Hugh Despenser the younger

Hugh le Despenser, 1st Lord Despenser (c. 1286[1] – 24 November 1326), also referred to as "the younger Despenser",[2] was the son and heir of Hugh le Despenser, Earl of Winchester (the elder Despenser) by his wife Isabella de Beauchamp, daughter of William de Beauchamp, 9th Earl of Warwick.[3] He rose to national prominence as royal chamberlain and a favourite of Edward II of England. Despenser made many enemies across the nobility of England which, after the overthrow of Edward, eventually led to him being charged with high treason and ultimately hanged, drawn and quartered.

Hugh le Despenser, 1st Lord Despenser
Arms of Despencer: Quarterly 1st & 4th: Argent; 2nd & 3rd: Gules, a fret or, over all a bend sable
BornHugh le Despenser
c. 1286
Died24 November 1326 (aged 3940)
Hereford, England
Cause of deathHanged, drawn and quartered for high treason
Resting placeTewkesbury Abbey, Gloucestershire, England
Title1st Lord Despenser
Known forBeing a favourite of Edward II
Eleanor de Clare (m. 1306)
ParentsHugh le Despenser, Earl of Winchester, and Isabella de Beauchamp
OccupationKnight of Hanley Castle, Worcestershire, King's Chamberlain, and constable and keeper of various castles and lands in England and Wales

Titles and possessions

Hugh le Despenser the Younger rose to become Chamberlain and a close advisor to King Edward II, much as Despenser the Elder had been. Despenser the Younger claimed the Lordship of Glamorgan in 1317[4] through his wife Eleanor de Clare. He then accumulated more lands in the Welsh Marches and in England. At various points he was a knight of Hanley Castle in Worcestershire, Constable of Odiham Castle, and the Keeper of Bristol Castle, Porchester Castle and Dryslwyn Castle plus their respective towns, and the region of Cantref Mawr in Carmarthenshire.

He was also Keeper of the castles, manor, and lands of Brecknock, Hay, Cantref Selyf, etc., in County Brecon, and also Huntington, Herefordshire in England.

He was additionally given Wallingford Castle despite that this had previously been given to Queen Isabella of France for life.


In May 1306 Despenser was knighted at the Feast of the Swans alongside Prince Edward, and in that summer he married Eleanor de Clare, daughter of powerful noble Gilbert de Clare, and Joan of Acre. Eleanor's grandfather, Edward I, had owed the elder Despenser 2,000 marks, a debt which the marriage settled. When Eleanor's brother, Gilbert, was killed in 1314 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.[5] In just a few 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 Despenser closer to the English royal court. He joined the baronial opposition to Piers Gaveston, the king's favourite (and Despenser's brother-in-law, through Gaveston's marriage to Eleanor's sister Margaret). Eager for power and wealth, Despenser seized Tonbridge Castle in 1315, after his brother-in-law's death under the misapprehension that it belonged to his mother-in-law; he relinquished it on discovering that the rightful owner was in fact the Archbishop of Canterbury.[6] In 1318 he murdered Llywelyn Bren, a Welsh hostage in his custody.

Eleanor and Hugh had nine children who survived infancy:

  1. Hugh le Despencer (1308–1349), Baron Le Despencer, who was summoned to Parliament in 1338. At his death without issue, his nephew Edward, son of his brother Edward, was created Baron Le Despencer in 1357.
  2. Gilbert le Despenser (1309–1381).
  3. Edward le Despenser (1310–1342), soldier, killed at the siege of Vannes;[7] father of Edward II le Despenser, Knight of the Garter, who became Baron Le Despencer in a new creation of 1357.
  4. Isabel le Despenser, Countess of Arundel (1312–1356), married, as his 1st wife, Richard Fitzalan, 10th Earl of Arundel. The marriage was annulled and their child, Edmund, was disinherited.
  5. John le Despenser (1311 – June 1366).
  6. Eleanor le Despenser (c. 1315–1351), nun at Sempringham Priory
  7. Joan le Despenser (c. 1317–1384), nun at Shaftesbury Abbey
  8. Margaret le Despenser (c. 1319–1337), nun at Whatton Priory
  9. Elizabeth le Despenser (1325–13 July 1389), married Maurice de Berkeley, 4th Baron Berkeley.

