Hugh Spencer's Feats in France [Child 158]

DESCRIPTION: Hugh Spencer is sent to the king of France to know whether there be peace or war; answer: War. The French queen challenges him to joust with her knight. French horses and spears are inferior but he wins, then fights others until the king sues for peace.
AUTHOR: unknown
EARLIEST DATE: before 1750 (Percy Folio)
KEYWORDS: royalty war France knight fight
1337-1453 - Hundred Years' War between Britain and France
REFERENCES (3 citations):
Child 158, "Hugh Spencer's Feats in France" (3 texts)
Hales/Furnival-BishopPercysFolioManuscript, volume II, pp. 290-295, "Hugh Spencer" (1 text)
MANUSCRIPT: {MSPercyFolio}, The Percy Folio, London, British Library MS. Additional 27879, page 281

Roud #3997
NOTES [5437 words]: In trying to figure out what this song is about, we have the following clues from the texts of the ballad (which is known only from the Buchan/Moreira-TheGlenbuchatBallads text plus three texts printed by Child, respectively from the Percy Folio, from another text in the Percy papers, and from a Scottish version collected in Aberdeenshire by Joseph Robertson; the song has never been found in modern tradition):
In Child A, B the hero is Hugh Spencer and he is English. In Child C and Glenbuchat, he is "Sir Hugh," or "young Sir Hugh," and is Scottish.
In all versions, Hugh is sent to France.
In Child B, Hugh is accompanied by Hugh Willoughby and John of Atherly. He apparently sails alone in Glenbuchat.
In Child A, C, and Glenbuchat, the unnamed Queen of France argues with Spencer. In Child B, the Queen is Maude.
In Child A, the French King is Charles.
In Glenbuchat, it appears that the King of France is aged.
Child A mentions a battle fought at Walsingham.
The English King is not named in A or B, nor the Scottish King in C and Glenbuchat.
Glenbuchat mentions a "Duke of Darbois." This is certainly a corruption, but it's hard to say what it is a corruption of. My guess is that it might be a sort of conflation of the French Dukedom of Berry with the English Earldom of Derby (Darby), but the name certainly can't be used as a dating hint. The other possibility might be Robert of Artois, who was a count rather than a duke but who was instrumental in getting Edward III to start the Hundred Years War; exiled from France, he goaded Edward into war by implying that the king wasn't tough enough in standing up for his rights (Neillands, p. 75).
Child apparently felt that the Hugh Spencer of this song was a real person (Brown, p. 122). Fowler, p. 165, also considers it historical (indeed, he considers it the only historical ballad in the Percy Folio to survive into the nineteenth century).I must confess to doubting it.
Child begins by stating that there were "many Hugh Spencers" in English history, but this is somewhat exaggerated. No doubt there were many of that name -- but none of great fame. OxfordCompanion, p. 883, lists only one Spenser (the poet Edmund Spenser) and two Spencers, neither named Hugh and both too late for the song. Even Child implicitly admits the lack of noteworthy Spencers, for the only Hugh Spencer he mentions explicitly is "the younger of the favorites of Edward II."
However, "Spencer" is not the usual name for this man. Child calls him Hugh Spencer, and Doherty consistently gives the family name as "de Spencer" (e.g. p. 65), but most authorities call him "Despenser": CokayneIV, p. 259, Harvey (p. 131), Hicks (p. 63), Hutchison (p. 98), Myers (p. 18), OxfordCompanion (p. 289), Prestwich (p. 80), Phillips (p. 9), SaulII (p. 431), Tuck (p. 9), Warner (p. 23), and Wilkinson (p. 125). Other than Child, I cannot recall *anyone* in modern times calling him "Spencer."
On the other hand, there is another piece in the Percy Folio, "Proude where the Spenc[ers], Hales/Furnival-BishopPercysFolioManuscript, volume III, pp. 478-484: MSPercyFolio, p. 508, which is clearly about Edward II and the Despensers and calls them "Spencers." A quirk of one of the sources of the Percy Folio, since it contains both these pieces? I don't know. It doesn't appear to be traditional, though; some anonymous poet dug up a famous story and versified it.
