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Despenser, Henrylocked

(d. 1406)
  • R. G. Davies

Henry Despenser (d. 1406)


Despenser, Henry (d. 1406), bishop of Norwich, was the fourth son of Sir Edward Despenser, killed at the siege of Vannes in 1342, and his wife, Anne (d. 1367), daughter of William, Lord Ferrers of Groby. His father was the second son of Hugh Despenser the younger, the notorious favourite of Edward II. Although said by the pope on 2 August 1354 to be in his tenth year, Henry Despenser was obviously older than that; the papacy had consistent difficulty with his age. His nephew Thomas Despenser was briefly earl of Gloucester (1398–9). An aunt Isabella was married to Richard (II) Fitzalan, earl of Arundel, but repudiated. Through his second marriage Fitzalan was the father of Archbishop Thomas Arundel.

Early career and elevation to Norwich

The future bishop's brother, Edward Despenser, Lord Despenser, petitioned the pope and secured for Henry Despenser a canonry with expectation (never made good) of a prebend in Salisbury Cathedral on 2 August 1354. On 20 January 1361 the pope gave him licence to acquire a cure of souls at the age of nineteen; he was admitted to the rectory of Bosworth, Leicestershire, on 22 December. He was a master at Oxford University by February 1361, when he was studying civil law, of which he was a bachelor and licentiate by the time of his promotion. He was ordained, even as a subdeacon, only on 17 December 1362. By 20 April 1364 he was archdeacon of Llandaff (the family had estates in south Wales), an office that the pope allowed him to keep with either a canonry in Lincoln Cathedral or the rectory of Elsworth, Cambridgeshire.

By then Despenser was a long-term resident at the papal curia and actually took part in military activity on behalf of Urban V, presumably alongside his brother Edward against the city of Milan. On 8 August 1369 the see of Norwich fell vacant on the death of Thomas Percy, whose sister Margaret was married to Despenser's maternal cousin, William Ferrers. Although a licence to elect was granted promptly on 20 August, the ageing Edward III was consistently indecisive in nominating to bishoprics at this time, which allowed several families of the higher nobility to intrude their own kin. Encouraged by Henry's intimacy and that of Lord Despenser with the curia, and also by their own with the late bishop, the Despensers saw their chance. Nothing is known of any election or other manoeuvring, but on 3 April 1370 Henry Despenser was papally provided with a dispensation because (the pope understood) he was still only in his twenty-seventh year. He was consecrated at Rome on 20 April. It cannot be assumed that the English government had already been persuaded to agree, because although Despenser was able to return home and have Archbishop Simon Sudbury accept his profession of obedience on 4 June, his spiritualities were only given to him on 12 July and his temporalities as late as 14 August.

Despenser took to his diocese and played no part in government. He never did impress some, especially the bitter monk–chronicler of St Albans, Thomas Walsingham (whose sole, brief, and admittedly unsuccessful period in broad administrative office was as prior of Wymondham in Despenser's diocese): immature, unlearned, lacking in discretion, undisciplined, arrogant, unmindful of making or keeping friends, was how Walsingham saw him. It is no real evidence to the contrary that on 9 May 1376 he was named by the Commons to be on an intercommuning committee with them from the Lords, which was composed strongly in favour of those leading the impeachment of several leading members of Edward III's court. After John of Gaunt, duke of Lancaster, had reacted furiously by singling out Bishop William Wykeham as a scapegoat and having his temporalities seized, Despenser was to the fore alongside Bishop William Courtenay in defending Wykeham in the convocation of Canterbury, and leading the opposition to any grant of a subsidy in February 1377. Thereafter he returned to diocesan administration.

The peasants' revolt and the Flemish crusade

About June 1377 Despenser was involved in a riot in Bishop's Lynn, Norfolk, and even wounded, while trying to exert episcopal rights of lordship over the town by having a mace borne before him. Richard II's regency council was obliged to intervene. This was a well-established feud which was still violent and bitter in the middle of the next century, so the outburst should not be attributed unequivocally to Despenser's belligerent gesture. In April 1379 Despenser was appointed overseer of the will of Sir William Morley, and in such mundane diocesan duties he spent his time. However, in June and July 1381 he sprang into action to repress the widespread peasant agitation in his diocese, dashing back from Burley, Rutland, gathering forces, and leading them personally into a violent rout of the reluctant rebels at North Walsham. He hanged the leader, Geoffrey Lister, having (according to a swiftly developed legend) shriven him first. This vigour and severity was much admired in conservative circles, especially in contrast to the feeble response of the authorities to revolt in other counties. On the other hand, an abortive revolt in Norfolk in 1382 unsurprisingly had his death among its ambitions.

