The First Judgement on the Despensers August 1321


After the near civil war caused by the actions of the rebel Marcher barons against the Despensers (know as the Despenser Wars), Edward II was finally forced into a corner. On the 14th August 1321, the earls and barons gathered in the great hall at Westminster, while the prelates met separately in the great chamber. There, the earl of Hereford, Humphrey de Bohun, read out a list of accusations directed towards the younger Despenser and his father (neither of whom, as far as I’m aware, were present at the time).

These charges were – more or less – as follows:

1. By virtue of his position as chamberlain, Hugh the younger had brought his father in to advise the king, even though he wasn’t one of those agreed upon in the parliament of 1318 to stay near the king.

(My verdict: Yup, that one’s true. However, I think it’s fair to say that the only person among the opposition who truly had any real grudge against Despenser Snr was Lancaster. So I see his hand at work in this charge – he was probably still seething about not being able to counsel the king himself!)

2. Both of them had usurped royal power which they exercised over the king, his officials and the control of the kingdom. Actually, according to the charges, they did rather a lot of usurping – usually to the detriment of the baronial party.

(My verdict: guilty as charged. Although Hugh the younger was the greatest usurper; his father just tended to benefit from his son’s influence.)

3. They decided who could see the king and who could not on any given day. In any case, one of them had to be present at any meeting between the king and any of his barons or earls. It was also alleged that any decisions given were of Despenser and not of the king.

(My verdict: Again, guilty. As chamberlain it seems that Hugh liked to control everything – probably because he feared he might not last long otherwise!)

4. The Despensers had removed officials and ministers agreed upon by common assent and replaced them with their own and, it goes without saying, unsuitable, men.

(My verdict: True – to a point. Approved officials were removed and replaced with Despenser adherents – mostly from Hugh the elder’s retinue, but it was by no means widespread policy.)

5. They had used false jurors to falsely indict such magnates as Hereford and John Gifford because they wanted their lands.

(My verdict: I can’t really comment on this as I’m not sure what indictments these refer to. Unless of course it refers to the men being indicted as rebels during the Despenser war – in which case the accusations were hardly false.)

6. They had ‘falsely and wickedly’ counselled Edward to travel towards Gloucester with horses and men at arms, in support of their own grievances and against Magna Carta and the award of the peers of the land, thereby promoting civil war.

(My verdict: Edward certainly supported his favourite by riding with an army to Gloucester to face down the rebels, however whether Hugh asked him to do so or whether it was his own wish may never be known. As for promoting civil war, the marcher rebels could be considered just as guilty: Hugh may have been the motive, but there was no justification for the acts of terror and vandalism they enacted on the people of Wales on their journey south.

By the way, as well as usurping, there were also many charges concerned with ‘evil counsel’ – the ‘falsely and wickedly’ seen above being just a variation on a theme!)

7. Accroaching royal power by removing Llewelyn Bren from the king’s custody and taking him to Cardiff where he was executed. By doing so, they had acted in disheritance of the crown and to the dishonour of the king and also the earl of Hereford and de Mortimer who had promised him a pardon.

(My verdict: OK, most definitely guilty on this one! Maybe Hugh felt he had some justification as I discussed in this post – but he still should not have taken and executed Bren without royal permission.)

8. Counselling the king (again, evilly!) to disinherit other barons, namely Audley and Damory by taking their lands into his hands with the intention of them being passed on to Hugh the younger. In this way, Hugh was accused of intending to gather for himself all of the lands of the earldom of Gloucester.

(My verdict: oh dear, guilty again *yawn*. Hugh definitely had his eyes on the lands of his brothers in law and managed to disinherit them by rather ingenious and underhand means – with, of course, some collusion from Edward. I wonder- if things had gone his way, would he have been satisfied with the Gloucester lands and maybe an earldom – or would he still want for more?)

9. Hugh the elder managed to obtain the wardship of the lands of the late earl of Warwick until his son came of age, despite a grant (agreed to by Edward) to Guy de Beauchamp’s executors to the same. Hugh the younger was accused of causing the king to repeal this grant so that the lands could be given instead to his father, to be used for his profit.

