How Hugh Despenser Became King of England in All But Name

Kathryn Warner

4 mins

02 May 2019

Recently defined as the ‘greatest villain’ of the fourteenth century Hugh Despenser the Younger was a pirate and extortionist, and made himself the richest and most powerful man in England between 1322 and 1326.

He suffered the traitor’s death in Hereford on 24 November 1326 on the orders of the queen-consort of England, Isabella of France.

Rising high

Hugh was a nobleman, born in the late 1280s; his maternal grandfather William Beauchamp was Earl of Warwick, his paternal grandmother Aline Basset was Countess of Norfolk and his grandfather Hugh Despenser (d. 1265) was Justiciar of England.

Hugh the Younger’s father, Hugh the Elder, displayed undying loyalty to Edward I and his son Edward II for four decades. This – combined with his talents as a diplomat and royal counsellor – raised his son high.

In 1306 Edward I decided that Hugh the Younger made a suitable husband for his eldest granddaughter Eleanor de Clare (b. 1292). For his son’s marriage he paid Hugh the Elder £2,000 and attended the young couple’s wedding on 26 May 1306 – four days after Hugh the Younger was knighted.

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Enter Edward II

Edward I died on 7 July 1307 and Hugh the Younger’s 23-year-old uncle-in-law succeeded his father as King Edward II.

The young king was a very different man to his formidable father and had little capacity to fill the role he had been born into. His reign of just under twenty years would prove extraordinarily dramatic and turbulent.

Though he was a member of the royal family by marriage, Hugh Despenser the Younger had no lands and no influence whatsoever; he spent the first half of Edward’s reign in the political wilderness.

For years Edward II was involved in an intense relationship with Piers Gaveston, a young nobleman of Béarn whom Edward made Earl of Cornwall and brought into the royal family by marriage to his niece Margaret, younger sister of Hugh Despenser’s wife Eleanor.

Gaveston was killed by a group of Edward II’s disgruntled barons in June 1312, sick of the king’s endless favouritism towards him. Two years later Edward lost the Battle of Bannockburn to Robert Bruce, King of Scotland.

A fifteenth century depiction of the Battle of Bannockburn. Here you can see the Scottish infantry wielding their long spears.

As though this were not humiliating enough, Edward’s nephew Gilbert de Clare, Earl of Gloucester, was killed at the battle.

Gloucester had no children and his heirs were his three sisters, including Eleanor Despenser. One-third of the vast Gloucester inheritance passed to Hugh Despenser; this made him rich, and in 1318 he was appointed royal chamberlain, an important role which involved controlling access to the king, by parliament.

Favourite to fugitive

Edward had long been indifferent to Hugh and perhaps disliked him, but Hugh used his new proximity to the monarch to work his way into the king’s affections.

Edward seemingly became as infatuated with him as he had been with Gaveston, and their association came to the attention of chroniclers, who commented that Edward did whatever Hugh wanted.

Hugh began to dominate the English government and foreign policy, though was never elected to do so.

In 1321 a group of English barons – whom Edward II called the ‘Contrariants’ – sick of Hugh’s excessive influence, sacked and vandalised all Despenser’s lands and his father’s across England and Wales and forced both men into exile in August 1321. Hugh the Younger became a pirate in the English Channel and made a fortune.

King in all but name

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In early 1322 Edward II recalled Hugh and his father, executed or imprisoned the Contrariants, and gave many of their confiscated lands to Despenser. He was now the richest man in England.

Despenser’s influence continued to grow; his correspondence reveals that when Edward II went to war against his brother-in-law Charles IV of France in 1324, Despenser was the man in charge of directing the war.

Hugh abused his position to force many men and women, both nobles and commoners, to give him lands and money: he imprisoned people until they paid him large ransoms or handed over manors to him.

Numerous petitions, Hugh’s own correspondence, and entries in the chancery rolls reveal that Edward II was deeply involved in Hugh’s nefarious schemes against his own subjects.

Downfall

But Hugh made the error of alienating Isabella, Edward’s queen, who feared and loathed him and swore to bring him down. In early 1326 she allied with the remnant of the Contrariant faction, led by the baron Roger Mortimer of Wigmore, and she and the Contrariants invaded England with an army in September 1326.

Despenser’s father was captured and executed in Bristol, and on 24 November Despenser himself suffered death by hanging, drawing and quartering.

The execution of Hugh Despenser the Younger, from a manuscript of Jean Froissart.

His behaviour as royal favourite helped to bring about the first deposition of a king in English history: Edward II was so closely associated with Hugh Despenser that only a few weeks after Despenser’s execution, he was forced to abdicate his throne to his teenage son, Edward III.

14th century historian Kathryn Warner is a biographer of Edward II, Isabella of France, Hugh Despenser the Younger and Richard II. Her latest book, Hugh Despenser the Younger and Edward II, was published by Pen and Sword on 1 May 2019 and is available from all good book stores

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