5 – Despenser War 1321-22
John I was a tyrannical ruler and provoked a backlash from the major landowners of his day. His son, Henry III, was equally as despotic and fairly incompetent to boot, so his Barons didn’t care for him much either and again rose up in protest. His son, Edward I was Edward Longshanks, the hammer of the Scots, the baddie from Braveheart and the man who expelled the Jews from England. So when we tell you that Edward II, the man who would preside over the Depenser War, was pretty unpopular, you can see where he got it from.
Edward II had assumed the throne in 1307 and picked up from where his father had left off. He defeated Robert the Bruce and the Scots at Bannockburn in 1314, finally ending that protracted war, only for a mass famine to break out and kill between 10% and 25% of the population. Edward’s personal popularity had never been high, largely stemming from his friendship with Piers Gaveston, a leading noble with whom he was rumoured to being having a homosexual affair. The rumours have fascinated historians ever since and have never been proven, but the effects at the time were clear: Gaveston was exiled initially, and then when he was accepted back, he was widely seen as being far too close to the throne for anyone’s liking. Gaveston died in 1312, executed by rebellious Barons, but his influence would not be forgotten.
Edward struggled through wars in Scotland and famine at home, all the while dealing with huge debts and a failing economy. Without Gaveston, he turned a series of other royal favourites to counsel him, and it was one of these who would provoke the next civil war. Hugh Despenser the Younger, from whom the Despenser War gets its name, was the son of (quelle surprise) Hugh Despenser the Elder, a close confidant of the King. The Elder had risen to be the King’s chief adviser and had stood by him throughout the Gaveston affair. The Younger was similarly well-positioned in court and many of the rumours of homosexuality began to resurface.
The so-called Marcher Lords – the barons around the “Marches” near the Welsh border, who had pacified Wales and brought it under the King’s influence – took great offence at the power of the Despensers and, when they were granted lands in the Marches, it was too great an insult to abide. When Despenser the Younger began to style himself “Lord of Glamorgan”, after the Welsh county, it was war.
The Marcher Lords invaded Despenser lands in Wales, provoking Edward to engage the army against them. Edward demanded audiences with the Marchers, but the refused and continued their advances. They took all the major castles of Wales and moved into England, capturing several towns in the North, before marching south on London. They besieged the capital and demanded that the Despensers be exiled, to which the King eventually assented.
The tensions did not go away, however, and within months of the Despensers exile, the King was able to make a counter strike. He besieged Leeds Castle – Leeds in Kent, rather than the larger modern city in Yorkshire – and when it succumbed, exacted brutal revenge on the defenders. Some barons switched sides and back in the Marcher homelands in Wales, the peasantry staged an uprising against their feudal lords. Edward managed to cross into Wales and defeat the Marchers in March 1322.
It would not be the end of the rebellion, however. Roger Mortimer, the main Baronial leader, escaped from his captivity to France and managed to invade England in 1326, assisted by Edward II’s estranged wife, Isabella. They captured the Despensers and executed them, with Edward himself dying in prison – assumed to have been murdered. Mortimer and Isabella assumed the throne, but were themselves deposed by Edward’s son, Edward III, in 1330.
You might have gathered by now that Mediaeval Britain was fond of a succession crisis – perhaps making it easier to understand why the current line of succession is over five thousand names long – and the biggest of them is yet to come…