Hugh Le Despenser, 1st Earl of Winchester, 1261-1326

AV 4 Hugh le Despenser, Earl of Winchester.jpg
AV 4 Hugh le Despenser, Earl of Winchester.jpg

Hugh Le Despenser, 1st Earl of Winchester, 1261-1326

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Hugh le Despenser’s father, the first baron Despenser, was killed with Simon de Montfort at the Battle of Evesham in August 1265 when Hugh was just 3 years old. Summoned to parliament in 1295 he then married Isabel, daughter of William Beauchamp, Earl of Warwick but was then fined 2,000 marks for failing to secure the consent of King Edward I, a sum later remitted. From a rather ordinary, if privileged background, Hugh sprang to attention when he became a loyal supporter of King Edward I’s son, Edward (soon to be Edward II)’s favourite, Piers Gaveston. Gaveston had been appointed to his son’s household by the King, but the rest of the household and the barons took strong exception to the man and his influence over young Edward. He was exiled twice and brought back at Edward II’s request each time. But the resentment grew – and began to affect the Despenser’s, father and son. There is some confusion about whether Hugh’s son or Gaveston were involved in a homosexual relationship with King Edward II – or indeed if either of them was! But the guilt-by-association of the Despensers, father and son, only increased as Gaveston’s influence increased. Gaveston was exiled a third time, captured and executed for “breach of the ordinances”.  Hugh senior became Edward’s chief administrator, but the resentment of the barons and their own corruption resulted in expulsion of father and son. The rebellion of Queen Isabella and her lover, Mortimer against her husband Edward resulted in the capture and swift and bloody execution of father and son with father’s head sent for display to Winchester.

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Fighting beside Simon de Montfort at Evesham was a man of knightly, albeit relatively humble origin and certainly of some note in the baronial party, styled 'Hugo le Despenser Justitiarius Angliae'. He was, in fact, the last justiciary[1] of England. This office was one which, during the minority of Henry III, had become influential and powerful, but later its importance deteriorated, so that Hugh, though almost certainly highly competent and probably very overworked, should be regarded as a top civil servant rather than a cabinet minister.

When he was slain with de Montfort his son Hugh was but three years old. Young Hugh grew up during the reign of King Edward I and in 1295 was summoned to Parliament. He married Isabel, daughter of William Beauchamp, Earl of Warwick, and widow of Sir Patric Chaures or Chawores, a wedding which cost him dear at the time, for he was fined the considerable sum of 2,000 marks for marrying without the royal permission. However, this fine was later remitted.

He gained political and military experience in various campaigns, but his real rise to power did not begin until he championed Piers Gaveston, King Edward II’s rather unsavoury favourite, against the rest of the barons. This action had the effect of alienating his peers, who considered him a time-server, and winning for him the doubtful benefit of the royal patronage. After Gaveston had been executed, Hugh, and his son of the same name, became the king's principal advisers and favourites. The baronial party was led by Thomas, Earl of Lancaster, Crouchback's son, but as he was as selfish as the Despensers were unscrupulously ambitious, his opposition to the court party was not as effective as it might have been.

Hugh le Despenser the younger made a very advantageous marriage when, in 1306, he took to wife Eleanor, sister and one of the heiresses of Gilbert de Clare, Earl of Gloucester, among the richest of the great feudal lords. It was through this marriage as well as due to the royal bounty that the Despensers acquired lands with concomitant power in the Welsh marches.

So it was that the jealousy of the marcher lords was that much keener than that of the other barons and it was they who ravaged the Despensers' lands and managed to secure their banishment in 1321. But their triumph was short lived; the banishment was declared illegal by Archbishop Reynolds, whereupon the Despensers returned to England and Edward, with an unwonted burst of energy and efficiency, defeated first the marcher lords and then the northern barons under Lancaster at Boroughbridge in Yorkshire. Lancaster was beheaded and at the parliament held at York in 1322 Hugh, Lord le Despenser, was formally restored to his honours and created Earl of Winchester.

It seems certain that Edward II had homosexual tendencies, which may well have been his undoing, for his wife Isabella, 'the She-Wolf of France', possibly and not unreasonably revolted by Edward's particular friendship with the younger Despenser, allied herself with Roger Mortimer and fled to France.

With the help of King Charles IV of France they laid plans; firstly they procured the person of Edward, Isabella's son and heir, to give an aura of propriety to her cause, and then in 1326 they sailed for England.

