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The Rise and Fall of a Medieval Family (Hardback)

The Despensers

P&S History Colour Books Medieval

By Kathryn Warner
Imprint: Pen & Sword History
Pages: 272
ISBN: 9781526744937
Published: 17th December 2020

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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 has been a very enjoyable read. It's not only a great reference work for anyone studying the noble families of late medieval England. To anyone genuinely interested in this era, looking for an immersion into the nitty gritty details and the genealogy of one of the important noble families, I wholeheartedly recommend this book.
However, if you prefer a popular history narrative (Dan Jones, Ian Mortimer, etc.) and are not really willing to get into a slightly drier read and dive much deeper you should probably look elsewhere.

I love the way Kathryn Warner always handles the subjects in her books. The seemingly compulsive attention to detail, the thoroughness, the need to leave absolutely nothing out that may be of interest to the reader...this speaks of her great love for her craft. I really appreciate that.
It also helps to structure my thoughts in a way, as I'm both a bit of a control freak and a scatterbrain. Somehow reading a Kathryn Warner book feels like a match made in heaven for me. I really enjoyed it and learned so much.

NetGalley, Esther H

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 personnae 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.

NetGalley, Amy McElroy

This book is exceptionally well researched and a true chronological treat for those who love to dive into the intricacies of medieval families. If this sounds like you, check out, “The Rise and Fall of a Medieval Family: The Despensers” by Kathryn Warner.

NetGalley, Heidi Malagisi

The family that everyone loved to hate...

The Despenser family was one that wielded quite a bit of power during medieval times, but the fortunes wheel does forever turn. What goes up, must come down. The Despenser family learned that with their rise, they could also fall. Hugh the Elder and Hugh the Younger were both in high positions of power, and through their greed came their fall. It was only after their fall that it was realized how much they actually held - and some of that took many years to discover.

The Despenser family did not end with Hugh the Younger - in fact, many did survive - albeit with some initial punishments, and then the family just continued to blend into the fabric of England.

I really enjoyed reading through this book and finding many things that I was not aware of. I knew of the overreach of Hugh the Elder, but I was not aware of the extent, nor was I aware of the different members of the family who managed to rise from the ashes, to bring honor back to the Despenser name. A great read - with lots of information!

NetGalley, Rebecca Hill

The Despenser family is on the pages of any history book about medieval England. I've known their names for ages, but never read a book specifically about them. I'm glad that I read this one because it goes through the whole Despenser line to see their impact on history. Some of these books tend to focus a lot on other players -- such as the royals -- but I felt this had a great balance between giving history to ground readers in what was going on while maintaining the focus on the Despensers. Overall, a great history book that I'd definitely want for my shelves.

NetGalley, Caidyn Young

About Kathryn Warner

Kathryn Warner holds a BA and an MA with Distinction in medieval history and literature from the University of Manchester, and is the author of biographies about Edward II and his queen Isabella. Kathryn has had work published in the English Historical Review, has given a paper at the International Medieval Congress, and appeared in a BBC documentary.

Hugh Despenser the Elder is born

1st March 1261

Hugh Le Despenser (in full Hugh Le Despenser, Earl of Winchester), also known as Hugh the Elder, was born on 1 March 1261. He died in Bristol on 27 October 1326. He was summoned to Parliament as a baron in 1295.


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