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Carved Portrait of Henry le Despenser, in King's Lynn Minster, Norfolk

Henry le Despenser (1341?-1406)

HENRY LE DESPENSER or SPENCER (d. 1406), bishop of Norwich, was the fourth son of Edward, second son to Hugh le Despenser 'the younger', who was executed in 1326. Edward married Anne, daughter of Ralph Ferrers of Groby, and died five years later at the siege of Vannes in 1342.1 As Froissart, who was intimately acquainted with the family, states expressly2 that Henry was fourth son of this marriage, it is plain that he must have been born in 1341 or 1342.

Of his early life Capgrave tells us that he some time in Italy fighting for the pope, and it is certain that his elder brother Edward was active in the support of Urban V in his war against Milan in 1369.3 We may conclude with Godwin4 that Henry served with his brother; his career throughout is that of a soldier rather than of a churchman, and the probability that he was engaged in Urban's war is increased by the fact that early in the following year (3 April 1370) he was at Rome and was nominated by the pope's special provision to the bishopric of Norwich.5 At this time he held the dignity of canon of Salisbury. He was consecrated at Rome 20 April6 and returned to England. He received back the spiritualities of his see from the Archbishop of Canterbury 12 July,7 and the temporalities from the king 14 Aug.8

Young as he was at the time of his appointment, Despenser retained the character of the young bishop for many years; in 1381 he is described by Walsingham as 'iuvenis';9 and he had all the faults of an arrogant and headstrong noble: 'Vir nec literis nec discretione præditus, iuvenis effrenis et insolens, amicitias nec servare doctus nec locare.'10 An illustration of his temper is afforded by the attempt he made in 1377 to have a mace carried before him at Lynn, a mark of honour which custom reserved for the mayor of the town. In spite of the protest and warning of the townsmen he insisted on his claim; he did not heed the people—'ribaldos' ['rogues'] he called them—or what they thought. However, so soon as he set out with his mace-bearer, the townsmen closed the gates and fell upon him with arrows and other missiles. The bishop himself was wounded,11 and a royal order had to be sent to the sheriffs of Norfolk and Cambridgeshire to take measures to appease the quarrel.12

It is possible that Despenser's faults have been exaggerated by the St. Albans chroniclers through the fact of their abbot having once come into hostile collision with him in a matter affecting the privileges of the house.13 At least his energy and practical ability were early appreciated at court. He was constantly placed on committees of parliament, and in 1376 he was appointed one of the committee of lords to confer with the commons of the 'good' parliament.14 When the peasants' revolt of 1381 broke out in Norfolk, the bishop seized the opportunity of resuming his military character. He was absent at his manor of Burley in Rutland when he first received news of the rising in his diocese. Himself fully armed with sword and helmet and coat of mail, he hastened back with a company of only eight lances and a small body of bowmen. His followers increased on the way, and by the time he reached North Walsham, near the coast, he had a considerable force under his command. At North Walsham he found the rebels intrenched and defended by rude fortifications. But the bishop himself led an assault, rode through their outworks, and overpowered them in a hand-to-hand fight. Many were slain and many captured, including the leader of the insurrection, John the Lister, who was at once put to death. Throughout Despenser, 'episcopus martius,'15 took the lead, not only 'imperatoris circumspecti ubique gerens officium,'16 but also as a good soldier at close quarters; and he personally superintended the execution of John Lister.17 But the rigour with which he put down the rebellion made him highly unpopular among the Norfolk men, and in the following year (1382) some of them organised a plot to murder him, together with other great people of the realm. The scheme, however, was betrayed in time by one of the conspirators, and they were taken and beheaded.18

Just after this the 'warlike bishop' (Despenser's distinguishing title) was chosen by Urban VI to lead a campaign against the followers of Clement VII in Flanders. Urban issued bulls for the proclamation of a 'crusade' to be conducted by him, and granted him extraordinary powers for the fulfilment of his mission, and plenary indulgence to those who should take part in or contribute support to it.19 The king ordered the crusade to be published throughout England 6 Dec. 1382;20 and in February the parliament, after some hesitation in entrusting so unprofessional a command to a churchman, ultimately assigned to him the subsidy which it had granted the king in the previous October for carrying on the war in Flanders.21 The bishop issued mandates for the publication of the bulls;22 the archbishop did the same.23 The enterprise was ardently seconded by the friars, and contributions of immense value were made from all quarters, but especially, says Knyghton (p. 2671), from the rich ladies of England.

