Hugh Despenser the Hero

Over the years, Hugh Despenser’s name has become so associated with avariciousness, ruthlessness and ambition (and not without due cause) that he is often portrayed by writers, both within fiction and historical fact as being completely one dimensional: a copybook, archetypal villain with no redeeming features. Of course, it is hard to find definitive proof that he was also the type to help old ladies out with carrying their shopping bags, funding local charitable institutions (other than abbeys) or being father/husband of the year.

However, there is one entry in the Patent Rolls, overlooked by most, which actually shows him up to be a bit of a hero. In the records of December 1319 there are several entries relating to a complaint by Bartholomew de Badlesmere, Edward II’s steward, and his wife Margaret against a list of specified names – men and women. The accusation was that these people:

having gone by night to a messuage at Chesthunt, co. Hertford, wherein the said Margaret was lodged, made an attack upon her and on the men and servants of the said Bartholomew who were with her, besieged them therein, and maintained the siege until Hugh le Despenser, the younger, on the following day rescued them. (1)

Ches(t)hunt was a village just north of London and not far from Waltham Abbey, on the Ermine way, the main route from London to York. From what I can gather from British History Online (2), it had several manors (although because others were later added and others merged, the records are a bit confusing): Cheshunt Manor, Perriers and La Mote. There may also have been one other moated manor house but this is unclear. All were held of John of Brittany, the earl of Richmond, although the latter was held of him by Aymer de Valence, earl of Pembroke. I am assuming that it was at one of these manors (messuage can also mean a manor as well as a smaller dwelling with land) that Margaret was staying. Considering she seemed to be with a household of servants, a manor would have been of suitable size and status for a lady of her rank. It is puzzling though why she chose to stay at Cheshunt, when Waltham Abbey, a couple of miles away, would have been able to accommodate her and when her own manor of Plashes, at Standon was a short travelling distance north. To be honest, I haven’t really got a clue why she was there, although I suspect she may have been on her way north from her estates in Kent.

Which brings me to my next point. Edward and the court were, at that point, in York(3) – a good week’s journey away if travelling with an entourage. Hence, it does make sense that Lady Badlesmere could have been making her way to court for Christmas. However, it is much more puzzling that Hugh Despenser was also close enough to Cheshunt to be able to go to her rescue. Surely, as Chamberlain, it would have been expected that he would have been with the king, playing his courtier role, and – if his detractors are to be believed – staying so close to Edward and controlling him so that no-one else could get a look-in. Instead, he seems to have been gallivanting around the south rescuing damsels in distress.

I must admit, my first thought was heavily influenced by my fiction-writer’s head: Hugh must have been having a secret affair with Lady Badlesmere and arranged for them both to be in the same area at the same time, something we would not have known about had it not been for the attack. But, on further thinking from a more objective viewpoint, this idea, although not impossible, is rather improbable. There is absolutely nothing in any official record or in any chronicle (even those biased against him) which point to any shenanigans between them. Also, Hugh was, despite his often careless and impetuous nature, probably more sensible than to risk an affair with the wife of his close colleague and maybe friend, Badlesmere.

There is another possibility however, and one which does make sense. As I mentioned earlier, Cheshunt is on the main route from London to York, where the court was based. For whatever reason she stopped at that manor, it is most likely that Lady Badlesmere was travelling along that route to reach court. Hugh was also, by complete coincidence, travelling north from London. At that time, Edward was trying to arrange a truce with the Scots and it may be that Hugh went down to London on some business that concerned the negotiations that were about to take place. Maybe, just maybe, he happened to be in the right place at the right time and was therefore able to effect the rescue.

Of course, all of the above is just high speculation based on what is known plus a logical look at the most likely scenario – and that is what I shall be using for the novel. In the fiction though, whether Lady Badlesmere does make a play for her rescuer is yet to be seen! Once the chapter is finished I shall post a little teaser snippet of it here and on my other writing site at Scribe’s Den.

I was also interested in what happened to the accused mentioned in that earlier complaint. There were 61 on the original list – although some of those seem to be just duplicate spellings. A commission of oyer and terminer (a sort of investigation and trial in one) was sent to deal with the matter and, from later entries, 17 were imprisoned – first at Hertford and later at the Tower (at Badlesmere’s request) (4). Then, a couple of years later, after Badlesmere fell from favour, 15 others, who had not turned up for the original commission, were pardoned at the instance of John of Brittany (5). Unfortunately there are no further entries to tell us whether the other guilty parties, still languishing in the Tower, were released or not.

So, in summary, although we know that Hugh Despenser, for once, played the role of the good guy, there are still many unanswered questions about the circumstances. Which, when looking at the facts, is annoying, but when looking at it as a fiction writer, gives room for a lot of scope!

(1) Calendar of the Patent Rolls, 1317-21, p.478
(2)
British History Online < http://www.british-history.ac.uk/report.aspx?compid=43640&strquery=cheshunt>. See also another web page on the Manorial System in Cheshunt: <http://www.lowewood.com/cheshunt/the-manorial-system>
(3)
The Itinerary of Edward II and His Household 1307-1328, E.M. Hallam
(4)
Calendar of the Close Rolls, 1318-1323, p.267
(5)
Calendar of the Patent Rolls, 1321-1324, p.37

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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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