(My verdict: Guilty. Oh dear, this really isn’t looking good now…)

10. Causing impediments to those wishing to pay reasonable fines owed to the king, such as in the case of John de Mowbray with Gower, with the intention that lands then could be forfeited. Again, this was due to the Despensers coveting the said lands and not only was to the ‘damage and dishonour’ of the king but also ‘against the law of the land, in disinheritance of the great men and others of the realm’.

(My verdict… Guess what?)

11. Misappropriating confiscated Templar properties for their own gain.

(My verdict: I haven’t looked into the details surrounding this accusation, but we are talking Despensers and land again – so, most probably guilty.)

12. Hugh the younger used his office as chamberlain in order to extort fines from bishops, abbots and priors in order that they could then approach the king and seek his grace.

(My verdict: Probably true, given his avaricious nature. However I remember reading somewhere (and annoyingly I cannot for the life of me now find it!) that it had always been the custom for newly appointed clergy to pay a little sweetener before seeing the king.

13. Interfering with justice by releasing prisoners before trial, specifically one John Latchley (Lachelegh).

(My verdict: Yes, this definitely happened. Latchley had committed what amounted to armed robbery against Lady Jacomina de Merk at her manor at Lyndesle (Lindsell, Essex) in 1319 and was imprisoned in Colchester jail until he could compensate her for her losses. Despenser released him – before Jacomina got her money – but it was not, it seems, out of any affection for the man. After Latchley had handed over his lands to Despenser and paid a fine, Hugh then passed him, and his lands onto Badlesmere – quite interesting when you consider that Badlesmere was one of Hugh’s accusers!)

There was also another accusation in the list that, according to the Rochester Chronicler, was brought by Badlesmere. Badlesmere presented a document he claimed had been authored by Despenser and witnessed by John Giffard and Richard de Grey, which amounted to a conspiracy against the crown. The document basically stated that the oath of allegiance was owed to the crown rather than the actual person of the king. The trouble was, this document contained, almost word for word, the position of the barons in 1308 and 1311 when Gaveston was causing problems. The only difference was that Gaveston’s name had been left out. It was obvious, especially to bishop Hethe of Rochester (who the Rochester chronicler, William de Dene, was close to) that the whole thing was a set up, and from that point on he detested the Marchers for what they had done.

Once the charges had been delivered, Hereford then declared both of the Despensers henceforth exiled, with no hope of return – and their heirs to be disinherited forever. The ‘statute’ (although it was never formally entered in the Statute rolls) was, by this time, a done deed. Even though the prelates had not given their consent, Edward was forced to concede that the rebellious marchers had won. In the words of the Historia Roffensis, Edward retired ‘anxius et tristus’ to his chamber.

It was certainly a harsh punishment – but the Despensers had brought it upon themselves. In particular, Hugh the younger had let power go to his head in a way that was bound to enrage those around him. Maybe he thought he was invincible, having Edward as his protector; maybe he didn’t care. Either way, he had more than once overstepped the mark thanks to his overwhelming desire for land, power and wealth. You would have thought that Gaveston’s fate would have served as a warning that the feelings of the other barons could not be ignored or stepped upon – obviously it did not.

Upon hearing the news of his banishment, Hugh the elder, who was at the time in Canterbury, is said to have cursed his son for bringing about their downfall (according to the Anonimalle Chronicle). He then hastened to Dover where he crossed the sea, bound for France.

As for the younger Hugh – he did not follow his father meekly into exile – although he certainly took to the sea. Edward, still not wanting to let Hugh go too far from him, committed him to the care of the barons of the Cinque Ports (still faithful to their king) and it was with these men that Hugh, for a short time, transferred his skills into another money-making venture – that of piracy. This section of his life is covered in this post.

Sources

Calendar of Close Rolls
Calendar of Patent Rolls
‘The Despenser War in Glamorgan’, J. Conway Davies in Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, Third Series, Vol. 9, (1915)
Vita Edwardi Secundi, edited and translated by Wendy R. Childs
The Tyranny and Fall of Edward II, 1321-1326, Natalie Fryde
King Edward II, Roy Martin Haines
The Baronial Opposition to Edward II, J.C. Davies
‘Bishops and politics in the reign of Edward II: Hamo de Hethe, Henry Wharton, and the “Historia Roffensis.”‘, Roy Martin Haines, The Journal of Ecclesiastical History, Oct 93

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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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