Lady Despenser's Scribery - Introduction
- This small corner of the web concentrates mainly on the life and times of Hugh Despenser the younger, as well as the reign of Edward II and the fourteenth century in general. It contains snippets of some (though certainly not all) of the research I have done in order to write a novel about him (and hopefully, later, a biography as well). Oh yes, some 21st century stuff sneaks its way in too, from time to time!
Sunday, 20 April 2008
Thomas, Earl of Lancaster, Pt 2
Part 2 - 1314 - 1318
The year 1314 saw yet another Scottish campaign. Edward issued writs summoning his earls and their armies to battle. Pembroke, Gloucester and Hereford answered the call but Lancaster, Warenne, Warwick and Arundel did not - claiming that parliament had not ratified the summons. Without their numbers, Edward was weakened but still continued, ending with his sound and humiliating defeat at Bannockburn in June at which Gloucester was killed.
The ignominy of the Scottish campaign seemed to completely dampen Edward’s spirits, as if they weren’t low enough since Gaveston’s death. He suddenly seemed to accept that he needed Lancaster’s help and that his defeat had been some kind of divine message over his refusal to support the Ordinances. After Bannockburn, Lancaster rose to power once more, taking a leading role in government and implementing all of the Ordinances. Edward was forced to listen to his council and take his advice. Lancaster was the most powerful earl in the land once again but his power was based far more on his vast estates rather than on his friends and connections which seemed to be getting fewer and fewer (through both death and desertion) as time went by.
The death of his father in law, de Lacy, in 1311 had brought him two new earldoms - those of Lincoln and Salisbury. This meant that he was now in control of five earldoms and land which more or less stretched from coast to coast in England. His income was valued at around £11,000 a year making him the wealthiest of all the magnates apart from the king himself. Such vast lands meant that he also had a huge retinue across a large swathe of England - a private army upon which he could call to defend his position should he need to do so. And yet, within a few years, it would all change again due to his ineptitude, greed and lack of political judgement.
The years between 1314 and 1317 were particularly hard ones for Edward II and his regime to deal with. For a start the Scots continued to attack the north of England with impunity and between 1315 and 1317 a famine ravaged the land. These were the years when England needed a strong king and officials - instead it got Edward and Lancaster. To be fair, Lancaster did his best to implement the Ordinances in full, purging the royal household and local government of men thought to be bad for the running of the country (in other words hostile to Lancaster), and he also attempted to get the country’s finances back into shape by limiting spending. Unfortunately his plans to lead a campaign to Scotland in 1315 came to nothing when the famine thwarted any attempts to provision the army and he also had to deal with a revolt on his lands led by one of his retainers, Adam Banaster. To add to his woes, his main ally, the earl of Warwick, died in August.
From that point Lancaster was rarely seen at Westminster, preferring to govern from his own lands instead. Maybe it was the fear of further revolt that kept him at home or else the uncomfortable atmosphere that must have still existed between him and the king after Gaveston’s death. Although he still championed reform and gave advice it was clear that the gap between himself and Edward was growing. At a parliament in York in 1316 they had a blazing quarrel about the king’s continuing reluctance to implement the Ordinances. Later that year salt was rubbed into the wound as the Queen’s candidate for the see of Durham was chosen above Lancaster’s choice. And then, to cap it all, he was replaced by the earl of Arundel as the Captain of the Northern Forces.
Lancaster’s self-imposed absence from court during these years did him no favours, especially when he also refused to attend the council of Ordainers at Clarendon in 1317. It seemed that Edward was setting up his own little council circle consisting of men who, by marriage and favouritism, had suddenly become powerful: Hugh Audley, Roger Damory, William Montague and Hugh Despenser the elder. Audley and Damory had married two of the co-heiresses of the Gloucester inheritance - Margaret and Elizabeth respectively. The other sister, Eleanor, was, of course, married to Hugh Despenser the younger, a man who in another year would out-shine and out-do the others in terms of Edward’s adoration and his own ambitions.
