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Con*tra"ri*ants from the Latin contrarius 'of hostile opposition'; being the collective name given to those opposed to the government of Edward II in the years 1320 to 1322.

The rise of the Despensers

The Treaty of Leake signed on the 9th August 1318 brought to an end the somewhat undistinguished period when the country had been run by Thomas 'the Martyr' Plantagenet, Earl of Lancaster and placed Aymer de Valence, Earl of Pembroke and his moderates in charge of affairs.

In the years that followed, the conflict with Scotland remained unresolved, largely because Thomas, Earl of Lancaster stayed away from Parliament and petulantly refused to take any part in public affairs. Since Thomas was the most powerful landowner in the north it proved difficult to organise any effective response to Robert the Bruce. Indeed, questions began to arise regarding Thomas' relationship with the Scots. His lack of enthusiasm during the Berwick campaign led many people to recall that Scottish raids into the north of England seemed to leave Thomas' estates unmolested.

It was at least some consolation that Roger Mortimer of Wigmore had at least managed to overthrown Edward Bruce’s rule in Ireland. In this situation Edward turned to the two Hugh Despensers, father and son, to assist in the business of rebuilding a court party and lavished much favour upon them. It soon became evident that Hugh Despenser, the Younger now stood as high in the king's estimation as once did Piers Gaveston and was even more rapacious and greedy than his predecessor in the king's favour.

Empire building in Marcher Wales

In about the year 1306 Hugh Despenser the Younger had married Eleanor de Clare one of the three sisters of Gilbert de Clare, Earl of Gloucester. When Gilbert was killed at the battle of Bannockburn in 1314 Eleanor was transformed into a valuable heiress, due a third of the de Clare estates. Vicious arguments broke out between Despenser and the husbands of the other two de Clare sisters, Roger Amory and Hugh Audley regarding the division of the spoils. It took three years to hammer out the details and in the end Despenser got the better of the deal including the valuable Marcher Lordship of Glamorgan. Despenser was however greedy for more, and desired nothing less than to gain the whole of the de Clare inheritance for himself and even began styling himself as 'Earl of Gloucester'.

In particular he began to focus his attentions on south Wales where he appeared to be intent on building himself his own mini-empire much to the dismay of the existing Lords Marcher. By the May of 1320 he had managed through a combination of deception and intimidation to gain hold of neighbouring Gwynllwg from Hugh Audley in exchange for a few far less valuable English manors as well as persuading Edward II to grant him estates in Carmarthenshire including the town of Llandeilo.

To the west of Glamorgan lay the Marcher Lordship of Gower, held by William de Braose who had the misfortune of being both the last of his line (his only son having died in 1318), and also flat broke. De Braose therefore put Gower up for sale and eventually sold it to his son-in-law John de Mowbray2. This greatly vexed Despenser who had wished to acquire it for himself.

Despenser complained to the king and Edward ruled that this transfer of ownership required royal approval and since none had been sought, Gower was forfeit and 26th October awarded it to Despenser. However technically speaking Marcher Lordships were not in England and were not subject to the crown and this decision infuriated all the other Marcher Lords, including Earl of Hereford, the two Roger Mortimers 1 and Roger de Clifford amongst others who felt that their ancient privileges were under attack.

The war against the Despensers

The one honest broker in Aymer de Valence, Earl of Pembroke who might have been able to defuse the situation was absent abroad, and the one dishonest broker who was always eager to stir up trouble namely Thomas of Lancaster was very much at home and eager to regain his position of leadership lost in 1318.

On the 27th February 1321 the Marcher Lords met with Thomas Earl of Lancaster and the Earl of Hereford and decided on a plan to attack Despenser's Welsh empire. Despenser got wind of this and complained to the king. Edward spent the next few months issuing various orders regarding the defence of Wales and requiring the attendance of sundry barons and prelates at various locations, ending with a summons issued on the 21st April, sent to around 70 barons and all 17 bishops requiring them to attend a meeting at Oxford on the 10th May.

No one actually got around to attending this meeting as on the 1st May Roger Mortimer left Wigmore and marched south, and was soon joined by contingents of men from all the other Marcher Lords (even the Bishop of Hereford contributed a few men to the cause) so that he was soon in command of a substantial armed force of over 11,000 men. By the 7th May they had taken Newport and Cardiff fell on the 12th, after which they systematically removed, burnt or destroyed every scrap of property they could find that belonged to Hugh Despenser.

