24 November, 2006

Entrails and Emasculation

Hugh le Despenser the Younger, Lord of Glamorgan, royal chamberlain, royal favourite, politician, pirate and extortionist, circa 1287/90 to 24 November 1326.
[As a matter of interest, Hugh was the fourth cousin twice removed of Edward II, the fifth cousin of Queen Isabella, the third cousin once removed of Roger Mortimer and his (Hugh's) wife Eleanor, and the second cousin of Mortimer's wife Joan de Geneville.]

Today marks the 680th anniversary of Hugh's hideous execution. On 16 November 1326, he and Edward II were captured in South Wales by Henry of Lancaster - Edward's first cousin and Hugh's brother-in-law (Henry's late wife Maud Chaworth was Hugh's elder half-sister). There's some dispute about where Hugh and Edward were when they were taken - possibly at Neath Abbey, or in open countryside near Llantrisant, supposedly during a terrific storm.


Hugh's execution, from a fifteenth-century manuscript of Froissart's chronicles. Is that really his penis hanging to his knees?? No wonder Edward liked him so much.

Below, the Despenser arms.





Edward II was taken to Kenilworth and treated with all respect, as befitted the king. Hugh, along with Robert Baldock, Archdeacon of Middlesex and Treasurer of England, and Simon of Reading, Hugh's marshal, were placed in the care of Thomas Wake, supporter of Roger Mortimer and Isabella. (Baldock, a cleric, was placed in the not-so-tender care of Adam Orleton, Bishop of Hereford, and died 'horribly abused' in Newgate prison a few months later.) They were taken to Hereford, where Mortimer and Isabella were waiting for them.

Thomas Wake was in fact Hugh's nephew by marriage. He was twenty-nine in 1326, born in May 1297, and extremely well-connected. He was Roger Mortimer's first cousin - their mothers were sisters - and his sister Margaret was married to Edward II's half-brother the earl of Kent. (She was the mother of Joan 'the Fair Maid of Kent' and the grandmother of Richard II). In 1316, Edward II tried to arrange the marriage of the nineteen-year-old Wake to Piers Gaveston's four-year-old daughter Joan, but Wake rejected the alliance, for which he had to pay a huge fine of 1000 marks, and instead married Blanche of Lancaster. Born in about 1302, she was the eldest child of Henry of Lancaster and Maud Chaworth. Wake, unsurprisingly, supported his cousin Mortimer and father-in-law in 1326. (In 1328/29 he turned against Mortimer, and was forced to flee the country.)

Wake did his best to make Hugh's journey as humiliating as possible. He was tied onto the meanest horse that could be found, and forced to wear a tabard bearing his coat of arms reversed. He was led through towns and villages to be made a public laughing stock; drums and trumpets marked the people's joy at the downfall of the hated favourite and tyrant. All kinds of rubbish and filth were thrown at him.

Isabella wanted Hugh to be executed in London. However, in an attempt to kill himself, Hugh was refusing to eat and drink anything, and she was afraid that he might be able to starve to death before his arrival in the capital. This suggests that he was under very close guard to ensure that he didn’t cheat Mortimer and Isabella of their revenge on him. Therefore, the execution took place in Hereford eight days after his capture. (Is it possible that, even in a climate as damp as Britain's in November, that a man could live for eight days with no water at all?)

On his arrival, a crown of nettles was placed on Hugh's head and Biblical verses were written, or carved, into his skin. On his shoulders, a verse from the Magnificat: 'He has put down the mighty from their seat and hath exalted the humble.' On his chest, verses from Psalm 52, beginning 'Why do you boast in mischief, o mighty man?' (Four years and five days later, the same verse was read out to Roger Mortimer at his own execution.)


Illustration from a fifteenth-century manuscript, showing Isabella, Roger Mortimer and the future Edward III at Hereford. Hugh's execution can be seen in the background - he's lying on a table.






His trial took place in the main square of Hereford, in the presence of Queen Isabella and her son, who had turned fourteen a few days earlier, Edward II's half-brother Kent, Roger Mortimer, and countless supporters. As had happened at the trial of Thomas of Lancaster in 1322, Hugh was not permitted to speak in his defence (though he was probably so weak from lack of sustenance that it's doubtful he could have defended himself anyway). The list of charges against him was read out by Sir William Trussell, a supporter of Thomas of Lancaster who had been forced to flee the country in 1322. This list of charges still survives; some of them are true, some a little bit true, some utterly ridiculous.

