Ancient Customs & Conflict: Edward II & the Contrariant Rebels (Part Two)

[Following on from ‘Ancient Customs & Conflict: Edward II & the Contrariant Rebels (Part One), below is the concluding part to what happened next].


As the Christmas court broke up in early January 1321, the Marcher lords, which now included Roger Mortimer of Wigmore, recently returned from Ireland, retired to their estates and began preparations for open conflict. Edward, aware of the tension, was kept informed of developments through key officials such as Robert Baldock in the north, Despenser’s sheriff in Glamorgan, and William de Aune, constable of Edward’s castle at Tickhill. Despenser turned his immediate attention to his lands instructing his sheriff to ensure their defence.[1]

Thomas, Earl of Lancaster – Edward’s cousin and principal opponent – had remained on his extensive estates throughout 1320 and watched the situation unfold from behind his mighty walls at Pontefract Castle. On 22 February he chose to step into the fray, albeit tentatively. A meeting was held at Pontefract, mostly attended by northern lords but which may have included the Earl of Hereford, Mowbray and others. On 24 May, still at Pontefract, Lancaster held another with the northern barons, but they refused to join the conflict with the Marcher lords. For those coming from South Wales, attacking the Despensers was, they felt, their only option. By March, Edward must have heard that an attack was imminent. As a test of loyalty, the king ordered Roger Mortimer of Chirk, who was Justice of North Wales and the uncle of Roger Mortimer of Wigmore, to place Edward’s castles into a state of defence.[2] The ruse played out for Mortimer immediately joined his nephew in revolt.

Edward & Hugh travelled west in a show of royal strength securing royal castles as they went

The king could no longer trust those in the area and on 6 March, with Despenser the Younger at his side, they set out from Windsor and travelled west to Gloucester in a show of strength, seizing one of the major royal armouries at the castle of St Briavel’s as he went, from Roger Damory, former royal favourite now displaced by Despenser. In a pointed attack on his other former favourite, the king confiscated all of Hugh Audley’s estates, citing his broken faith, which had been laid out in contract only a few years earlier with the king. It was a highly provocative and arbitrary move that drove Audley further towards rebellion. As events became more polarised, Edward ordered Hereford and the two Mortimers of Chirk and Wigmore, Roger Damory, John Charlton and others to attend a council meeting with him and Despenser in order to hear their complaints.[3] The Marcher lords declared that they would attend if Despenser was removed from the king’s presence and placed in the custody of the Earl of Lancaster until a forthcoming parliament, where their charges could be safely put to him to obtain the king’s justice.[4] For Edward, the mere suggestion of Lancaster – his much hated cousin – was enough to render any potential compromise a dead letter. The suggestion had all the hallmarks of Edward’s previous experience in 1312 with the capture of his lover Piers Gaveston at Scarborough Castle. That promise of safe custody had resulted in Gaveston’s brutal murder. Rebel baronial promises could not be counted upon. Edward had learnt the lesson the hard way and so refused outright. Instead, the king was astute in his response, claiming that he could not hand Hugh over to Lancaster, citing his coronation oath, the Ordinances of 1311, Magna Carta and the common law, because Despenser had not been accused of a crime. Instead, those in opposition were ordered to attend the king to discuss a date for the next parliament.[5] Without any further opportunity to bring the Marcher lords to heel, Edward turned around and made his way back towards London in anticipation of a forthcoming parliament, ordering on 13 April that the Marcher lords keep the peace.[6]

With Despenser still firmly by Edward’s side, Hereford, the two Mortimers, Damory, Roger Clifford, Audley the Younger and his father also called Hugh, and others turned to open conflict. The rebellion began on 4 May 1321 at Despenser’s town of Newport in Glamorgan, which, after its fall, was handed to Audley as due compensation for Gwynllwg. Cardiff and Swansea in Gower were captured in quick succession.[7] The rebellion was targeted, hard-hitting and brutal. Despenser’s constable, captured as Neath Castle fell, was beheaded along with Philip le Keu.[8] Extensive damage to over twenty manors, castles, towns and estates mounted to £14,000. With their immediate successes apparent, the lust for Despenser’s overthrow became even more insatiable. Encouraged by Thomas of Lancaster still sitting behind the walls of his mighty castle at Pontefract, Despenser’s lands in England were also singled out. Hugh Despenser the Elder, tainted by his son’s behaviour and perhaps just as complicit, saw his lands across seventeen counties attacked, the devastation amounting to a staggering £38,000 of damage.[9] The spoils were divided among the rebels.[10] According to the contemporary author of the Vita Edwardi Secundi, Despenser’s tenants appealed to the Marcher lords for clemency, claiming that they never liked their lord. The Marchers agreed to move on if ‘they would wholly renounce their homage to Hugh Despenser, that they would never acknowledge him as lord, but remain faithful to the lord king in all things…all these things they solemnly confirmed having touched and kissed the Holy Gospels’.[11] Edward had created a firestorm and was unable to do anything to quell it.

