The Troublesome Marcher Barons


Early in 1321, Hugh Despenser suddenly found himself facing a rather disgruntled (to say the least) opposition to his position, both at the king’s side and also as a landowner in the Welsh marches. Some of them were antagonistic due to land issues – such as Giffard and Mowbray, others were jealous of the hold that Hugh had over Edward – often to their disadvantage or were concerned that he was making a mockery of the Ordinances.

The trouble was, Hugh was so close to the king, that to attack him was, in essence, an attack on Edward himself. As with Piers Gaveston, Despenser’s position seemed unassailable – and there was certainly no chance of him being removed any time soon by negotiation, especially as Hugh had control of who could speak to the king in the first place. The grievances, therefore, were real and mostly valid, but that did not mean that there was some sort of all-out coalition of English nobility against Hugh and Edward, as some historians have suggested. In fact, the rebellion started and ended in the Welsh Marches – and even then not all of the marcher barons (such as Henry of Lancaster, the earl of Pembroke) participated. That is not to say they were thrilled about the Despenser regime – they weren’t. But they decided at this point to step aside from conflict and wait and see what happened.

The barons who were involved were a pretty mixed bunch – but all came from established marcher families. These lords had always been a rebellious bunch and Edward certainly wasn’t the first king to have problems with them. These families, raised as they were, in a turbulent area, nearly always at war, were tough, proud and liable to take to arms at the slightest hint of an insult to their honour. It was bad enough that they had to suffer Despenser, who was from a non-Marcher family, having lands close to theirs, but the fact that he seemed predatory towards them was enough to light the blue touch paper.

Below is a set of small bios of the main marcher lords involved – just so as you know who was who in the posts to come.

Roger Mortimer of Wigmore
Yes – that Roger Mortimer – he who later on absconded from the Tower to France, committed adultery with Queen Isabella, invaded England, executed Despenser and deposed Edward II. However, this is a very small bio as I will do a bigger post on him at a later date!

Born in 1287, Roger Mortimer came into his inheritance in 1306, after he had been knighted at the Feast of the Swans. The Mortimers already had an on-going blood-feud with the Despensers, as his grandfather had killed Hugh’s grandfather at the Battle of Evesham in 1265 According to the Vita, Hugh had sworn to kill Roger in revenge. So, even before the problems in the March began, it was unlikely that Mortimer would be found supporting Despenser at court.

Mortimer’s early career showed great loyalty to Edward, although most of it was spent in Ireland as Justiciar. There he proved himself as a very capable soldier and leader, quelling rebellious families and instigating the rule of law. He returned to England frequently – both on his own and the king’s business. He went to Gascony on Edward’s behalf in 1313 and in 1316 took part in suppressing Llywelyn Bren’s revolt in Wales, being one of those who took his surrender. He also made sure that his estates in England continued to support both his and his children’s future, making marriages wherever appropriate (e.g. he wed his son and heir, Edmund, to the Elizabeth, the daughter of Bartholomew de Badlesmere).

In 1318, Mortimer returned to England and took part in the negotiations between the king and Thomas of Lancaster that led to the Treaty of Leake. At this point, although a royalist, he seems to have been trusted by all sides and was appointed to the council of 16 appointed to counsel the king on matters of state. He was also part of the commission set up to reform the royal household. In 1319 he was reappointed Justiciar of Ireland and set out a policy of reconciliation with the Irish, being given the power to accept anyone into English law, and to give pardons where he thought fit.

In 1320 he returned to England once more, this time to find the Despensers holding the reigns of power –something which must have struck fear into him. He tried to talk to Edward about the unrest that was growing about the situation, but didn’t get anywhere. In fact, worse than that, Edward removed him from his office in Ireland, a humiliation that surely drove him into the ranks of the dissenters. But, as I mentioned in the previous post, what really lit the fuse was the issue of Gower. Mortimer was one of those who put in an offer for the land, and must have seen Despenser’s actions as the last straw. By 1321 he was willing to forgo his previous loyalty to the crown and take up arms against the man who was his sworn enemy.

Humphrey de Bohun, earl of Hereford
Born around 1276, de Bohun succeeded his father in 1298 both as the earl of Hereford and also as constable of England. Throughout his life he had a stormy relationship with the crown – being initially loyal to Edward, but then hostile on the issue of Gaveston’s position as favourite. He became a leading Ordainer after 1310, along with Warwick and Lancaster and because of this refused to attend the king in Scotland during the campaign of 1310/11. His hatred of Gaveston led him to become one of those responsible for his capture and execution in 1313.

Reconciliation with Edward followed peace negotiations and in the following year he fought alongside Edward at Bannockburn. According to the Vita, de Bohun quarreled with Gilbert de Clare, earl of Gloucester over who should have charge of the vanguard. This quarrel was one of the factors that led to de Clare’s reckless rush into battle and his subsequent death. De Bohun, himself, was captured by the Scots but was later released in exchange for Elizabeth de Burgh, Robert Bruce’s wife.