The birth of the Contrariants

Encouraged by the news of the devastation wrought against the Despensers in Glamorgan, during the month of May there was a groundswell of popular revolt against the Despensers as across the country. Wherever the two Hugh Despensers held any property someone appeared to burn it, loot it or otherwise despoil it. Inspired by these events on the 24th May 1321 at Pontefract Priory there took place a meeting between representatives of these rebellious Marcher Lords and the Lancastrian followers of Thomas, Earl of Lancaster and there was born the Contrariants, all of whom swore an oath "to banish, persecute, condemn and perpetually disinherit the Despensers father and son".

In July 1321 they marched on London to place their complaints before the king and warned that unless the Despensers were banished from the country they would "set up another ruler to do justice to all". It was at this moment that Aymer de Valence, Earl of Pembroke now returned from his foreign travels and rushed across country to London meet with the king. With the Contrariants camped outside London, the Earl of Pembroke eventually persuaded Edward to accede to their demands in the face of the threat of civil war. Thus on the 14th August 1321 Edward II agreed to send both Despensers into exile, and granted to the Contrariants a pardon for anything done against the Despensers on the period from 1 March to 19th August 1321.

The unfortunate Bartholmew de Barthelsmere

As always, Edward II soon began looking for ways to reverse his previous defeat and he began recruiting support from wherever he could find it; in this case he looked to John de Warrenne, 4th Earl of Surrey Edmund Fitzalan, 2nd Earl of Arundel and John of Britanny, the Earl of Richmond as well as his half brothers the Earls of Kent and Norfolk, who where now of age to be of some use to Edward.

Bartholmew de Barthelsmere was an influential and wealthy baron who had long been associated with the Roger Mortimer of Wigmore, (his daughter Elizabeth was married to Roger's heir Edmund Mortimer) and had earlier been one of the Earl of Pembroke's party of moderates. During the above disturbances he had instructed his wife not to allow anyone access to his home at Leeds Castle in Kent. Unfortunately on the 13th October 1322 queen Isabella of France was passing by on her way back from a pilgrimage to Canterbury and requested entry to the castle. This was refused by the Lady Barthelsmere, in strict compliance with her husband's orders but contrary to all the conventions of medieval hospitality. Isabella was outraged and ordered her entourage to attack the castle, with a conspicuous lack of success as nine of her men were killed.

Edward II was similarly in a rage at this insult to the royal dignity and sent an army under the Earls of Pembroke, Richmond and Norfolk to lay siege to the castle. But whilst Roger Mortimer and the other Marcher Lords came east to support their ally, Thomas of Lancaster refused to be of any assistance. (He had a personal grudge against Bartholmew who had been one of the Earl of Pembroke's key supporters, and therefore one of those he held responsible for his defeat in 1318.) Without the support of Thomas, the Marcher Lords were reluctant to fight and were therefore persuaded by the Earl of Pembroke to stand aside and allow justice to take its course.

Faced with an army at its gates and no prospect of any assistance on the 31st October the garrison at Leeds castle surrendered. Edward had twelve of the garrison summarily executed and despatched Lady Badlesmere, her children and her sister and her children off to the Tower of London.

Against the Marcher Lords

Still smarting at his original embarrassment but now emboldened at the ease with which he had dealt with Badlesmere, on the 13th December Edward began mustering an army at Cirencester to deal with his opponents in the Welsh Marches.

Now that the Despensers had been banished many saw no reason to continue opposing the king and much of the support previously enjoyed by the Contrariants began to dissipate. With a royal army at Cirencester, Roger Mortimer withdrew behind the Severn and sought to secure his position by controlling the bridges across the river. Gloucester and Worcester were secured and when a royal vanguard succeeded in holding the bridge at Bridgnorth, Mortimer attacked and dispersed them on the 5th January but was soon faced with a more serious problem.

The native Welsh had an affectionate regard for 'their' Prince of Wales, Edward of Carnarvon and were not, in any case, particularly well disposed to the likes of Roger Mortimer. So the Welsh rose in support of the king; a Welsh army led by one Gruffudd Llwyd led an attack on Chirk Castle which soon fell and continued an assault on the Mortimer holdings in north-east Wales. Hence the rebel Marcher Lords found themselves being squeezed between a Welsh army on one side of the Severn and a Royal army on the other whilst the Earl of Lancaster stood by with his hands in his pockets and refused to be of any help whatsoever.

