Hugh Despenser’s Martial Career


Although Hugh was trained as a knight and could therefore be assumed to be somewhat proficient with a sword and a lance as well as a good horseman, he is more often thought of as a courtier and an administrator than a warrior. Although it’s true that he never undertook the leadership of any military campaign, unlike his arch-enemy Roger Mortimer, there is still evidence that he was no stranger to combat. For a start, as a squire (to whichever lord he was esquired to) he would have most likely accompanied his master to tournaments – and even to war. Although there is no mention, it is possible that he may have served in one of Edward I’s Scottish campaigns as a serving squire.

And then there are the things we do know about:

1) 1309: Hugh was one of those present at the Tournament of Dunstable. According to the heraldic rolls, he brought with him a retinue of ten knights – mostly his father’s men. Unfortunately, no records exist to tell us how he did.

2) 1314: Hugh was present at the battle of Bannockburn and was among the king’s bodyguard which fled the field with him. As Edward most definitely took part in the fighting, during which he was described as having fought like a lion (Trokelowe), it must be presumed that Hugh also was in the thick of it.

3) 1315: he attacked and took the castle of Tonbridge. At the time it was in the care of Maud de Clare, Gilbert’s widow and the lady who had the 3 year ‘pregnancy’ – a reason why the partition of the de Clare lands had been delayed. Hugh was obviously getting very fed up of protesting to Edward that Maud really couldn’t still be expecting after such a time!
Although the castle fell easily and with scarcely any bloodshed, it was still an act of warlike defiance against the king. It was, however, only a token display, as almost immediately afterwards Hugh returned the castle to Edward.

4) 1316: Hugh attacked John de Ros in parliament – allegedly by accident whilst defending himself. Not really an act of war, but it does show that Hugh was not afraid of conflict – or of pulling a fast one!

5) 1319 (Dec): There is an entry in the Patent Rolls which mentions Hugh coming to the rescue of Lady Badlesmere who was besieged in her lodgings at Chesthunt by a group of men intent on making her pay a fine for her release. It’s nice to know that Hugh had a chivalrous side – even if it is a puzzle as to why he was in Hertfordshire when Edward was up in York. As chamberlain, his duties lay with the king and in 1319, surely, he was still consolidating his position at court.

6) 1321/22: Hugh’s ‘adventures’ in piracy. If he took part in the actual taking and raiding of ships as the chronicles suggest then he must have seen a bit of fighting. He certainly would have been exposed to some tough conditions on the waters of the Channel in winter.

7) 1322: Boroughbridge and Scotland. He was certainly with Edward during this time, although it is less certain that he took part in any actual fighting. He did however flee Byland with Edward when the Scots made a huge advance and nearly caught them.

So, as this shows, although he wasn’t a great warrior figure of the time by any means, he was at least capable of donning a harness of armour or wielding a weapon when he needed to.


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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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