19 February, 2008

Remains of the Younger Despenser?

Many of you have probably seen the news that bones discovered at Hulton Abbey in Staffordshire have been tentatively identified as those of Edward II's favourite Hugh Despenser the younger, executed in 1326. Despenser's probably never been so popular - there are loads of blog posts about this, his Wikipedia page has already been updated, and I've seen a huge increase in the number of people visiting this blog searching for him. The article describing the find can be read here. Love the sensationalist headline, which has inspired me to write a blog post sometime soon called something like 'events of Edward II's reign written in the style of the British newspapers'.

The man, who was over 34 - Despenser was in his late thirties in November 1326 - was stabbed in the stomach, beheaded, and chopped into pieces, which would (partly, at least) fit the details of Despenser's execution. But...the odd thing is that Hugh Audley, Despenser's brother-in-law (Audley married Margaret de Clare, widow of Piers Gaveston, sister of Despenser's wife Eleanor, and niece of Edward II), owned the land where Hulton Abbey stood. I struggle with the concept that Despenser would have been buried on Audley's lands. There had been bad blood between the two men since early 1320, when Despenser coerced Audley into exchanging some of his Welsh lands for some of Despenser's English manors, of lesser value. And Audley spent four and a half years in prison from 1322 to 1326, basically because of Despenser (see below).

On 15 December 1330, shortly after Roger Mortimer's execution, Edward III granted permission to Despenser's widow Eleanor and friends (he had friends??) to take down Despenser's remains from London Bridge, Carlisle, York, Bristol and Dover, and bury them - four years after his execution. Eleanor had a magnificent tomb built for Despenser at Tewkesbury Abbey, which still exists. So I really don't see why he would have been buried on the lands of a man who hated him when he had a perfectly good tomb at Tewkesbury, where many of his wife's illustrious ancestors were buried, and later, a good number of his descendants. On the other hand, when Despenser's tomb was opened fairly recently, only a handful of bones were seen - but after four years exposed to the elements, maybe there wasn't much left of him. (I can't find the reference now to the opening of Despenser's tomb, when it occurred and what was seen).

The bones have been dated to somewhere between 1050 and 1385. We can pretty well discount the first two centuries or so of that period when trying to identify this man. Execution by hanging, drawing and quartering was extremely rare before the early 1300s, the end of Edward I's reign. Only a handful of men suffered this death before that: possibly, a pirate named William Maurice in 1241, and possibly a man who tried to assassinate Henry III (I can't remember offhand when that happened - sometime between the 1230s and 1250s). However, the first man who was certainly hanged, drawn and quartered was Dafydd ap Gruffydd, brother of the last native-born Prince of Wales, at Shrewsbury in October 1283.

Afterwards, Edward I used this punishment on Scottish rebels (or rather, the men he believed were Scottish rebels) from 1305 to 1307 - William Wallace of Braveheart fame, and several of Robert Bruce's relatives. None of these men are likely to have been buried in Staffordshire.

Before the 1320s, only two English noblemen/knights had been hanged, drawn and quartered: Thomas Turberville in 1295 for selling state secrets to the French, and Gilbert Middleton in 1318, for attacking and robbing two cardinals and rebelling against Edward II. Unfortunately, I don't know where either man was buried.

Coming back to Despenser and the turmoil of Edward II's reign: in 1321/22, a large group of Marcher lords rebelled against Despenser's empire-building and influence over the king. This culminated in the battle of Boroughbridge on 16 March 1322, after which the earl of Lancaster and a couple of dozen other men were executed. Hugh Audley himself was spared execution because his wife Margaret pleaded with the king, but spent the period from March 1322 to September/October 1326 in prison, when Roger Mortimer and Queen Isabella freed him. He became earl of Gloucester in 1337 and lived until 1347, the only one of Edward II's favourites to survive the reign. So he was very much alive at the time of Despenser's burial in late 1330 or early 1331, and it's unlikely in the extreme that he would have permitted the detested Despenser's remains to be buried anywhere on his lands.

