Hugh, the ‘Master of the Seas’


A very brief explanation of what went before… The Despenser Wars

To say that the Marcher barons were a little bit hacked off with Hugh Despenser and his father in 1321 is a bit like saying the Sahara is a tad on the dry side. Since receiving his share of the Gloucester inheritance through his wife in 1317, Hugh had been a very busy man. Not only had he worked his way most successfully into the king’s affections, but he was also slowly building up his lands in South Wales by mostly dodgy dealings. Even his brother in law – Audley – wasn’t safe, losing his lordship of Newport to Despenser early in 1320. It was the autumn of the same year, however, which saw the situation erupt in a rather spectacular way.

William de Braose, Lord of Gower, had a few debts and needed to sell his land to pay them off. Gower attracted a great amount of interest among the Marcher Lords, including Despenser and it seems that de Braose was very cleverly managing to take money and make promises regarding the purchase that he never intended to keep. Eventually in the autumn of 1320, de Braose sold Gower to his son-in-law, John de Mowbray. Hugh, furious at losing out, persuaded Edward that de Mowbray had taken possession of his new land without the King’s permission and so therefore it should now be forfeit to the crown. Under English law this was perfectly true, but Gower operated under ancient Marcher law in which a man could take hold of his possessions perfectly legally without any royal consent. Nevertheless, Edward listened to his new favourite and confiscated the land from de Mowbray, with obvious intentions of giving it to Hugh.

This was the last straw for the barons who had been watching Hugh’s rise to power with growing horror. Hugh seemed to control Edward completely, especially their access to him. They could only enter the royal presence if Hugh approved and was paid some sort of bribe. Even so, the petitioner was not allowed anywhere near Edward unless either Hugh, or his father (who was also merrily acquiring lands, although not on such an aggravating scale as his son) were present.

Violence exploded across the country in the spring of 1321 as the barons and their supporters marched upon the lands of both Despensers and their supporters – burning, pillaging and destroying all they came across. How many of the Despensers’ tenants and peasants lost everything they owned is not known but it must have been a traumatic episode for thousands of villagers and farmers. Despite Hugh and the king trying all sorts of tricks to get the barons to capitulate (such as Hugh surrendering his properties to Edward so that in effect the rebels were attacking crown property), it was Edward who was finally forced to succumb to the barons’ demands. Basically, he realised that he had no support left whatsoever – not even the usually faithful and moderate earl of Pembroke (who had conveniently disappeared abroad).

After a process against the Despensers, which contained a long list of their wrong-doings (mostly centred around the usurpation of royal power for their own ends, including the execution of Llywelyn Bren), Edward was forced to exile the two men. Thus began a very curious (if short) episode in Hugh the younger’s life.

A life on the ocean wave

The pronouncement of the exile was given around the 18th August 1321 according to the Close Rolls (the 19th according to the Vita Edwardi Secundi and the 14th according to the Annales Paulini) and stated that father and son had to leave from the port of Dover by the date of the commemoration of the beheading of St John the Baptist – August 29th. The elder Hugh, reportedly blaming his son for the mess they were in, did as he was told and left for Poitou. Hugh the younger, on the other hand, decided on a career change (well, actually not so much a change in what he did – just where he did it).

In the Vita, there is a rather enigmatic little passage which states: ‘the lord king had firmly commended him [that is, Hugh the younger] to the protection of the sailors of the Cinque Ports’. In other words Edward had no intention of allowing his favourite to stray too far and yet he was placing him somewhere where he could still make a quick getaway if necessary. Who these ‘sailors’ were is not clear but it was probably some of the barons of the ports that he trusted (the Cinque Ports were very loyal to Edward at this time). I can’t imagine though that he would have made this request general knowledge, as the danger to Hugh of arrest or from an assassin would have been too great. The Vita probably picked it up after the fact from rumour and gossip.

It also seems that Hugh was given a small fleet of ships (again probably courtesy of certain Cinque Port barons. It can never be known whether Hugh was intent on piracy from the beginning or whether these ships were meant as a dedicated escape resource should it be needed. However it seems that he soon gained a reputation as a ‘monster of the seas’ (the Vita again) and began to terrorise shipping in the channel.

There seem to be a lot of strange rumours parading as fact in the chronicles about this period. Haines, in his book King Edward II mentions most of them. One, for example, was that Hugh was accompanied on the way to Dover by the king. From there, for some inexplicable reason, Hugh adopted the habit of the Abbot of Langdon and then traveled across the sea to Paris. Once in Paris he discovered that the earl of Pembroke was there and so, fearing for his life, he came back again, went to Westminster and threw himself at the king’s feet. Unfortunately – according to the Annales Paulini, he ‘received no friendly word’ and thence turned to piracy. It’s a nice story, but I don’t think there’s much truth in it. The itinerary for Edward shows that he was at Westminster from the time of the exile proclamation until 26th August when he traveled to Minster-in-Thanet (reaching it on 4th September) via Bow, Dartford, Rochester, Newington, Faversham and Sturry (more of this later). There is no mention of Dover. Mind you, it’s still possible that he did travel there with Hugh.

