Hugh Despenser the Younger

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Hugh le Despenser, 1st Lord Despenser
Blason Thomas Le Despencer.svg
Arms of Despencer: Quarterly 1st & 4th: Argent; 2nd & 3rd: Gules, a fret or, over all a bend sable
Born Hugh le Despenser
c. 1286
Died 24 November 1326 (aged 39–40)
Hereford, England
Cause of death Hanged, drawn and quartered for high treason
Resting place Tewkesbury Abbey, Gloucestershire, England
Title 1st Lord Despenser
Known for Being a favourite of Edward II
Nationality English
Predecessor Hugh le Despenser, Earl of Winchester
Eleanor de Clare (m. 1306)
Parents Hugh le Despenser, Earl of Winchester, and Isabella de Beauchamp
Occupation Knight of Hanley Castle, Worcestershire, King's Chamberlain, and constable and keeper of various castles and lands in England and Wales

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. A series of subsequent controversies eventually led to him being hanged, drawn and quartered.

Titles and possessions[edit]

Hugh le Despenser the younger was knight of Hanley Castle, Worcestershire, King's Chamberlain, Constable of Odiham Castle, Keeper of Porchester Castle and town, Keeper of the royal Bristol Castle, the town and barton of Bristol and, in Wales, Keeper of Dryslwyn Castle and town and of Dryslwyn, and the region of Cantref Mawr, Carmarthenshire.

Also in Wales, by marriage he became Lord of Glamorgan, seated at Cardiff Castle.

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

He was given Wallingford Castle although this had previously been given to Queen Isabella for life.


In May 1306 Hugh le Despenser the younger was knighted, and that summer he married Eleanor de Clare, daughter of Gilbert de Clare, 9th Lord of Clare and 7th Earl of Hertford and Joan of Acre. Eleanor's grandfather, Edward I, owed the elder Despenser 2,000 marks (£1,000,000 at today's prices) and the marriage settled this debt, and was a reward for the elder Hugh's loyal service. 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.[4] 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 Hugh's brother-in-law, as Gaveston was married 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 the Archbishop of Canterbury).[5] 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 a new creation of 1357.
  2. Gilbert le Despenser (1309–1381).
  3. Edward le Despenser (1310–1342), soldier, killed at the siege of Vannes;[6] father of Edward II le Despenser, Knight of the Garter, who became Baron Le Despencer in a new creation of 1357. His son was Thomas le Despenser, 1st Earl of Gloucester and 2nd Baron Le Despencer of the 1357 creation, who was married to a daughter of Edmund of Langley, Duke of York, youngest son of Edward III, and was attainted and beheaded in 1400 for his attempts to restore Richard II, his wife's cousin, to the throne. His attainder was reversed in 1461, with the victory of Edward IV, and the barony of the first creation (1264/1295) was eventually awarded in 1604 to Dame Mary Fane, heiress of Thomas's daughter Isabel Le Despencer, who married two cousins. The barony is now held by the Viscounts Falmouth.
  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[edit]

Hugh le Despenser the younger 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 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. He also supposedly vowed to be revenged on Roger Mortimer because Mortimer's grandfather had killed 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 plot to kill Despenser by sticking his wax likeness with pins.

Finally the barons prevailed upon King Edward and forced Despenser and his father into exile in August 1321. Following the exile of the Despensers, the barons who opposed them fell out among themselves, and the King summoned the two men back to England. Early in the following year, King Edward took advantage of these divisions to secure the surrender of Marcher Lord Roger Mortimer, and the defeat and execution of the Earl of Lancaster, the Despensers' chief opponents. The pair returned and 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 proxy, Edward II. Despenser repeatedly pressed King Edward to execute Mortimer,[citation needed] who had been held prisoner in the Tower of London, following his surrender. However, Mortimer escaped from the Tower and fled to France.


