The Last Justiciar:
Hugh le Despenser in the Thirteenth Century
Long before his son and grandson became embroiled in the disputes between king and nobility during the reign of Edward II, Hugh le Despenser (d. 1265) was a key figure in the turmoil surrounding the reign of Henry III. An adherent of Simon de Montfort who remained faithful to his cause until the very last, he was the last justiciar of England, and his death on the field of Evesham was the beginning of the ill fortune that would plague subsequent generations of Despenser lords, all of whom would die violently, young, or both.
Hugh le Despenser was born in about 1223. His father (d. 1238), who needless to say was also named Hugh, was associated with Earl Ranulf of Chester; J. R. Maddicott indicates that he was probably the earl's hereditary steward. After his father's death, Hugh received several gifts from Henry III: two casks of wine in 1245, timber in 1247 and 1249, and free warren on a Rutland estate in 1253. In 1255 he was appointed constable of Horston, a royal castle, and in 1257 he accompanied Henry III's brother Richard of Cornwall to Aachen, where Richard was crowned King of the Romans.
It was Hugh's friendship with Simon de Montfort, however, that would shape Hugh's future. Hugh and Simon are first mentioned together in 1256, when Edmund de Lacy and William Longespee were arranging the marriage of their children, a task so complicated that each father appointed a team of negotiators to act on his behalf. Hugh le Despenser and Simon de Montfort were two of the three men on Lacy's side. By 1259, the relationship between Hugh and Simon had evidently become a close one, though Simon, born around 1208, was about fifteen years older than Hugh. Simon made his will in 1259, naming his wife and eldest son as the primary executors and Hugh le Despenser, Peter de Montfort, and Arnold du Bois as associate executors. (All the men named, save for Arnold du Bois, whose health kept him out of battle, died with Simon at Evesham.)
In the meantime, growing baronial discontent with Henry III forced the king to accept an arrangement under which the state of the realm would be "put in order, corrected, and reformed" by a group of twenty-four men, twelve from the king's side and twelve from the barons' side. The twenty-four men met at the Oxford Parliament in 1258, with Simon de Montfort and Hugh le Despenser among the twelve men chosen to represent the barons. The result, the Provisions of Oxford, would be the bane of Henry III's existence for the next seven years.
At Oxford, Hugh le Despenser and eleven other men were chosen to negotiate with the king's council "on behalf of the whole community of the land in the common business" during future Parliaments. What was to be of more significance to Despenser, however, was the revival of the office of justiciar, effectively abolished in 1234 by Henry III when he dismissed its current holder, Stephen of Seagrave. The justiciar's office was essentially a hybrid of administrative and judicial tasks; C. H. Knowles describes it as being established "to superintend the royal administrative machine, to remedy failures of justice, and to meet the need for a vice-regal authority in England when the monarch was visiting his continental lands." Hugh Bigod, whose brother Roger was the Earl of Norfolk and the marshal of England, was chosen to fill the revived office of justiciar.
By October 1260, Simon de Montfort had become a central figure in government. One of the actions of that month's Parliament was to replace the three chief royal officials: the chancellor, the treasurer, and the justiciar. Hugh le Despenser was elected as justiciar, against Henry III's wishes. Part of his duties was to try cases, which he did that ensuing fall and winter.
Despenser had also married at some time during this period. His wife was Aline Bassett, daughter of Philip Bassett. Bassett, like Hugh, had been involved in the reform movement, but he would eventually side with the king. Aline was unquestionably a good deal younger than her new husband; though her exact age is unknown. Postmortem inquisitions at the time of her father's death in 1271 give various ages for her, putting her birth year in 1241, 1245, 1247, or 1249. The last date, at least, is rather unlikely, since on March 1, 1261, Aline gave birth to a son, Hugh, who would be known in Edward II's reign as Hugh le Despenser the elder. Despenser seems to have had three daughters as well, but genealogists have puzzled over whether all three were the children of Aline. Possibly Despenser had been married and widowed before his marriage to Aline; in 1238, the king had permitted him to marry as his friends thought best, and it would have been strange had he waited twenty years or so to make his first marriage.
