After the Contrariants

The revolt of the Contrariants in 1322 eventually failed due to the lack of unity between the Lancastrian and Marcher components of the revolt leaving king Edward II, for the first time since the beginning of his reign in 1307, firmly in charge of affairs. In the parliament that met at York in May 1322 the Ordinances of 1311 were formerly revoked, the king's enemies formally attainted and the king's friends rewarded; Andrew de Harcla, the victor of Boroughbridge was made Earl of Carlisle and the elder Despenser became Earl of Winchester.

In August 1322, Edward decided to have another go at Scotland and assembled an army at Newcastle on Tyne with the intention of invading the north once more, but in October the English army was surprised by the Scots at Byland near Thirsk and defeated with the English commander John of Brittany, Earl of Richmond taken prisoner. Edward only just managed to escape the same fate himself, fleeing to the safety of York. In fact so eager was Edward to get away that he abandoned his wife Isabella to the mercies of the Scots, although the resourceful Isabella managed to make her way to Tynemouth and found a ship prepared to take her south.

Suitably humbled by Robert the Bruce once more Edward gave up any pretence of fighting the Scots and concluded a five year truce at Bishopthorpe in 1323.

The rule of the Despensers 1322-1327

As always Edward was not particularly interested in the business of government and handed the reins of authority over to his trusted favourites, Hugh Despenser father and son. For the next five years they ruled over England and whereas, on the face of things, their government seemed reasonably benign; there was no serious conflict, the Despensers adopted sensible measures for the encouragement of trade, etc their government was universally unpopular.

Hugh Despenser the Younger (and it was the son that took the lead) adopted the policy of accumulating as much money as he could, both for the Treasury and (more importantly) for himself. He lost no opportunity to use his position to enrich himself and no one was immune from his greed, even members of the king's family were forced to hand over assets to the seemingly insatiable Hugh Despenser.

Unfortunately as far as the rest of the country was concerned, the Despensers were almost completely unopposed as there was simply no one left to challenge them; all those who had opposed the king in 1322 where either dead or in prison. The old moderator Aymer de Valence who might have been relied upon to have exercised some restraint died in June 1324 during a diplomatic mission in France, whilst the only new earl was Henry of Lancaster, (who in 1324 obtained a partial restitution of his brother's estates together with the title of Earl of Leicester). Almost everyone who had the slightest connection with the rebels of 1322 found themselves at the mercy of Hugh Despenser, and forced to pay large fines or the loss of their lands.

The only major figures left were those of the two Roger Mortimers, uncle and nephew, who despite being convicted for treason after their surrender to the king in 1322, both Roger Mortimers found their sentence commuted to one of life imprisonment and were taken to the Tower of London. However rumours abounded that the Despensers would soon remedy this lapse and on the 1st August 1323 the younger Roger Mortimer executed a particularly daring escape from the Tower of London. Despite the frantic efforts made by the government to recapture him, Roger made his way from London to Portchester and from there to the Isle of Wight where a ship took him across the channel to France.

Saint Sardos and Isabella

French success in the War of Saint Sardos forced Edward to take some action to placate the French and resolve the outstanding issue of the homage due to the French king in respect of Edward's French possesions or risk the complete extinction of English Aquitaine. So in March 1325 his wife Isabella was despatched to France to treat with her brother the French king Charles IV and agree a solution to the problem of Aquitaine. On the 31st May 1325 Isabella reached agreement with her brother; Edward was to surrender Aquitaine to France, after which it would be regranted to him on terms. (Which included the requirement of French approval of any appointments made in the duchy and a bar against raising an army within Aquitaine.)

It wasn't a very good deal from the English point of view, but it represented the best that could be achieved in the circumstances and so Edward ratified the treaty on the 13th June. However there remained the awkward question of the personal homage required to be paid to the French king. Edward wanted to go himself but he was persuaded by Hugh Despenser to remain in England, as Despenser feared that once Edward was absent in France that he would suffer the same fate as Piers Gaveston.

So John Stratford the Bishop of Winchester was sent to France to negotiate an alternative. The bishop arrived at the French court in September with a two fold mission, persuade the French to accept homage from the young prince Edward and order Isabella to return home. He was successful in his first objective; it was agreed that Prince Edward would be invested with the title Duke of Aquitaine and provide the necessary homage in place of his father. The younger Edward duly arrived in Paris on the 22nd September accompanied by the Bishop of Winchester and Walter de Stapleton the Bishop of Exeter to fulfil this requirement.

But the Bishop of Winchester was less successful in terms of his second objective, Isabella first delayed her return to England and then flatly refused to go back. For whatever reason Isabella had decided to turn her back on her husband, perhaps it was her disgust at the nature of the Despenser government, or anger at the way that Hugh Despenser had acted to reduce her influence with the king or even the memory of her earlier abandonment to the tender mercies of the Scots. But whatever it was Isabella insisted on remaining in France, and what was worse from Edward II's point view, she had Prince Edward in her possession and would not let him return home either.

