Book Review: The Rise and Fall of a Medieval Family: The Despensers by Kathryn Warner

Genre: History, nonfiction
Publisher: Pen and Sword
Pub date: 30 November 2020

The Despensers were a baronial English family who rose to great prominence in the reign of Edward II (1307-27) when Hugh Despenser the Younger became the king’s chamberlain, favourite and perhaps lover. He and his father Hugh the Elder wielded great influence, and Hugh the Younger’s greed and tyranny brought down a king for the first time in English history and almost destroyed his own family. Rise and Fall tells the story of the ups and downs of this fascinating family from the thirteenth to the fifteenth centuries, when three Despenser lords were beheaded and two fell in battle. We begin with Hugh the justiciar, who died rebelling against King Henry III and his son in 1265, and end with Thomas Despenser, summarily beheaded in 1400 after attempting to free a deposed Richard II, and Thomas’s posthumous daughter Isabella, a countess twice over and the grandmother of Richard III’s queen.

From the medieval version of Prime Ministers to the (possible) lovers of monarchs, the aristocratic Despenser family wielded great power in medieval England. Drawing on the popular intrigue and infamy of the Despenser clan, Kathryn Warner’s book traces the lives of the most notorious, powerful and influential members of this patrician family over a 200 year span.

This book intrigued me as I had heard about Hugh Despenser the Elder and Hugh Despenser the Younger from watching a TV series and through some books where they were mentioned. I was aware of their reputation but wished to learn more.

The Despensers rose and fell in favour over many generations and Warner tells their story of how they found royal favour on more than one occasion but also faced disgrace and execution. I had no idea the family was so influential through so many years.

This book is meticulously researched and if you genuinely want to learn more about this family I would definitely recommend it but would note that it is not light reading. There are so many people with the same name it can become a little confusing, this is of course no fault of Warner, who has done a fantastic job of detailing the dramatis personae at the beginning of each chapter so you are aware who is who in each chapter. I found this extremely helpful as someone so new to learning about the family.

It was extremely interesting to read about the marriages the Despensers made, some for advancement and some for love.

Initially I wanted to know more about the Despensers I had heard of but found myself becoming fascinated with the family and all the generations.

I think this is a book I will read again in future or refer back to when reading more about this fascinating family who successfully rose from the ashes after complete disgrace.

Thank you to NetGalley and Pen and Sword for the advanced copy.

The Rise and Fall of a Medieval Family: The Despensers is out now

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