All this had whetted Despenser's appetite and he offered, perhaps at Pope Urban VI's instigation, to lead a military expedition into Flanders, with the aim of putting pressure on France, against whom frontal attacks had been very unsuccessful in recent years. The Commons in parliament in October 1382 were very enthusiastic, especially because the bishop could have this declared a crusade by the pope against his schismatic opponents and thus shift most of the costs onto the clergy, the laity simply redirecting a previous subsidy. They rejected the Lords' support for John of Gaunt's alternative proposal to lead a campaign against France's Spanish allies, which the laity would have to underwrite. Besides, Despenser was a current hero, Gaunt decidedly was not. On 17 May 1383 the bishop crossed to Calais with an army of 8000 and enjoyed an initial success against a mixed force of Frenchmen and Flemings near Dunkirk on 25 May and the surrender of nearby towns. On 9 June he besieged Ypres. This proved disastrous and had to be abandoned on 8 August. Despenser's proposal to invade Picardy was opposed by his professional lieutenants, headed by the experienced Sir Hugh Calveley, who set up a separate campaign. The bishop still attempted his invasion, to no avail, and the appearance of a French army under Charles VI himself at the end of August forced a humiliating settlement at Gravelines in mid-September.

On his return to England, Despenser found out that the greater the enthusiasm, the more bitter the recrimination; he was impeached in parliament on 28 October for his mishandling of the campaign, and suffered forfeiture of his temporalities, although with no loss of liberty or episcopal authority. It has to be supposed that many around the government were delighted that his unwanted interference had ended as a fiasco, and the Commons were too disappointed to defend him. John Wyclif and his followers used the fiasco repeatedly as a warning in their writings. Even now, though, there were some who blamed his lieutenants' disloyalty rather than his own performance. In July 1385 Richard II let the bishop accompany his own military campaign into Scotland, perhaps to alarm Bishop Thomas Rossy of Galloway, who had recently challenged any English bishop to dispute the matter of the papal schism with him by single combat, singling out Despenser, 'who takes such delight in deeds of arms' (Baxter, 219–20). It is worth noting, too, that it was Bishop Thomas Arundel who on 24 October 1385 secured the restitution of Despenser's temporalities.

Diocesan and political business

Despenser played no special role in the political crisis of 1386–8 and, perhaps despondently, confined himself to local business. For ten years he was one of the least mobile of contemporary diocesans. Apart from 1388, when he preferred his manor of Hoxne, Suffolk, he rarely left his palace in Norwich from 1385 to 1395, save to attend parliaments and convocations and, in some years, to spend part of October on a visitation. From 1395 he began to use South Elmham, Suffolk, as his main base and to travel around much more. 1397, as will appear, was an unusual year. In May and June 1399 Despenser moved around his diocese as never before, possibly more concerned on the king's behalf than his own. From 1390 he had conducted drawn-out litigation with Walter, Lord Hilton, in the court of chivalry. In 1399 he secured the recantation of a heretic, William Sawtre, perhaps none too gently, and is even said to have threatened him with burning when this punishment was not yet legal in England.

From May 1397 to February 1398 Despenser resided entirely in his London inn. There are two possible reasons, perhaps both valid. Firstly, Richard II was conducting his coup against his political opponents. The king can hardly have looked to Despenser for political wisdom and authority, but the bishop's loyalty to him was to prove devoted. Secondly, Despenser had taken up from early in his episcopate an ancient dispute with the cathedral priory about the bishop's authority over them, their monastic life and estates, and, in defiance of the pope's directives, Richard II had just commanded that this be decided by the archbishop of Canterbury. In March 1398 Despenser was given almost all he wanted.

In July 1399 Despenser reverted to type. His family were much in favour with Richard II, and he was one of the few to put up a show of defiance to Henry Bolingbroke's invasion. He was arrested at Berkeley Castle when refusing, unlike the duke of York (Richard's deputy in England), to come to terms. He was allowed to take his place in parliament in October 1399, staying at that time with Sir Robert Fulmer, and returned to his diocese at the end of November. Despite remaining at South Elmham from mid-December, he was implicated, perhaps through his nephew Thomas, in the abortive ‘Epiphany plot’ of 1400. He suffered no formal punishment, possibly because on 5 February 1400 he appointed John Derlington, archdeacon of Norwich, as his vicar-general at South Elmham and submitted himself to the custody of Archbishop Arundel, who seems to have shown him favour and affection over the years. He lived at Canterbury, playing effectually no part in administering his diocese until he was granted a pardon in parliament in February 1401. He was in London at that time, so may even have attended. It was perhaps through this unusual custody arrangement that Arundel had learned of the case of William Sawtre and brought it to convocation's notice in that month. Despenser did not attend but sent a written memorandum on 23 February. Sawtre, whom the bishop had held in prison, now became the show-piece demonstration that church and crown intended fully to utilize the capital punishment being brought in as a penalty against heretics and seditious preachers.