The first Hugh Despenser of any significance lived in the reign of King Henry III. That king appointed him to the noteworthy post of Justiciar in 1260 (Powicke, p. 162), and he spent a second brief term as Justiciar a little while later (although not by Henry's choice; that was one of the times when the barons were telling what to do; Hallam, p. 60). That Hugh Despenser's father-in-law Philip Basset had also been justiciar (Hicks, p. 62). However, the Justiciar -- in effect, the regent when the King left the country -- should not have been able to leave the realm, so he wouldn't be in position to have feats in France. In any case, this Despenser was killed at Evesham a few years later (Powicke, p. 202) -- while opposing the King! (Hutchison, p. 95).
This Despenser is unlikely on other grounds because there was no King Charles of France at this time; Louis IX was the French King from 1226-1270, and he was succeeded by Philip III (1270-1285) and then Philip IV (1285-1314). Other than kings who were impossibly early, there was not to be a King Charles until Charles IV (1322-1328); later on, Charles V reigned 1364-1380 (and was regent for some time before that) and Charles VI reigned 1380-1422.
Better candidates than Henry III's Hugh are the Hugh Despensers, father and son, who were important in the reign of Edward II (reigned 1307-1327). The elder was, according to Hutchison, p. 95, the son of the Despenser of Evesham; he was born around 1261 (Phillips, p. 418; Hicks, p. 62, says 1262). His son Hugh the Younger was about Edward's age; they had, in fact, been knighted on the same day (Hutchison, p. 103). This would mean Despenser the Younger was born around 1284.
The elder Despenser was of some note as a soldier, having fought at Bannockburn and elsewhere (Hutchison, p. 95; Hicks, p. 62, says he fought in Flanders and Gascony as well as Scotland). He had also been one of the commissioners who arranged for Edward II's marriage to Isabella of France (Phillips, p. 117). But by the time Charles IV took the throne of France, he was too old to be a champion -- although hardly as old as Froissart claims; that less-than-reliable writer says he was ninety at the end of Edward's reign; (Froissart I. 10; Froissart/Jolliffe, p. 16). This being the case, if the Spencer of the song is based on a Despenser, it almost certainly is the younger.
It is ironic to note that, according to Phillips, p. 363, Edward and the younger Despenser apparently disliked each other at first. That would change over time.... Edward II was a king who was always dependent on favorites. His first had been Piers Gaveston, who however had been murdered in 1312. (Interestingly, there seem to have been oral pieces written about Gaveston, although none have been found in modern tradition -- probably because many of them were in Latin. Rigg, pp. 87-88, quotes from two of them, parodies of Latin hymns, which were both still current in the fifteenth century; one begins "Vexilla regni prodeunt; fulgit cometa comitum," the other "Pange, lingua, necem Petri qui turbauit Angliam."
Over the next decade, Edward relied on a small circle, but gradually the Despensers came to the fore. Mortimer, p. 99, declares that "by the end of 1320 [Despenser] had become the pivot upon which the balance of Edward's reign turned." And the younger Despenser was even appointed to a mission to France (Phillips, p. 384). But, although our records are incomplete, it proved a very short visit, if indeed he made it to Paris at all.
The single strongest argument against the possibility that the younger Hugh Despenser is the Hugh Spencer of the ballad is the fact that everyone except Edward II hated the Despensers. Despenser the younger was suspected of a sexual liaison with the King -- indeed, Queen Isabella eventually openly accused him of it (Doherty, p. 96), and so did Adam Orleton, Bishop of Hereford (Warner, p. 217). Hicks, p. 64, is certain that the charge is true. Lyon, p. 83, declares that "the manner by which both Edward and the younger Despenser were put to death strongly implies that the king was considered in his lifetime to be homosexual, and on p. 81 affirms that "it is likely that his relationships with his male favorites were homosexual" -- even believing (on no evidence that I can see) that he "adopt[ed] the passive role in homosexual acts."
It seems to me that the majority of recent commentators disagree. Phillips, p. 98, offers evidence against the hypothesis, and even offers some reason to think Edward had a relationship with Despenser's wife, not Despenser himself. Warner agrees that, toward the end of his reign, Edward and Despenser's wife, who had always been friendly, "became extremely familiar" -- particularly noteworthy because she was Edward's niece. Somebody certainly had sex with her; Eleanor de Clare had at least ten children during her twenty years of marriage to Despenser (Warner, p. 125). Phillips, pp. 102-103, sums up the evidence about Edward's sexuality: He had several children by his wife, and seemingly a shadowy illegitimate child as well. Phillips also notes that the King of France, who was unusually anti-homosexuality in a time when homophobia was normal, let Edward marry his daughter. It seems highly unlikely that he was exclusively homosexual.