After two months of sustained attacks, which went largely unchecked, the Marcher lords, known to contemporaries in the rebellion as ‘contrariants’ and who wore green and yellow tunics as a show of unity, headed north to Sherburn-in-Elmet to meet Lancaster. Also in attendance was Edward’s loyal Archbishop of York, as well as the bishops of Durham and Carlisle, who acted as mediators.[12]

The contrariants head to Thomas of Lancaster for support in their rebellion

The attacks on Despenser lands, which remained under the protection of the king, were acts of open defiance. The Marchers lords desperately needed legal justification for their actions and this meeting, divided into two sessions at Sherburn, set out to establish it. Lancaster, using his position as Steward of England and supported by the assembles prelates and the Earl of Angus, acted as an audience before which the Marcher lords could lay their grievances. The pretext that the Steward was second only to the king and was able to bring about redress if the crimes undermined the king, the kingdom, or if the king himself was unable to offer recourse, provided a loose legal framework on which to find the justification they needed. What followed was an indenture which set out this legal position claiming that the ever-increasing oppressions of the Despensers, the younger in particular, could only be met with force. Their response was designed to protect the king, the kingdom, the children of the king, the Holy Church and the honour of God.[13] Not all agreed to this all to conveniently crafted ‘custom’, the role of the Steward in this arena being more than questionable. Despite the efforts of Hereford and Lancaster, the northern magnates stood by the king, their aims based solely on the defence of the north against the daily threats from the Scots who were frequently raiding through northern England under the leadership of Robert I, King of Scots. The concerns of the Marcher lords, they felt, where just that, concerns of the Welsh March, and this was echoed by the prelates, who were there as mediators only.[14] The Marcher lords therefore had no choice but to agree among themselves to hold out alone and so they turned their attention to London and the king who was waiting for them at Westminster.

Edward II had learnt his lessons from the capture and murder of Piers Gaveston in 1312, when his leading magnates had hunted down his lover with the aim to physically remove him from the king. As revolt raged in South Wales, the king’s council, which included the moderate and calming influence of the Earl of Pembroke who was briefly back from France, met on 17 May and was immediately divided between those who favoured a martial response and others who suggested redress through the application of a legal process in parliament.[15] In the end, the king, under the briefly restored influence of Pembroke, followed the moderate approach and summoned parliament to meet on 15 July at Westminster in the hope that the summons would take the heat out of the situation.[16] The ploy failed as the Marcher lords through the remaining part of May and June continued to devastate the lands of the Despensers.

As the attacks continued, Edward took steps to ensure that this time his royal favourite could not fall into the hands of his enemies, and sent him either to sea or to France with Pembroke. Whether Despenser the Younger made it to the Continent is unclear but what is certain is that from June through until the end of summer, he remained at sea under the protection of the Cinque Ports and even captured and sequestered the goods of two Genoese trading vessels that may have belonged to Antonio Pessagno, his greed as insatiable as ever.[17] Years later, Edward III was obliged to make payment of 8,000 marks in compensation for the mercantile goods Despenser stole that summer (a payment that acts as one piece of evidence for the argument of the potential survival of Edward II after his alleged murder in 1327). As Despenser left for the sea, the king removed a loyal counsellor Bartholomew Badlesmere as constable of the strategically important castle and town at Dover and replaced him with Edward’s youngest half-brother Edmund of Woodstock.[18] As the Sherburn meeting got underway in the north at the end of June, and with Despenser the Younger now safely out of the kingdom, the king sent another long-standing moderate counsellor, Walter Reynolds, Archbishop of Canterbury, and Badlesmere to the gathering to insist that the attacks cease, at the same time inviting the magnates to parliament. At the critical juncture, Badlesmere unexpectedly switched sides and took up with the rebels, being sorely disappointed with Edward’s recent grant to his brother Edmund, and probably resentful over the influence Despenser now had over the king which had displaced Badlesmere’s voice of moderation at court.[19] Edward was shocked by this last minute betrayal of a man who had stood by him for years. The omen for what was to come, did not look promising.

The contrariants remained determined to bring about the exile of the Despensers, and threatening deposition of the king created a tense and highly volatile situation.

