The infamous Hugh Despenser (who made the mistake of tangling with Queen Isabella.)


Edward II

Hugh was born somewhere between 1286 and 1290, the son and heir of a Worcestershire knight of the same name. In 1306 Hugh himself was knighted along with a bevy of other young men. Sometimes it happens that a stroke of luck smites unworthy persons, who might otherwise have lived and died in obscurity. Such a one was Hugh. Because Hugh Senior owed Kind Edward I a large sum of money, it was agreed between the two that the marriage of Hugh the Younger to Eleanor de Clare, the king’s niece would cancel the debt. As if that were not luck enough for one lifetime, Eleanor was the sister of Gilbert de Clare, Earl of Gloucester, who was killed at the battle of Bannockburn. Eleanor and her two sisters became heiresses of the rich Gloucester estates.  Through his wife, Hugh inherited Glamorgan and other properties, making him a wealthy man indeed. But it was not enough for Hugh, who now found within himself a broad streak of avarice. Within a few years, by hook or by crook (well, mainly through nasty, underhanded dealings) he also possessed the estates of his two unfortunate sisters-in-law. They did not have the clout he had.

His clout came from the king, Edward II, with whom he developed a relationship that might have been homosexual, or might not. He was given the office of royal chamberlain, which brought him into close contact with the king, his-uncle-by-marriage.

The barons weren’t at all happy. They had cut off the head of the previous favourite, Piers Gaveston, only to find that someone far worse had stepped into his shoes. Despenser’s greed and ruthlessness in depriving widows and heirs of their rights earned him many enemies, from Queen Isabella down to small landholders. It was even said that he tortured a certain lady until all her limbs were broken in order to force her to sell her land for a pittance. But in the king’s eyes he could do no wrong, and indeed, while enriching himself and his father, he didn’t fail to enrich his king also.

Hugh took a leading role in the king’s troubles with rebellious barons. When the barons prevailed, they managed to get him exiled, but only briefly. He was back three months later and out for vengeance. The leader of the barons, the Earl of Lancaster was defeated and executed. Other barons were executed, or thrown in prison, or had huge fines levied against them. The Despensers’ cruelty knew no bounds. It was a bloodbath, and Edward II got his share of the blame.

There was no one strong enough to lead the opposition, but the king went too far when he allowed Despenser’s tyranny to extend to the queen. Isabella had her lands and her children taken away; her allowance was severely cut, and her French servants were ordered back to France or faced arrest. The pretext for all this pruning was that Isabella was a Frenchwoman and, since war was brewing with France, she was not to be trusted. However, England could not afford to become embroiled in a war, so the queen neatly turned the tables on her oppressors when it became necessary to send someone to France in order to negotiate a treaty of peace. Who better than Isabella, the sister of the Franch king, Charles VI.

While in France Isabella met with Roger Mortimer, a rebel baron who had avoided execution due to her intervention and had then escaped from the Tower of London. They soon became lovers.

Isabella’s invasion

Together with Isabella’s supporters and other exiles they planned to invade England and bring the Despensers down. Success was assured because by that time their enemies were hated and feared by high and low alike. When the invasion took place multitudes flocked to Isabella’s banners. The Despensers, along with the king, were harried from pillar to post until they were eventually captured.

Hugh the elder was fortunate to be hanged. For Hugh the Younger, Isabella reserved a gruesome revenge. I will spare you the details, but here is a picture.

The execution of Hugh Despenser

Hugh had nine children and is an ancestor of Lady Diana Spencer.


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