Roger and Isabella

Interpretations differ as to whether Roger and Isabella had established any kind of contact before they both found themselves in France, but one thing is clear, at some point towards the end of 1324, the two met and soon became lovers. Of course they both had spouses back in England, so the affair was doubly adulterous. This did not seem to bother, the king's half brother Edmund of Woodstock the Earl of Kent, who by now had become similarly disenchanted with the king and joined in with their plans, marrying one of Roger's kinswomen to seal the deal.

Roger Mortimer and Isabella now appear to have set themselves the goal of returning to England at the head of an invasion. Whilst their one advantage was that they now had possession of the young Prince Edward, the heir to the throne, who might serve as a figurehead for such an action, they lacked the means to put this into effect. The French king Charles IV had resolved his quarrel with Edward II to his satisfaction and wasn't particularly interested in becoming entangled in any conflict with English king. Therefore whilst he had no particular objection if someone else felt so inclined, he would offer no practical help.

Of course in England the fear of invasion grew stronger now that Mortimer had joined in alliance with the Queen and the Earl of Kent. Throughout 1325 and 1326 a state bordering on panic existed within the English government; Despenser's solution was to sent barrels of silver to bribe certain French courtiers to murder Isabella, but the plot was foiled when the shp carrying the treasure was intercepted.

Isabella travelled to her county of Pontieu to raise funds whilst Roger left France for Hainault where he had discovered an unlikely ally in the form of William the Good Count of Holland and Hainault. A bargain was struck between the count and the would be rulers of England; William would provide them with ships and men and in return the young Prince Edward would marry his daughter Philipa.

The invasion of England

By September 1326 William the Good had gathered together a fleet of almost a hundred ships to transport a force across the North Sea commanded by his younger brother John of Hainault. Roger, Isabella and Edmund of Woodstock together with Prince Edward then set sail from Brill and landed on the north bank of the river Orwell in Suffolk on the 26th September 1326.

The army under they command probably amounted to no more than a 1,000 to 1,500 men, but despite the comparatively small size of the invading force, Edward II decided to take no chances. On the 27th September he sent orders across the country for the mobilisation of the entire nation to crush the invaders. (Theoretically speaking a force of 47,460 men where being called into action.) And just to make it clear what was expected the king issued the following instuctions;

Whereas Roger Mortimer and other traitors of the king and his realm have entered the realm in force, and have brought with them foreign strangers for the purpose of taking the royal power from the king, the king wills you to go in force against his said enemies to arrest and destroy them, except the queen, his son and the Earl of Kent, whom he wills shall be saved.

To provide the necessary incentive the king additionay placed a bounty amounting to the enormous sum of £1,000 on Roger's head.

Roger and Isabella spent their first night at Walton, guests of Thomas of Brotherton Earl of Norfolk who, like his brother the Earl of Kent, had now abandoned the king. Additionally, a number of magnates who had obeyed Edward's orders to raise troops, such as Robert de Waterville and Thomas Wake did so only to join with the invaders, so that by the time that the invasion force had reached Dunstable when Henry of Lancaster turned up with his northern levies, it now presented a considerable threat.

Meanwhile Edward's army simply failed to materialise. Years of Despenser tyranny had engendered a certain lack of enthusiasm for defending the status quo and the call to arms was almost universally ignored. Transparently without the means to resist the invasion and with London slipping into disorder, on the 2nd October Edward abandoned the city and, taking with him the royal treasury amounting to some £30,000, made for Wales where he finally hoped to be able to recruit an army.

Where Edward went Roger and Isabella followed close behind, Oxford welcomed then and Wallingford Castle surrendered. On the 15th October Isabella issued a proclamation stating that she had come to rescue the country from the Despensers. On the same day something of a popular revolution broke out in London as popular hatred of the Despenser regime boiled over into mob violence. A man named John le Marshal, who was believed to be a Despenser spy, was dragged out of his house and taken to Cheapside where he was beheaded. The mob then chased down Walter de Stapeldon the Bishop of Exeter and Lord Treasurer and caught hold of him and two of his squires. He too was taken to Cheapside where his head was removed with a bread knife; his two companions suffered the same fate.

The mob then seized control of the Tower of London, took hold of John of Eltham (the younger son of Edward II and Isabella) and proclaimed him guardian of the city. Pleased with themselves the exultant Londoners then sent Stapeldon's head to Isabella at Gloucester. (What Isabella thought of this kind gift is not recorded.)

Roger and Isabella reached Bristol on the 18th October. The town opened its gates but Bristol Castle withstood them as this was where Hugh Despenser, Earl of Winchester had decided to make his stand. On the 26th October they stormed the castle, and seized hold of the elder Despenser.

Meanwhile Edward had decided to make a run for it; on the 21st October, together with the Lord Chancellor Robert Baldock, he had got aboard a ship bound for Ireland but bad weather meant that they only got as far as Cardiff. From there he moved to Caerphilly Castle and called on the men of south Wales to join him in defending his crown, but no one came.

