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Despenser, Hugh le (1262-1326) (DNB00)

DESPENSER, HUGH le, the elder, Earl of Winchester (1262–1326), the son of Hugh le Despenser [q. v.], the justiciar of the barons, who fell at Evesham, by his wife Aliva, daughter of Philip Basset, was born in 1262, for he was twenty-one on 1 March 1283. He served with Edmund, earl of Cornwall, in the Welsh war, and soon afterwards was fined two thousand marks for marrying Isabel, daughter of William Deauchamp, earl of Warwick, and widow of Patrick of Chaworth, without the king's license. In 1294 he was with the king in Gascony, and the next year received a summons to parliament. He marched with Edward into Scotland, was present at the battle of Dunbar, took part in the expedition to Flanders in 1297, and was employed to treat for peace between Edward and the king of the Romans and the king of France. The next year he again served in Scotland, and was sent on an embassy to Boniface VIII. He took part in other Scotch campaigns, and in the negotiations with France which preceded the peace of 1303. In 1305 he was sent to Clement V at Lyons, and obtained a bull absolving the king from the oaths which he had taken to his people. At the coronation of Edward II he carried part of the royal insignia. When in 1308 the arons leagued themselves together against Gaveston, ne stood alone in upholding the king's favourite. His conduct was put down to avarice, he was regarded as a deserter from the common cause, and the parliament which met at Northampton procured his dismissal from the council (Vita Edwardi II, ii. 158; Annales Paulini i. 264). His disgrace was not of long duration; he received the castles of Devizes and Marlborough, and became the chief adviser of the king. In 1312 he was sent with Aymer de Valence, earl of Pembroke [q. v.], and others to endeavour to secure London for the king. The commissioners arrested some of the citizens, a tumult was raised, and they were forced to leave the city (Annales Londonienses, i. 215). On the death of Gaveston, Despenser became the chief man of the court party, and encouraged the king to form plans of revenge against the barons. He was bitterly hated by the Earl of Lancaster, and was excluded from the general pacification of 1313. He accompanied the king on his unfortunate expedition to Scotland in 1314, and when the defeat of Bannockburn placed Edward at the mercy of Lancaster, was forced to withdraw from the court and the council. In 1318 the king seemed on the point of making a vigorous effort to overthrow the power of Lancaster, and Despenser, with the other lords of the same party, attended the parliament at Northampton armed, and at the head of his retainers. A pacification followed, greatly to the king's disadvantage, and he stood alone in refusing to bend to the earl's will. About this time his son, Sir Hugh le Despenser [q. v.], joined the king's side. Both the Despensers received many large grants from the crown: they were generally hated, and were accused of many acts of oppression and wrongful dealing. Although both, and especially the son, succeeded Gaveston in the royal favour, they had little in common with him. Unlike Gaveston, they were of noble family, and were connected with many great baronial houses. They held the most prominent place in the party opposed to the unscrupulous designs of Lancaster, and sought their own advancement through alliance with the crown, while the earl carried on an equally selfish policy by thwarting and limiting the royal power. Greedy and ambitious, they used the influence they gained over the king for their own aggrandisement. The wealth and honours he showered upon them strengthened the hatred in which they were held. In the case of daveston, the hatred of the barons was mixed with contempt for the upstart foreigner; in the case of the Despensers, it was near akin to fear. It appears impossible to decide whether the father or the son was the more to blame. From almost the beginning of the reign the elder Despenser had taken a leading part on the king s side, and the hostility of the barons towards him was of long standing. After the son adopted the same policy both worked together for their common advantage, and the elder Despenser was concerned in the quarrels with other baronial families consequent on the marriage of his son (on the position of the Despensers see Introduction to Chronicles of the Beign of Edward I and Edward II, ii. by Bishop Stubbs).

The quarrel between the younger Despenser and Humphrey Bohun, earl of Hereford [see under Hugh le Despenser the younger], led to a league against both the Despensers, which was joined by the great lords of the Welsh marches and many other powerful nobles, who in 1321 ravaged their lands and took their castles in Wales, and spoiled their manors and levelled the fences of their chaces in England. The king was anxious to interfere on their behalf; he was prevailed on to call a parliament, and pressed to consent to their banishment. He consented, and in July the charges against them were formally stated and considered in parliament. They had estranged the king from his people, had usurped his authority, and had debarred the magnates of the realm from access to him. Sentence of banishment was pronounced against them both. The elder Despenser went abroad. In the following December the king obtained a condemnation of this sent ence from the convocation of the clergy, and on 1 Jan. 1322 Archbishop Reynolds pronounced it illegal. Despenser returned, joined the king in his attack on his enemies, and after the battle of Roroughbridge assisted at Lancaster's trial and condemnation. He was created earl of Winchester in the parliament held at York. Although they were the king's favourites, the Despensers did not aim at establishing a royal tyranny; they inherited some of the doctrines of the baronial party of the time of Henry III, and 'the elder Hugh, as an old servant of Edward I, may have preserved some traditions of his constructive policy.' The proceedings of this parliament are marked by a distinctly constitutional spirit, by an endeavour to establish an accord between the crown and the people as a counterpoise to the power of the nobles, and this can scarcely fail to have been the work of the king's favourites (Stubbs, Const. Hist. ii. 361). They were now all powerful, and put no bounds to their greediness. Grants were made to them in extraordinary profusion. The Queen hated them, and when some difficulty arose with France she gladly left the kingdom on an embassy to her brother Charles IV. There was some talk of war between the two countries, and Edward spoke of leading an expedition in person. To this, however, Despenser would not consent, for he knew that if he was deprived of the support of the king's presence he would not be able to stand against his enemies, and Edward, who was now wholly under the dominion of the two favourites, grave up the idea. When the queen was summoned to return to England, she declared that she would not do so as long as Despenser was in power, and a plot was made in France to overthrow him and his son. He declared his innocence towards her before the magnates, and a letter was sent to her by the bishops informing her that he had done so, and urging her to return. She refused, and by Despenser's advice the king outlawed her and his son, who was with her. The queen landed in England with an armed force in September 1326, and put out a proclamation against the favourites. Edward retreated before her, and from Chepstow sent Despenser to secure the town and castle of Bristol. The queen marched by Gloucester to Berkeley, where she restored the castle which had been seized by the Despensers to its rightful owner, Thomas, lord Berkeley. Thence she advanced against Bristol. The town was on her side, and the earl, unable to hold it against her, surrendered at once. The next day, 27 Oct., he was sentenced, and was forthwith put to death as a traitor on a common gallows outside the town amidst the shouts of the Bristol people. His head was sent to Winchester. He was put to death at the age of sixty-four.

[Annales Londonienses, Annales Paulini, Bridlington, Vita Kdwardi II, T. de la Moore's Vita et Mors Edwardi II in Chronicles of Edw. I and Edw. II, i. ii. ed. Dr. W. Stubbs (Rolls Ser.); J. Trokelowe, ed. Riley (Rolls Ser.); A. Murimnth (Eng. Hist. 80c.); Rymer's Fœlera, ii. passim, ed. 1735; Stubbs's Constitutional History, ii. 336-360; Dugdale's Baronage, i. 389; Sir H. Nicolas's Historic Peerage, ed. Courthope.]

W. H.