Edward II and the Despensers
From 'A History of the British Nation' by AD Innes, 1912
Rise of the Despensers
But Edward was incapable of learning wisdom [after the death of Piers Gaveston]. He had found a new favourite in Hugh Despenser, the son of an official of some capacity. Honours were bestowed on the Despensers, who soon raised up enemies. The magnates united to demand their banishment in 1321, when the demand was endorsed by a parliament of the three Estates. But the union was only superficial. On the one hand, Hereford and Roger Mortimer of Wigmore, the head of the Mortimer connection, the bitterest foes of the Despensers, were suspicious of the king's intention of recalling the favourites. On the other hand, an insult to the queen produced a strong reaction in the king's favour. He ventured to recall the Despensers, whereupon the Marchers and Lancaster rose. Edward marched to the north; the Lancastrians were routed by Sir Andrew Harclay, Commandant of Carlisle, at Boroughbridge; Lancaster himself was taken, and was sentenced and executed without being allowed to defend himself. The vagaries of popular sentiment transformed into a hero and a miracle-working saint this most powerful of the barons, who in his public life had displayed no single virtue which entitled him to the smallest respect.
The king and the Despensers had won for the time; and the Despensers posed as champions of popular as opposed to baronial rights; an attitude traditionally appropriate to the descendants of a Despenser who had received the confidence of Simon de Montfort. A parliament was promptly called at York, in which the commons were fully represented. The Ordinances were repealed, but the principle was asserted that affairs of state should be treated by the king in full parliament of the prelates, the baronage, and commonalty. In effect the Ordainers were condemned, not for what they did, but for doing it without the authority of the assembled Estates.
The Despensers proved no better than any of the series of inefficient administrations under which England had suffered for fourteen years past. They in their turn drove into opposition those of the great nobles whose temper inclined them to moderate counsels. Such a man was Henry of Lancaster, the brother and in part the successor of Thomas. The queen, Isabella - a quite young woman, who had been but sixteen when in 1312 she became the mother of the future Edward III - was violently jealous of the young Despenser's influence with her husband, and the humiliations to which she was subjected would have awakened bitter resentment in a far less passionate woman.
The Scots raided at will over the northern counties, and were only bought off by an ignominious but practically unavoidable truce. There prevailed everywhere the disorder and insecurity which in medieval times inevitably accompanied a weak government. In France, Charles IV, the last king of the old direct line of the Capets, was carrying out the old policy of his father, Philip IV, and re-establishing in Gascony the authority which that monarch had filched from the first Edward but had surrendered in the closing years of his reign.
Isabella's Mission to France
By a master-stroke of impolicy, Isabella was allowed to go to France to negotiate with her brother; thither she was followed by the boy Edward, who now bore the title of Duke of Aquitaine. But while the queen played at diplomacy, she was more occupied in a private intrigue with Roger Mortimer, who had been imprisoned after Borough bridge but had made his escape to France.
The fruits of that notorious intrigue were made manifest when Isabella and Mortimer landed in England in the autumn of 1326, announcing that they had come to remove the now generally hated Despensers. For the king and his favourites scarcely a hand was raised, while nobles and gentry flocked to the queen's standard. The king became a fugitive, but was captured along with the younger Despenser, who was forthwith put to death. Edward himself was held in honourable custody by Henry of Lancaster.
Edward II abdicates
In January a parliament of the three Estates met, and was invited to pronounce whether it would have for king Edward of Carnarvon or his son, the Duke of Aquitaine. It pronounced in favour of the boy. The king was forced to abdicate, and Edward III was proclaimed and crowned. The fallen monarch was withdrawn from the charge of Henry of Lancaster and placed in that of new custodians. When the brutal treatment to which he was now subjected failed to kill him, he was foully murdered in Berkeley Castle, As in the case of Thomas of Lancaster, not his virtues but the sins of his enemies and the tragedy of his death transformed the murdered king into a popular saint.
Practically, though not nominally, the government passed into the hands of the queen and her paramour, Roger Mortimer, who was now created Earl of March. They also did evil in the sight of the nation. An attack on Scotland met with the now familiar fate of such attempts. The regency gave up the futile struggle and disgusted the entire nation by the treaty of Northampton, which acknowledged Scottish independence. The little Prince David was married to the little English Princess Joan. A year later Robert Bruce died, and for a short time the Scottish regency was placed in the capable hands of Randolph, Earl of Moray.
The king rebels
But Mortimer in England, supported by the besotted queen mother had no immediate aim save the accumulation of vast estates in his own hands. A conspiracy was set on foot for the overthrow of the regency and the release of the young King Edward from a state of practical subjection. The boy had been married to Philippa of Hainault, and the birth of a son in 1330, when he was seventeen, made him realise that he had come to man's estate.
He joined with the conspirators, who on a night in October were privily admitted into Nottingham Castle, where Mortimer, the queen mother, and the young king were lying. Mortimer was seized, despatched to London, and hanged. Isabella was sent into an honourable retirement - honourable so far as concerned her treatment. Almost four years after his coronation Edward III. became King of England in fact as well as in name.
This article is excerpted from the book, 'A History of the British Nation', by AD Innes, published in 1912 by TC & EC Jack, London. I picked up this delightful tome at a second-hand bookstore in Calgary, Canada, some years ago. Since it is now more than 70 years since Mr Innes's death in 1938, we are able to share the complete text of this book with Britain Express readers. Some of the author's views may be controversial by modern standards, particularly his attitudes towards other cultures and races, but it is worth reading as a period piece of British attitudes at the time of writing.