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16th-century manuscript portrait of Hugh le Despenser, in Tewkesbury Abbey Founder's and Benefactors' Book.

Hugh le Despenser, the Younger (d. 1326)

HUGH LE DESPENSER, the younger (d. 1326), baron, son of Hugh le Despenser the elder, received knighthood with the Prince of Wales [later Edward II] at Easter 1306, and about 1309 married Eleanor, daughter of Gilbert of Clare, earl of Gloucester, and sister and co-heiress of the next Earl Gilbert.

During the early years of the reign of Edward II he evidently belonged to Lancaster's party, for in 1313, with the consent of the prelates and others, he was made the king's chamberlain in the place of Gaveston, because the barons knew that Edward hated him.1 He was ordered to march with his father to Scotland, and on his return the next year was summoned to Parliament as 'Hugo le Despencer, junior.' He served in Scotland in 1317, and in 1319 was one of the commissioners appointed to treat with the Scots. Gilbert, earl of Gloucester, his brother-in-law, was slain at Bannockburn in 1314, and in 1317 his inheritance was divided between the husbands of his three sisters: Despenser, who had married the eldest, and who was accordingly sometimes called Earl of Gloucester, Hugh of Audley, and Roger d'Amory. It was probably the ill-feeling that arose about this division that caused Despenser to desert the baronial party and attach himself to the king, for as late as 1318, when the barons were all powerful, he was continued in office, and was appointed by parliament a member of the permanent council.2

At all events from soon after the date of the partition of the Gloucester inheritance he appears to have taken the place of Gaveston in the king's favour, and to have begun to work with his father. He obtained nearly the whole of Glamorgan as his share, and set himself to add to his possessions at the cost of his neighbours. He surprised and held Newport, which belonged to Audley, and it was known that he was begging the king to resume certain grants made to Roger of Mortimer, hoping to get hold of them also. As the Mortimers at Wigmore and Chirk 'ruled the northern marches almost as independent princes,'3 Despenser, by his own greediness, laid the foundation of a confederacy that was strong enough to crush him should opportunity offer. The grudge against him broke out into open quarrel in 1320. John Mowbray entered on certain lands in Gower, which came to him in right of his wife, the daughter and heiress of William of Braose, without obtaining the license of the king, of whom he held in chief. On this, Edward commenced a suit against him at the instance of Despenser, who wished to see the lands forfeited and transferred to himself. Mowbray pleaded that he was acting within his right according to the custom of the marches, and in this he was upheld by Humphrey Bohun, earl of Hereford, while Despenser contended that the king's prerogative in such a case was the same in Wales as in England.

Hereford, the chief of the marchers, regarded the advance of Despenser's power with anger, and formed a confederacy against him of the various lords he had offended. Private leagues of this kind were common during the reign of Edward II, and Despenser himself had lately entered into a bond with John Birmingham to stand together in any quarrel except against the king. Hereford's confederacy included Mowbray, the Mortimers, Audley, D'Amory, Clifford, and the rest of the marchers; it was upheld by the good-will of Lancaster, and messages were sent throughout the whole of England on other lords to array themselves against the favourites.

Edward in vain ordered the nobles to abstain from unlawful assemblies, held for the disturbance of the peace of the realm. War began in the marches, and during the early part of 1321 the lands of the Despensers were ravaged both in England and Wales. All joined against them. The charges brought specially against the younger Despenser in parliament were that he had formed a league to constrain the will of the king, that he had asserted that the allegiance of the subject was due to the crown and not to the person of the sovereign, and that therefore a king who acted wrongly might lawfully be compelled to do right, and that he had been guilty of certain definite acts of violence and fraud.

When sentence of banishment was pronounced against Despenser and his father, he put to sea, and about Michaelmas attacked two large ships that were carrying merchandise to England and robbed them of their cargoes. He was recalled early in 1322, and marched with the king against Lancaster. When, however, the royal army had crossed the Trent, he is said to have prevented Edward from unfurling his standard by representing to him the terrible consequences of such a formal declaration of civil war.4 The king's cause was successful. Later in the year he was with Edward when the Scots invaded the kingdom, and nearly fell into their hands at the surprise of Byland. In 1323 he was employed to negotiate a thirteen years' truce with Scotland.

It is evident from the charge brought against him with reference to his doctrine of allegiance that he had very clear constitutional ideas, and he may at least, equally with his father, be credited with the spirit manifested in the parliament that was held at York after the overthrow of the king's enemies. It was then declared that nothing could be established as law for the estate of the king and for the estate of the realm and of the people unless it had first been treated and established in parliament by the three estates. While the ordinances of 1311 were repealed, the action of the crown was not left without restraint. Despenser and his father alike seem to have recognised the importance of agreement between the king and the people as a means of checking the turbulent aggressiveness of the barons5 Despenser however allowed nothing to stand in the way of his own avarice. He received an enormous number of grants of lands and offices, and among them the custody of Bristol Castle and the isle of Lundy. He acted with insolent violence and utter disregard of law, forcing, for example, Elizabeth, wife of Richard, lord Talbot, to give him up the manor of Painswick, Gloucestershire, and other lands.

When Edward left London on 2 Oct. 1326, Despenser accompanied him to Gloucester and the other places whither he fled, arriving at Cardiff on the 27th. While there the fugitives made an attempt to reach Lundy; it failed, and they sought refuge in the Despensers' castles at Caerphilly and Neath. The queen made her quarters at Hereford and sent William de la Zouche and Rhys ap Howel to take them. They surrendered, perhaps were surprised, at Llantrissaint on 16 Nov. and were brought to Hereford by Henry of Lancaster.6 There on 24 Nov. Despenser was brought to trial, before William Trussel, the earl of Lancaster,7 and other nobles, men who hated him bitterly. Among the various charges brought against him were his piracy during his exile, and his share in the death of Thomas, earl of Lancaster. He was condemned and was forthwith put to death as a traitor. He suffered with great patience asking forgiveness of the bystanders. His head was sent to London and fixed on London Bridge; his quarters were distributed among four other towns.

Execution of Hugh le Despenser, the younger.

He left, besides other children, his eldest son Hugh who was summoned to parliament in 1338, and died without issue in 1349; and Edward, who died in 1342 leaving a son, Edward le Despenser.

1. T. de la Moore's Vita et Mors Edwardi II in Chronicles of Edward I and Edward II,
     ed. Dr. W. Stubbs, Rolls Series, ii. 299.
2. Stubbs, Introduction to Chronicles of the Reigns of Edward I and Edward II, liv.
3. Stubbs, Constitutional History, ii. 386.
4. Bridlington, Vita Edwardi II, ii. 75.
5. Stubbs, Const. Hist. ii. 351, 352.
6. A full itinerary of their flight, as far as it can be made out, will be found in
     the Introduction to Chronicles of Edward I and Edward II, ii. xciv-vi.
7. This is in error, because no-one held the title on this date. The writer must mean Henry of Lancaster,
     although he did not receive the title until 1327, from King Edward III

      Excerpted from:

      Dictionary of National Biography. Vol. XIV.
      Leslie Stephen, Ed.
      London: Smith, Elder, & Co., 1888. 415-6.

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Edward II
Isabella of France, Queen of England
Piers Gaveston
Thomas of Brotherton, E. of Norfolk
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Thomas, Earl of Lancaster
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