Political manoeuverings

Despenser became royal chamberlain in 1318. As a royal courtier, Despenser manoeuvred into the affections of King Edward, displacing the previous favourite, Roger d'Amory. This came much to the dismay of the baronage as they saw him both taking their rightful places at court at best, and at worst being the new, worse Gaveston. By 1320 his greed was running free. He also supposedly vowed revenge on Roger Mortimer, because Mortimer's grandfather had killed his own. By 1321 he had earned many enemies in every stratum of society, from Queen Isabella in France, to the barons, to the common people. There was even a plot to kill Despenser by sticking his wax likeness with pins.

Finally the barons took action against King Edward and, at the beseeching of Queen Isabella, forced Despenser and his father into exile in August 1321. However, Edward's intent to summon them back to England was no secret. The king rallied support after an attack against Isabella's party at Leeds Castle, an event possibly orchestrated.[8] Early in the following year, with Mortimer's barons busy putting down uprisings in their lands,[9] the Despensers were able to return. Edward, with the Despensers backing him once more, was able to crush the rebellion, securing first Mortimer's surrender and then that of Lancaster, who was subsequently executed.

King Edward quickly reinstated Despenser as royal favourite. The time from the Despensers' return from exile until the end of Edward II's reign was a time of uncertainty in England. With the main baronial opposition leaderless and weak, having been defeated at the Battle of Boroughbridge, and Edward willing to let them do as they pleased, the Despensers were left unchecked. This maladministration caused hostile feeling for them and, by extension, Edward II. Ultimately, a year after his surrender and imprisonment, Mortimer escaped to France, where he began organizing a new rebellion.


Like his father, the younger Despenser was accused of widespread criminality. Amongst other examples, Despenser seized the Welsh lands of his wife's inheritance while ignoring the claims of his two brothers-in-law. He further cheated his sister-in-law Elizabeth de Clare out of Gower and Usk, and forced Alice de Lacy, 4th Countess of Lincoln, to give up her lands to him. He had murdered Llywelyn Bren in 1318 while the Welshman was being held hostage,[10] and during his exile he spent a period of time as a pirate in the English Channel, "a sea monster, lying in wait for merchants as they crossed the sea".[11] In addition he imprisoned Sir William Cokerell in the Tower of London and extorted money from him.[12]

Accusations of sodomy

The 14th century court historian Froissart wrote that "he was a sodomite", and Adam Orleton, the Bishop of Winchester, also levelled the accusation at him (though Orleton's accusation came when he was defending himself from having claimed the same of King Edward). According to Froissart, Despenser's penis was severed and burned at his execution as a punishment for his sodomy and heresy.[13] In 1326, as Isabella and Mortimer invaded, Orleton gave a sermon in which he publicly denounced Edward, who had fled with Despenser, as a sodomite. The annals of Newenham Abbey recorded, ‘the king and his husband’ fled to Wales. [14]

Relationship with Isabella and downfall

Queen Isabella had a special dislike for Despenser. 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 of England, which ultimately came to fruition in October 1326. Their forces numbered only about 1,500 mercenaries to begin with, but the majority of the nobility rallied to them throughout October and November, preferring to stand with them rather than Edward and the hated Despensers.

The Despensers fled west with the King, with a sizeable sum from the treasury, however the escape was unsuccessful. Separated from the elder Despenser, the King and the younger Despenser were deserted by most of their followers, and were captured near Neath in mid-November. King Edward was placed in captivity and later forced to abdicate in favour of his son Edward III. The elder Despenser was hanged at Bristol on 27 October 1326, and the younger Despenser was brought to trial.

Trial and execution

Despenser tried to starve himself before his trial,[15] but he was unsuccessful. He did face trial on 24 November 1326, in Hereford, before Mortimer and the Queen, and was found guilty on many charges. He was sentenced to death, with Isabella, Mortimer and their followers presiding over the protracted execution.

Despenser was dragged naked through the streets, for the crowd's mistreatment. He was made a spectacle, which included writing on his body biblical verses against the capital sins he was accused of. Then he was hanged as a mere commoner, yet released before full asphyxiation could happen.