When the news of the queen's arrival reached Earl Hugh he retired to Bristol, but the citizens turned against him and he was forced to surrender to the queen. He was summarily sentenced and hanged as a traitor on 27th October 1326, his head being sent to Winchester. His son was caught and executed a few weeks later and the king himself was deposed, captured and murdered in a particularly horrible manner in Berkeley Castle about a year after this.

Although the Despensers came to a violent, albeit inevitable end, Hugh's barony, being a barony held to have been created by a writ of summons to parliament and so, according to modern doctrine, inheritable through the female line, was still enjoyed by one of his heirs, Viscount Falmouth. Lord Falmouth may also quarter the arms shown on the shield and surcoat in the effigy (for an explanation of 'quartering' see preface).

The Despenser arms may be blazoned: Quarterly Or and Gules fret Gold over all a Bend Sable. The shield is divided into gold and red quarters, in each of the latter is a golden fret or mesh, and over the whole shield is a black diagonal strip called a bend. These arms are almost certainly derived from the arms of a family with whom the Despensers had feudal connections, a common practice in the middle ages. A. R. Wagner (later Sir Anthony Wagner, Garter King of Arms) in his Historic Heraldry of Britain (1939) suggests that they may reflect either the arms of Beauchamp of Bedford, the Despensers being tenants of that family, or those of John Lacy, Constable of Chester, because they were dispensers (hence their name) to the Constables.

The Earl of Winchester's armour illustrates the introduction of plate armour. It will be seen that the whole body was not encased in metal plates but that these were strapped over the mail at strategic points. As armour became more complex, so the terms used for the various pieces multiplied until the language of armoury became as extensive, eclectic and perhaps more ambiguous than that of heraldry. As far as possible, therefore, the use of too much and too obscure terminology will be avoided. In this effigy can be seen plates protecting the arms both over and under the hauberk[2], with decorated circular plates at the shoulder and elbow; this may conveniently be called the vambrace[3]. The legs are protected by schynbalds[4], plates strapped over the chausses[5], with decorated poleyns[6] over the knees. The indented edge of the hauberk clearly reveals the presence of the aketon[7], and the truncated coat armour that of the coat of plates.      The square-cut surcoat, emblazoned with the arms and somewhat reminiscent of the ecclesiastical dalmatic[8], presages the    appearance of  the jupon[9] or tight-fitting coat which will be seen in later effigies.

No helm[10] is incorporated in this effigy, although Earl Hugh may well have worn one. Instead, he wears his bascinet[11] over the mail coif[12] and it is attached by a guard chain to a staple on his breast. This method of securing the head armour is somewhat like the way in which a hunting bowler is fixed to the coat. The shield, which is rather larger than some contemporary examples, is slung from the shoulder by a strap or guige[13].

 

[1] The chief political and judicial officer under the Norman and early Plantagenet kings.

[2] A piece of defensive armour: originally intended for the defence of the neck and shoulders; but already in 12th and 13th c. developed into a long coat of mail, or military tunic, usually of ring or chain mail, which adapted itself readily to the motions of the body.

[3] Defensive armour for the (fore-) arm.

[4] An early experiment in plate armour for the lower leg.

[5] Pantaloons or tight coverings for the legs and feet; esp. of mail, forming part of a knight's armour.

[6] A piece of defensive armour covering the knee.

[7] A stuffed jacket or jerkin worn under the mail.

[8] An ecclesiastical vestment, with a slit on each side of the skirt, and wide sleeves, and marked with two stripes, worn in the Western Church by deacons and bishops on certain occasions.

[9] A close-fitting tunic or doublet; esp. one worn by knights under the hauberk, sometimes of thick stuff and padded.

[10] The great helm or heaume, also called pot helm, bucket helm and barrel helm, is a helmet of the High Middle Ages which arose in the late twelfth century in the context of the Crusades and remained in use until the fourteenth century. The barreled style was used by knights in most European armies between about 1220 to 1350 AD and evolved into the frog-mouth helm to be primarily used during jousting contests.

[11] A small, light, steel headpiece, in shape somewhat globular, terminating in a point raised slightly above the head, and closed in front with a ventail or visor; when used in action without the ventail, as was frequently the case in England, the great ‘helm,’ resting on the shoulders, was worn over it.

[12] A close-fitting skull-cap of iron or steel, or later, of leather, worn under the helmet; the skull-cap of a helmet.

[13] A long strap, typically made of leather, used to hang a shield on the shoulder or neck when not in use.