Henry III had chafed over the appointments of Despenser and the new chancellor and treasurer, complaining that they were "wholly ignorant of their offices." This was only one in a string of grievances by Henry against his council, which he claimed was treating him as its ward. By May 1261 Henry had regained control of his kingdom. He replaced a number of officials, among them Despenser, who lost both the justiciarship and his position of keeper of the Tower. To add insult to injury, Hugh was replaced as justiciar by his own father-in-law, Philip Basset.
The next several years would see several shifts of power. In July 1263, with Montfort once again in control, Despenser was reappointed as justiciar. Montfort stood on very shaky ground, however, and by early 1264, the King of France, having agreed to arbitrate between the royalists and the Monfortians, issued an award, known as the Mise of Amiens, that was entirely in favor of Henry III.
Montfort and his followers reacted furiously. Montfort's sons led attacks against Henry's supporters in the Welsh march—Montfort was laid up with a broken leg—and in March 1264, Despenser himself led a mob of Londoners in attacking Richard of Cornwall's manor at Isleworth. It was the Jewish community in London, however, that suffered the most in the spring of 1264. In April, a group of Londoners, led by Despenser's own brother-in-law, attacked the London Jews, killing hundreds and looting their property. The loot went into the hands of Montfort's supporters. Even in medieval England, where anti-Semitism was the norm, the massacre of the Jews shocked some chroniclers. The mayor of London and Despenser, however, did manage to save some of the Jews from the mob, and Despenser, who was in charge of the Tower, gave the survivors shelter there. He and the mayor may have been motivated more by a desire to restore order than humanitarian feelings, but at least they came out of the episode with more credit than some of Montfort's other supporters.
By this time the nation was in a state of civil war, which culminated in May 1264 at the Battle of Lewes. Montfort and his men were outnumbered, but were the victors. Among the many royalist prisoners taken was Philip Basset, who refused to surrender while he could still stand and suffered over twenty wounds before being captured by his son-in-law Hugh le Despenser. With Henry III now a figurehead, it was probably at Despenser's instigation that several weeks later, the king made granted venison and conies to the imprisoned Basset.
Though Henry III and his eldest son, the Lord Edward, were in Montfort's custody, Montfort's position was still not a secure one. Eleanor of Provence, Henry III's energetic queen, had gone abroad and raised a mercenary force. With the threat of invasion looming, Despenser was given responsibility for defending the Norfolk, Suffolk, and Essex coastline. At the same time, Montfort negotiated with a papal legate and with Louis IX of France; Despenser was one of those entrusted with the negotiations. They proved fruitless, but the queen's invasion never materialized, apparently because Eleanor of Provence ran out of funds to pay her mercenaries. For a short period, it seemed that the Monfortian government was secure.
Then things unraveled quickly. The young, wealthy Earl of Gloucester, Gilbert de Clare, defected from Montfort's camp in March 1265 after personal and policy differences arose. Despenser and others tried to resolve the dispute, but to no avail, and the situation only worsened in May when the Lord Edward escaped from custody via a ruse of trying out a fast horse. The future Edward I, allied now with Gilbert de Clare and the lords of the Welsh march, was a force to be feared.
Edward's troops and Montfort's troops, Despenser among them, spent the summer of 1265 moving around the Welsh marches. Montfort, planning to meet his son Simon's troops, arrived in Evesham on August 4, 1265, where Montfort's barber, who had climbed the abbey tower, spotted Edward's troops approaching from all sides.
Realizing that he was trapped, Montfort urged his closest allies to flee while there was time. To Despenser he is reported to have said, "My lord Hugh, consider your great age and look to saving yourself; consider the fact that your counsel can still be of great value to the whole country, for you will leave behind hardly anyone of such great value and worth." Hugh replied, "My lord, my lord, let it be. Today we shall all drink from one cup, just as we have in the past."