Like his father, the younger Despenser was accused of widespread criminality. Examples include:

  • Theft from relatives: Despenser seized the Welsh lands of his wife's inheritance, ignoring the claims of his two brothers-in-law and cheated his sister-in-law Elizabeth de Clare out of Gower and Usk
  • Theft: forced Alice de Lacy, Countess of Lincoln, to give up her lands
  • Torture: he had Lady Baret's arms and legs broken until she went insane
  • Murder: unlawfully killing a prisoner (Llywelyn Bren) who was awaiting trial[7]
  • Piracy: during his exile he became a pirate in the English Channel, "a sea monster, lying in wait for merchants as they crossed the sea"[8]
  • False imprisonment and death threats: he imprisoned Sir William Cokerell in the Tower of London, where Cokerell was forced to pay to save his life[9]

Accusations of sodomy[edit]

14th century court historian Froissart wrote that "he was a sodomite". According to Froissart, Despenser's penis was severed and burned in his execution as a punishment for his sodomy and heresy.[10] In 1326, as Isabella and Mortimer invaded, the bishop of Hereford, Adam Orleton, gave a sermon in which he publicly denounced Edward, who had fled with Despenser, as a sodomite. The annals of Newenham Abbey recording, ‘the king and his husband’ fled to Wales. [11]

Relationship with Isabella and downfall[edit]

Queen Isabella had a special dislike for Hugh le Despenser the younger. Alison Weir, in her 2005 book Queen Isabella: Treachery, Adultery, and Murder in Medieval England, 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. Despenser supposedly tried to bribe French courtiers to assassinate Isabella, sending barrels of silver as payment.[citation needed] Roger Mortimer and the Queen invaded England 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. By contrast, very few people were prepared to fight for Edward II, mainly because of the hatred that the Despensers had aroused.

The Despensers fled West with the King, with a sizeable sum from the treasury. 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. The elder Despenser was hanged at Bristol on 27 October 1326, and the younger Despenser was brought to trial.

Trial and execution[edit]

The execution of Hugh le Despenser the younger, from a manuscript of Jean Froissart.

Hugh le Despenser the Younger tried to starve himself before his trial,[12] but he did face trial on 24 November 1326, in Hereford, before Mortimer and the Queen. He was found guilty on many charges and was sentenced to a protracted form of execution. Mortimer and the Queen, with their main supporters, presided over the public 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 thief, 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.[13]

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 his remains at the family's Gloucestershire estate,[2] but only the head, a thigh bone and a few vertebrae were returned to her.[14]

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.[14]


No book-length biographical study of Hugh le 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.[15] 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.[16]

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.[17]

His image on the stained glass window of the Banqueting Hall of Cardiff Castle, shows his coat of arms inverted—a symbol of disgrace.


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. ^ a b c 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. ^ Bury, J. B. (1932). The Cambridge Medieval History,. VII. p. 520.
  5. ^ Weir, A. (December 2006) [2005]. Queen Isabella: Treachery, Adultery, and Murder in Medieval England. Ballantine Books. p. 115. ISBN 978-0-345-45320-4.
  6. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 3 March 2016. Retrieved 13 May 2015.; also said to have died at Morlaix, on the coast of Brittany.
  7. ^ Matthew 2004
  8. ^ Childs, W. (2005) [2005]. Vita Edwardi Secundi. New York: Oxford University Press. p. 197. ISBN 0-19-927594-7. OCLC 229295966.
  9. ^ Close Rolls 1331.
  10. ^ 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.
  11. ^ Shopland, Norena 'The man with the upside-down arms' from Forbidden Lives: LGBT stories from Wales Seren Books (2017)
  12. ^ 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.
  13. ^ Sponsler, C. (April 2001). "The King's Boyfriend Froissart's political theater of 1326". In Burger, G.; Kruger, S. F. Queering the Middle Ages. University of Minnesota. p. 153. ISBN 978-0-8166-3404-0. OCLC 247977894.
  14. ^ a b Clout, Laura (18 February 2008). "Abbey body identified as gay lover of Edward II". The Daily Telegraph. p. 3.
  15. ^ Fryde, Natalie (1979). The Tyranny and Fall of Edward II, 1321–1326. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-22201-X.
  16. ^ 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.
  17. ^ "'Worst' historical Britons list". BBC News. 27 December 2005.


Further reading[edit]