Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Character Conversations: Hugh Despenser, from the King’s Greatest Enemy series by Anna Belfrage

Tewkesbury Abbey was quiet and I was grateful. I knew people could see me when I traveled through time to conduct interviews, but I wasn't sure how it all worked when my interviewees stepped through time to talk to me and I wasn't prepared to test the waters with someone as controversial as Hugh Despenser. 

The fact of the matter was that the request itself had caught me off guard, but on learning of the discussions I host here at Flashlight Commentary, Hugh simply wouldn't be denied the opportunity and hounded Anna into setting up an interview. Thinking back on it, I half wonder what would have happened if we'd refused to arrange the meeting. I'm not sure it'd have gotten violent, but Hugh is quite intimidating and I'm not convinced a polite declination would have been accepted.

I'd arrived early to take in the grounds before the interview. The Abbey's vaulted ceilings and stained glass fascinated me, but so did many of dead and I took my time looking over the tombs that lined the ambulatory. I was on the south end, considering a fairly modest installment when I sense someone approach and take position just behind my left shoulder. I turned quickly and found myself face to face with Hugh, a smug grin of amusement on his lips as he held out his hand gestured me to the door. 

He made a quip about being interviewed over his dead body, but intimated he'd be more comfortable outside in the fresh air. I agreed and we head out to settle ourselves under a tree near the churchyard. 

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You and your wife were great patrons of this monastery. What inspired your generosity?
Truth be told, it was more Eleanor’s thing than mine. Her family has roots the size of upside-down oak trees here, and what with the de Clare line going extinct on the male side with the SO unfortunate death of Gilbert at Bannockburn, someone had to take up the mantle. Quid pro quo, if you will: I got the lion’s share of dear, dead, Gilbert’s lands – well, officially Eleanor did – and so I graciously passed some of all this wealth on to the good monks of Tewkesbury. Besides, men like me need all the help they can get to ensure a comfortable afterlife – assuming one exists. There are days when I am struck by the blasphemous thought that maybe this life is all that we get, and if so, one must really suck the marrow out of it, right?

How do you feel seeing it today?
The abbey? Dull thing these days, isn’t it? In my time, it was an explosion of colour and gold, now it is all unadorned stone. And then, of course, there’s the infected matter regarding my tomb. THEY’VE MOVED ME!!! (If we’re going to be correct, they’ve moved the parts that Eleanor managed to recover, which wasn’t all that much – not enough to get by on once Resurrection Day dawns) Instead, my alcove now contains the tomb of some fat abbot or other. Huh! Ah well: in difference to that accursed Mortimer there are some reminders of my existence – my dear wife donated a window on my behalf – and even if I am no longer where I rightfully should be, I remain close by. Mortimer, the bastard, lies buried God knows where. Serve him right…

Getting into you background, I’m curious, how did you distinguish yourself at court and rise to the position of royal chamberlain?
The same way anyone who wants to rise at court does: be adequately capable and do a lot of flattering – or maybe brown-nosing is the correct term. In my case, it helped that Edward always had a special fondness for his niece, my Eleanor. I was sort of part of the family, and when things get sticky, who do you turn to but to those closest to you? It also helped that Edward found me entertaining and refreshingly unburdened by chivalric codes and all that idiotic stuff. What the top dog wants, the top dog should get, I have always said, and Edward was more than happy to agree with that.

Your marriage obviously helped your rise. How do you feel about Eleanor and how would you describe your relationship?
Ah. Some people insinuate my dearest liege has indulged in bedsport with my Eleanor. Had he done so, I’d have been obliged to murder him – my wife welcomes no one but me to her bed. She is beautiful, my wife, and shrewd and loyal. We may not indulge in all that mushy stuff that goes for courtly love, but we are partners, determined to build a future for our children – even if it comes at the expense of others.  

Your wife has given you several children. What future do you see for them?
“What future do I see for them…” I know, don’t I? *sags* Three of my little girls, forced to take the veil, my eldest son, fighting on so bravely before finally surrendering in exchange for his life… Isabel, that apple of my eye, so cruelly divorced by her husband, and my baby Elizabeth, married off to one of Mortimer’s grandchildren. Ugh! But despite all this, the Despensers survived, didn’t they? Oh yes, they most certainly did! 

Getting back to your role at court, what are your roles and responsibilities? 
Anything the king doesn’t want to handle, I handle for him. Nice and simple, don’t you think? 

