Hugh Despenser, Lord Despenser

Hugh Despenser, Lord Despenser (* 1286; † 24 November 1326) probably knew Edward II since his childhood, because when he was still heir to the throne, he had belonged to his retinue. Economic motives had prompted Edward I to marry the young Despenser to his granddaughter Eleanore de Clare. This marriage brought prestige but few financial benefits. This changed after Bannockburn, where Gilbert de Clare, Earl of Gloucester was among the many killed at the Battle of Bannockburn. He had been one of the richest men in the country and had no legitimate heir, so his estate went to his three sisters Elizabeth, Eleanor and Margaret. Hugh Despenser Jr. did not own much land, which is why his wife’s inheritance came in very handy, but he was certainly not going to settle for only a third. He was just too greedy for personal property, which brought him into conflict with the so-called Marcher Lords in the Welsh borderlands.
In 1318, Despenser received the highest office in the royal household as Lord Chamberlain. Within a very short time, he ousted other favourites such as Hugh de Audley or Roger d’Amory. Piers Gaveston had wanted money and prestige. He had not been of Anglo-Norman nobility, had had no connections whatsoever and yet had been given titles reserved for the royal family. The nobility had felt snubbed by this favourite. Despenser, on the other hand, was ruthless in his pursuit of land and power. The nobility was afraid of him. The result was the so-called Despenser War. After a temporary exile of Despenser and his father in 1321, first the Marcher Lords and then the opposition of the nobility rose up against Edward II and his favourite. After the king had put down the uprisings, the Despensers ruled almost unchallenged for the next four years. They were capable administrators, but shamelessly enriched themselves from the property of others, not even shying away from extortion, torture and murder. Edward II, who had suffered from a lack of money since his accession, was infected by the greed of his favourite. While the latter took possession of more and more land, the king hoarded money. By 1323, the finances had been restored without the people noticing. Four years later, Edward II had financial reserves amounting to almost two years' revenue.
Unlike Gaveston, who had merely ignored Isabella, Despenser did everything he could to destroy Edward II’s marriage. He was supported in this by a massive deterioration in Anglo-French relations. Charles IV demanded homage from his brother-in-law for the English fiefdoms in France, which is why he occupied Gascony in 1324. To end the conflict, Charles IV offered to vacate all the occupied territories if Edward II would make his son Duke of Aquitaine and he would come to France with his mother to take the oath of liege. At the time, this seemed to be the best solution for Despenser. On the one hand, he did not want to let the king go to France alone, as he no longer had him under control there; on the other hand, he could not accompany him, because that would have been tantamount to losing power in England. So Isabella sailed for France on 9 March 1325, followed by Prince Edward in September. Of course, Despenser had not reckoned with the fact that the Queen would not return with the heir to the throne. He had as little to oppose her preparations for an invasion of England for the purpose of overthrowing him as he did her army, which landed in the autumn of 1326. The Despensers and Edward II no longer enjoyed any support in the country. Hugh Despenser was executed as a high traitor by hanging, disembowelling and quartering on 24 November 1326. The male line of Despensers ended in 1414 with Richard le Despenser, 4th Baron Burghersh. In the female line, Hugh Despenser is a direct ancestor of Henry Percy, Earl of Northumberland for 9 generations and of Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex, later favourite of Elizabeth I, for 10 generations.

Edward II

In principle, Spencer, although he appears more martial, is the continuation of Gaveston. Edward II also elevates him to this position without transition after Gaveston’s death. Moreover, Marlowe made Spencer and Baldock into typical Elizabethan upstarts. From lower nobility, the former tries to rise through the favour of more important men, which he ultimately succeeds in doing. The secret of his success is: "You must be proud, bold, pleasant, resolute, And now and then, stab as occasion serves."1

The ideal of noblemen who amicably supported a clientele consisting only of noblemen had long since given way to a socio-political reality by Marlowe’s time.2 England’s ablest politicians, William Cecil and Francis Walsingham, looked back on no noble lineage and rarely took men of noble birth into their confidence. It is not clear what Marlowe wanted to achieve with his portrayal of Spencer and Baldock. Was it a description of the current state of affairs, a criticism of this development, which is called into question by the fact that Marlowe socialised with precisely such people, or, considering Baldock’s last words in the play, a warning: even those who rise in the haze of crowned heads can fall deep.

Bray, Alan. 1995. Homosexuality in Renaissance England. 2nd Ed. New York: Columbia University Press.

  1. Edward II. 5,42-43↩︎
  2. Bray (1995)↩︎

Aktualisiert am 10.05.2024

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