Hugh Despenser the Younger & Edward II: Downfall of a Favourite Book ReviewPosted: 2018-12-03
I don't think I've ever read a more thoroughly researched historical book than Hugh Despenser the Younger & Edward II: Downfall of a King's Favourite by Katherine Warner.
One of the things you have to ask yourself when reading a new biography is the simple question, 'who is it written for'? Some historic biographies are written for a general audience with an interest in a specific person or time period. Others are more scholarly and examine details of the person's life in great detail. This book falls very much in the latter category.
One of the great strengths of this book is the depth of research. I can imagine Kathryn Warner pouring over ancient documents for months on end, making meticulous notes. The research shows. I don't think I've ever read a book that has been so obviously researched in great depth.
At times it seems that almost every sentence is referenced with a footnote pointing to original source material. If you are a historian this research is invaluable, though at times it does get a little in the way of readability for a more general audience.
That's not meant as a negative comment; if you are fascinated by Hugh Despenser or just by medieval history you will appreciate how beautifully detailed the author is and how wonderfully she draws together all the myriad original charters, personal letters, court documents and medieval chronicles to create a narrative of Hugh Despenser's life and death.
The depth of research reveals aspects of Hugh's life and character that tend to be glossed over by more general accounts of the time period.
The Three Year Pregnancy
One absolutely fascinating episode from Hugh's life, from the period before he became Edward's favourite, involves the award of an inheritance that should have been divided equally between Hugh's wife Eleanor and her two sisters.
When the Earl of Gloucester died at the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314 he was childless and was survived by his widow. According to inheritance laws at the time, if the Earl had no children his estates should be divided equally between his three sisters, Eleanor, Margaret and Elizabeth.
But what if the Earl's wife, Maud Clare, was with child at the time of his death? It seemed sensible to wait nine months before dividing the Earl's inheritance in case his wife gave birth to a male heir.
Here is where affairs become comically absurd. If Edward II could spin out court proceedings for as long as possible he would keep the income from the estate for himself. So every time Hugh Despenser and his wife Eleanor applied to the courts for Eleanor's inheritance, proceedings were postponed, ostensibly to allow time for nature to take its course and reveal if the Earl's widow was pregnant.
For three years the king's lawyers kept up the pretence that maybe, through some act of God, Maud Clare might still give birth to an heir. And for those three years income from the estates went into the royal treasury. After three years the king's legal team finally gave in to the inevitable and allowed the estate to be divided amongst Eleanor and her sisters.
Despenser vs Gaveston
Given that so much of Edward II's reign was dominated by his two favourites, Piers Gaveston and Hugh Despenser the Younger it is easy to see both men in the same light, as if they were interchangeable. Warner's book shows that this would be a mistake. The men were quite different, though both held enormous power and both enraged the leading nobles of Edward's court - mostly because the nobles themselves waned the power that the favourites held.
Piers Gaveston was happy to simply enjoy the fruits of his relationship with Edward II. In simpler terms, he lived the high life without any responsibilities. On the other hand, Hugh Despenser the Younger used his relationship with the king to gain administrative power. He personally saw to the running of Edward's administration; he controlled access to the king and made decisions as if he were king in his own right.
For example, if anyone wanted to present a petition to the king they first had to curry favour with Hugh Despenser. This might involve giving Hugh gifts or supporting him in some of his dubiously legal ventures. Hugh Despenser and Piers Gaveston were very different in the way they used the power of Edward's favour.
Were Despenser and Edward Lovers?
The short answer is that we don't know. The exact nature of the king's relationship with his favourites remains open to doubt. Traditional histories suggest that Edward II was homosexual but in truth, there is no evidence to prove or disprove it. He certainly leaned heavily on a succession of male favourites.
He showered his close male attendants with gifts and looked the other way when they took liberties with the law to feather their own pockets. But whether his behaviour was that of a man in love or simply a weak character who needed close male friends is open to question. Even the wording of contemporary commentaries is open to interpretation.
What isn't in question, however, is what bad judgement Edward showed when it became obvious that the only way to keep his throne - and his life - was to distance himself from Hugh, he was unable to do so. It seems clear that until the last, Queen Isabella wanted to remove Hugh Despenser from power, not to overthrow her husband. It was only when Edward refused to cut his ties to Hugh that Isabella took the final, fatal step of removing him from the throne.
It is easy to cast Queen Isabella as the victim in this sordid tale, a woman pushed from her husband's side by a grasping, scheming favourite. Pushed until she could take no more and rebelled against her own husband. In truth, no one emerges from this period of Edward's reign with any credit. Hugh was not guilty of all the offences with which he was charged, but he was indeed a thoroughly unpleasant man, quick to use his influence with Edward to destroy his enemies, harsh, cruel and vindictive. Edward comes across as absurdly ineffective, easily swayed, and totally unsuited to rule the kingdom. Isabella appears just as covetous and grasping as Hugh in some ways, though less able to sway Edward to her benefit than Hugh.
This book is a fascinating account of a tangled web of deceit, turmoil, courtly life, war and rebellion. Warner has done a remarkable job of research and brings the turmoil of Edward's reign to life like no other book I have read.
Hugh Despenser the Younger & Edward II: Downfall of a King's Favourite is available from Pen and Sword Books.