What is the nature of your relationship with Edward II? 
He’s my king, my uncle by marriage. He is also a man whose company I truly appreciate – we have the same sort of wit, I believe, and both of us enjoy some heated word sparring. He’s quite the hunk, my king, tall and handsome, strong and forceful. I make him laugh. I support him against those pesky barons of his – and especially that odious Thomas of Lancaster, a man so full of himself it’s a miracle he could ever tear his eyes away from his own reflection. It is my job to make sure my king is not bothered by the minutiae of ruling a kingdom – he is easily bored. It is my privilege to control access to his ear, thereby ensuring anyone who wishes to raise something with the king must come to me first – even, of late, the queen herself. *chuckles* She doesn’t like that, I can tell you: Isabella, daughter of France, ousted by me, Hugh Despenser.

Modern historians speculate that you two shared a bed. Do you care to comment on the rumors? 
Of course we share a bed. Don’t men in your day and age do that when travelling? When desiring to converse without any potential eavesdroppers? Do we do other things in bed than talk? Well, my dear, that is none of your business. But let’s just say my liege is hot – seriously hot. All that outdoor activity he is so fond of leaves him with a physique to die for, and I’m none too bad either, even if I say so myself. Maybe a tad too hirsute, but Edward always says he likes it. 

What of his queen? What are your thoughts and opinions of Isabella?
Isabella is the pampered only daughter of a king who showed little affection for anyone else than her. Pretty, I’ll give her that, and fully aware of how men drool in her presence. Not all men – her husband rarely falls for her wiles, preferring the company of other men to hers. I dare say it irks her, that she cannot entice him to follow her, no matter how much she batts those long dark eyelashes of hers.  Other than her looks, she is also gifted with cunning and an impressive intellect for a woman, and she is therefore a potentially dangerous influence on our king, which is why I do my utmost to drive a permanent wedge between them. Must say I’ve done a great job there. Maybe too great…

Who would consider your Lord’s greatest enemies? 
Lancaster. Well, he was, until he was executed back in 1322. Mortimer, may his name be cursed. Isabella, her damned brother Charles IV of France, and that ambitious Flemish bastard, Guillaume de Hainault.   

What are your feelings on men like Roger Mortimer and Adam de Guirande?
Adam? *laughs out loud* The man is a pain in the nether parts, and handsome enough to have me considering using certain parts of his anatomy for my pleasure, but ultimately, he’s of little consequence, minor knight that he is.  Mortimer, on the other hand, is a snake – and a dangerous one. I pleaded and begged my liege to execute him back in 1322, but Edward, fool that he sometimes is, chose to be lenient. Lenient! *spits* Look where that has got us, eh? That accursed rat of a man escaped the Tower and now sits in France, like a huge cat ready to pounce on its mouse. And we are the mice…

Were it your decision, how would you deal with these men? 
They’d have been dead since years back – both of them. Preferably after long, extended executions. I’d have liked to see Mortimer maintain that stiff upper lip of his as his entrails were drawn out of his body.

What is the worst thing you’ve had to do in Edward’s service?
Not kill Mortimer when I had the chance. What? Oh, you meant from a moral perspective. *drums his fingers on the armrest of his elaborately carved chair* You know, I can’t think of anything. Besides, Edward rarely asks me to do something I’m not happy to do, if you know what I mean.  

You had Llewelyn Bren hung, drawn and quartered without a trial. Did you feel this justified?
Yes. The man had looted Caerphilly and besieged my castle there. What do I care that the king chose to commute his death sentence to imprisonment? He deserved to die – and men with so much informal power as he had, are best dealt with by relieving them of their lives. 

You’ve robbed widows of their lands. Why?  
If not me, someone else. What do you think this is? Some sort of picnic? This is England, early 14th century, and everyone who can is out to grow their wealth. Widows and orphans make good victims – all they can do is bleat while they’re being fleeced. And as rich widows are not thick on the ground, one must be quick – or in a position of power – to grab the juicier morsels. I happen to be both quick and powerful. 

What does Eleanor think about you robbing her sisters of their share in the de Clare inheritance? 
*Smiles* As I said, we’re partners. And Eleanor is the eldest and has far more children than any of her sisters – I suppose one could argue we need the land much more than they do…

Are you haunted by any of your actions?
No. Wait: yes, I am. I will never forgive myself for convincing my beloved liege to send his son to France to do homage for Gascony. I did it to save my own arse, because had King Edward left me to rule on his behalf while he swanned off to France to pledge his allegiance to Charles, I can tell you I’d have been dead within days – beaten to death by a mob, likely. I know, unbelievable, isn’t it? Imagine anyone wanting me, the king’s favourite, dead! Anyway: the long and the short of it is that Edward sent his son instead. In retrospect, that was like handing Isabella a…a…would a WMD be a correct comparison? The prince legitimizes any venture Isabella and Mortimer may decide on, and that is my fault. Damn! 

