Hugh le Despenser (d. 1349), son of Hugh le Despenser the younger and Eleanor de Clare, is overshadowed by his notorious father and grandfather, who were executed a month apart and who shared their names with Hugh. (One lavishly illustrated book even confuses Hugh’s tomb with that of his father—and then adds insult to injury by describing the son’s effigy as that of an extortionist.) Yet in his short life—he was only about forty-one at the time of his death—Hugh made his mark as a soldier.
Hugh was born in about 1308. Through his mother, he was a great-grandson of Edward I and a grandson of Gilbert de Clare, known as “Gilbert the Red,” the Earl of Gloucester. His paternal great-grandfather, who died with his leader Simon de Montfort on the battlefield of Evesham, had been the Justiciar of England during Henry III’s time. His father and paternal grandfather, of course, would rise to great power during the last years of Edward II’s reign, only to fall as spectacularly as they had risen.
One of Hugh’s earliest appearances in the records is in July 1322, when Hugh was sent, in the company of the king’s huntsman, Thomas de Borhunt, several other royal servants, and over fifty hounds of various sorts, to take “fat venison” in the king’s forests, chases, and parks. Presumably Hugh, then about fourteen, considered this a congenial assignment. His next recorded royal duty was a less pleasant one: when the English entered into treaty negotiations with the Scots in 1323, Hugh was one of the English hostages who were sent into Scotland. He would be seeing a great deal more of that country in the 1330’s.
Hugh the younger, never one to pass up the chance to bully a landed widow or orphan, turned his attentions in 1325 to Elizabeth Comyn, one of the heirs of the late Earl of Pembroke. According to Natalie Fryde, Hugh the younger made plans to marry Elizabeth to his eldest son, but the marriage never took place, perhaps because her intended husband balked at marrying at marrying a woman in her twenties, or more likely because Elizabeth having surrendered the lands Hugh the younger coveted, he decided to look higher for a bride for his firstborn. As it turned out, he never got the opportunity.
Few people could have entered manhood less promisingly than Hugh did the following year, when Queen Isabella and her lover, Roger Mortimer, entered England with an army and brought down the reign of Edward II with almost no resistance. Hugh’s grandfather was executed in October 1326, his father in November 1326. Hugh himself was left at Caerphilly Castle in Wales, where Hugh the younger and Edward II had stayed for several days before leaving the safety of the castle to wander around the Welsh countryside before being captured by Isabella’s troops.
Recognizing that a fate similar to that of his father’s and grandfather’s likely lay in store for him, Hugh, along with the constable of Caerphilly Castle, John Felton, holed up in the sprawling castle, where they and the castle garrison were the last holdouts against the regime of Isabella and Mortimer. With Edward II deposed and the youthful Edward III the nominal king, Isabella and Mortimer turned their attention in early 1327 to the situation at Caerphilly. William la Zouche, one of the men who had captured Hugh the younger and Edward II, was appointed to lead the besieging troops. Isabella and Mortimer tried to entice the garrison into surrendering by offering to pardon the life of everyone in the castle but Hugh. The garrison, however, stayed loyal to Hugh, and it was not until nearly April that the castle at last surrendered to Zouche and his men, this time with a pardon of Hugh’s life. (In one of the strokes of irony that make reading about this period so enjoyable, Zouche would become Hugh’s stepfather in 1329, having either abducted or eloped with Eleanor de Clare.)
Despite the pardon of his life, Hugh was promptly clapped into prison. He evidently remained in Wales, probably in the custody of Roger Mortimer, for on December 15, 1328, Roger Mortimer as justice of Wales was instructed (ostensibly by Edward III, but presumably by Roger Mortimer himself), to transfer Hugh to Bristol Castle, to be kept in the custody of Thomas de Gurney. Before being made constable of Bristol Castle, Gurney had had custody of Edward II at Berkeley Castle, where the king had mysteriously died in September 1327. If Hugh knew of his new jailer’s role at Berkeley, he must have wondered if his own days were numbered.
It was Gurney, however, who ended up fleeing England following Edward III’s seizure and execution of Roger Mortimer in October 1330. Nonetheless, Hugh’s days as a prisoner did not end with the downfall of Mortimer. Though Edward III was quick to pardon those who had taken part in the political upheavals of the past few years, he seems to have been wary of releasing Hugh from prison, despite the fact that he had never been charged with any crime other than holding Caerphilly Castle against the queen’s forces. Perhaps the king feared that Hugh might be out to avenge his father’s and grandfather’s deaths. It was not until July 1331 that Hugh was at last allowed to leave prison, on the condition that his mainprisors bring him to the upcoming Parliament. Hugh having duly made his appearance before Parliament, where he received support from members of the clergy, he finally received a full pardon and unconditional freedom in February 1332.
Hugh was now in the position of being a landless heir. His mother, Eleanor de Clare, having done prison time herself, had been restored to her third of the Clare inheritance, which Hugh could expect to be his someday, but the extensive estates that Hugh’s father and grandfather had accumulated, legally or otherwise, had been forfeited to the crown. Fortunately for Hugh, Edward III was shrewd enough to recognize that holding men responsible for their fathers’ sins was both unjust and unwise. In April 1332, the king granted Hugh permission to go on pilgrimage to Santiago. Before Hugh left, the king granted him lands and revenues totaling two hundred marks a year.
