Piers Gaveston and Hugh Despenser the Younger are two names that are synonymous with Edward II. The first, the royal favourite and lover who was brutally murdered for his control of royal patronage and in consequence of his dramatic elevation to the highest ranks of medieval fourteenth century English society, still dominates the popular imagination. The latter, Hugh Despenser the Younger, is infamous for his tyranny, despotism, brutality and shameful policies which collectively brought about the downfall of both himself and his king who did little to stop him. Yet, the middle years of the reign of Edward II (r.1307-1327), sees the rise of a gaggle of royal favourites, who each in their own way, secured political power, land, titles and lucrative marriages; above all they became the bitterest of enemies to the king’s cousin, Thomas of Lancaster. Yet when I ask today if anyone has heard of them, no one can recall them; their individual marks in history now long forgotten. They are Roger Damory, Hugh Audley the Younger and William Montacute.
Roger Damory was a modest knight who was initially bound in service to Edward II’s nephew Gilbert de Clare, earl of Gloucester. Gilbert was killed at the young age of twenty-three when he charged at the joint head of the vanguard into a schiltrom wall of spears at the fateful battle of Bannockburn, fought at midsummer in June 1314. Either in the course of battle in which Edward fought fiercely with a battle axe or possibly during the confused retreat, Damory protected the king along with others securing Edward’s long escape to England. From then on he appears to have caught the king’s eye. Whether it was for his martial skill or perhaps because of a physical attraction it is hard to know, but what is certain is that shortly after the battle Edward II began to find reasons to draw Roger Damory closer to his company. Rather poignantly, only six months after Bannockburn, on Christmas Eve 1314, Edward granted to Damory custody of Piers Gaveston’s former castle of Knaresborough in Yorkshire and where they had spent a lot of their time together.(1) A month later, the king made Roger a royal household knight and formally ordered that he remain at court in Edward’s presence. From here on in, the two men spent significant time together, with Roger gaining the king’s ear and much else.
Like with Piers Gaveston before, close proximity to the king gave Damory both influence and position. The gifts began to flow. On 28 February 1315, he obtained from Edward lands in northern England to look after whilst the heir was in his minority (under age).(2) These lucrative wardships were highly prized because the keeper of a ward was entitled to the major revenues from those lands until the heir came of age. Another such grant followed in August 1316.(3) Like Gaveston, Damory frequently witnessed charters and chancery writs throughout the middle years of the reign, meaning he must have been in Edward’s presence a lot to have undertaken such tasks. It may well be that the two had become lovers but this still remains pure speculation.
Hugh Audley the Younger was the son of the well respected Hugh Audley, a knight long in royal service. It is most probable that Hugh came to Edward’s attention as a result of his presence at court and became a royal household knight in November 1311, around the time that Piers Gaveston was being forced into his third and final exile by the major magnates of England. Much like Damory, but to a lesser extent initially, Hugh to began to receive royal patronage that helped raise his position. Before long Audley and Damory were boon companions and both favourites at court.
William Montacute, whose son and namesake would help Edward III overthrow Roger Mortimer at Nottingham Castle in October 1330, was also a royal household knight and began to receive gifts of land, no more so than the lucrative estates formerly held by William de Karliolo, a northern rebel who had turned coat and joined the Scots.(4) In the same year, Montacute also received the wardship of the son of Herbert de Maresco.(5). By 1316, William was made steward of the king’s household, a position that granted him enormous influence at court and direct access to the king. He was therefore a man of position and an important political figure within the system of medieval household government. By 1317, both Damory and Montacute contracted to serve the king for life in return for an annuity of 200 marks each.(6)They had no intention of going anywhere other than residing by Edward’s side which the king was clearly all too happy to oblige.