What do you see for yourself as far as your legacy is concerned? How do you think history will remember you?
*gives a sour look* I’ve been voted the vilest man in English history, haven’t I? Huh: just goes to prove that old adage that history is written by the winners. A more balanced view would be to recognize that Mortimer and I aren’t all that different – ambitious, greedy and hungry for power the both of us. Having said that, I’d rather be hanged, drawn and quartered than be compared to that bastard! *Takes a deep breath and clears his throat” I wasn’t all bad, you know. I loved my king – and not only because he so generously feathered my nest. I loved my wife and children. I respected my father – he taught me everything I needed to know about being cunning and grasping. Circumstances made me into what I am – is that my fault? And seriously, had Mortimer died back in 1322, who do you think history would have remembered in glowing terms? Me, Ms Davies. Me, the most powerful man in England, the father of a dynasty of future royal chancellors. Damn the wheel of fate for being such a fickle thing! Damn Mortimer for ever having been born, damn Isabella for being such a prize bitch. *slams his hand down on the table, and in doing so, his apparition begins to disintegrate and fade. All that he leaves behind is a faint fragrance – of lilies-in-the-valley and sulfur. 

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Date of Birth: Birthday? Hugh scrunches up his brow and says he’s of an age with Mortimer, some years younger than his king – born in 1287 in the merry month of May, as per his mother, and she would know, wouldn’t she? 

Physical Appearance: Dark hair, dark eyes, middling height, excellent taste in clothes. Beautiful hands, if he may say so himself. Light on his feet, good teeth and a rather full lower lip. Has a tendency to overdo the jewelry, what with rings and gold collars, precious stones in his cloaks, ornate brooches decorating his mantle. 

Education and Job Skills: Education is really same old, same old: first a page, then a squire and then, finally, a knight. Skills include number-crunching, piracy, a flair for administration, for making people open up and share their secrets (and yes, at times some mild coercion might be required, but a man’s got to do what a man’s got to do). A soothing companion for a restless king, Hugh can also, when required, hum a song or two – him being David to King Edward’s Saul.

Family: Wife and kids. Father. Two sisters and a half-sister, married to Thomas of Lancaster’s brother, no less. 

Allies: Edward II, Walter Stapledon, his wife, his father and all those who remain loyal to Edward II. Hugh would like to point out that he isn’t the traitor here – Mortimer is. And as to that false wife of a queen – in Hugh’s opinion, Isabella should have been spanked more often, tamed, if you will. 

Enemies: Queen Isabella, Mortimer, those idiotic bishops who somehow see a better person in Mortimer than in Hugh, such as Orleton and Burghersh, bishops of Hereford and Lincoln respectively. Plus, as time passes, for some inexplicable reason (as per Hugh) most of the English barons develop a dislike for him. 

Hobbies: Embroidering – but Hugh will kill you if you tell someone that. He also enjoys hawking and hunting rabbits with ferrets. It’s so much fun to release a ferret into a warren and watch the rabbits get caught in the nets as they attempt to escape. A bit like flushing rebellious barons, Hugh says – and almost as satisfying. 

Most Cherished Possession: Ah. A rather fine set of matching golden goblets. No one in the entire kingdom has one as gorgeous – not even his dear lord and king.

Strengths: Determined, self-motivated. Never takes his eyes off the final goal. 

Weaknesses: A tad too self-centred? Plus a covetous streak a mile wide. 

Fictional Appearances: Hugh is a main player in the series the King’s Greatest Enemy. 


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Anna was raised abroad, on a pungent mix of Latin American culture, English history and Swedish traditions. As a result she's multilingual and most of her reading is historical- both non-fiction and fiction. Possessed of a lively imagination, she has drawers full of potential stories, all of them set in the past. She was always going to be a writer - or a historian, preferably both. Ideally, Anna aspired to becoming a pioneer time traveller, but science has as yet not advanced to the point of making that possible. Instead she ended up with a degree in Business and Finance, with very little time to spare for her most favourite pursuit. Still, one does as one must, and in between juggling a challenging career Anna raised her four children on a potent combination of invented stories, historical debates and masses of good food and homemade cakes. They seem to thrive…

For years she combined a challenging career with four children and the odd snatched moment of writing. Nowadays Anna spends most of her spare time at her writing desk. The children are half grown, the house is at times eerily silent and she slips away into her imaginary world, with her imaginary characters. Every now and then the one and only man in her life pops his head in to ensure she's still there.

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