If Edward had a homosexual love affair, it was much more likely that it was with his earlier favorite, Piers Gaveston. Phillips, who generally downplays the idea, on p. 102, admits "It is impossible to be certain of the true nature of the relationship between Edward II and Gaveston, whether sexual, a formal bond of brotherhood, or simply a very close friendship." What is certain is that Gaveston was exalted above everyone else in the land, and Edward really liked being around him. Surely many at the time suspected a sexual element.
My personal suspicion is that Edward II had a hint of autism. He was not stupid, as he showed at times when he outwitted his barons. But he was ridiculously insensitive to the opinions of his greater subjects, which is common for those with autism.
What makes this significant is that those with autism often find a few very close friends to whom they are extremely loyal -- as Edward was to Gaveston; at one point, he offered to give up sovereignty over Scotland just to get Gaveston shelter there! (Tuck, p. 65). His relationships with Hugh Audley and Roger Damory (Mortimer, p. 90) also sound a bit like autistic friendships. But to people who had no knowledge of autism, it could have looked like homosexuality.
But if Edward had one homosexual affair, it was easy to assume he had two -- and that meant Despenser the younger. Given the attitudes of the time, would an accused homosexual have been exalted as a champion of England?
Nor was this the only reason the younger Despenser was so disliked; he and his father were both extremely grasping, and used their favor with the king to gain extensive lands and wealth (Prestwich, p. 89; Hicks, p. 64, declares that his goal in government service was to gain wealth; Tuck, p. 75, declares, "Despenser [the Younger] was ambitious and greedy; the phrase he himself coined, "That Despenser may be rich and may attain his ends," succinctly sums up his intentions")
As Myers says on p. 18, "The Despensers were abler and less greedy than is sometimes supposed..... But Edward's government was, on the whole, inept, and the Despensers were widely hated as covetous and oppressive." As early as August 1321, Edward II had been forced to exile the pair and take away their holdings (Prestwich, p. 90; Mortimer, p. 109).
Despenser the Younger proceeded to turn pirate during the exile (Mortimer, p. 111). It is true that he preyed mostly on non-English ships (Hutchison, p. 107), and piracy at this time was considered far more honorable than it later became -- but it was hardly a nobleman's work, and the French were not his sole target; his biggest prize was Genoese (and caused a diplomatic incident).
Edward's treatment of the Despensers resembled the King's behavior with Gaveston a decade before: Edward had exiled his favorite, then stupidly called him back. The Despenser saga followed the same script: Edward II turned on his opposition soon after, and recalled the Despensers in 1322 (Hutchison, p. 111). It had been a very short exile.
In some ways, they were actually more problematic than the previous favorites: "Compared with Gaveston, whose influence seems to have been over the person of the king rather than the day-to-day business of government, there was much more reason to accuse [the younger] Despenser of acting as if he were king" (Phillips, p. 442).
As administrators, they seem to have been competent enough (Hutchison, p. 118, notes useful reforms passed by the parliament of 1322) -- but their goal was self-aggrandizement, not good government. "Their success in 1322 revived the Despensers' appetite for land and wealth; they had not learned their lesson from the previous rising against them" (Prestwich, p. 93). Despenser the younger "was blatantly corrupt and untouchable and his regime was a reign of terror" (Hicks, p. 65). The father was promoted to an earldom (Prestwich, p. 94); the son was given more than three dozen land grants which made him lord of almost all of South Wales (Hutchison, p. 117) and produced an income of about 7500 pounds per year (Hicks, p. 65); a royal ship was named La Despenser (Prestwich, p. 94).
According to Prestwich, p. 104, after the defeat and execution of the Earl of Lancaster and his supporters, "Edward II had at his disposal the greatest territorial windfall that any medieval English monarch enjoyed. The estates could have been used to create a new loyal following: instead, the benefits of royal favour were shared out by a small clique of the Despensers and their cronies in a period of tyrannical rule." The elder became Earl of Winchester; the younger, although he was not actually granted the title of Earl, collected almost all the lands of the Earldom of Gloucester and a big chunk of Lancaster lands (Phillips, p. 418) -- and almost all in Wales and the Marches, making it worth more than equivalent lands scattered around the nation, which is what most Earls had.
