Despenser's Crusade

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Despenser's Crusade
Part of Hundred Years War, Crusades
Map of France in 1382, showing English conquests in pink and Flanders (top) in yellow
Date December 1382 – September 1383
Location Western Flanders
Result English withdrawal
Kingdom of England
Ghent rebels
Papal States
Kingdom of France
County of Flanders
Avignon Papacy
Commanders and leaders
Henry le Despenser
Urban VI
Charles VI
Louis de Male
Clement VII

Despenser's Crusade (or the Bishop of Norwich's Crusade, sometimes just Norwich Crusade) of 1383 was a military expedition led by Henry le Despenser that aimed to assist the city of Ghent in its struggle against the supporters of Antipope Clement VII. It took place during the great Papal schism and the Hundred Years' War between England and France. While France supported Clement, whose court was based in Avignon, the English supported Pope Urban VI in Rome.

Popular at the time among the lower and middle classes, Despenser's Crusade "was only widely criticised in hindsight",[1] and "for all its canonical propriety, [it] was the Hundred Years' War thinly disguised".[2] Among contemporary critics of the crusade were John Wyclif and the French chronicler Jean Froissart, who charged its leaders with hypocrisy.[2]


Flemish revolt

The County of Flanders, in which Ghent lay, was an ally of France (part of its territory was in France and part in the Holy Roman Empire). A revolt first broke out in Flanders in September 1379, and the English parliament of 1380, the last to convene at Northampton, recorded that no wool subsidy had been received because of the "present riot" in Flanders. Wool was a major English export to the Flemish looms, and between the fiscal years of 1381–82 and 1382–83 total exports dropped from 18,000 to 11,000 sacks.[3] In 1382–83, only 2,192 sacks passed through the main English staple port of Calais, leading to the rise of Middelburg in competition.[4]

When the citizens of Ghent rebelled against the count, Louis de Male, in January 1382, they requested English assistance. Louis attempted to block English imports. Under the leadership of Philip van Artevelde the Flemings expelled Louis from Flanders at the Battle of Beverhoutsveld and took Bruges. Louis soon procured a French army to relieve him, and the militia of Ghent was decisively defeated at the Battle of Roosebeke on 27 November, where Philip was killed. The city was forced to accept Louis's terms, to acknowledge Clement as the legitimate pope and to aid in the fight against the English. The fleet of Ghent escaped to England, where it kept up the war.[5] Charles VI of France entered Bruges and confiscated all the English merchants' goods.[4]

File:Coat of Arms of John of Gaunt, First Duke of Lancaster (as Crown of Castile Pretender).svg
Coat-of-arms of John of Gaunt, demonstrating his claim to rule Castile and León. He championed a crusade to Spain in opposition to Despenser's crusade.

Parliamentary debate

In October 1383, Parliament convened to debate the financing of a crusade. One side, led by John of Gaunt, put forward a crusade to establish him on the throne of Castile, and gained the support of the upper chamber—the later House of Lords. The other side, led by the Courtenays, the Earl of Arundel and the Earl of Buckingham, argued for a campaign to relieve Ghent and was supported by the lower chamber—the later House of Commons.[5] These were "two noble ways" (deux noble chymyns) to aid the king's friends (the Flemish communes, and the Portuguese in the mist of a succession crisis) against his enemies.[6]

The former option, the "way of Portugal" (chemin de Portyngale), was a pet project of John of Gaunt's. He had formally claimed the throne of Castile since at least 30 January 1372, when he received royal permission to include the arms of Castile and León on his own coat-of-arms.[4] Edmund of Langley, the king's brother, led a disastrous military campaign in Portugal in favour of John's claim in 1379. In January or February 1380, Ferdinand I of Portugal declared for Clement, but then on 29 August 1381 he went over to Urban's camp. Then, in March 1382, Urban issued the bull Regimini sacrosancte, condemning the Castilian king, Henry II, as a schismatic. During the parliamentary debate, John Gilbert, Bishop of Hereford, pointed out that while France remained within the Catholic fold, formally, Despenser's crusade would have to be a general effort against the Clementists, while John of Gaunt's could proceed against the excommunicated King of Castile specifically.[4]

