In your family research, have you ever thought about the many people tens, hundreds, thousands of years back whose very existence ensured your own? For me it’s a humbling thought that I would not be here had one link been missing from that chain of ancestors.
Every once in a while I imagine what life would have been like for the particular ancestor I’m researching. I have always been interested in royalty, medieval times, the whole bit, so finding my connection to Charlemagne and the flood of ancestors that came with that discovery was tremendously exciting. This train of research eventually led me to the Despenser War; several of these ancestors were major players in the events. So I wondered: Which side would I have been on had I been living back then? Who would I have fought with and for?
Edward II was the ruling king in 1321 and married to Isabella of France. He was especially close to Hugh le Despenser the Elder (an advisor and father figure to Edward) and Hugh’s son Hugh le Despenser the Younger (Edward’s other advisor and bff). Edward’s wife wasn’t nuts about the influence the Despensers had over her husband, and neither were the Marcher Lords (powerful land Barons). The Earl of Gloucester had recently died and, without an heir, his land went to his sister…who also happened to be married to Hugh the Younger. Young Hugh now had the powerful lordship of Glamorgan in his possession, but he wanted more and used his influence with the king to claim the lands of other Marcher Lords, including that of Roger Mortimer.
So what do you do when you’re a group of jealous, power hungry, and testosterone filled men in the 1300s?
You fight about it.
Mortimer was thoroughly ticked off by this turn of events and, along with fellow Marcher Lords Thomas, Earl of Lancaster and Humphrey de Bohun, the 4th Earl of Hereford, began attacking Despenser’s land. The King did not appreciate the hostility against his buddy and prepared for a fight, though exiled the Despensers temporarily in a reluctant attempt to diffuse the situation. It didn’t work, but at least by this time the king had gained the support of some of the Marcher Lords who had not yet chosen a side. Eventually, Mortimer was captured, Lancaster was executed, and the Despensers returned from exile. But now there was another wolf in the hen house. Edward’s wife, Isabella, was beyond disgusted with her husband and Despenser’s bromance and fled to the court of her brother King Charles V. While there, she met up with Mortimer, a recent escapee from the Tower of London, and either resumed or began an affair with him. The lovers gathered an army, captured and imprisoned Isabella’s husband, the king, executed the Despensers and ensured that the crown go to Edward and Isabella’s son, Edward III. The new king was fairly young so Isabella and Mortimer effectively ruled for him until he finally asserted himself, took full possession of the crown, and had Mortimer executed in what may have been an act of poetic justice (his father King Edward II having died mysteriously while imprisoned, assumed murdered by Mortimer and Isabella).
So which side would I have been on? I have players in both games, as it turns out:
- Edward II, King of England – 24th great grandfather
- Hugh Despenser the Elder – 24th great grandfather
- Hugh Despenser the Younger – 23rd great grandfather
- Roger Mortimer, Baron Mortimer – 23rd great grandfather
- Isabella of France, Queen of England – 24th great grandmother
- Thomas, 2nd Earl of Lancaster – 24th great uncle
- Humphrey de Bohun, 4th Earl of Hereford – 2nd cousin 25x removed
Considering that this is something of a family feud on a massive level, it’s pretty hard to pick a side, but I have one. In this case, I’m going with the Opposition, mostly because it’s the side Isabella was on. Not only because she’s the only female in the above list, I lean towards Isabella because, despite her femme fatale image, she’s the one I can sympathize with the most. Looking at it with 2019-colored glasses, it’s hard to fault Isabella for at least a few of her decisions. How would you feel if your husband kept choosing his “bros” over you? Especially if you absolutely couldn’t stand one of them. Enter Mortimer, the hot bad boy, basically the James Dean of the 1300s…what’s an unhappy queen supposed to do? I do think she got a bit carried away with the executing, though apparently she did try to spare Hugh the Elder and was overruled by Mortimer.
Which side would you have been on?
Langston, Aileen Lewers, and J. Orton Buck. Pedigrees of Some of the Emperor Charlemagne’s Descendants. vol. 2, Polyanthos Inc., 1974, https://www.ancestry.com/interactive/48069/CharlemagneDescII-000547-i?backurl=&ssrc=&backlabel=Return#?imageId=CharlemagneDescII-000549-iii
Tag image on front page is from Wikipedia (under Public Domain)