The rise of these royal favourites soon received much public scorn, especially from chroniclers at the time. The writer of the Flores Historiarum accuses them of ‘rising up in the shadow of the king’ and rather more excitingly, of ‘being more wicked than even Gaveston’. Trevet accused them each of trying to ‘steel other men’s good’ which sounds all too familiar criticism which was levied at Piers Gaveston; most of it untrue. (7)They were simply men on the make and they made it well and made it fast. When the earldom of Gloucester was divided by Edward three years after the earl had died at Bannockburn without male issue, it was done so between the three de Clare sisters and the late earl’s widow. It was Damory and Audley who were soon married to two of the de Clare heirs. Audley married Margaret, the widow of Piers Gaveston, whilst Damory married the youngest sister Elizabeth. Overnight, these two men who now owned lands with an annual income of just under £2,000 each, were thrust into the forefront of the baronage. They did not get an earldom, but their incomes and other land grants, coupled with their closeness to the king, made them formidable. The third de Clare sister, Eleanor, was already married to Hugh Despenser the Younger in 1306; Hugh being far from Edward’s gaze at this point in the reign was yet to play such a devastating role in later events. Such an elevation for Damory and Audley marked them out as ambitious and by such virtue, dangerous.
The middle years of the reign of Edward II were marked by the ten year struggle between the king and his cousin, Thomas of Lancaster, the man who had principally taken ownership for the brutal murder of Edward’s lover Piers Gaveston in June 1312. Lancaster, the premier earl in England, holding five earldoms with a vast annual income of over £11,000, dominated the north especially. He was difficult, arrogant and irascible, refusing to work with either the king or his councillors through much of the period unless Edward purged his household, removed the royal favourites, and upheld the Ordinances; legislation imposed to limit Edward’s royal authority which effectively created a constitutional straight jacket. Edward, as you can imagine, resisted at nearly every turn. Because of the earl’s general behaviour, Lancaster became highly isolated amongst his peers, especially after late 1315, even with moderates at court like Aymer de Valence, earl of Pembroke and cousin to the king and Humphrey de Bohun, earl of Hereford & Essex and Edward’s brother-in-law.
However, like all old fashion bullies, Lancaster used his sheer might and the perception of his power to intimidate and cajole the king, causing bitter resentment on both sides. The king, unable to outwit his over-mighty cousin without bringing the country to civil war during times of potential Scottish invasion, and seeking the means to take his personal revenge for the murder of Piers Gaveston, fought back with what means he had. This is no more evident than in raising up men loyal to the crown. Men whose loyalty were to the king alone. The rise of these favourites is in part as much to do with Edward’s need for support as it was Lancaster’s bullying tactics, which is often overlooked. Edward’s favourites were not there simply because the king was bored or infatuated, the detail is more complex. However, the net effect created a deadly stalemate that weakened Edward’s rule and undermined any determined response in aid of the Scottish campaign against Robert the Bruce right up until Lancaster’s fall and execution in 1322; some ten years after Gaveston’s murder. As the royal favourites grew confident, so to did their open criticism of Lancaster. Before long, the earl was being openly accused of treachery and deceit. In an age when such accusations demanded a direct response, what would follow would almost inevitably be entirely confrontational. Add in the earl’s taste for violence and these were suddenly dangerous times.
By 1318, three years after the royal favourites had come to power, tension mounted as the stage was set for open hostility between these men, the king and his over-mighty cousin. England was on the brink of civil war not seen since the days of Henry III’s struggle with Simon de Montfort in the early 1260’s. What happened next is worthy of a Game of Thrones novel and is the subject of part two, so order in the popcorn, purchase the wine and get ready to settle down for much medieval melodrama.
(1) Calendar of Fine Rolls, 1307-19, 225
(2) Ibid, 237
(3) Ibid, 316-17
(4) Calendar of Charter Rolls, 1300-26, 403
(5) CFR, 1307-19, 337
(6) Maddicott, JR. Thomas of Lancaster, 1307-1322: A Study in the Reign of Edward II (Oxford, 1970), 194
(7) Flores Historiarum, iii, ed H.R. Guard, Rolls Series (London, 1890), 178. Trevet, Nicholas, Annales Sex Regim Angliae, ed. Hog, TH. English Historical Society Publications, ix (London, 1845), 20
Feature: King Arthur and his Knights – Thomas Malory, 1460. ENGL 622
Image One: Three Knights – MS. 137/1687, for. 144r
Image Two: Feast – Bodleian Library. Bodley 264