The latter option, the "way of Flanders", was cheaper and of more immediate military value, for it could relieve the pressure on the English-held port of Calais. Parliament approved funding and appointed Henry le Despenser, the Bishop of Norwich, as leader of the crusade,[5] although it appears the crusade was initially to be led by John of Gaunt or another of the king's uncles.[7] The bishop refused to accept Arundel as his lieutenant and secular leader of the expedition.[8] Some peers criticised the crusade as threatening Richard II's claim on France, citing the way in which Urban VI had tried to control Naples after its successful defence against the Clementist Louis of Anjou's expedition in 1381.[9]

Planning and organisation

Papal and ecclesiastical

As early as 1378, the Cardinal Pietro Pileo di Prata expressed hope that through Richard II's marriage to Anne of Bohemia, an anti-French alliance between England and the Holy Roman Empire could be forged. The Bohemians, however, refused to go to war with France unless the nation was excommunicated, a measure Urban found too extreme.[10]

In 1379 Despenser published the bull Nuper cum vinea (6 November 1378) of Urban VI offering plenary indulgences to both the living and the dead in return for contributions proportional to or consistent with the donor's wealth to the general crusade against the Clementists. (Women generally gave jewellery and household effects.)[5] In March 1381, by two bulls, Urban appointed Despenser in charge of the anti-Clementist crusade in England, and gave him the power to grant indulgences and to dispense priests to participate.[8] This was probably a result of the diplomatic work of his clerk, Henry Bowet, who had gone to Rome on royal business in February 1380. The two bulls he delivered to Despenser, Dudum cum vinea Dei (23 March) and Dudum cumjilii Belial (25 March), survive in several copies.[10] A further bull, Dignum censemus, of 15 May empowered Despenser to preach the crusade in both archdioceses of England, Canterbury and York, and to take action against opponents of his message.[10]

These three bulls reached England in August 1381, and copies were distributed to the English episcopate on 17 September. Despenser "at once", according to Ranulf Higdon's Polychronicon, sent out his collectors to receive donations in return for the granting of indulgences. They were wildly successful, especially among commoners, perhaps because of the economic benefit of restoring order to Flanders, with which England had extensive trade. On 21 December 1382, in Saint Paul's Cathedral, London, the bishop of Norwich took the cross and formally vowed to go on the crusade.[10]

While the crusade was preached by friars, false confessors went about extorting money while some legitimate priests refused to hand over their collections to the war chest. The corruption inspired a series of denunciations from the reformer John Wyclif. Despenser, however, promised that the crusade would only attack the supporters of the "schismatic" antipope,[5] and:

if within the year it should happen that the realm of France was converted to the faith of the true Pope Urban, the bishop should be bound to fold up and put away the banner of the crusade, and thenceforth to serve our lord the king under his [the king’s] own colours [in some other theatre].[11]

Royal and parliamentary

The Exchequer saw to the procurement of bows and arrows. The public finances were overseen by Despenser's treasurer, Robert Foulmere, and by a London merchant, Sir John Philpot, who also acted as the expedition's banker. With his private money he funded some recruits and their transport across the Channel.[2] The ceremony whereat Despenser took the cross were characterised by the standard pageantry, "the cross and the crusade banner, and the sermons, masses, processions, and confessions".[9]

Despenser appointed as captains of the crusade Hugh Calveley, William Elmham, Thomas Tryvet, John Ferris, Hugh Despenser, William Ferinton and Matthew Reedman.[5] The crusade attracted a large number of recruits, but it also attracted undesirable (and uninvited, according to the Westminster Chronicle)[2] volunteers: bored monks with no fighting ability, youthful apprentices of the London guilds and outright criminals. The crusaders who had taken the proper vows wore red crosses, which symbol was already being transformed into the English national banner.[12][13] At the last moment, according to the historian Thomas of Walsingham, there was an effort to prevent the crusade's departure. King Richard II, who was advocating peace with France, ordered Despenser to await the arrival of William de Beauchamp, an experienced general, but the bishop ignored him.[5]


The crusade was mustered at Sandwich on 27 April, and sailed for Calais on 16 May 1383.[2][5] The chronology of the crusade from the sailing until 25 May is provided in a letter Despenser wrote to another prelate.[14] The first crusaders to arrive at Calais stayed only a few days, before the entire force had crossed the channel. The bishop led them in a successful attack on Gravelines.[15] That month (May 1383), on the home front, one Thomas Depham of Norfolk was imprisoned for casting doubt on an official report from Flanders.[16]

Siege of Ypres

File:The siege of Ypres (1383).png
Ypres during the Bishop of Norwich's siege. The illustration, a reproduction of an engraving published in 1610, shows the siege in progress.