There was, to be sure, a quarrel between England and France at the time. Edward I of England (reigned 1272-1307) and Philip IV of France (reigned 1285-1314) had had many quarrels over the borders of the English province of Guyenne in southwestern France, an English possession that was nonetheless considered subject to the French crown. But when Edward II succeeded his father, he went through with a marriage with Philip's daughter Isabella, and for a time the two nations were friendly (Prestwich, p. 85). Two sons, Louis X (reigned 1314-1316) and Philip V (1316-1322) succeeded Philip, but the third of Philip's sons, Charles IV (1322-1328) eventually ended up quarelling with his brother-in-law and his chief minister Despenser the Younger.
Phillips, p. 43, notes that "The accident of the survival of part of Despenser's personal archives shows that he was centrally involved with the administration of Gascony during the time of the Anglo-French war there in 1324-1325."
Under Despenser, tensions between France and England heated up over affairs in Gascony (Phillips, pp. 455-457); the two nations ended up in a small-scale war, the "War of St. Sardos" -- really a border squabble that got out of hand. A party in Gascony attacked St. Sardos, a town that was being fortified by the French, and hanged a French officer (Phillips, pp. 461-462). The French called for satisfaction, didn't get it, and Edward's half-brother the Earl of Kent made a hash of the embassy which followed (Hutchison, p. 125).
Without planning it, Edward and the Despensers found themselves at war with France, but the conflict was no English victory; the French occupied La Reole (Seward, p. 24). The English ended up buying a peace; Edward II supposedly paid some 90,000 pounds to keep his remaining lands in Guyenne (Ormrod, p. 14).
Nor did either Despenser command in the war; Edward II had originally planned to lead the English army, but then decided to turn the command over to the Earl of Surrey (Phillips, p. 468). Indeed, Phillips, p. 428, suggests that Despenser could not safely have gone to France at this time.
Meanwhile, hostility was growing between Queen Isabella, King Edward, and the Despensers (Hutchison, p. 128). Edward, during the French wars, had taken away some of her land (Phillips, p. 466). The Despensers cut back on her allowance and planted an open spy in her household (Hutchison, p. 129). Phillips, p. 482, thinks that hostility between the Queen and the younger Despenser began by at least 1322, although she may not yet have turned against her husband himself.
Late in the reign of Edward II, at the height of the Despenser power, Queen Isabella went on a diplomatic mission to her brother Charles IV to end the War of St. Sardos. At one time Edward and Despenser were supposed to come to formalize the agreement made (Phillips, p. 475). But again Despenser did not come to France -- at first, Edward apparently wanted to go, but Despenser, according to Mortimer, p. 142, was unwilling because he feared assassination if Edward left. And he couldn't go to France himself, because the French had declared that he would be tortured if ever found there (Mortimer, p. 143). Instead it was decided to send Edward II's son Edward.
This was disastrous. Once Isabella was joined by her son (the future Edward III), she refused to come home, claiming that he had not only deprived her of her privileges but of her conjugal rights. In effect, she accused him of homosexuality before the French court (Mortimer, p. 143). She had become, in Hutchison's words (p. 127), "the dominating personality in a miscellaneous group whose sole binding agent was its hatred of the power and pride of the Despensers."
Edward tried to get her to come back, but he did it in uncompromising terms, simply ignoring her claims. He had his bishops write to her to call her home -- but it appears that he wrote what they sent (Mortimer, p. 144). Finally, on February 8, 1326, Edward formally admitted that his wife had turned against him (Mortimer, p. 146)
Naturally Charles IV took his sister's side. The younger Despenser finally took a hand, though. He did not travel to France to fight -- but he did offer flattery and money to Charles IV (Froissart I.7; Froissart/Jolliffe, p. 10). It worked well enough that Isabella had to head off to Hainault to raise her invasion.
She does seem to have been quite militant, though; Mortimer, p. 218, reports an incident where she actually put on armor and prepared for battle.