In Froissart's account of his execution, Despenser was then tied firmly to a ladder and his genitals sliced off and burned while he was still conscious. His entrails were slowly pulled out; finally, his heart was cut out and thrown into a fire. Froissart (or rather Jean le Bel's chronicle, on which he relied) is the only source to mention castration; other contemporary accounts have Despenser hanged, drawn and quartered, which usually did not involve castration.[16]

Despenser's body was beheaded and cut into four pieces. His head was mounted on the gates of London.[2]


Four years later, in December 1330, his widow was given permission to gather and bury Depenser's remains at the family's Gloucestershire estate,[2] but only the head, a thigh bone and a few vertebrae were returned to her.[17]

What may be the body of Despenser was identified in February 2008 in the village of Abbey Hulton in Staffordshire, the former site of Hulton Abbey. The skeleton, which was first uncovered during archaeological work in the 1970s, appeared to be that of a victim of a drawing and quartering as it had been beheaded and chopped into several pieces with a sharp blade, suggesting a ritual killing. Furthermore, it lacked several body parts, including the ones given to Despenser's wife. Radiocarbon analysis dated the body to between 1050 and 1385, and later tests suggested it to be that of a man over 34 years old. Despenser was 40 at the time of his death. In addition, the Abbey is located on lands that belonged to Hugh Audley, Despenser's brother-in-law, at the time.[17]


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.[18] The numerous accusations against the younger Despenser at the time of his execution have never been the subject of close critical scrutiny, although Roy Martin Haines called them "ingenuous" and noted their propagandistic nature.[19]

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 (1592), where, as "Spencer", he is little more than a substitute for the dead Gaveston. In 2006, he was selected by BBC History Magazine as the 14th century's worst Briton.[20]


Edward II of England and Hugh Despenser the elder extorted the lands of Alice de Lacy, 4th Countess of Lincoln, and to make the transfers of title appear legitimate, declared Hugh the younger her "kinsman".


  1. The younger Despenser's exact birth date is unknown ("le Despencer, Baron (E, 1295 with precedency from 1264)". Cracroft's Peerage. Archived from the original on 28 September 2011.) but was likely between 1286 and 1290; for example, the BBC gives "c. 1287" ("The Sceptred Isle".); Alison Weir (2005) writes that he was "at least three years younger" than Edward II (page 115), which indicates a birth no earlier than 1287.
  2. Hamilton, J. S. (January 2008) [2004]. "Despenser, Hugh, the younger, first Lord Despenser (d. 1326)". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/7554. (subscription required)
  3. "Despenser, Hugh le (d.1326)" . Dictionary of National Biography. London: Smith, Elder & Co. 1885–1900.
  4. Phillips 2011, pp. 364–365
  5. Bury, J. B. (1932). The Cambridge Medieval History,. VII. p. 520.
  6. Weir, A. (December 2006) [2005]. Queen Isabella: Treachery, Adultery, and Murder in Medieval England. Ballantine Books. p. 115. ISBN 978-0-345-45320-4.
  7. "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 3 March 2016. Retrieved 13 May 2015.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link); also said to have died at Morlaix, on the coast of Brittany.
  8. Doherty, p.70-1; Weir 2006, p.133.
  9. Weir, p.136.
  10. Matthew 2004
  11. Childs, W. (2005) [2005]. Vita Edwardi Secundi. New York: Oxford University Press. p. 197. ISBN 0-19-927594-7. OCLC 229295966.
  12. Close Rolls 1331.
  13. This translated excerpt from Froissart's account of the execution is given, for example in: Sponsler, C. (April 2001). Burger, G.; Kruger, S. F. (eds.). Queering the Middle Ages. Medieval Cultures Series. University of Minnesota Press. p. 152. ISBN 978-0-8166-3404-0.
  14. Shopland, Norena 'The man with the upside-down arms' from Forbidden Lives: LGBT stories from Wales Seren Books (2017)
  15. Mortimer, I. (March 2006). The greatest traitor: the life of Sir Roger Mortimer, Ruler of England: 1327—1330. p. 160. ISBN 978-0-312-34941-7.
  16. Sponsler, C. (April 2001). "The King's Boyfriend Froissart's political theater of 1326". In Burger, G.; Kruger, S. F. (eds.). Queering the Middle Ages. University of Minnesota. p. 153. ISBN 978-0-8166-3404-0. OCLC 247977894.
  17. Clout, Laura (18 February 2008). "Abbey body identified as gay lover of Edward II". The Daily Telegraph. p. 3.
  18. Fryde, Natalie (1979). The Tyranny and Fall of Edward II, 1321–1326. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-22201-X.
  19. Haines, Roy Martin (2003). King Edward II: Edward of Caernarfon, His Life, His Reign, and its Aftermath, 1284–1330. Montréal; London: McGill-Queen's University Press. ISBN 0-7735-2432-0.
  20. "'Worst' historical Britons list". BBC News. 27 December 2005.


Further reading

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