The crusade joined the milita of Ghent in June. There was some debate over whether to attack Bruges or Ypres in Flanders, or to invade France, "the worst schimastic", as one historian puts it.[5] The army decided to besiege Ypres, which was in fact an Urbanist city. Walsingham nevertheless describes the crusaders using typical but entirely misplaced rhetoric:

Having the banner of the Holy Cross before them [they] thought that victory in this cause was glory but death reward. . . [T]hose who suffered death would be martyrs ... and thus the blessing of the cross was achieved, and the crucesignati [cross-signed] gloriously captured the town and there destroyed the enemies of the cross so that not one of them remained alive.

At Ypres the problem of the unpaid "volunteers" was exacerbated under siege conditions. In June Despenser ordered "all who are not in receipt of official wages" to return to England.[2] These undisciplined elements had only joined the host for the opportunity of plunder, according to Walsingham.

From Flanders, some of the captains wrote to the king that the campaign was falling apart "for lack of a lieutenant and of the good government of [the bishop]."[17] According to the transcript of the bishop's later trial, the king negotiated for Arundel to gather a group of men-at-arms and archers and go to Flanders, but the "ambiguously written" letters of Despenser, and reports of speeches he had made, indicated that he would not accept a lieutenant.[15] When a French relieving force approached the town, Despenser decided to abandon the siege on 8 August, after eight weeks of effort. Calveley suggested turning towards Clementist France, but the leadership of the crusade then split. Despenser, who claimed at his trial to have supported an attack on France only to be opposed by the majority of his captains, took his forces to Gravelines, while the remaining captains were bribed to surrender the land they had conquered and go home.[5]


After burning Gravelines, which he had wanted to hold, Despenser made a deal with the French and sailed his army home by September.[5] He later claimed that the restlessness of the 6,000–7,000 evacuees from the other surrendered towns and his lack of provisions, with the truce set to expire in a few days, forced his hand. He had in fact received royal permission to evacuate if he was short of victuals.[18] At the time of the truce, the king:

had appointed his uncle of Spain [John of Gaunt] to come quickly to [Despenser's] aid and support. And none the less, [Despenser] departed from there, leaving the same town to the enemy, contrary to the form of [his] indenture.[18]

The truce, so it was alleged by Despenser's opponents, was due "to the coming of our lord the king and my lord of Lancaster [John of Gaunt], who was by the sea, ready to cross" at the time.[18]


Upon returning, Despenser and his captains were summoned by the chancellor, Michael de la Pole, at the insistence of parliament, which opened on 26 October.[5]

Impeachment of Despenser

At the end of the proceedings, which took place before king and parliament, the bishop was impeached, deprived of his temporalities for two years, on the basis "of several matters, but especially of four articles".[15] These four articles were the main allegations put against him by De la Pole. The first two alleged that although he was pledged "to serve the king in his wars of France" with 2,500 men-at-arms and an equal number of archers mustered at Calais for the period of a year, his force did not meet that quota, there was no muster of the whole at Calais and the force had returned and been disbanded after less than six months. The other two articles accused Despenser of refusing to abide by the condition that he take with him "the best and most sufficient captains of the realm, after royalties"—a condition he got around by refusing to name his captains until after permission for his expedition was already granted, and by deceiving the king through "beaux promesses" in order to retain complete control of military matters (and avoiding taking Arundel with him).[15]

Despenser defended himself by claiming that the siege of Ypres was advised by the men of Ghent, that losses to both his own forces and those of Ghent (an "act of God", aventure de Dieux) had forced his lifting the siege, and the truce with the French might be preliminary to a lasting peace. He further claimed that he had more than quota of forces at Ypres, even though they had not all assembled at Calais; and that although Lord Neville had offered to go in the king's very presence Richard had refused permission.[15] He admitted to having received in Flanders royal letters asking him to accept a lieutenant, to which he claimed to have replied asking king and council to appoint one. After being found guilty, Despenser asked the king for a hearing before parliament to present his defence without interruption, which was granted for 24 November. In his final defence, the bishop attempted to place some blame on his captains, but Michael de la Pole was given another opportunity to rebut him. His guilt was confirmed, and although he had acted "contrary to the common custom of the estate of [a] prelate of England",[19] Richard II offered to treat him as an ecclesiastic. His temporalities were suspended and he was fined for the entire public cost of the expedition, to be paid for out of the francs he had received in France.[18]