This raises an interesting possibility. There is no hint of this in the ballad, but perhaps if we change the Queen OF France to the Queen FROM France, we might have an explanation for the quarrel in the ballad between Queen and Spencer. Possible -- but without proof. Doherty, p. 100, thinks the Despensers may have encouraged Edward II to distrust his queen, but this too is beyond proof. We do know that she made many accusations against them (Doherty, p. 101).
And the Despensers were responsible for guarding against an invasion (Doherty, pp. 88-89).
Unfortunately their efforts failed; as Doherty notes on p. 89, Edward had made so many enemies that many lords were willing to secretly turn their backs on him. As Barber says on p. 14, neither party was popular: "As Isabella's power grew, so she seemed to imitate her husband's failings: The Despensers were balanced by Mortimer, Edward's dislike of government by Isabella's rapacity for money. [After she took charge, she latched onto more than 30,000 pounds in immediate cash, a huge income, and the Despenser treasures; Mortimer, pp. 171-173.] But Isabella was the more determined character...."
And she had managed to raise a small army. In Hainault, she married her son Edward III to Philippa of Hainault, one of the count's daughters, and spend the entire dowry to raise troops (Packe, p. 27). They then sailed for England.
Support for Edward collapsed almost instantly (Doherty, pp. 90-91). The London mob attacked and murdered suspected supporters of the Despensers (Hutchinson, p. 135). Adam Orleton, the Bishop of Hereford (who just might be the Bishop of Hereford of the Robin Hood saga; see the extensive notes to "A Gest of Robyn Hode" [Child 117] and those to "Robin Hood and the Bishop of Hereford" [Child 144], as Edward II might well be the king of the "Gest") preached against Despenser the Younger. (Although his text, "I will put enmity between you and the women" -- Mortimer, p. 155 -- is a little forced; yes, Edward and Isabella were enemies by this time, but hardly for the same reasons.)
The elder Despenser -- who may have halted his flight to try to buy time for his son and Edward II (Packe, p. 29) -- was cornered and apparently tried to negotiate, but his castle was stormed (Mortimer, p. 156) and he was captured.
He was given a mock trial (Prestwich, p. 97, calls it a "deliberate parody" of the Earl of Lancaster who had been executed in 1322, and Phillips, p. 513, says it was modelled on that procedure). He was not granted the right to answer the charges against him (Packe, p. 30) -- on the almost-reasonable grounds that he had made a law denying the accused the right to address their charges (Phillips, p. 512). Supposedly Isabella pleaded for his life (Mortimer, p. 159), but I suspect this was staged. He was executed as a traitor and his head ordered to be displayed at Winchester even before Edward II was captured (Doherty, pp. 92-93), which shows how much the Despensers were hated.
The younger Despenser was taken not long after -- and knew he could expect no mercy (the summary of the charges against him occupies almost all of page 517 in Phillips; it appears to me that there were at least 13 capital charges and as many more which would probably result in severe fines or punishment).
Faced with charges that would clearly end with him being executed with torture, Doherty (p. 105) and Warner (p. 226) think he tried to kill or starve himself. The conspirators who had overthrown Edward II concluded that he might not live to face a show trial in London, so he was tried in Hereford. Froissart I.13 (Froissart/Jolliffe, p. 20) says he made no answer to the charges (which Doherty, p. 106, interprets to mean that he was not allowed to reply. This seems likely, since he was tried before most of the same judges who had tried his father; Phillips, p. 516).
Naturally he was condemned to death by the most extreme means possible. Froissart/Joliffe's version has it that ,in the initial stages, his genitals were cut off and thrown into the fire because of his alleged sexual relations with Edward II (Phillips, p. 518 n. 382 thinks the real purpose was to indicate the destruction of his family line, also symbolized by the removal and destruction of his coat of arms). Doherty's description is more like a standard drawing and quartering -- but there is no doubt; Despenser was tortured to death. His head was then displayed on London Bridge.
Mortimer, p. 160, thinks that his quartering was inevitable, because -- literally -- everybody wanted a part of him. Or at least of his corpse.
On p. 162, Mortimer says that the judge concluded Despenser's trial by declaring, "Go to meet your fate, traitor, tyrant, renegade; go receive your own justice, traitor, evil man, criminal!" (Of course, the sentence would not have been read in Modern English....)