In the middle of May the expedition started. It consisted of some eight thousand men, and among its leaders Sir Hugh Calverley, Sir William Elmham, Sir William Faringdon, and Sir Thomas Trivet are particularly mentioned. They crossed to Calais 17 May, and proceeded to attack Gravelines, which place, together with the surrounding territory, was now in the hands of the French.24 Gravelines and Dunkirk soon fell; but reinforcements arriving, of Flemings, French, Bretons, and mercenaries, under the command of the Bastard of Flanders25 a pitched battle had to be fought near Dunkirk 25 May in which the crusaders were victorious. Despenser next subdued the neighbouring country, including the towns of Bourbourg, Bergues, Poperinghe, and Nieuport, and was persuaded by his followers to attempt the siege of Ypres (9 June). In the meantime the success of the expedition had roused such enthusiasm in England that crowds of people, armed and unarmed, crossed the Channel, more, it is said, in the hope of booty than from any nobler motive; so that the bishop was reputed to have sixty thousand men under his command. This number, however, must evidently include the force, by some reckoned at thirty thousand men, supplied by the town of Ghent.

The siege of Ypres was long and disastrous. The burghers bribed some of the English commanders into inactivity; the army gradually fell away; and, after more than one unsuccessful assault, the siege had to be raised (8 Aug.) When Despenser then proposed to invade Picardy, he was firmly withstood by his principal officers, who established themselves apart at Bergues and Bourbourg. The bishop, after entering Picardy for some distance, was obliged to fall back upon Gravelines. At this juncture, in the totally demoralised state of the English forces, numbers of the soldiers being attacked by disease, the arrival, about the end of August, of a French army headed by the king was decisive. The English troops were driven out of Bergues, and concentrated themselves in Bourbourg. The mediation of the Duke of Brittany put an end to the war, but this was not effected without humiliating circumstances. Large bribes were sent to the English commanders, and they surrendered Bourbourg. Despenser himself came to terms with the French, quitted Gravelines, and shortly after returned to England. The town was burned to the ground by the English, but, according to one account,26 not until the bishop had made good his escape. The war terminated about the middle of September.

The eagerness with which the crusade had been hailed could not survive the inglorious collapse in which it had ended. Despenser was received with reproaches by John of Gaunt, who was perhaps mortified at not having been given the command of the expedition.27; and when parliament met in November the bishop was called upon to account for subsidies entrusted to him, and his temporalities were seized into the king's hands. The more sober judgment of the time was, however, that the blame should fall mainly on those officers who had set the example of mutiny in the army, and some of them were condemned to imprisonment.28

At the same time, from the first Despenser's crusade had raised a loud outcry against him on the part of Wycliffe and his followers. Wycliffe wrote a special tract against it—the 'Cruciata, contra bella Clericorum'29—during the time that the crusade was on foot, and he repeatedly refers to the subject in terms of severe reprobation elsewhere in his writings.30 But even orthodox monks like the author of the 'Eulogium Historiarum' considered Despenser 'magis militari levitate dissolutus quam pontificali maturitate solidus.'31

Still the bishop remained high in King Richard's favour He accompanied him in July 1385 in his march northward to repel the French invasion of Scotland,32 and in the autumn parliament of that year he was restored to his temporalities, 24 Oct.,33 when the good offices of Bishop Arundel of Ely were successful against the objections raised by the chancellor, Michael de la Pole.34 Once more Despenser returned to arms, taking part in the naval expedition of the Earl of Arundel against the Flemish coast, 1386-7.35 In 1388, after the impeachment of Sir Simon Burley by the 'merciless' parliament, Despenser is found in the royal council.36 As an indication of his religious attitude it is noted that he alone among the English bishops took active steps to suppress lollardy in 1389.37

On the appearance of the future king, Henry IV, in 1399, Despenser was among the few who stood loyally by Richard II. He was with the Duke of York at Berkeley in July, and when York came to terms he remained firm, was arrested, and suffered imprisonment.38 Adam of Usk (p. 42), however, places his imprisonment in the following year, and connects it with the bishop's supposed complicity in the plot in which his [nephew]39 Thomas, lord Gloucester, was concerned. In any case he was not reconciled to the new king until the parliament of 1401.40 He died 23 Aug. 1406,41 and was buried in Norwich Cathedral before the high altar, with a brass inscription now destroyed.42