In 1316, he was one of the lords that took the surrender of Llywelyn Bren in Glamorgan. He seems to have been particularly well-disposed towards the Welshman for he intervened for him with Edward and managed to get a death sentence overturned into one of imprisonment. Despenser’s ‘abduction’’ of Bren from the Tower to Cardiff in 1317 and subsequent execution, angered him greatly but to no avail. Admirably, he did what he could for Bren’s family, taking his wife and sons in at his own expense.

Although de Bohun was now on friendly terms with Edward and frequently at court, he must have watched the growing influence of the Despensers with a sense of foreboding. It must have seemed like the Gaveston affair all over again, except that this time the enemy was one with not only shrewd political intelligence but also a pathological desire for land, especially in south Wales, close to his own.

Roger Mortimer of Chirk
The uncle of Roger Mortimer of Wigmore, Mortimer of Chirk was born around 1256 and worked his way up to becoming Justiciar of Wales. A loyal royalist for most of his life, he had served both Edward I and now Edward II. He had a reputation as a violent and domineering man, especially towards his Welsh tenants. He was a womaniser and was at one point accused of committing adultery with the wife of Robert of Radnor. When a priest was sent to complain to him in person, the unfortunate cleric was thrown into the deepest prison cell in the castle. Even more seriously, it was rumoured that he had murdered two young boys – the heirs of the lord of north Powys – who were in his care. No-one knows exactly what happened to them, but it is certainly suspicious that very soon after their disappearance, Mortimer was granted their lands.

Despite these stains on his character, it seems that he was, until the Despenser wars, valued by Edward II at court for his advice and experience. He was extremely close to his nephew, both in territory and in politics and they tended to act as one unit – both administratively and militarily. It is quite possible that the younger Roger grew up in his uncle’s care (until his wardship was given to Gaveston) and may have seen the older man as a father figure.

Apart from the Gower affair (he also put in an offer to buy it from William de Braose), and the family feud connection as mentioned above, he does not seem to have had any other dealings with the Despensers. But his loyalty to his nephew meant that he was never going to take any other side than his in the coming conflict.

Roger Damory
Born in about 1284, Damory rose from an obscure background to become a knight of the royal household and one of Edward II’s favourites, showered with grants of land, gifts and wardships. In 1317 he received what was perhaps the ultimate reward – marriage to Elizabeth de Clare, Edward’s niece and co-heiress to the estates of the deceased earl of Gloucester. By November 1317, the partition of lands was confirmed and Damory received his share of lands in England and in Wales, making him one of the leading magnates and a man of position.

Together with Hugh Audley (see below) who had married another co-heiress, Margaret, and William Montague, he became part of a group of court favourites who were detested by Thomas, earl of Lancaster. But of all of them, Roger was the most avaricious and in 1317, the earl of Pembroke and Bartholomew Badlesmere forced upon him a written undertaking that he would not profit from the king’s generosity.

Hugh Despenser’s rise into Edward’s affection during 1318 put Damory’s position under threat. Not only was he no longer at the centre of court life but Despenser, his brother-in-law, also posed a threat to his lands in south Wales. Unlike Audley, he managed to hold onto them, but it was clear that unless he took action against the new favourite, he was in danger of falling back into the obscurity from which he had risen. Luckily, by this time, he and Lancaster had been reconciled and so Damory happily joined the ranks of those willing to lay the Despenser lands to waste.

Hugh Audley
The second son of a minor baron with lands in Gloucestershire and Oxfordshire, Hugh Audley junior (b. circa 1291) was probably introduced to the court by his father (Hugh Audley snr). He became a knight of Edward’s household in 1311 but rapidly became part of a central group of favourites consisting of Roger Damory and William Montague. His loyalty and service to Edward resulted in a number of gifts of lands and, like Damory in 1317, he married one of the de Clare co-heiresses, Margaret ( the widow of Piers Gaveston).

Not as prominent or grasping as Damory, Audley proved to be one of Despenser’s first victims in the March, losing his lands in Gwynllwg to him. Like Damory, Audley had been involved in a feud with Lancaster during the middle years of the decade, but now, like his friend, he was reconciled with the earl. Intending on reclaiming his lands in south Wales, if nothing else, he joined forces with the Marcher rebels intending to cast Despenser down from his high and mighty position.

Thomas, earl of Lancaster
Although the figurehead and facilitator of the Marcher rebellion, Lancaster did not do much actual fighting or despoiling. Although he was in favour of the action against the Despensers, he couldn’t persuade his northern Marcher lords to join him as they considered, rightly, that the argument had nothing to do with them whatsoever.

The first part of my biography of Thomas of Lancaster can be found here.

Sources:
The Greatest Traitor, Ian Mortimer
The Baronial Opposition to Edward II, J.C. Davies
The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography,
Vita Edwardi Secundi, re-edited and revised by Wendy T. Childs

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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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