The bit I’m not so sure about is Hugh traveling over to Paris dressed as a monk. Why on earth would he want to go to Paris in the first place when he wasn’t exactly popular in France? And if Pembroke was there, I’m sure he would have had some idea beforehand as de Valence had left the country before the forced exile and must have made his travel intentions known to the king. There is also no mention in any of the rolls of Hugh returning and petitioning the king. To do so he would have needed a safe-conduct (like the one Edward issued him with in December) otherwise he would have been arrested on sight. It is all very strange.

There is not much information on piracy around the coasts of Britain at this time (although some earlier references exist on 13th century pirates, such as Eustace the monk) so it’s hard to say exactly what his role in these depredations was. For example, did he direct operations from a landed base or did he actually sail with the ships and take part in the boarding and fighting? If the latter, it seems an extraordinary move for a man more at home in the comforts of the court than on the rough and dangerous confines of a pirate ship. And how did Edward feel about his beloved friend risking his life in such a manner?

Some reports were possibly exaggerated by later chroniclers hostile to Despenser. For example it was claimed that he was involved in the capture of two richly laden ships (dromonds) from Genoa, killing the crew and liberating goods worth £60,000. These particular events (or event – we don’t know if they were captured together or separately) formed one of the accusations against him in 1326. Some time after, during the reign of Edward III, the Genoese claimed compensation for the loss (although, strangely, only of 14,000 marks (or £9,333. 6s. 8d)). In the end Edward III paid them £8000 although he made it clear that it was just a goodwill gesture and that he was not really obliged to do it.

A Secret Meeting

Hugh’s actual involvement in high seas robbery is just one of the mysteries that spring out of those few months. Another involves Edward II himself. Once more there are the usual chroniclers’ tales. For example, the Annales Paulini says that during late August, Hugh was to be found skulking around the waters of the Thames at Gravesend by day and coming to the king at night to advise him to delay any agreement with the barons. The Rochester chronicle does not mention Hugh as such but states that Edward turned to the barons of the Cinque Ports for support against the rebel barons. They advised him to gather a people’s army and attack throughout the land while they took a fleet of ships and attacked the ports that were loyal to the Contrariants. This actually may have some truth about it as, on September 30th, the men of the port of Winchelsea attacked the port of Southampton and burnt the ships there. There is, however, no record of Hugh being involved.

What we do know for sure (through entries in the close and patent rolls) is that not long after Hugh’s banishment, Edward decided to go on a little jaunt down to Minster-in-Thanet on the Isle of Thanet in Kent (and in those days Thanet actually was an island – the Wansum channel – now silted up – separated it and the mainland). What a surprise then, to find that Minster-in-Thanet is a stone’s throw from Sandwich, one of the Cinque ports and Ramsgate (one of Sandwich’s ‘limb’ ports). He was there for a few days (4th – 8th September), and during that time there is an entry in the close rolls ordering that the staff of certain of Hugh’s estates should be paid the wages due to them. It seems almost impossible to doubt that during this visit he met up with Hugh. But what did they discuss and how on earth did he manage to get away with such a thing?

It is tempting indeed to imagine that Edward and Hugh spent the time plotting the downfall of the Contrariants, for it was just over a month later that Edward started to move against them, starting with Bartholomew Badlesmere at Leeds Castle (where Lady Badlesmere made the mistake of refusing the queen entry). Could Hugh somehow have gained inside information on the state of in fighting among the rebels (for example, Lancaster hated Badlesmere and refused later to come to his aid) and helped to set up a trap?

How Edward pulled the meeting off is another matter. The rebel barons would have been none to pleased to learn that their king was meeting with a man he had just exiled. Maybe Hugh came to him in disguise (as the Abbot of Langdon maybe?) or maybe Edward had managed to shake off the baronial elements of his household (especially if, at that point, they had no reason to suspect Hugh was still in the realm). The Cinque barons would also have probably helped facilitate such a meeting. I also suspect that Hugh was playing a little on the grey edges of the law. After all, if he was on Thanet Island, he was, technically, ‘beyond the seas’ – if you could call the Wansum Channel sea!

Whatever the truth, Edward was back at Westminster by mid September and organising his moves against those he considered to be his and Hugh’s enemies. In fact the energy he expended in this venture was quite considerable – showing that he was indeed his father’s son: if only he had shown the same enthusiasm throughout his whole reign maybe the later unhappy events would not have taken place. Moving north and subjugating those who had sought to subjugate him, by February he was heading for the northern marches. By now it seems that both Despensers had returned to be by his side (thanks to safe conducts) and some of the (previously) rebel barons had also switched back to the crown. Edward and Hugh had somehow plucked victory from the jaws of defeat, a victory that culminated, of course, at Boroughbridge in March 1322.

Postscript: I wonder if it was just a coincidence that Stephen Dunheved – part of the Dunheved Gang (or ‘team Dunheved’!) who tried to rescue Edward in 1327 – was forced to abjure the realm for an unspecified felony in late August 1321 and returned as ‘the king’s yeoman’ in February 1322 alongside both Despensers?

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About Jules Frusher

With an MA in Creative and Critical Writing, I am passionate about the written word. The other great loves of my life are all things Medieval (especially Hugh le Despenser the Younger) and animal behaviour (especially canids and corvids). Give me a castle in the wilderness (with Broadband!) and I'll be happy!
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