One of the more controversial manifestations of the crusading movement, the crusade of Henry Despenser, bishop of Norwich, was an English military expedition to Flanders in 1383 that was actually part of the Hundred Years’ War between England and France. The expedition was dignified as a crusade by the Roman pope, Urban VI, as it was directed against the schismatic French, who recognized the rival Avi- gnonese papacy of Clement VII.
A member of a powerful aristocratic family of the Marches and South Wales, Henry Despenser was consecrated bishop of Norwich in 1369. He first showed martial abilities in the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, when he was responsible for suppressing the rising in East Anglia. Despenser’s crusade was a response to a revolt of the citizens of Ghent (mod. Gent, Belgium) in the county of Flanders against their pro-French count, Louis of Male, and their overlord, King Charles VI of France. Money-raising measures attached to this “crusade,” notably the sale of indulgences that went with it, attracted critical comment from contemporaries, especially the reformer John Wyclif, but were in all probability no more outrageous than those that accompanied any crusade. This critical reaction was due rather to the prevailing anticlerical atmosphere of the time, and the fact that the expedition proved to be a failure. The campaign arguably made good strategic and economic sense, as it would have reopened England’s wool trade with Flanders, as well as exposing France to attack from the north. Despenser’s intervention became more urgent when a French army defeated the rebel Flemish townsmen and killed their leader, Philip van Artevelde, at Roosebeke in November 1382. This army was led by Philip, duke of Burgundy, who was married to the count of Flanders’s daughter and stood to inherit the county. The French occupied Ypres (mod. Ieper, Belgium) and Bruges (mod. Brugge, Belgium), cutting off the valuable English wool trade from the Flemish cloth-producing towns.
The crusade enjoyed early success; landing at Calais in May 1383, Despenser captured Dunkirk (mod. Dunkerque, France) and the Flemish coast, and joined forces with the Ghent rebels in early June. They persuaded the bishop to march on Ypres, although his army was ill-equipped to besiege a major town. The siege was abandoned in August, when news arrived that Philip of Burgundy’s army was approaching. At this point the men of Ghent abandoned Despenser in disgust. The English had no choice but to retreat to the coast, sacking the port of Gravelines as they did so. Despenser returned from this ignominious failure to face impeachment and the confiscation of his temporalities for two years. He was never as significant a political figure after this event, although he defended King Richard II at the time of Henry IV’s usurpation, a stance that earned him two spells of imprisonment under the new regime.