Of all the accusations brought against Hugh at his trial in 1326, one of the strangest has to be his mistreatment of a certain lady Baret. The Anglo-Norman text reads (according to G.A. Holmes in his article “Judgement on the Younger Despenser, 1326”):
“…madame Baret que vous ensuist pur grace auoir vous come tyrant la faistes de voz ribaldes batre et debriser braces et Iaumbes trop despitousement, contre le ordre de Cheualric et contre lay et reson par quay la bone dame est touz iours afole.”
My rough translation of which is:
“…lady Baret who you pursued for the sake of profit and property and in the manner of a tyrant, made ribald commnets and caused her to be beaten so greatly that it broke her arms and legs, shamefully against the rules of chivalry and against reason, on account of which the good lady is forever more driven mad.”
This is only one of many (we’re talking pages here!) of the accusations yet it is one that always seems to be brought up as positive proof that Hugh Despenser was such an evil man. Indeed, if he had caused the torture and subsequent madness of a noble woman then he should be condemned for the act, no question. But the real issue here is did it really happen or was it something maybe based on a small amount of fact that was then embroidered for the trial in order to make Hugh look as bad as possible (not that that was totally necessary – he had certainly been guilty of many of the other crimes held against him!)
As usual, I have done as much research as possible into the background of this story – not an easy thing as the Barets are a pretty elusive family. The first we hear of them in this reign is when Stephen Baret, a knight and most probably a follower of John de Mowbray, is pardoned in August 1321 for attacks on the Despenser lands in the Despenser wars of the following years.
This mini civil war was sparked by one incident (although discontent with the Despensers by the Marcher lords had been increasing for a good while before that). John de Mowbray’s father in law, William de Braose was originally the lord of Gower but managed to get into financial difficulties. Although he had already settled Gower upon John through his daughter and sole heiress, Alina (John’s wife), he then decided it was in his best interests to try to sell Gower to the highest bidder. There was much interest in the land from neighbouring lords such as Hereford, de Mortimer and, of course, Hugh Despenser the younger. In the end he decided to sell it to John de Mowbray anyway, which must have caused a great deal of grumbling among the barons.
The loudest grumbler though was Hugh, and being the King’s favourite he was the one that was listened to. He managed to persuade Edward that Mowbray had taken Gower without royal license to do so, therefore making his possession illegal. Although there was some technical truth in this, the Marcher barons had, for years, been allowed their own peculiar laws and rights and in their eyes, de Mowbray had done nothing wrong. Of course, maybe if it hadn’t been Despenser’s idea, it is just possible that for once some of them may have sided with Edward – at least those who had been after the land for themselves. But as it was, they saw Despenser extending his grasp, through the agency of the King, to another piece of Wales.
Edward was forced to surrender to the rebels in August and had to agree not only to pardon the perpetrators of the rebellion but also to exile the Despensers – both father and son. At this stage de Mowbray was given back his lands, including Gower and Baret was pardoned. It is difficult to know just when Baret gained his lands in Gower – whether they were hereditary or whether he was given them by de Mowbray as reward for service. However after a later petition in 1327, his property was returned to his brother and heir, David – all but for some land which formerly belonged to the Templars. From records from around this time it seems that de Mowbray had a habit of entering and seizing Templar property (much of it was later given back in 1327), so this would fit with it being given as a reward. As a small point of interest it was noted by Robert Bartlett in his 2004 book The Hanged Man: A Story of Miracle, Memory and Colonialism in the Middle Ages that the only Templar land in Gower was in Llanmadoc. I have not been able to find anything further on this yet but it is very possible that the Baret lands included Llanmadoc.
After the return of the Despensers in 1322 and the royalist victory at Boroughbridge, most of the Contrariants were hunted down, and imprisoned or executed. Baret’s name is once again found in the Close Rolls in an entry for February 16th – just before the battle, when the keeper of the land of Gower is ordered to arrest him. And just in case he decided to wander, the sheriffs of Gloucester, Hereford and Worcester also received the same command.
There are no records that Baret fought at Boroughbridge but he was finally arrested – somewhere – as a Close Roll entry of the 26th March records: ‘Protection and writ of aid for Reginald de Frome, Guy Amaleuene and Bernard Brun, King’s yeomen, taking Stephen Baret, a rebel, to Sweyneseie (Swansea) in Wales to be there delivered as they are more fully instructed.’ It can be assumed that Baret was then held captive until late April when he was tried as a traitor by John Inge, Robert de Paneris, David le Bere and Reginald de Frome and executed, his lands forfeited to the crown.
That much is known and recorded. No-where in the official records is there any mention of a lady Baret. In fact, the only mention she gets anywhere is at Hugh the younger’s trial. This raises many questions – the first being, did she exist at all? Of course there must have been a lady Baret at some point, but no-where is there a mention that Stephen was married or to whom. He certainly did not have an heir, as this role was taken by his brother. Of course it is impossible to declare that the lady Baret in question was not his wife. But surely it is also entirely possible that she was his mother, or sister – something rarely considered.
The imprisonment of Contrariants’ wives and families by Edward was fairly commonplace after his victory at Boroughbridge. But it must be noted that most of them were quickly released – usually after the acknowledgement/payment of a fine. So it would not be surprising that lady Baret, mother or wife – or even sister – if she existed, was imprisoned. What is surprising though, is that Hugh would have had her tortured. To what end? The trial transcript insinuated that it was because Hugh desired her property. But surely, if she were dependent on Stephen, that property would have been automatically given over to the crown. Hugh did not need to use such methods to get her to hand over land and estate. And if it was to make an example out of her – well, surely he had done that by hanging Stephen in Swansea. The second point to make on this is that, apart from the trial transcript, the event is recorded nowhere else (as far as I know) – not even in chronicles known to be hostile to Edward’s regime. Surely, if a noble woman had been so badly treated and abused to the point of madness, it would have become general knowledge and rumour and there would be far more accounts in existence. As it is, the silence is deafening. Even David’s petitions do not mention her. You would have thought that if such an evil deed had been visited on his female kin, he would at least have mentioned it when claiming back his family’s land.
On the other hand, the details in the trial transcript seem to be too detailed to be made up. Could it possibly have happened and been hushed up (until the trial)? Unlikely, but it can’t be ruled out. Could it perhaps have had some basis in that a lady Baret was treated roughly by Despenser’s men (either on his orders or by their own initiative) and the rest was – shall we say – exaggerated to make the deed seem all the worse. Or – and this is going completely out on a very thin branch of the tree of speculation – maybe lady Baret was his mother – an old lady prone to falls and maybe a bit senile – the root of the broken limbs and madness story.
Unfortunately, with scant details available and the main source (the trial transcript) not particularly reliable as a record of truth, we will probably never know exactly what happened to poor lady Baret. Hugh the younger may have been guilty of many crimes in order to grab land and intimidate people (and I will – to balance things out – explore these too at a later point), but in this case I think that the case against him is less than proven.
Calendar of the Close Rolls, Edward II, 1307-1327
Calendar of the Close Rolls, Edward III, 1327-1330
‘The Judgement of the Younger Despenser, 1326’ – G.A. Holmes, 1955 (in the English Historical Review 1955 LXX (CCLXXV): 261-267
The Hanged Man: A Story of Miracle, Memory and Colonialism in the Middle Ages – Robert Bartlett, 2004