With the situation becoming bleak the Earl of Hereford left to go north to join Lancaster and so the two Mortimers felt compelled to open negotiations with Edward. They wanted to obtain some kind of assurance of their treatment at the hands of the king, but Edward refused to commit himself. They finally agreed to surrender when Aymer de Valence promised that they would be pardoned. And so on the 22nd January 1322 the two Mortimers submitted to the king at Shrewsbury Castle. Unfortunately for them the Earl of Pembroke had lied 3 and the they found themselves dragged off to the Tower of London to await the king's pleasure.

Against the Lancastrians

Whilst all this was going on Thomas of Lancaster had organised his own counter-parliament which was scheduled to meet at Doncaster on the 29th November 1321. Thomas summoned some 106 barons to attend although most stayed away as instructed by Edward. The main result of this 'parliament' was the Doncaster Petition which asserted Thomas' position as the defender of English liberties in much the same way as had Simon de Montfort in an earlier age.

After his success in crushing the Marcher wing of the Contrariants, early in the February of 1322 Edward was at Gloucester, where he recalled the Despensers from exile and began gathering his forces at Coventry for the move against the north. Thomas was busy besieging Tickhill Castle and raiding royal manors in southern Yorkshire, but on hearing of the gathering royal army he moved to Burton on Trent with the intention of blocking the road north. However after some minor skirmishing, the appearance of the royal cavalry induced the Contrariants to retreat to Pontefract.

It was at this time that Roger Amory was captured and mortally wounded and taken at Tutbury Castle where the royalists discovered all manner of compromising material; specifically evidence of contact between the Earl of Lancaster and the Scots including the draft of a treaty with Robert the Bruce. (Now of course, Edward had all the evidence he needed to bring his old enemy down.)

Thomas considered the option of making a stand at Pontefract Castle before deciding to make a run for it. (It is said that Robert de Clifford threatened Thomas with physical violence unless he shifted himself.) So Thomas together with Humphrey de Bohun, Earl of Hereford, Robert de Clifford, John de Mowbray and others left Pontefract Castle enroute for the north. On the 16th March 1322 they reached the town of Boroughbridge where they found their escape route blocked by a small force led by Andrew de Harcla Governor of Carlisle. At the resulting battle of Boroughbridge, Humphrey de Bohun was killed and the Contrariant forces defeated, and on the following day Thomas and most of his followers surrendered or were captured by the royalist forces.

The end of the Contariants

Given all the trouble that Thomas had caused him Edward II was in no mood to be merciful in victory. On the 20th March 1322 the Earl of Lancaster was condemned as a traitor and beheaded outside his own castle of Pontefract. Another twenty four leading barons were similarly executed; John de Mowbray and Robert de Clifford meeting their end at York, and the unfortunate Bartolemew de Badlesmere meeting his at Canterbury. Many others including the wives and children of those executed were imprisoned including Hugh Audley, (spared his life by reason of his marriage to the king’s niece) and the two Roger Mortimers who remained in the Tower of London.

Of course after the victory came the division of the spoils, as the estates of the rebels were forfeited. Edmund Fitzalan, Earl of Arundel was given custody of the Mortimer lands in the Welsh Marches and appointed Justiciar of Wales in place of the now imprisoned Roger Mortimer of Chirk. The elder Hugh Despenser was made Earl of Winchester, and awarded the Marcher Lordship of Denbigh. (It previously belonged to the Earl of Lancaster.) Of course Hugh Despenser the Younger obtained his coveted Marcher Lordship of Gower and also gained control of Roger Damory’s lordship of Usk and John Giffard’s lordship of Iscennen. Thomas of Brotherton was even persuaded to cede to him the lordship of Chepstow.

The most important result of the whole affair was that it now left Edward II and therefore Hugh Despenser the Younger in charge of the country as the king's opponents were all either dead or safely imprisoned.


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


NOTES

1 There were two Roger Mortimers around at the time; Roger Mortimer of Wigmore who later became Roger Mortimer, 1st Earl of March and his uncle Roger Mortimer of Chirk who was Justiciar of Wales.
2 De Braose appears to have agreed to sell Gower to a number of people including the Humphrey de Bohun Earl of Hereford and Roger Mortimer of Wigmore.
3 Or promised something that was not in his power to give. Which he knew, and so amounted to much the same thing.


SOURCES

  • 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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