The oddest charge is that Hugh had Lady Baret tortured, by having her limbs broken, until she went insane. As far as I know, this is the only reference to the crime, and it's not even known for sure who Lady Baret was. It does seem strange that nobody else mentions a noblewoman being tortured, or that neither she nor her family presented petitions in Edward III's reign. On the other hand, the charge is surely too specific to have been plucked out of thin air.

Simon of Reading was accused of 'insulting the queen', a nicely vague but convenient charge, which obviously deserved to be punished with the horrors of the full traitor's death. It's hard to avoid the conclusion that his real crime was loyalty to Hugh, as he's a totally obscure figure who doesn't appear to have taken part in any of Hugh's schemes, nor shared Hugh's power.

Trussell read out the verdict:

Hugh, you have been judged a traitor, since you have threatened all the good people of the realm, great and small, rich and poor, and by common assent you are also a thief. As a thief you will hang, as a traitor you will be drawn and quartered, and your quarters will be sent throughout the realm. And because you prevailed upon our lord the king, and by common assent you returned to the court without warrant, you will be beheaded. And because you were always disloyal and procured discord between the king and our very honourable lady the queen, and between other people of the realm, you will be disembowelled, and your entrails will be burnt.

Go to meet your fate, traitor, tyrant, renegade! Go to receive your own justice, traitor, evil man, criminal!

Hugh was roped to four horses - not the usual two - and dragged through the streets to the castle. He was hanged and half-strangled on a gallows fifty feet high, then lowered and tied onto a ladder. The executioner climbed an adjacent ladder and cut off his penis and testicles (according to several chroniclers; this was not part of his sentence), and cut out his entrails and his heart. All these parts were flung onto a fire below him. Finally, his body was lowered to the ground to be beheaded.
Apparently, Hugh ‘suffered with great patience, begging forgiveness from the bystanders.’ According to Paul Doherty, Mortimer and Isabella feasted and celebrated while watching. They must have had incredibly strong stomachs. There were hundreds, maybe even thousands, of people present; the din of their triumphant shouting and cheering was tremendous. Simon of Reading was hanged ten feet below Hugh, as 'his guilt was less'. It's doubtful that many people present at his death had any idea who he was.

Hugh’s head was parboiled in salt water and placed on London Bridge, while his body was cut into four and displayed on the city walls of York, Carlisle, Bristol and Dover - almost the four corners of England.
After Roger Mortimer’s execution four years later, Edward III gave permission for Hugh’s family to retrieve his remains and bury him. His tomb at Tewkesbury Abbey still exists (you can see my photo of it in a previous post).

It's hard to imagine that many people grieved for Hugh, at least outside his family. Edward II certainly did, but he was in no position to avenge his friend's death - which he would have done, mercilessly, if he'd been able to.

Hugh's widow Eleanor de Clare was imprisoned in the Tower of London. Three of Hugh's five daughters, Joan, Eleanor and Margaret, were forcibly veiled as nuns, by Queen Isabella's direct order, about five weeks after his death. The eldest of the three was about ten. His other two daughters were spared, Isabel because she was already married, and Elizabeth because she was a baby, or possibly still in utero. Elizabeth le Despenser later married Maurice, Lord Berkeley, son of Edward II's jailor - and grandson of Roger Mortimer. After the downfall of Mortimer and Isabella, Hugh's four sons, especially the eldest (also named Hugh, inevitably) began the long but ultimately successful process of restoring the Despenser family fortunes and reputation. Hugh's great-grandson Thomas Despenser was created earl of Gloucester in 1397, and married Constance of York - great-granddaughter of Edward II and Isabella.

In memoriam: Hugh le Despenser the Younger, executed exactly 680 years ago. Not A Very Nice Guy, but an interesting one. ;) I'll be toasting him with a glass of bubbly later!

11 comments:

Gabriele C. said...

Boy, whoever wrote that verdict has to learn to be less verbose. Or did they take it right out of one of Isabella's LifeJournal rants? :)

Alianore said...

