxfordshire, stole his goods and assaulted his servants, while the monastery of St Albans, according to its chroniclers, was only saved from the general pillaging because one of the Marcher leaders (unnamed) fell ill at Aylesbury.66 The Marchers had little choice but to turn to pillage and theft to feed their men, as for the most part, the inhabitants of the places they passed through had no wish to help them.

Edward sent his steward Bartholomew Badlesmere to an assembly of the earl of Lancaster and the Marchers at Sherburn, presumably as a spy. Badlesmere switched sides and joined the Marchers.67 This proved to be an astonishingly unwise move on his part as the earl of Lancaster loathed him, for unknown reasons. He may have gambled that as Lancaster was prepared to ally himself with Roger Damory, whom he had once accused of trying to kill him, he would forgive Badlesmere also for whatever wrongs he thought Badlesmere had done him. If so, he miscalculated. On 28 July 1321, Edward II created his half-brother Edmund of Woodstock earl of Kent, a few days before Edmund’s twentieth birthday, and ‘girt his said brother with a sword as earl of the said county’.68 This was most likely designed to limit Badlesmere’s influence in Kent, where he owned great estates; he had hoped to become earl of Kent himself.69

Edward authorised the foundation of several houses for teaching logic and theology at Cambridge University on 5 July, at the request of his clerk Roger Northburgh, shortly to become bishop of Coventry and Lichfield on the death of Walter Langton.70 Queen Isabella gave birth on the same day to their youngest child, named Joan (Johane, as it was spelt at the time) after Isabella’s mother Queen Joan I of Navarre and perhaps after Edward’s late sister Joan of Acre. Robert Staunton was granted a respite of eighty pounds on a debt of £180 he owed to the Exchequer for the simple expedient of travelling a couple of miles across London to inform the king.71 Edward arrived at the Tower on 8 July and stayed with Isabella and his daughter for six days, and little Joan of the Tower soon joined the household of her older siblings, under the care of Matilda Pyrie or Perie, formerly the nurse of her brother John of Eltham.72 On 26 July, Edward asked the Dominicans of Pontefract to pray for himself, Isabella and their children.73

The Marchers arrived outside London on 29 July, two weeks late for parliament, and the citizens refused to admit them.74 Edward also refused to meet them or even to listen to their demands that the Despensers be perpetually exiled from England, and they and their heirs disinherited ‘as false and traitorous criminals and spies’. The barons therefore placed themselves and their armies outside the city walls, at strategic locations, to prevent the king leaving.75 They sent two knights as envoys to Edward to tell him that they wished both Despensers to be exiled, but Edward refused to meet the envoys, offering the rather feeble excuse that they had no letters of credence.76 The Marchers finally entered London on 1 August 1321. The Annales Paulini say that Hugh Despenser was sailing along the Thames off Gravesend at this time, visiting the king at night and urging him to delay any agreement with the Marchers. Apparently incapable of reacting to anything except with violence, the Marchers threatened to burn the city from Charing Cross to Westminster if Despenser didn’t desist.77

The Marchers demanded that if Edward refused to consent to the Despensers’ exile, he would be deposed. The events of almost exactly ten years before, when the Ordainers had threatened him with deposition if he did not consent to Piers Gaveston’s exile, were repeating themselves. The royalist earl of Pembroke told him, ‘Consider, lord king, the power of the barons … Do not for any living soul lose thy kingdom,’ and, quoting the Bible, ‘He perishes on the rocks that loves another more than himself.’ He went on to advise the king ‘if you will listen to your barons you shall reign in power and glory; but if, on the other hand, you close your ears to their petitions, you may perchance lose the kingdom and all of us’.78 Even these heartfelt words and the renewed threat of deposition did not move Edward. Anguished at the thought of his friends being sent into exile, he continued to refuse. He suggested that they go to Ireland until the anger of the Marchers had cooled, and declared that it was deplorable for noblemen to be judged in such a manner and that he knew they were not traitors.79

It fell to Queen Isabella to break the deadlock. She went down on her knees before her husband and begged him, for the good of his realm, to exile the Despensers.80 Finally accepting that he had no choice, Edward entered the great hall of Westminster on 14 August, with his cousins Pembroke and Richmond on either side of him, and agreed to banish his friends.81 Chroniclers Adam Murimuth and Geoffrey le Baker both make the point that Edward was afraid of civil war if he did not do so, but never consented inwardly to the barons’ demands, while the Rochester chronicler says that he was compelled by force and fear.82 In the presence of Edward, but not the Despensers themselves, judgement was given against the two men, and it was decreed that they would be disinherited and perpetually exiled from England.83 Even the author of the Vita, who criticised the Despensers severely and condemned their greed and brutality, thought ‘they had been banished out of malice’.84 The date of their departure was set as the feast of the Beheading of St John the Baptist, 29 August 1321.85 Between 20 August and late September, Edward was forced to grant a pardon to more than 400 men for the murders, abductions, thefts and vandalism they had committed in the Despensers’ lands.86 Not surprisingly, he later protested that he had done this unwillingly and that any pardon he had given under coercion was invalid.87

On the day the Despensers were ordered into exile, Edward retired to his chamber, ‘anxious and sad’. The next morning at breakfast, he invited Hamo Hethe, bishop of Rochester, to his table, and whispered to him that the Despensers had been condemned unjustly. Hethe replied consolingly that Edward could ‘amend the defeat’. Edward responded that he ‘would within half a year make such an amend that the whole world would hear of it and tremble’.88

It took him a little more than half a year, but he was as good as his word.

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