Punishment of the captains

The captains of the crusade were asked to answer allegations of receiving bribes totalling 18,000 gold francs.[5] The leaders did not deny the allegations, but argued that because they had been forced to leave behind valuable horses the money was compensation. The treasurer, Foulmere, and five of the captains (notably, not Calveley) were imprisoned and fined 14,600 gold francs.[9] On 9 January 1384, the Exchequer recorded the receipt of £287 9s. 4d. of money captured during the Flemish expedition, paid by one Henry Bowet on Foulmere's behalf, and the further receipt of £770 16s. 8d. for 5,000 francs "illicitly received" overseas.[20]


  1. Christopher Tyerman, England and the Crusades, 1095–1588 (University of Chicago Press, 1988), 262.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 2.5 Tyerman, England, 336.
  3. Margaret Aston, "The Impeachment of Bishop Despenser", Bulletin of the Institute of Historical Research 38 (1965): 134 and n. 5, citing F. Miller, "The Middleburgh Staple, 1383–88", Cambridge Historical Journal 2 (1926): 65.
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 4.3 Aston, "Impeachment", 135.
  5. 5.00 5.01 5.02 5.03 5.04 5.05 5.06 5.07 5.08 5.09 5.10 5.11 5.12 Carol Miller, "Despenser's Crusade (1382–83)", Historical Dictionary of Late Medieval England, 1272–1485, ed. Ronald H. Fritze and William Baxter Robison (Greenwood Press, 2002), 155–56.
  6. Aston, "Impeachment", 132–33.
  7. Aston, "Impeachment", 128: "[I]t was agreed in the last parliament that my lord of Spain, or another of the king's uncles should voyage towards France for the honour of the realm." The term "lord of Spain" referred to John, who had a claim on Castile.
  8. 8.0 8.1 Tyerman, England, 334.
  9. 9.0 9.1 9.2 Tyerman, England, 338.
  10. 10.0 10.1 10.2 10.3 Aston, "Impeachment", 133–34.
  11. Aston, "Impeachment", 131.
  12. Tyerman, England, 327.
  13. Tyerman, God's War: A New History of the Crusades (London: Penguin Books, 2006), 909.
  14. Aston, "Impeachment", 127 n. 2.
  15. 15.0 15.1 15.2 15.3 15.4 Aston, "Impeachment", 128–29.
  16. Tyerman, England, 339.
  17. Aston, "Impeachment", 129: pur defaute de Lieutenant et bon governement d'icelle.
  18. 18.0 18.1 18.2 18.3 Aston, "Impeachment", 130.
  19. Aston, "Impeachment", 130–32, shows that this charge was hypocritical for the times. In 1346 William Zouche, Archbishop of York, had commanded English forces at the Battle of Neville's Cross, and in 1372 Thomas Hatfield, Bishop of Durham, had offered to lead troops as a sort of condottiere for Pope Gregory XI. Cf. J. R. L. Highfield, "The English Hierarchy in the Reign of Edward III", Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 5th series, 6 (1956): 135.
  20. Aston, "Impeachment", 128 n. 1.

Further reading

  • A. P. R. Coulborn. The Economic and Political Preliminaries of the Crusade of Henry Despenser, Bishop of Norwich, in 1383, University of London Ph.D. thesis (1931, unpublished).
  • Alan Gaylord. "Chaucer's Squire and the Glorious Campaign". Papers of the Michigan Academy of Sciences, Arts, and Letters 45 (1960): 341–61.
  • W. A. Pantin. "A Medieval Treatise on Letter-Writing with Examples". Bulletin of the John Rylands Library 13 (1929): 359–64.
  • G. Skalweit. Der Kreuzzug des Bischofs Heinrich von Norwich imjahre 1383 (Königsberg, 1898).
  • E. Perroy. L'Angleterre et le Grand Schisme Occident (Paris, 1933).
  • G. M. Wrong. The Crusade of 1383, known as that of the Bishop of Norwich (1892).