One of the fun things about using a lesser-known historical figure as a subject of a novel is that when you run into something about him–anything–you’re absolutely delighted. So a while back when I saw in Collectanea topographica & genealogica, Vol. IV (on Google Books) that the hero of my soon-to-be-reissued second novel, Hugh and Bess, was recorded as being at a tournament at Dunstable in 1334, I was thrilled, even though the tidbit never made it into the novel.
After resisting the forces of Queen Isabella and Roger Mortimer at Caerphilly Castle until the spring of 1327, Hugh le Despenser had been imprisoned and had only emerged in July 1331, when he was about 23. Hugh was granted permission in April 1332 to go on pilgrimage to Santiago. In July 1333, he was among the English troops who won a great victory over the Scots at Halidon Hill. Hugh’s performance there had evidently pleased Edward III, who as a reward for his services extended some grants of land from an indefinite duration to him to hold until he inherited his mother’s lands.
Nonetheless, as the son and grandson of two of the most hated men in England, both of who had been gruesomely executed in 1326, Hugh must have still been somewhat of a social outcast. For him, then, being allowed to participate in the Dunstable tournament, held in January 1334, must have meant a great deal. It might have even been his first tournament: Edward II had discouraged them, and when Isabella and Mortimer held them in the early years of Edward III’s reign, Hugh was a prisoner. The fact that Hugh’s father had tourneyed at Dunstable in 1309, when the present Hugh was just a baby, must have also made the occasion a poignant one.
Besides Hugh, the Dunstable tournament included about 135 knights, including a mysterious chap named “Sir Lionel,” who turned out to be Edward III himself. Another knight who was present, William de Montacute, would have a special connection with Hugh a few years later: Hugh would marry his daughter Elizabeth in 1341.