Parliament opened at Westminster on 15 July; the Marcher lords with their 5,000 men-at-arms arrived at St Albans, north of London, a week later. Lancaster remained at Pontefract. Edward had taken the precaution of ensuring the loyalty of the City of London and its mayor Hamo de Chigwell. As the roads to the city remained blocked, the Archbishop of Canterbury, the bishops of London, Salisbury, Ely, Hereford and Chichester, left the king to mediate with the earls. It was not long before Walter Reynolds returned with the expected news that the Marchers lords would accept nothing other than the permanent exile of the Despensers, which Edward flatly rejected, changing tack by refusing to meet with them.[20]

On 29 July 1321, the Marcher lords entered the city and took up key positions stretching east to west. As their demands remained unchanged Edward remained defiant, still refusing to meet them.[21] As a tense and dangerous stalemate followed, the Earl of Pembroke arrived back in London from France. He was one of the few remaining at court who still had a chance of countering Despenser’s influence. With Hugh absent, Pembroke took his opportunity and with the remaining earls still loyal to the king, Arundel, Surrey and Richmond met with the Marchers. The following discussions were intense as the rebels were keen to draw Pembroke over to their cause.

Returning with the remaining earls, Pembroke outlined the position to Edward. As Vita suggests, to best protect the king, they had taken an oath with the Marcher lords to defend their grievances against the Despensers to the death.[22] The gravity of Edward’s situation became absolutely clear when Pembroke pleaded with him to exile the Despensers as the majority of his former supporters had asked for, rather than bring the country to ruin. Edward, suddenly bereft of real tangible support, nevertheless stubbornly refused. The king was never more stubborn when caught on the defence, and he always defended his sovereign rights against a nobility he had become inherently suspicious of, even before Gaveston’s murder nearly a decade earlier. Pembroke had no alternative but to make it clear that if the king did not change his mind, then the magnates would seek to depose him and in this Pembroke would also withdraw his homage to the king. Edward must have been devastated both by the threat of deposition and the loss of Pembroke’s unwavering support over the last decade, a man who had been his closest and most trusted counsellor since 1312. This had now become the greatest crisis of his reign as those about him, including his former moderate counsellors, were forced to make threats against the king in the face of Despenser’s rapacity. The threats were far more real than during the crisis with Gaveston in the early years of the reign, as Edward now had an heir who could replace him. Though the option of installing a young king was fraught with difficulties, there was however no legal precedent in England for royal deposition. Yet the threat hung heavy in the hot and stale summer air.

Despite the threats, the king replied that he could not disinherit anyone without a hearing and attempted to buy time for Despenser, suggesting he leave temporarily for Ireland like Piers Gaveston had done in 1308. Edward acknowledged that the Despensers had behaved badly but on no account would he consider them traitors.[23] Up against it, Pembroke sought the formal political role of intercession from the queen; Isabella implored her husband on bended knee to exile the Despensers and save his realm, giving Edward the face-saving opportunity to back down without the loss of his reputation.[24] Even his wife, Edward must have felt, had now deserted him. Emotionally exhausted and with nowhere to go, the king finally and reluctantly gave way.

In his temporary exile, Hugh Despenser the Younger turned pirate, preying on foreign ships in the English channel.

On 14 August the king entered the hostile chamber at Westminster flanked by Pembroke and Richmond and there listened to the charges presented to him that indicted the Despensers for many perceived and some very real crimes.[25] Despenser the Younger in particular was accused of keeping his father at court when it was agreed he should not; of usurping royal power; of leading the king to do his will under duress so that if Edward refused, ‘ he did not forgive him when he did not do it’. He was accused of badly counselling the king and of ‘not allow[ing] the great men of the realm, or the good counsellors of the king, to speak with or approach the king, to counsel him well nor the king to speak with them, except in the presence and hearing of the said Sir Hugh and Sir Hugh [the Elder], or one of them, and at their will and bidding as they chose’.[26] Despenser was accused of influencing the king to take possession of Audley’s lands without due legal process, that he was plotting to overrun Damory’s lands as well as Hereford’s and Sir John Gifford’s; that he had seized Gower from John de Mowbray through deceit among other things. In recompense, the Despensers, Edward formally heard, were to be permanently exiled by the feast of the passion of St John the Baptist on 29 August, their children disinherited.[27]

Even at this stage the king made it clear that he had no intention of upholding the charges through a parliamentary statute which required his royal assent and so instead the magnates made a parliamentary award, which allowed them to bring about Despenser’s exile without it. Here Edward was making a statement; if the Despensers were to be removed from him it was neither through his design nor ultimately with his blessing. After weeks of verbal diplomatic rough handling from those closest to him, the king left the chamber ‘anxious and sad’.[28] Six days later, Edward issued formal pardons to all those who had been involved in the rebellion, later claiming he had only done so under coercion, effectively invalidating them.[29]