—R. L. Poole

1. Kervyn de Lettenhove, notes to Froissart's Chronicles, iv. 442, xxii. 79.
2. Froissart, Chroniques, ed. Lettenhove, ii. 106, iv. 162.
3. Froissart, x. 251; Chronicon Angli&elig;, ed. E. M. Thompson, 1874, p. 64; Walsingham, Historia Anglicana, i. 309.
4. Godwin, De Præsul. ii. 15.
5. Wharton, Anglia Sacra, i. 415 n.
6. Le Neve, Fasti Ecclesiæ Anglicanæ, ii. 465. ed. Hardy; cont. of Bartholomew Cotton, ap. Wharton, l. c.
7. Wharton, l. c.
8. Rymer, Fœdera, vol. iii. pt. ii. p. 900, Record ed.
9. ['Youth']. Walsingham, Historia Anglicana, ii. 7.
10. ['A man endowed with neither letters nor discretion, a wild and insolent youth, learned in holding on to neither friendships nor rents.']. Chronicon Angliæ, p. 258.
11. Chronicon Angliæ, p. 139 et seq.
12. Rymer, iv. 4.
13. Chronicon Angliæ, pp. 258-61.
14. Rotuli Parliamentorum, ii. 322; Chron. Angl., p. 69.
15. "Martial bishop."
16. i.e. as a leader overseeing that everyone carried out his duty.
17. Chronicon Angliæ, pp. 306-8; Walsingham, Hist. Angl. ii. 6-8; Knyghton, De Eventibus Angliæ, p. 2638.
18. Chronicon Angliæ, p. 354; Walsingham, Hist. Angl. ii. 70.
19. Walsingham, Hist. Angl. ii. 76-8; Walsingham, Ypodigma Neustriæ, p. 336 et seq.; Chron. Angl. p. 355;
      Knyghton, p. 2671.
20. Rymer, iv. 157.
21. Rot. Parl. iii. 146; Walsingham, Hist. Angl. ii. 84.
22. Walsingham, Hist. Angl. ii. 78 et seq.; Knyghton, p. 2673 et seq.
23. Wilkins, Concilia Magnæ Britanniæ, iii. 176-8 .
24. Malverne, Continuation of Higden's Polychronicon, ed. Lumby, 1886, p. 15.
25. The illegitimate son of Louis II, Count of Flanders.
26. Froissart, x. 270 n.
27. Walsingham, Hist. Angl. ii. 104; cf. Monachus Eveshamensis, Vita Regis Ricardi Secundi, ed. Hearne 1729, p. 44.
28. Rot. Parl., Cotton MS Titus E. II., printed by Kervyn de Lettenhove, notes to Froissart, x. 517-33;
      Walsingham, Hist. Angl. ii. 108 et seq.; Malverne, pp. 25 et seq.
29. ['Crusade, against the clergy's war']. Wycliffe, Polemical Works, ii. 588-632, ed. R. Buddensieg, London, 1883.
30. e.g. 'De fundat. Sectarum.' ii., l. c. i. 19; 'De dissens. paparum,' ib. ii. 574; 'De Christo et suo advers. Satana,' xi., ib. p. 682; Serm. ciii. in 'Select English Works,' ii. 166, ed. T. Arnold, 1871; 'The Church and her Members,' v., ib. iii. 349; 'Fifty Heresies and Errors of Friars,' xxiv., ib. pp. 385 et seq.; 'Expos. of Matth. xxiv.,' MS. ap. F. D. Matthew, notes to Wyclif's 'Select English Works,' pp. 491, 511, &c. Cf. Lechler's John Wiclif, pp. 408-19, Engl. transl., ed. 1884.
31. "More dissolute with shallow military pursuits than solid in pontifical maturity."
32. Malverne, p. 62.
33. Malverne, p. 69; Le Neve l. c.
34. Walsingham, Hist. Angl. ii. 141.
35. Froissart, xi. 361 et seq .
36. Froissart, xii. 259.
37. Walsingham, Hist. Angl. ii. 189; Ypodigma Neustriæ, p. 360.
38. Monach. Evesham., Vita Regis Ricardi II, p. 152. Bodleian MS Dodsworth 116, in appendix E to the
      Chronique de la trahison et mort de Richart II, p. 292, ed. B. Williams, 1846.
39. Poole makes an error here; the text says "brother", which is incorrect; Thomas le Despenser, Earl of Gloucester, was the son of Henry's brother, Edward.
40. Stubbs, Constitutional History of England, vol. iii. § 306.
41. Reg. Arundel. ap. Le Neve, l. c.
42. Blomefield, History of Norfolk, ii. 372.

      Excerpted from:

      Dictionary of National Biography. Vol. XIV.
      Leslie Stephen, Ed.
      London: Smith, Elder, & Co., 1888. 410-12.

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Chart of the English Succession from William I through Henry VII

Medieval English Drama

London c1480, MS Royal 16
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Larger Visscher's View in Sections
c. 1690. View of London Churches, after the Great Fire
The Yard of the Tabard Inn from Thornbury, Old and New London

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