As a side note here, quite a few historians assume Ralph to have been fairly closely related to Hugh le Despenser. This is because, in letters from the Saint Sardos War in 1324, Hugh calls Ralph ‘treascher cousin’, or dear cousin, and also due to the fact that a Phillip Basset was Hugh’s grandfather. However, on closer inspection of the genealogy, there is no close connection through the Basset name at all. Philip and Ralph Basset did share a common ancestor in Sir Ralph Basset of Colston, the Justiciar of England under Norman rule, but afterwards, their branches separated and thrived separately. The coats of arms are also different:
Ralph Basset of Drayton ********** Phillip Basset of Wooton Basset
Ralph was married to Joan de Grey, daughter of John de Grey of Wilton in 1304. They had 2 sons – Ralph and John and, according to the Ancestral File of the Church of the Latter Day Saints, two daughters also: Maud and Joan. Joan de Grey’s grandmother was a Despenser – the daughter of Hugh the Justiciar and Hugh the elder’s half sister. However this still seems a tenuous link for Despenser to be able to call Basset cousin.
Compared to his later career, there are very few mentions of him in the records during his earlier years. However, we know that he was knighted along with nearly 300 others at the grand knighting ceremony in Westminster in June 1306 and then went on Edward I’s Scottish campaign immediately afterwards. He was one of the knights that absconded, along with Piers Gaveston and Roger Mortimer on the way home, incurring the king’s wrath at their desertion. We also know that he was present at the Dunstable Tournament of 1309, and probably went along with John de Somery, a relative. In 1310, he was once again in military service in Scotland, but this time under Edward II.
During these early years he appears sporadically, for example, acting for Edward I in 1300 in the county of Salop (Shropshire), engaged in a boundary dispute in 1306 with his neighbour and named as the ward of Margaret, widow of Edmund Stafford (who then married without either his or the King’s permission). He then disappears until he witnesses a grant at Westminster in 1316.
The beginning of his greater influence seems to coincide with the rising star of Hugh Despenser the younger. For example, in 1318 he was acquitted of all fines for acquiring the manors of Radeclive-on-Sore and Greetwell without licence. In his defence it is declared that he was pardoned because of his good service in Scotland. In 1318, he also was sent as part of a delegation to negotiate with the earl of Lancaster and was a witness to the Treaty of Leek. In 1319 he was appointed as a justice of oyer and terminer in a very grisly case that involved the kidnapping and mutilation of a woman by a large group of people and in 1320 he was appointed as a conservator of the peace for the county of Stafford along with John de Somery and Ralph le Botiller (both loyal Edward II men: Ralph was associated with the Dunheved plot to rescue Edward II in 1327 and John also had links with the Dunheveds before his death in 1322).
The following years saw Ralph’s name appearing more frequently on charters and as a justice working for the king, so much so that he seems to have been considered an integral part of the Despenser regime. In 1321, during the indictment against the Despensers by the Contrariants, Ralph was one of the men named as their ally and adherent, as well as being one of the men accused of being appointed as ‘judges who were ignorant of the law of the land to hear and determine matters touching the magnates and the people…’ During Edward II’ subsequent fight back against his rebellious barons, Ralph was one of those the king could trust, and was given the tasks of rallying a fighting force and arresting Contrariants in Warwick, Leicester, Nottingham, Derby and Stafford, along with his old friend John de Somery. For his loyalty and his services he was awarded the manors of Hameldon and Market Overden in the county of Rutland – manors that had previously belonged to the recently executed Bartholomew Badlesmere.
In 1322 Ralph took part in the spectacularly unsuccessful military incursion into Scotland, named as being in the retinue of Hugh the elder, and in the following year was part of the delegation ordered to arrest Andrew de Harclay and degrade him of his earldom after he made a treaty with the Scots behind Edward’s back. 1323 saw perhaps, his greatest promotion – to the post of Seneschal of the Duchy of Aquitaine, although in other ways it could be said that it was lousy timing, as a little local difficulty was about to blow up in the region: the War of Saint Sardos.
In a nutshell, the French decided to push their luck and build a bastide on Gascon soil, enraging the local lords. One of them, with Bassett’s apparent approval decided to remedy the situation by burning the bastide to the ground and hanging the French sergeant in charge of it. Naturally the French king took umbrage and, after negotiations failed, thought it a good enough excuse to invade Aquitaine. In the expected fashion for the reign of Edward II, the fighting went badly for the English (under the control of the earl of Kent and Bassett and directed from England by Hugh Despenser the younger). It ended in a shameful truce and – in the long term – Queen Isabella being sent over to negotiate terms (and not coming back again until she invaded the country!).
Anyway, by December 1325, Ralph Bassett was back in England again and was named as the Constable of Dover and Warden of the Cinque Ports – a very important position. He was also pardoned for any wrongdoings that he may have done in Gascony therefore making him immune to any further prosecutions from the French. What happened to him during Isabella and Mortimer’s invasion and the subsequent downfall of Edward and the Despensers is not recorded, but he does not seem to have suffered unduly in the aftermath so it seems possible that he was one of those who, seeing which way the wind was blowing, decided to change allegiance in order to save his life and lands.
After the regime change it seems as if it was business as usual for Bassett. His name appears as a witness on a charter, he goes to Scotland on military service with the king and is named as ‘keeper as the king’s lands’. This careful playing of the people in power seems to have paid off as, even after Mortimer was removed from his position as queen’s consort, Ralph still seems to have been in favour and called upon to witness documents after 1330
A list of his properties after his death still shows an impressive portfolio. It seems that Bassett, although formerly regarded as a Despenser adherent, was really only loyal to his own interests. This should not necessarily be looked upon as something terrible: it was a time of great political turmoil when, through being on the wrong side, many great lords either lost their lands or their lives. Somehow, Ralph managed to steer a steady course through the chaos of Edward II’s reign and after and emerge relatively unscathed. Many did the same. It should be noted though that Ralph’s wealth was not always garnered through choosing the right alliances: I have found many instances of him acknowledging (and claiming in court) recognizances of both large and small sums of money – a device used successfully by the Despensers to force people to hand over lands and/or money or else be imprisoned. Whether Ralph’s recognizances were just or not is not known, but it should be noted that he continued this practice well after the Despensers’ deaths.
Ralph died in 1343. His grandson – another Ralph – inherited his estates.