Meanwhile, to add to Lancaster’s trouble, his wife was abducted by John de Warenne, earl of Surrey in April 1317. Although their marriage seems to have been loveless, it was the principle that was at stake and the event started a feud between Lancaster and Surrey. Surrey’s marriage was also loveless - in fact he had made a lifetime career of trying to divorce his wife, Joan of Bar. However, there does not seem to be any suggestion of a romance between him and Alice de Lacy, which is a shame because it would have made for a good story. Instead it has been suggested - first of all by Lancaster himself, that the abduction was carried out with help from others at Edward’s court, so maybe it was a move designed to humiliate him. I can certainly imagine that a few of his enemies found the whole thing humourous to say the least.
The favourites Damory and Audley (and to a lesser extent Montague) were still living off the King’s largesse like parasites, the elder Despenser still close to Edward, and with the other earls and barons now seemingly reconciled to the way things were. No wonder then that Lancaster felt he had no choice but to show his dissent through violent action. He launched attacks on the lands of both Damory and Warenne, seizing castles belonging to them and raising the spectre of civil war. It has also been suggested that he was behind an attack on Louis Beaumont - the new Bishop of Durham, and his brother Henry - as well as two papal legates, but as there is no real evidence of his complicity in the plot, it is perhaps best to give him the benefit of the doubt on this one.
To be fair to Lancaster, many of his complaints against the court - such as lack of adherence to the Ordinances, were justified, and his objections by letter did as much good as a paper boat in a flood. Nevertheless, what he did next was irrational, even by his standards of diplomacy - he tried to bring in the Scots on his side - a move that was guaranteed to get Edward’s attention.
No matter how angry he was with Lancaster though, it was still within Edward’s best interests to try and negotiate with his cousin. Lancaster still represented a powerful force for instability within the country and with his large retinue, land ownership and a possible alliance with Bruce, he posed a considerable threat to Edward’s regime. Mediation was attempted through the prelates, the earls of Pembroke and Hereford and also Bartholomew Badlesmere. To try and soothe troubled waters, the three nobles managed to get Damory to agree to constrain the amount of patronage he received from the king - but to Lancaster this was never going to be enough. His demands remained constant - the enforcement of the Ordinances and the removal of men such as Damory and Audley from the court altogether - with their grants confiscated.
Of course, Edward was never going to agree to that and so the negotiations continued, the arguments going back and forth. Eventually, an agreement was reached in August 1318 at Leake in Staffordshire. Known as the Treaty of Leake, it acknowledged that the Ordinances were to be maintained and that this would be overseen by a new council. However, on this council, Lancaster was to be represented by a banneret only - and - even worse for him - many of the members of the council were the courtiers that Lancaster so detested. On the plus side though, Lancaster and his followers were to receive pardons for any wrong-doing.
The Treaty of Leake was confirmed by the York parliament of October 1318 which saw more changes. There was a limited reform of the king’s household - which included the appointment of Hugh Despenser the younger to the powerful position of Chamberlain. Amazingly Lancaster seems to have given his consent - albeit probably reluctantly - to his selection, even though he detested Hugh the elder’s influence. Maybe it was because at the time the younger Hugh was not high in Edward’s favour and therefore was not seen as another potential Gaveston or Damory. Also, it seems that Hugh gave an undertaking not to bring his father into the presence of the king, which suggests that there was an understanding that Hugh and his father were not, at that moment, very close. It certainly appears, at this moment in time, that the barons thought Hugh Despenser was their man. How wrong could they be?
But back to Lancaster. Why then did he just seem to lie down and roll over after making such forcible protests? It seems that his principles actually weren’t quite so strong in the face of financial inducements. Edward arranged for several courtiers to acknowledge debts to him for large amounts of money. More importantly, Warenne was ‘persuaded’ into making peace with his former enemy - and granted him all of his lands in Yorkshire and North Wales. In some ways Lancaster had come out of the situation quite well - in terms of financial and land gain anyway. But morally he had completely lost the high ground and in doing so allowed a man into power - Hugh Despenser the younger - who was to prove so instrumental in his eventual downfall.