For all those involved, the immediate threat was removed but the cost was great. Many of Edward’s former supporters, whom had taken long to cultivate since 1314, had shown that they had little choice but to resort to force, or threats of deposition as a way to bring about the removal of the king’s closest favourites. Edward was a man who held grudges and Despenser had worked his way firmly into the king’s affections. Now Edward, forever sensitive to his royal dignity and having been forced against a backdrop of the very real threats of deposition to concede to baronial demands, wanted pure, cold vengeance. With his determination to reassert his royal prerogative and have the Despensers back at his side, it would only be a matter of time before the king would find a way of achieving his aims and, in doing so, tip England back towards war. Two days after parliament had brought about the exile of the Despensers at Westminster, the king dined with the aged and loyal Bishop of Rochester and complained that the Despensers had been unjustly condemned. Rochester replied that Edward could overcome the defeat, to which the king whispered ‘that he would within half a year make such an amend that the whole world would hear of it and tremble’.[30] Any hope of peace in England was dead.

Edward would stay true to his word.


Stephen Spinks is author of a medieval series of works focussing on the late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries. His books, available globally, include; Edward II the Man: A Doomed Inheritance and Robert the Bruce: Champion of a Nation


Further Reading:

A Lesson in Loyalty: The Life of Aymer de Valence, Earl of Pembroke (Part One) [3 September 2017,].(click here)

A Lesson in Loyalty: The Life of Aymer de Valence, Earl of Pembroke (Part Two) [26 January 2018, here)

A Royal Traitor: The Life & Execution of Thomas of Lancaster [22 March 2017,] (click here)

The Murder of Piers Gaveston: A Fourteenth Century Account [18 June 2018,](click here)

Piers Gaveston: Life, Love & Death (An Overview) [12 December 2016, here)

Isabella: Wife, Queen, Rebel (Part One) [22 April 2017,] (click here)

Extended evidential footnotes:

[1] Phillips, S. Edward II, (New Haven & London, 210), 373. Maddicott, J.R. Thomas of Lancaster, 1307-1322: A Study in the Reign of Edward II (Oxford, 1970), 264, 306.

[2] CCR, 1318-23, 290.

[3] CCR, 1318-23, 363-4. Maddicott, 265. Phillips, 375.

[4] Maddicott, 265-6.

[5] CCR, 1318-23, 367-8.

[6] Ibid, 366.

[7] Vita Edward Secundi, ed. N. Denholm-Young (London, 1957), 110. Davies, J.C ‘The Despenser War in Glamorgan’ in TRHS, 3rd series, ix (1915), 53.

[8] CPR, 1321-24, 167-8.

[9] Vita, 111. Davies, ‘Despenser’s War’, 56.

[10] Vita, 110.

[11] Ibid, 111.

[12] Flores Historiarum, vol 3, ed, H.R. Laud. Rolls Series (London, HMSO, 1890), 197. Gesta Edwardi de Caernarvon Auctore Canonica Bridlingtoniense, in Chronicles of the Reign of Edward I and Edward II, ii, ed, W. Stubbs, Rolls Series (London, 1882), 62. Maddicott, 274-5.

[13] Maddicott, 242-3. Phillips, 378-82.

[14] Wilkinson, B. The Sherburn Indenture and the Attack on the Despensers, 1321, EHR, lxiii (1948), 1-28.

[15] CCR, 1318-23, 367-8. Vita, 112.

[16] Vita, 112. Parliamentary Writs, 234-43.

[17] Scalacronica of Thomas Gray of Heton, ed. J. Stevenson, Maitland Club (Edinburgh, 1836), 70. Anonimalle Chronicle 1307 to 1334 from Brotherton Collection MS 29, ed. W.R. Childs and J. Taylor (Yorkshire Archaeological Society, cxxxi, part I (London, 1906), 101. Vita, 115-6.

[18] CFR, 1319-27, 62.

[19] Flores, 199.

[20] Annales  Paulini 1307-1340 in W. Stubbs, ed Chronicles of the Reigns of Edward I and Edward II, Vol I, Rolls Series, lxxvi (London, 1882), 293-4. Johannis de Trokelowe et Henrich de Blaneford Chronica et Annales, ed H.T. Riley, Rolls Series (London, HMSO, 1866), 109.

[21] Ann Paul, 294-6. Vita, 112.

[22] Vita, 112.

[23] Phillips, 287-8.

[24] Ann Paul, 297.

[25] Vita, 113-4. Ann Paul, 297.

[26] Phillips, 392. PROME, Parliament of 1321.

[27] Parliamentary texts, 168-9.

[28] Ann Paul, 207. Vita, 114-6. Anonimalle, 101. CCR, 1318-23, 494.

[29] Vita, 116.

[30] Phillips, 394.

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