Despenser's punishment seems to have been made extra symbolic (Mortimer, p. 162): He was drawn by four horses rather than the usual two, and when they half-hanged him, they put him on a gallows fifty feet high (it doesn't say so, but this was presumably to "hang him higher than Haman"). His castration and evisceration was also done high in the air so all could see.
(It is ironic to note that Roger Mortimer, who was largely responsible for overthrowing the Despensers, would come to a similar end: Tried without being allowed to defend himself, he was drawn to his place of execution, then hung; Mortimer, pp. 239-241. At least he wasn't eviscerated.)
Despite the cruel end, Dohery, p. 107, declares that "Nobody would mourn de Spencer." The rebels then set about deposing the king, finally inducing him to abdicate so that his son, rather than someone else, would be raised to the throne (Dockray, pp. 112-113, etc.; Prestwich, p. 98). Prestwich, pp. 98-99, thinks that his abdication was not part of the original plan; Isabella and Mortimer hoped to rule in his name. But that didn't work, so he became an embarrasment. In 1327, after at least one attempt at rescue (Doherty, p. 117), the decision was made to murder Edward II. The grisly tale that he was killed with a red-hot poker up the anus does not appear until later (Prestwich, p. 99, although Philipps, p. 32, notes that the tale that Edward was homosexual and killed in this way is now universally know in England), but it is effectively certain he was killed in 1327.
Not all of the problems in Edward II's reign were the fault of the Despensers, who merely took advantage of the opportunities Edward II offered, but it appears absolutely no one approved of their actions. It is hard to imagine making a song about them.
We should note that this was not the end of the Despenser family. A third Hugh, or Huchon, the son of the younger Despenser, had been born around 1309 (CokayneIV, p. 271), and had been besieged in Caerphilly Castle during the rebellion against Edward II; the castle did not surrender until Hugh/Huchon's life was guaranteed (Warner, p. 223), although he was imprisoned until 1331 (CokayneIV, p. 272; Warner, p. 227). His daughters also survived, and some married and had children although others were forced into nunneries (Warner, p. 227). Hugh the Younger's wife was given back her dower lands very early in the reign of Edward II's son Edward III (Mortimer, pp. 173, 200). Hugh/Huchon Despenser was restored to his estates in 1337 (Tuck, p. 104), and served in the army that fought at Crecy in 1346 under Edward III (CokayneIV, p. 273); indeed, this Hugh Despenser helped clear a vital crossing of the Somme before the battle, leading the force that drove the French defenders away from the north bank (Barber, pp. 62-63; Neillands, p. 97). He was summoned to parliament as "Hugo le Despenser" in 1338, allowing him to return to the peerage as "Lord le Despenser" (CokayneIV, p. 273). But he died in 1348 (CokayneIV, p. 274) and the direct line of the Despensers was extinct.
The title Lord le Despenser was apparently revived in 1357 for Edward Despenser, nephew of one of the last Hughs (CokayneIV, p. 276). He died in 1375. His son Thomas Despenser was apparently very young at the time (CokayneIV, p. 278).
Richard II made Thomas Despenser. the great-grandson of Edward II's favorite, Earl of Gloucester (SaulII, p. 382; CokayneIV, p. 279), presumably because his the family had married into the Gloucester earldom (and because Richard had disposed of Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, who had held the title). Tuck, p. 206, says that he was also one of Richard's court circle, adding on p. 211 that Despenser managed to have the judgment against his ancestors cleared by Richard in 1397. When Henry IV succeeded, however, Despenser lost the Gloucester title (Given-Wilson, p. 161) -- and was later involved in a conspiracy to restore Richard II to the throne and killed by a mob (Tuck, p. 225; Given-Wilson, p. 162). The Despensers were never fully restored after that; Tuck, p. 248; the attainder of 1400 was not reversed until 1461; CokayneIV, p. 282. The barony came back into existence in 1604, according to CokayneIV, p. 283, but there later Despensers clearly cannot have been the subject of the song.)