Back from Santiago, Hugh fought for his king at the Battle of Halidon Hill, where the English won a long-awaited victory over the Scots on July 19, 1333. Probably at that point Hugh was knighted if he had not been so already. His services in Scotland were recognized by the king in a grant made a couple of weeks afterward, when Hugh’s grants of land were extended from an indefinite duration to him to hold until he inherited his mother’s lands. He was given some more land, under the same terms, in 1334.
In the spring of 1337, Edward III created six new earls. Hugh was not among them—even if Edward III had been inclined to make him one, doing so would have probably been an awkward business in light of Hugh’s family history—but he was the recipient of a generous royal grant that spring. Most of the lands he had been holding until his inheritance fell in were transformed into fee grants—that is, they would pass to Hugh’s heirs—and he was given a number of new lands besides that, many of which had been held by his family before their downfall. Hugh became even wealthier that summer when his mother died and he came into her third of the Clare inheritance. As a result, he was summoned to Parliament the following year.
Hugh returned to Scotland later in 1337. By this time, he had his own retinue to command. In 1340, he fought at sea in the Battle of Sluys, an encounter so disastrous for the French, many of whom drowned, that it was said that if the fish could speak, they would be speaking French.
Sluys may have been a turning point for Hugh in the king’s favor, for on April 27, 1341, the Pope granted a dispensation for Hugh to marry Elizabeth de Montacute, the daughter of the Earl of Salisbury, Edward III’s closest friend. In the dispensation, the Pope noted that the petition had received the king’s support. Elizabeth was the widow of Giles de Badlesmere and had no children from the marriage. Her age is unknown, but her parents were married in or before 1327, and her brothers were born in 1328 and 1330; most likely, then, she had married Badlesmere as a child and was still quite young when she married Hugh. Why Hugh had waited so long to marry is unknown, but he had been in a peculiar position: his status as the son and grandson of the two most hated men in the country in 1326 must have limited his marriage opportunities among the nobility, while his status as a kinsman of the king and his prospects of wealth must have made him most particular about his choice of bride.
Hugh spent one last winter in Scotland in 1341. After that, his campaigning would be done in France. By then, he was a banneret. In 1342, his forces, originally headed for Gascony, were diverted to Brest to assist the forces of the Countess of Montfort, whose side in the Breton civil war Edward III was backing. He later joined the Earl of Northampton at Morlaix, where the English defeated French troops on September 30, 1342. Sadly, the highest-ranking English casualty at Morlaix was Hugh’s younger brother Edward, who had fought under Hugh’s banner.
Though Hugh was one of the English leaders at the Battle of Crécy four years later, his most notable part in the Crécy campaign took place before the battle. On August 24, 1346, the English forced their way across the Somme at Blanquetaque, overcoming the French troops waiting at the other side. In some sources, Hugh is named as the leader, along with the Earl of Northampton and Reginald Cobham, of the troops who managed the crossing; in others, however, he is not named at all, so there is doubt as to whether he played a significant role in the deed. Indeed, Andrew Ayton suggests that the crossing may have been “more a triumph of sound planning than knightly heroics.”
Hugh’s next feat of arms, however, is well attested. Following the crossing at Blanquetaque, Hugh and his contingent of men moved to the port town of Le Crotoy, which he burnt after a fight in which 400 French troops died. In the harbor he found ships loaded with supplies, which he seized and had sent to the English army, which sorely needed provisions at the time. Hugh then apparently proceeded to the town of Rue, which he also burned.
Two days later, of course, came the great English victory at Crécy. Hugh, along with Thomas Hatfield, the Bishop of Durham, Richard Fitzalan, the Earl of Arundel, Robert Ufford, the Earl of Suffolk, and William Clinton, the Earl of Huntingdon, led the rearguard. He was at the lengthy siege of Calais that followed.
Calais was Hugh’s last military engagement. Back in England, in the summer of 1348 he and some of his relations visited Elizabeth de Burgh, Hugh’s aunt, who as a young widow had been the victim of some of Hugh the younger’s land-grabs but who had established cordial relations with her nephew.
For Hugh and many others in England, the summer of 1348 was the last they would spend on earth. Sometime in the late summer or fall, the Black Death, which had already killed one of Edward III’s daughters overseas, arrived in England. Whether Hugh was one of the victims of the pestilence is unknown, but his death on February 8, 1349, occurred during its height. He was buried at the north side of the high altar of Tewkesbury Abbey, the resting place of his Clare ancestors and of his parents. Hugh and his mother had been instrumental in the extensive remodeling of the abbey’s choir that had begun in his father’s time.
Hugh’s widow remarried about a year after his death, to Guy de Bryan. Although Elizabeth and Guy had several children together, Elizabeth, who died in 1359, chose to be buried next to Hugh. Guy, who never remarried and who outlived his wife by many years, had his own tomb built across from the Despensers’ at Tewkesbury Abbey. Both tombs, with fine canopies over them, can still be seen today.
As Hugh and his wife had had no living children, Hugh’s heir was his young nephew, Edward le Despenser, the eldest son of the Edward le Despenser who had died at Morlaix. Edward’s career, made more lustrous by his election as a Knight of the Garter in 1361, was both spectacular and short; praised by the chronicler Froissart as a model of chivalry, he died on his estates at the age of only thirty-nine. Considerable as Edward’s own merits must have been, credit should be given to his uncle Hugh, who had begun his own career in the shadow of his father’s and grandfather’s disgrace, for having smoothed his heir’s path to glory. Through fighting loyally for his king and country, he had done much to restore his family’s good name.