This left the invaders with something of a constitutional conundrum regarding to who was actually in charge of the nation, since Edward II had abandoned the country. (Technically he was in the Marcher Lordship of Glamorgan which wasn't part of the realm at the time). Normally in such circumstances a king would appoint a deputy (as Keeper of the Realm or soemsuch title) and since Edward had failed to do so in his haste, they decided to appoint one for him. And so on the day that Bristol Castle fell a council of barons at Bristol declared the king's son, Prince Edward (and future Edward III) as Guardian of the Realm.

With the constitutional niceties now dealt with, Roger and Isabella felt able to appoint a jury of six peers to try Hugh Despenser the elder for his sundry crimes, consisting of Roger Mortimer himself, Henry of Lancaster and two of his followers named Thomas Wake and William Trussell, together with the Earls of Norfolk and Kent. Naturally with such a jury the Earl of Winchester was rapidly convicted and executed.

The end of the old regime

There remained one more Despenser and the king himself to deal with. At the time both were at Caerphilly Castle and Henry of Lancaster was given the job of going to fetch them. Edward and his last few remaining loyalists went on the run, perhaps hoping to find another ship to take them to Ireland. The king made some fruitless attempts to negotiate terms only to be informed that only surrender was acceptable in the circumstances.

In the end with the assistance of one Rhys ap Hywel, Henry of Lancaster caught up with Edward's party outside Neath Abbey, and there on the 16th November he seized hold of the king together with Hugh Despenser the Younger, the Lord Chancellor Roger Badock and one Simon de Reading, one of Despenser's leading followers. With the capture of the king, Caerphilly Castle, the very last bastion of Edward's rule, surrendered.

Henry took charge of Edward personally and conveyed him to his stronghold at Kenilworth Castle, whilst the other prisoner were taken to meet their fate before Roger Mortimer. Brought before the new rulers of England at Hereford on the 24th November 1326, like his father, Hugh Despenser the Younger faced the same hand picked jury of six. The younger Despenser was faced with a long list of charges which included, inter alia, treason, piracy, the illegal confiscation of property, false imprisonment and murder. It has to be said that Despenser was guilt of most of them, and that there was never much doubt about the verdict.

Condemned with the words, "Go to meet your fate, traitor tyrant renegade; go to receive your own justice, traitor, evil man, criminal", Hugh Despenser was then roped to four horses and dragged through the streets of Hereford before being hoisted on a noose above the castle walls. He was then castrated, and his genitalia were flung on a fire and burnt before his eyes, before his entrails and heart were cut out and suffered a similar fate. His corpse was then lowered to the ground and quartered; his head went to London, whilst the rest of his remains were displayed at Newcastle, York, Dover and Bristol.

By all accounts the crowd loved every minute of it.

Simon de Reading received a slightly less gruesome death on the same day at Hereford whilst Robert Baldock being a clergyman was simply placed under house arrest in London. But a mob broke into the house where he was being held and beat him almost to death. He was then thrown into Newgate Prison where his fellow inmates finished the job.

They were not the only ones to fall victim to the new regime, others such as Edmund Fitzalan, 2nd Earl of Arundel were also executed. Edmund was a particular target as he had been one of the early supporters of the Lords Ordainers he had later joined with the Despensers in 1321 and was regarded as a traitor to the 'cause'.

The deposition of the king

Whereas Roger and Isabella and their supporters now controlled the country there remained the question of what to do about the anointed king of England Edward II.

Although the new powers that be had summoned a Parliament to meet at Westminster on the 13 January 1327, as Edward II was still king, had not issued the writs of summons and refused to attend, it is arguable whether this assembly legally constituted a Parliament. Nevertheless such technicalities were disregarded everyone proceeded as if it were a Parliament. Effectively managed by Roger Mortimer, the Parliament agreed on the deposition of the king and nominated a deputation of bishops, barons and judges, to proceed to Kenilworth Castle where they formally renounced their homage to Edward II and requested his abdication.

The king was offered a simple choice; abdicate in favour of his son or run the risk that someone else would take the throne. Faced with such a choice Edward II formally abdicated his throne on the 20th January 1327. The deputation then returned to Westminster with the abdication document and on the 24th January 1327 formally announced that,

Sir Edward, late king of England, has of his good will and common counsel and assent of the prelates, earls barons and other nobles, and commonalty of the realm, resigned the government of the realm, and granted and wills the government shall come to Edward his eldest son, and that he shall govern, reign and be crowned king.

On the 25th January began the reign of Edward III.

This is the final part of an attempt to write a narrative account of the reign of Edward II, preceded by the Lords Ordainers, England after Bannockburn and Contrariants..


  • T. F. Tout The History Of England From The Accession Of Henry III To The Death Of Edward III (1216-1317) (Longmans Green and Co. 1905)
  • Alexander Rose Kings in the North (Phoenix, 2003)
  • Ian Mortimer The Greatest Traitor (Plimlico 2004)
  • Charles Arnold Baker The Companion to British History (Longcross Press, 1996)

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