Hugh 'the Younger' le Despencer
- Born: 1286
- Marriage: Eleanore de Clare in May 1306
- Died: 26 Nov 1326 at age 40
Hugh (1286 - November 26, 1326) was sometimes referred to as "the younger Despenser". He was the son and heir of Hugh le Despenser, Earl of Winchester, by Isabel Beauchamp, daughter of William de Beauchamp, 9th Earl of Warwick.
He was knight of Hanley Castle, Worcestershire, King's Chamberlain, Constable of Odiham Castle, Keeper of the castle and town of Drysllwyn, and Cantref Mawr, Carmarthenshire, Keeper of the castle and town of Portchester, and Keeper of the castle, town and barton of Bristol. He was also Keeper of the castles, manor, and lands of Brecknock, Hay, Cantref Selyf, etc., co. Brecon, and Huntington, Herefordshire. He was given Wallingford Castle although this had previously been given to Queen Isabella for life.
In May 1306 Hugh was knighted, and that summer he married Eleanor de Clare, a granddaughter of King Edward I of England. Her grandfather owed Hugh's father vast sums of money, and the marriage was intended as a payment of these debts. When Eleanor's brother was killed at the Battle of Bannockburn, she unexpectedly became one of the three co-heiresses to the rich Gloucester earldom, and in her right Hugh inherited Glamorgan and other properties. In just a few short years Hugh went from a landless knight to one of the wealthiest magnates in the kingdom.
Eleanor was also the niece of the new king, Edward II of England, and this connection brought Hugh closer to the English royal court. He joined the baronial opposition to Piers Gaveston, the king's favorite, and Hugh's brother-in-law, as Gaveston was married to Eleanor's sister. Eager for power and wealth, Hugh seized Tonbridge Castle in 1315. The next year he murdered Llywelyn Bren, a Welsh hostage in his custody.
Hugh became royal chamberlain in 1318. As a royal courtier, Hugh manoeuvred into the affections of King Edward, displacing the previous favorite, Roger d'Amory. This was much to the dismay of the baronage as they saw him both taking their rightful places at court and being a worse version of Gaveston. By 1320 his greed was running free. Hugh seized the Welsh lands of his wife's inheritance, ignoring the claims of his two brothers-in-law. He forced Alice de Lacy, Countess of Lincoln, to give up her lands, cheated his sister-in-law Elizabeth de Clare out of Gower and Usk, and allegedly had Lady Baret's arms and legs broken until she went insane. He also supposedly vowed to be revenged on Roger Mortimer because Mortimer's grandfather had murdered Hugh's grandfather, and once stated (though probably in jest) that he regretted he could not control the wind. By 1321 he had earned many enemies in every stratum of society, from Queen Isabella to the barons to the common people. There was even a bizarre plot to kill Hugh by sticking pins in a wax likeness of him.
Finally the barons prevailed upon King Edward and forced Hugh and his father into exile in 1321. His father fled to Bordeaux, and Hugh became a pirate in the English Channel, "a sea monster, lying in wait for merchants as they crossed his path". The pair returned the next year and King Edward quickly reinstated Hugh as royal favorite. His time in exile had done nothing to quell his greed, his rashness, or his ruthlessness. The time from the Despenser's return from exile until the end of Edward II's reign was a time of uncertainty in England. With the main baronal opposition leaderless and weak, having been defeated at the Battle of Boroughbridge, and Edward willing to let them do as they willed, the Despensers were left unchecked to do as they pleased. They grew rich off of their administration and corruption. This period is sometimes referred to the Tyranny. This misadministration caused hostile feeling for them and by proxy Edward II.
Queen Isabella had a special dislike for the man. Various historians have suggested, and it is commonly believed, that he and Edward had an ongoing sexual relationship. Some speculate it was this relationship that caused the Queen's dislike of him. Alison Weir, however, speculates that he had raped Isabella and that was the source of her hatred. While Isabella was in France to negotiate between her husband and the French king, she formed a liaison with Roger Mortimer and began planning an invasion. Hugh supposedly tried to bribe French courtiers to assassinate Isabella. When Mortimer and the queen invaded England in October 1326, the Despensers fled with a sizable sum from the treasury. The escape was unsuccessful. King Edward was deposed, Hugh's father was executed, and Hugh himself was captured.
Hugh tried to starve himself before his trial, but face trial he did on November 24 1326, in Hereford. He was judged a traitor and a thief, and sentenced to public execution by hanging, drawing and quartering. Being a traitor was also what Gaveston had been executed for as the belief was that these men had misled the King rather than the King himself having created the folly. Immediately after the trial, he was dragged behind four horses to his place of execution, where a great fire was lit. He was hanged from a gallows fifty feet high, but cut down before he could choke to death and tied to a ladder, in full view of the crowd. A man climbed up beside him, and sliced off his penis and testicles which were then burnt before him, still alive and conscious. Subsequently, the executioner plunged his knife into his abdomen, and cut out his entrails and heart, which were likewise burnt before the delighted crowd. Finally, he was beheaded, and his body cut into four pieces, and his head was mounted on the gates of London.
No book-length biographical study of Hugh Despenser exists, although The Tyranny and Fall of Edward II: 1321-1326 by historian Natalie Fryde is a study of Edward's reign during the years that the Despensers' power was at its peak. Fryde pays particular attention to the subject of the Despensers' ill-gotten landholdings. The numerous accusations against the younger Despenser at the time of his execution have never been the subject of close critical scrutiny, although historian Roy Martin Haines called them "ingenuous" and noted their propagandistic nature.
Despite the crucial and disastrous role he played in the reign of Edward II, Despenser is almost a minor character in Christopher Marlowe's play Edward II, where as "Spencer" he is little more than a substitute for the dead Gaveston.
In 2006, he was selected by the BBC History Magazine as the 14th century's worst Briton. (BBC)
Also in 2006, he was selected by the BBC History Magazine as the 8th worst Briton in the last 1000 years.
Hugh married Eleanore de Clare, daughter of Gilbert 'the Red Earl' de Clare and Joan of Acre Plantagenet Princess of England, in May 1306. (Eleanore de Clare was born in Oct 1292 in Caerphilly Castle, Caerphilly, Glamorganshire, Wales, died on 8 Jul 1337 in Tewkesbury, Gloucestershire, England and was buried in Tewkesbury, Gloucestershire, England.)