Last years and death

Despenser returned once more to his diocese shortly after 19 March 1401. There is some evidence that he caught up on visitation duties (or perhaps rights and profits) during the rest of the year. Meantime, the monks of the cathedral had challenged his rights once more with the pope, and even secured a prohibition on Archbishop Arundel's hearing the case on the grounds that he was too friendly towards the bishop. The judge appointed by the pope indeed decided for them. Notwithstanding, Arundel took the bishop's side and cowed the monks into accepting his arbitration, which reverted to the verdict of 1398 in Despenser's favour. The monks decided to give up and make a composition with Despenser to enjoy their privileges.

On 14 July 1402 Despenser was ordered to array his clergy against a possible invasion of the Suffolk coast. No doubt to his disappointment, this threat vanished. In 1403–4 the feud with Lynn flared up once more, but on 14 July 1404 the king told him to stay his litigation. In the previous month there were rumours in Flanders that he was to lead another campaign, but even though Henry IV faced a crisis on many fronts at that time, it is impossible to believe that he and Arundel would have let the bishop kick over the traces yet again. None the less, it is a striking illustration of the reputation the bishop had (quite accurately) acquired. He was now almost entirely resident at North Elmham, Norfolk, then switching in March 1405 to his palace in Norwich. All he did of note in his last years was to secure the recantation of one John Edward, a chaplain charged with heresy, on 12 April 1405. It was said shortly afterwards that there was considerable heresy in his diocese, but there is no sign that Despenser hunted it with any of the gusto one might expect of him.

It is perhaps of note that Despenser, who now rarely travelled, took himself to Lynn via North Elmham in the second week of August 1406, returned to Norwich by the 21st, and then moved yet again to North Elmham on the very next day. Perhaps something had roused him to confront the Lynn corporation yet again, but the exertion proved too much. He died on 23 August 1406. It is a matter of regret that he was declared intestate, for his will, if he made one and was not caught out by his apparently sudden death, could have been fascinating. Predictably, he had failed to prepare a chantry chapel, but was accorded burial immediately before the high altar in the cathedral. The monks had had their quarrel with him, but they appreciated him at the end. It is greatly to be doubted whether he really had wanted to be a bishop, at least one confined to a diocesan role. There was something of the bovine about him, but clearly he was in no way wanting in courage and loyalty. Even those in authority with whom he came into contact seem to have recognized that there was nothing malignant about him, and tried to tame, not destroy, him.


  • Emden, Oxf., 3.2169–70
  • R. G. Davies, ‘The episcopate in England and Wales, 1375–1443’, PhD diss., University of Manchester, 1974, cix–cxi
  • episcopal register, Norfolk RO, Reg/3/6
  • M. D. Legge, ed., Anglo-Norman letters and petitions from All Souls MS 182, Anglo-Norman Texts, 3 (1941)
  • N. Housley, ‘The bishop of Norwich's crusade, May 1383’, History Today, 33/5 (1983), 15–20
  • N. Saul, Richard II (1997), 102–7
  • M. Aston, ‘The impeachment of Bishop Despenser’, BIHR, 38 (1965), 127–48, esp. 138–41
  • [J. Haldenston], Copiale prioratus Sanctiandree: the letter-book of James Haldenstone, prior of St Andrews, 1418–1443, ed. J. H. Baxter, St Andrews University Publications, 31 (1930), 219–20
  • A. Hudson, The premature reformation: Wycliffite texts and Lollard history (1988)
  • I. Atherton and others, eds., Norwich Cathedral: church, city and diocese, 1096–1996 (1996)
  • [T. Walsingham], Chronicon Angliae, ab anno Domini 1328 usque ad annum 1388, ed. E. M. Thompson, Rolls Series, 64 (1874)


  • Norfolk RO, episcopal register, Reg /3/6


A. B. Emden, , 3 vols. (1957–9); also (1974)
Bulletin of the Institute of Historical Research
Norfolk Record Office, Norwich