The Despenser War 1321, Part 1

Gower may not have been the cause of the Despenser war, but it was certainly a factor. Hugh Despenser’s overweening greed, ruthlessness and influence over the king constituted a serious threat to the lands and position of many of the magnates of the Welsh marches. Added to this were more personal reasons, such as jealousy and bad blood. It was a potent mix of elements that, together, sowed the seeds of rebellion against Edward’s favourite, and therefore, by association, Edward himself.

By the Christmas of 1320, the Marcher barons had left the royal court, unable to tolerate Despenser’s accusations of treason against them for their complaints over the Gower incident. However, it seems that they did not all leave as one accord. Even as late as January 1321, Roger Damory, the king’s prior favourite, was granted royal permission to hunt in the forests of Clarendon and Hampton. It is doubtful though, that he was able to make much use of the privilege

Edward was not blind to what was happening, but he seemed to think that they would soon come to heel. On January 30th, he issued an edict to the earl of Hereford and the other barons forbidding them to make assemblies. Maybe he really thought that they would heed him and meekly come to heel, or maybe he was just playing for time. Either way, it seems that they ignored his order and decided to get together anyway. Speaking of this, the Vita says that they met in Wales and ‘they unanimously decided that Hugh Despenser must be pursued, laid low, and utterly destroyed.’

On February 27th, Edward received a letter, warning him that Thomas, the Earl of Lancaster had met with the barons and that they had already formed a plan whereby they would bring disturbances to the Welsh marches. Lancaster proved a willing ally and figurehead for the barons. He hated the influence of the Despensers and for some time there had been bad blood between him and Hugh snr.: ‘for it was the wish of the earl of Lancaster that they should not only rise against the son, but destroy the father along with the son’. There was also a certain amount of animosity and jealousy towards his cousin, the king; he must have therefore relished the opportunity to make more trouble for him while at the same time being seen to uphold the constitution of the Ordinances.

Meanwhile, Despenser had not been idly sitting back and expecting Edward to solve the situation, although it appears that he didn’t take the threat too seriously at this point. He was more concerned with continuing to make money, as a letter sent to John Inge, his sheriff in Glamorgan on 18th January shows: ‘We command you to watch our affairs that we may be rich and may attain our ends…’ At least he wasn’t coy about his ambitions!

By the end of February it must have become obvious to both Edward and Hugh that the situation was more serious than they had first thought. The list of names of barons in opposition to them, although not all inclusive, was certainly impressive: both of the Mortimers; Humphrey de Bohun; Roger Damory; Hugh Audley; John Mowbray; Roger Clifford; John Giffard; John Hastings of Abergavenny; Thomas of Lancaster; Maurice Berkeley snr. and his sons Maurice Berkeley junior and Thomas Berkeley; his son-in-law John Maltravers and John Charlton (Edward’s former chamberlain).

Edward had already dismissed Roger Mortimer of Chirk as Justiciar of Wales and replacing him with Ralph Gorges – one of Despenser’s men, and taken any royal castles out of the hands of any rebel keepers. Now he decided that it was time he displayed a greater physical presence. On March 1st, he and his household left London on a slow progress to Gloucester on the Welsh border, finally arriving there on March 27th. He also sent Roger de Wodehouse to Wales to oversee the provisioning and garrisoning of the royal Welsh castles.

Despenser, too, started to prepare his castles for war, conducting a constant flow of correspondence with Inge. In one letter, his words sum up the situation neatly:

we are informed by several of our friends that all this plotting on the part of certain magnates is planned to begin and to do damage to us in our said lordship, in order to cover themselves that this is not done against the king, and with the intent that he shall interfere in the matter, and thereby take sides. We therefore rely upon you to take all the necessary steps to safeguard us, for we have sufficient power, if we are well arrayed and carefully served, to guard against our enemies, and it cannot be, when tales are growing daily, that there is nothing in them.

And later:

And if you think it necessary that we send men-at-arms for the garrisons of our castles, if you will inform us speedily, we will send some of the king’s men and our own, as many as shall be necessary.

From the last statement it is clear just how close Hugh was to the king – that he could assume to promise royal assistance as if it were from his own orders.

Edward arrived in Gloucester on the 27th and sent letters to the rebellious barons (as well as Despenser, just to be fair) basically ordering them not to hold any assemblies or otherwise to commit any breaches of the peace. Then, on the 28th, he ordered the barons to attend on him at Gloucester. Predictably, they did not come, an open act of defiance. However Hereford and Mortimer did send messengers saying that they were too frightened for their lives to attend if Despenser was present.

A short time later, they sent the abbot of Dore to Edward with a proposal: that Despenser be handed over into Lancaster’s custody, his safety guaranteed by themselves, under pain of forfeiture. Despenser would then be brought to Parliament so that he could answer their charges against him. To Edward this must have felt like a case of déjà vu. After all, Gaveston’s safety in custody had also once been guaranteed in a similar manner, and that had not stopped his abduction and murder at the hands of the earls of Warwick and Lancaster. He was hardly likely then, to agree to another favourite going the same way.

But for once, Edward had the law on his side and he used it to good effect (probably with a great deal of help from Hugh who couldn’t have been too keen on ending up in Lancaster’s hands either). Edward replied that to place Despenser into custody in such a manner would contravene Magna Carta, his coronation oath and the Ordinances, as he had been appointed chamberlain by the agreement of all the earls, including Hereford and Mortimer. As for answering the barons’ complaints in Parliament, Despenser was quite willing to do so without being placed under arrest.

Having won the first argument, both Edward and Hugh seemed now to become over-confident in their abilities to defeat the barons. Hugh wrote to Inge about Audley, telling him to ‘not doubt that neither he nor any of his allies have the power to hurt any one of us.’ And on 10th April, Edward wrote a letter to the constable of Tickhill castle that ‘all things go peaceably and well at our wish’. Feeling that the situation had been resolved to their advantage, the king and Hugh left Gloucester on 16th April and returned, via Bristol and Devizes, to Westminster to be reunited again with Isabella.

But all was not quiet on the western front. Even before the king had reached Westminster, on the 4th May, the marcher barons, having now exhausted all diplomatic means, decided to resort to violence. Taking up arms, they set their sights on their first target: Hugh Despenser’s castle at Newport.

Calendar of Close Rolls
Calendar of Patent Rolls
‘The Despenser War in Glamorgan’, J. Conway Davies, Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, Third series, Volume 9
Vita Edwardi Secundi, edited and translated by Wendy R. Childs
The Itinerary of Edward II and his Household, Elizabeth M. Hallam
‘The Despenser War’, unpublished chapter of Edward II biography, Alianore


  1. I love Edward’s total obliviousness! ‘All things go peaceably and well at our wish, God be thanked’, indeed! (Assuming I translated it correctly, but I’m pretty sure I did. ;)Wonder how a seven-months-pregnant Isa felt about Ed ‘returning to London with his own Hugh always at his side’ (Vita)? She can’t have been very thrilled…I seem to remember the Flores saying that Ed

  2. I am of the blood line of the Despencers. I recently learned of this by a geneologist. My great, great grandmother was Nancy Spencer from Indiana. Her line goes back to the Despencer who was with William the Conqueror who conquered England in 1066. My distant cousins are also of the Spencer line as Princess Diana's maiden name is Spencer. so.. you see, the Spencers(Princes of Wales Harry and

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