What followed was the slaughter of Montfort's troops. Hugh fell before Montfort did, dying by the thrust of a dagger, apparently at the hand of Roger Mortimer. Montfort, his horse having been killed beneath him, fought mightily but was at last killed by the king's men, who proceeded to dismember his corpse. A manuscript illustration shows Montfort's headless body, arms and feet severed, lying by Despenser's body.
Hugh's body and that of Montfort's eldest son, Henry, along with Montfort's torso, were taken to Evesham Abbey for burial by the foot of the steps leading to the high altar. Funeral services were held for all three men by the monks of Evesham.
Back in London, Hugh's widow, Aline, had been left in charge of the Tower and the royal prisoners lodged there. (Eerily, in 1326, the soon-to-be-widowed Eleanor de Clare, the wife of Aline's grandson, Hugh le Despenser the younger, would be left by her husband in a similar position at the Tower.) Hearing of the disaster at Evesham, Aline freed the prisoners, surrendered the Tower to the king's men, and sought out the protection of her father, who had evidently been freed from prison at some earlier point. Her decision to flee, while it lacked the grandeur of the defiance of Montfort's widow, who held Dover Castle against the king until October, was a sensible one for a young woman, probably barely out of her teens, with a four-year-old son and other small children in her care. Philip Basset used his influence with the restored Henry III to see that his daughter was well taken care of: thanks to his efforts, the Despenser lands passed to Aline's son intact. By 1271, Aline had remarried, probably at her father's arrangement. Her second husband, Roger Bigod, was the son of the justiciar who had preceded Despenser and the heir to the earldom of Norfolk. Aline thus became a countess, but documents suggests that she retained an affection for her first husband; she styled herself, "Aline le Despenser, Countess of Norfolk." She died in 1281.
At Evesham Abbey, the body of Simon de Montfort, which was reputed to work miracles, attracted pilgrims. Hugh's body was also credited with healing the blind and the crippled. Evesham Abbey was largely destroyed during the dissolution, though its Bell Tower, erected centuries after Evesham, and some fragments remain. Stained-glass windows in nearby St. Lawrence's church depict Montfort, Despenser, and others taking their last communion before battle.
Despenser's death at Evesham would have repercussions in the fourteenth century; according to the Vita Edwardi Secundi, his grandson, Hugh le Despenser the younger, was determined to avenge his grandfather's death upon Roger Mortimer, grandson of the man who had slain the justiciar at Evesham. The killing at Evesham was also a precursor of the ill fate that was to dog the family for the next century. Despenser's son and grandson were executed in 1326; another descendant, Thomas le Despenser, was beheaded by a Bristol mob in 1400. Hugh le Despenser (d. 1349) and his nephew Edward both enjoyed successful military careers, but died in their prime, Hugh possibly of the plague. Richard le Despenser, heir to Thomas, died in his teens. One hopes that Hugh the justiciar, knowing as he stood in Evesham Abbey that August 4, 1265, would be his last day on earth, was spared a glimpse into the future.
D. C. Cox, The Battle of Evesham: A New Account.
Anne Crawford, ed., Letters of Medieval Women.
C. H. Knowles, "The Justiciarship in England, 1258–1265," in British Government and Administration, ed. H. Hearder and H. R. Loyn.
Martyn John Lawrence, Power, Ambition and Political Rehabilitation: The Despensers, c.1281–1400 (unpublished dissertation, University of York).
J. R. Maddicott, Simon de Montfort.
Marc Morris, The Bigod Earls of Norfolk in the Thirteenth Century.
Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online version).
F. M. Powicke, King Henry III and the Lord Edward: The Community of the Realm in the Thirteenth Century.
R. E. Treharne and I. J. Sanders, Documents of the Baronial Movement of Reform and Rebellion 1258–1267.
Scott L. Waugh, The Lordship of England: Royal Wardship and Marriages in English Society and Politics 1217–1327.
Copyright © 2007 Susan Higginbotham