SaulII, p. 102, mentions an Edward Despenser who became a Knight of the Garter in the reign of Richard II, and his younger brother became Bishop of Norwich -- although he loved to fight (and would be known for leading a failed military expedition which resulted in his impeachment; SauIIl, p. 106, Reid, p. 239). This bishop was another victim of the reaction after Richard II was deposed (Given-Wilson, p. 161) although he lived until 1406 (having been appointed bishop as early as 1369; Given-Wilson, p. 358). "From his zeal in suppressing the revolt of 1381 and crusading in Flanders he had come to be known as the fishing Bishop, but he never seems to have reconciled himself to Henry [IV]'s occupation of the throne. In the first years of the reign he was repeatedly summoned to the King's presence, and constantly excused himself, but never openly rebelled" (Kirby, p. 182).
A Sir Adam Despenser took the side of the barons in the civil war in Henry III's time (CokayneIV, p. 287). A Sir Philip le Despenser fought with John of Gaunt in Brittany in 1378 (CokayneIV, p. 289); he had a son Philip. Apart from the difference in name, I can't see that they did anything against the French.
Sir Hugh Despenser served as Henry IV's envoy to Guyenne in May 1400 (Given-Wilson, p. 255) -- but if he did anything except travel to Guyenne, I can't find it. And Guyenne was under English rule at the time, although considered part of the Kingdom of France.
It's just barely possibly that Bishop Henry Despenser (c. 1341-1406) might be considered to have had "feats in France," since his campaign was in Flanders (Hicks, p. 172), which was a French vassal state. It is sometimes suggested that the Squire in the Canterbury Tales served under Henry Despenser (Chaucer/Benson, p. 802; according to Chaucer/Andrew, p. 94, this suggestion, associated with Tatlock, is now generally accepted), since the Squire is said (line 86 of the General Prologue) to have served 'In Flaunders, in Artoys, and Pycardie." However, Despenser's expedition was a total flop -- Hicks, p. 173, declares, "The expedition was too late as the Flemings had been decisively defeated in 1382 at Rosebeke, but Despenser was also at fault for several breaches of his contract with the government. He took less men than agreed, changed his destination, took command himself rather than employing a nobleman as king's lieutenant, and disbanded his forces, which could have been used in another theatre of war." He also offended the nobility by refusing to allow the Earl of Arundel to take part in the expedition (Tuck, p. 182). Thus he is unlikely to have been remembered for its "feats," and the other Despensers were minor characters. It is noteworthy that, while Chaucer seems to mention the expedition, he makes no mention of its leader Despenser.
It was a decade after the deposition of Edward II that the real war with France began, when the new French king, Philip VI of Valois, confiscated all of Guyenne (Ormrod, p. 19). But there is no hint of a champion challenging him prior to the war -- let alone scaring him off.
It is interesting, although perhaps not very relevant, that King Edward III himself challenged Philip of Valois (Philip VI) to a single combat (Prestwich, p. 173). Nothing came of that, of course; Philip in 1339 was about 45 years old, and wearing out, whereas Edward III was 32, and very tall and strong, and was also a very stout fighter -- he won several large tournaments in the 1340s, and supposedly was still a better-than-average combatant as late as 1359 (Prestwich, p. 205. Seward, p. 39, has a different version of this, in which Edward offered single combat or a combat between a hundred knights of each side -- but does not cite a source). But the challenge to combat between Edward and Philip of course was given only *after* the war had started.
This whole business of tournaments to settle conflicts between nations is, of course, very old; we see an instance of it during the quarrel between David and Ishbaal in 2 Samuel 2:12-17 (where, however, all the participants died and nothing was settled).
On the whole, the simplest explanation for this song is probably that it is fiction, and the name Hugh Spencer is coincidence. But we cannot rule out the possibility that it is a conflate song. The first part, we might conjecture, is about Hugh Despenser the Younger, but the story of the Feats in France dates either from the reign of Henry V (in which case Henry himself might be the hero) or from the reign of Edward III -- in which case John Hawkwood or Robert Knowles (both semi-outlaws who led robber bands but were regularly employed by the state) strike me as strong candidates.
In this connection, it is interesting to note that Charles V reigned in France during the latter part of the reign of Edward III, and Charles VI reigned for most of the reign of Richard III (the successor of Edward III) and all of the reigns of Henry IV and Henry V. Both, however, have drawbacks -- Charles V's reign saw France recapture most of the English conquests in France, and Charles VI was mad for almost his entire reign, so he could hardly have directly contested with Hugh Spencer. For more on Henry V, and the Hundred Years' War in general, see the notes to "King Henry Fifth's Conquest of France" [Child 164]. - RBW
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