Hugh Despenser’s Rise to Power 2: King’s Chamberlain

At the York Parliament of 1318, Hugh Despenser the younger was confirmed in his position as chamberlain to the king. He had, in fact, been in the role since April of that year at the behest of the barons, but it was at York that he received the official stamp.

Also, the king has agreed, on the advice of the council, and at the request of the magnates, that Sir Hugh le Despenser the son is to remain his chamberlain (Parliamentary Rolls)

In light of Despenser’s subsequent behaviour, it is a wonder that the barons saw fit to elevate him to this important office. Obviously they had no idea from their previous dealings with him of his ambitious and ruthless nature – it seems that Hugh was also a master at dissembling. And although Edward agreed to this appointment, it certainly was not at his behest – Hugh was still a long way off from being a favourite in 1318.

Hugh becoming chamberlain also coincided with other changes to the royal household – once again decided upon by the king’s council. For example, Edward’s current favourites: Roger Damory, Hugh Audley and William Montague were to be banished from court and any grants made to them examined and revoked as necessary. The position of steward of the household, previously held by Montague, was given to Bartholomew Badlesmere (with many protests from Lancaster who thought that only he had the right to appoint the new steward). Although Hugh and his father had previously entered into a mutually binding agreement of alliance with Damory, Audley and Montague, it certainly wouldn’t have escaped him that having them out of the way was rather an advantage to his own plans.

The Role of the Chamberlain
The position of chamberlain within a household was an important one. The chamber was not just a bedroom, as we might think of it today. It also served as a place where the lord or lady might eat and receive visitors, not to mention the more important daily business of issuing orders and dealing with business. The chamberlain had the job of taking care of what went on within the chamber including making sure it was clean, warm and light and that the lord or lady had all that they needed for their comfort. Other jobs included keeping undesirable guests at bay, attending to the lord’s bodily needs (including bathing and dressing – especially later in the century although this was also sometimes down by a valet) and liaising with the other household offices: the wardrobe, the treasury, the controller, the steward, and the keeper of the privy seal.

In larger households, for example, the royal one, the chamberlain did not have to do all of these jobs himself – there were plenty of chamber servants who could see to the everyday details. Hugh would certainly have overseen that the correct protocols were observed and would have been constantly on hand to serve Edward, but he probably did not actually get his hands dirty making sure that the garderobe was smelling sweet!

The Rise to Power
The chamberlain was the officer closest to the king and most in his company, therefore providing Hugh with the golden opportunity to inveigle his way into Edward’s affections. Unfortunately, it cannot now be known how he managed to do this, especially after Edward’s previously lukewarm regard (oh to be a time-travelling fly on the wall!), but within the year he had started to receive royal grants and favours on a scale not seen since Gaveston. Now that he was in such a position of power he dropped any previous pretence to being the barons’ man and instead became his own. At what stage the penny must have dropped for the rest of the magnates we can never know, but it must have been a shock to realise that their once pliant ‘puppet’ had now turned into a dangerous – and very powerful – predator.

Hugh used his office in a way guaranteed to set alarm bells ringing among those who supported the Ordinances. For a start he controlled access to the king, often demanding money for access and accepting bribes. He also would not allow any interview to take place unless either he or his father were present. That his father was there at all caused another howl of protest for it seemed that one of the conditions of Hugh becoming chamberlain was that he would not allow the elder Despenser anywhere near the privy chamber. Of course both Hugh and his father were now far beyond having to obey any ‘conditions’ set upon them by anyone other than the king himself.

By 1319, both Despensers were fully in the ascendancy of their power and were able – through their close position to Edward – to do practically anything they wanted to do. It was obvious that Edward had by now become infatuated by the younger Hugh who not only gave him (at the very least!) affectionate companionship, but was also proving to be an extremely capable administrator, like his father. Hugh must have felt a certain sense of victory now as he viewed his rapid rise from near landless knight, to baron of Glamorgan and finally to king’s confidante. It must have felt like the world was for the taking – that he was untouchable.

But he had forgotten the lesson of Gaveston: that the mighty could fall as well as be raised from obscurity. Fearing Despenser’s growing power and abuses, the barons had started to grumble ominously in the background. And the events of the next few years were to prove that Hugh was not as invincible as he thought he was.

Parliamentary Rolls
The Great Household in Late Medieval England, C.M. Woolgar
King Edward II, Roy Martin Haines
Crown and Nobility: England 1272-1461, Tuck
‘The Despenser War in Glamorgan’, J Conway Davies in Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, Third Series, Vol 9 (1915)


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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