Yup, those medieval texts tend not to be very succinct! ;) And all the charges against Hugh, that I didn't write as they would have made the post twice as long - it's a wonder he didn't starve to death right in front of them!

Susan Higginbotham said...

I printed out an article that listed the charges last night. They ran over 3 pages. (Not that printing it did me much good, because the charges were all in French.)

There's one illustration that shows Hugh being executed on a table, and another on the ladder. I wonder which they used, or both? The ladder method looks like it would have been awkward for the executioner. Maybe having a good sense of balance was a job prerequisite . . .

Alianore said...

Is that the Taylor article, Susan? I've seen it, though I don't have a copy of it. Wish my medieval French was better - lots of the documents of Ed's reign have never been translated.

Froissart says Hugh was tied to a ladder - but of course he was writing decades later. I'm not sure what the other chroniclers have to say about it. I would have thought a table would be much easier for the executioner, too - unless he was ordered to rip Hugh apart on a ladder to make sure everyone could see properly (the same thinking behind the 50-foot gallows, I imagine).

carlanayland said...

A certain amount of artistic license in the well-endowed illustration, methinks?

Is it unusual for something as formal as the charge sheet to address the comdemned by his first name? I was surprised to read that it began, "Hugh..." Should I be?

The ladder method does look as if it might have been a challenge for the executioner, doesn't it? Is it possible that an early illustrator decided to draw it on a ladder, for ease of displaying the gory details, and then a later chronicler saw the picture and wrote it up? If not, the executioner earned his fee. Or is it possible that he was tied to a ladder that was laid horizontally, perhaps across a couple of trestle table supports, the executioner did his stuff there (which would look as if he was working on a table to someone he hadn't got a very good view), and then the ladder was propped up vertically to display the body?

Alianore said...

Carla, I'm guessing that referring to him simply as 'Hugh' instead of 'Sir Hugh' or 'Lord Despenser' or similar was intended as an insult. The charge sheet was read out in front of him and hundreds of observers, and should really be seen in that light - as a spoken document, rather than a formal, written one.

It's certainly possible that he was tied to a ladder that was then placed across a table, as you suggest. I think that the display of his body, and his torture, was very important to Isabella and Mortimer - he was their greatest and most hated enemy, the man they'd sworn to utterly destroy, and the very public manner of his death was a powerful sign that they'd succeeded.

Carla said...

Regarding survival time without water, I've tried to look it up and the answer seems to be that yes it probably is possible to live for 8 days without water in the right conditions. It's usually said that people can only live 3-4 days without water, but I haven't managed to locate a scientific source for that value, much less a range.

Joe Simpson, of Touching the Void fame, crawled for two or three days across a glacier, after having spent all night trapped in a crevasse, before he found a stream of meltwater and was able to drink. (The phrase he used was "it was like putting fuel in" which is a graphic illustration of how important water is). Unfortunately I haven't got a copy of the book to hand so I can't check exactly how many hours he was without water, though I will try and look it up for you. But that proves that 2-3 days is possible even with severe fluid loss due to injury (about a pint of blood loss from a broken leg) and extreme physical exertion in the very dry climate of a high altitude glacier. Which would suggest that it would be possible for an uninjured man to go a lot longer in a cool damp climate with no physical exertion.

The US Environmental Protection Agency says here that people can survive about a week without water depending on the circumstances, also without a scientific source, but consistent with Joe Simpson's experience.

So I would say yes, Hugh could have gone without water for 8 days in an English November without dying of dehydration. Though he would have been very weak by the end and probably not very well able to think clearly. Hope this helps!

Jeri Westerson said...

It’s all about the research. I have asked several historians to participate in a brief interview, discovering a little about what was near and dear to people in the middle ages, namely cookery, music, and clothing. Please join me on my blog Getting Medieval www.jeriwesterson.typepad.com for this brief but interesting look at life in the middle ages and the people who study it.

Jeri Westerson

Alianore said...

Many thanks for the info, Carla! It's interesting to know that maybe Hugh really didn't drink any water at all - hard to imagine, but evidently possible. I remember reading a couple of accounts of people drinking water after several days without, and the 'putting in fuel' analogy sounds very apt - one said he could feel the strength flowing back into his body, the ability to think, even the ability to move properly.

Jeri, I'll head over to your site to take a look!

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