HUGH LE DESPENSER (1262-1326), English courtier, was a son of the English justiciar who died at Evesham. He fought for Edward I. in Wales, France and Scotland, and in 1295 was summoned to parliament as a baron. Ten years later he was sent by the king to Pope Clement V. to secure Edward's release from the oaths he had taken to observe the charters in 1297. Almost alone Hugh spoke out for Edward II.'s favourite, Piers Gaveston, in 1308; but after Gaveston's death in 1312 he himself became the king's chief adviser, holding power and influence until Edward's defeat at Bannockburn in 1314. Then, hated by the barons, and especially by Earl Thomas of Lancaster, as a deserter from their party, he was driven from the council, but was quickly restored to favour and loaded with lands and honours, being made earl of Winchester in 1322. Before this time Hugh's son, the younger Hugh le Despenser, had become associated with his father, and having been appointed the king's chamberlain was enjoying a still larger share of the royal favour. About 1306 this baron had married Eleanor (d. 1337), one of the sisters and heiresses of Gilbert de Clare, earl of Gloucester, who was slain at Bannockburn; and after a division of the immense Clare lands had been made in 1317 violent quarrels broke out between the Despensers and the husbands of the other heiresses, Roger of Amory and Hugh of Audley. Interwoven with this dispute was another between the younger Despenser and the Mowbrays, who were supported by Humphrey Bohun, earl of Hereford, about some lands in Glamorganshire. Fighting having begun in Wales and on the Welsh borders, the English barons showed themselves decidedly hostile to the Despensers, and in 1321 Edward II. was obliged to consent to their banishment. While the elder Hugh left England the younger one remained; soon the king persuaded the clergy to annul the sentence against them, and father and son were again at court. They fought against the rebellious barons at Boroughbridge, and after Lancaster's death in 1322 they were practically responsible for the government of the country, which they attempted to rule in a moderate and constitutional fashion. But their next enemy, Queen Isabella, was more formidable, or more fortunate, than Lancaster. Returning to England after a sojourn in France in 1326 the queen directed her arms against her husband's favourites. The elder Despenser was seized at Bristol, where he was hanged on the 27th of October 1326, and the younger was taken with the king at Llantrisant and hanged at Hereford on the 24th of November following. The attainder against the Despensers was reversed in 1398. The intense hatred with which the barons regarded the Despensers was due to the enormous wealth which had passed into their hands, and to the arrogance and rapacity of the younger Hugh.
The younger Despenser left two sons, Hugh (1308-1349), and Edward, who was killed at Vannes in 1342.
The latter's son Edward Le Despenser (d. 1375) fought at the battle of Poitiers, and then in Italy for Pope Urban V.; he was a patron of Froissart, who calls him le grand sire Despensier. His son, Thomas Le Despenser (1373-1400), the husband of Constance (d. 1416), daughter of Edmund of Langley, duke of York, supported Richard II. against Thomas of Woodstock, duke of Gloucester, and the other lords appellant in 1397, when he himself was created earl of Gloucester, but he deserted the king in 1399. Then, degraded from his earldom for participating in Gloucester's death, Despenser joined the conspiracy against Henry IV., but he was seized and was executed by a mob at Bristol in January 1400.
The elder Edward le Despenser left another son, Henry (c. 1341-1406), who became bishop of Norwich in 1370. In early life Henry had been a soldier, and when the peasants revolted in 1381 he took readily to the field, defeated the insurgents at North Walsham, and suppressed the rising in Norfolk with some severity. More famous, however, was the militant bishop's enterprise on behalf of Pope Urban VI., who in 1382 employed him to lead a crusade in Flanders against the supporters of the anti-pope Clement VII. He was very successful in capturing towns until he came before Ypres, where he was checked, his humiliation being completed when his army was defeated by the French and decimated by a pestilence. Having returned to England the bishop was impeached in parliament and was deprived of his lands; Richard II., however, stood by him, and he soon regained an influential place in the royal council, and was employed to defend his country on the seas. Almost alone among his peers Henry remained true to Richard in 1399; he was then imprisoned, but was quickly released and reconciled with the new king, Henry IV. He died on the 23rd of August 1406. Despenser was an active enemy of the Lollards, whose leader, John Wycliffe, had fiercely denounced his crusade in Flanders.
The barony of Despenser, called out of abeyance in 1604, was held by the Fanes, earls of Westmorland, from 1626 to 1762; by the notorious Sir Francis Dashwood from 1763 to 1781; and by the Stapletons from 1788 to 1891. In 1891 it was inherited, through his mother, by the 7th Viscount Falmouth.
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