I'm not an expert on Edward III (in fact, I'm a million miles away from being an expert) but I can't think of any men executed in this manner during his reign. (If anyone knows any, please let me know.) It's far more likely to date from Edward II's time. But who was it? A couple of dozen men were executed in March to May 1322, after the Marcher rebellion:

- Roger Clifford, John Mowbray, Jocelyn d'Eyville, Warin de Lisle, William Cheney, and up to seven others in York
- William Fleming and (possibly) Stephen Baret in Cardiff
- Bartholomew Badlesmere in Canterbury
- John Giffard, Roger Elmbridge and Henry Tyes in Gloucester (or maybe in London, in Tyes' case)
- Henry de Montfort and Henry Wilington in Bristol
- Francis Aldham in Windsor and Bartholomew Ashburnham in Cambridge
- Thomas Culpepper in Winchelsea

There's some debate about the numbers of men executed, and some of the men named as executed in some sources actually survived, or were killed at the Battle of Boroughbridge. Two points: none of these men were executed anywhere particularly near Staffordshire, and there's no actual evidence that any of them, bar one, was given the traitor's death which might identify him as the man at Hulton Abbey.

The earl of Lancaster was sentenced to be hanged, drawn and quartered, but Edward II commuted it to beheading because of his royal blood. Almost all the other men were hanged - we can be sure of this, because a group of clerics petitioned Edward II in the 1324 parliament to have the men's bodies cut down and given decent burial, two years after their executions. The most gracious and merciful Edward II agreed (yes, I am being sarcastic).

It's possible that John Giffard at least was beheaded, as a decapitated skeleton of about the right era has been found in the church where his family was buried, but it's not certain. The only man who certainly suffered the full traitor's death was Bartholomew Badlesmere, who had been the steward of Edward II's household until the summer of 1321, when he went over to the Marchers. Edward loathed him with a fiery loathing for this betrayal, and his fury at Badlesmere is evident in his ordering such a hideous death for the man. But Badlesmere would not have been buried in Staffordshire, around 200 miles from his lands in Kent, and didn't have the strong links to Hugh Audley indicated by burial on Audley's lands.

Thomas Culpepper, William Cheney and Francis Aldham were adherents of Hugh Audley - they were pardoned in August 1321 for their actions against the Despensers, on Audley's testimony. So, in my humble opinion, they're the likeliest candidates for the Hulton Abbey remains. On the other hand, Badlesmere's grotesque death was described in detail by contemporaries - such a method of execution, especially practised on English noblemen, was fairly new and horrifying, not common as it later became - and it seems a little odd that if any other of these men died the same way, nobody mentioned it. And besides, Badlesmere's death was ordered because of Edward II's personal hatred and anger at him. Edward II's policy was usually dictated by his fierce loves and hatreds, and he had no particular reason to hate any of these three men and order such a horrible (and unusual) death for them.

In conclusion, I'm not at all convinced that the bones belong to the oh-so-delightful Hugh Despenser, given the location of the burial. I'm tempted to think that we can identify the bones with either Aldham, Cheney or Culpepper, but I'd be pretty surprised if they suffered such a dreadful death, and that nobody mentioned it. Not to mention, Edward II's granting of the petition to allow the men decent burial in 1324 specified that they had to be buried in the nearest churchyard, not taken back to their own lands or their lord's lands - though someone could have defied him, of course. (It happened a lot.)

I'll be really interested to see what, if anything, comes out of this discovery!

18 comments:

Carla said...

Interesting point in the Telegraph article that Eleanor was only given the head, thigh and a few vertebrae - presumably this was more or less the head and one quarter? - and that these bones are the ones missing from the Hulton Abbey skeleton. If that's true, it's surely too much to be a coincidence.

By the way, is it known why Eleanor was only given part of the body? I'd have guessed that it was because the rest of the bits had been lost or thrown away and so couldn't be identified or retrieved, but that can't be the case if the rest was later collected and buried at Hulton.

Is it possible that the Audleys considered that Hugh Despenser couldn't do them any more harm and so they could afford a magnanimous gesture like giving him a decent burial? Maybe after four years they had stopped bearing a grudge and considered that blood was thicker than water. Though as you say it is very odd that they didn't just send the rest of Hugh to the tomb Eleanor built at Tewkesbury. All very odd. It will be interesting to see if any further information emerges.

Carole said...

As I said on Susan Higginbotham's blog yesterday, I find this really unlikely. Had the bones been found at or near Tewkesbury, I might have been more inclined to believe it. I find it unlikely that Eleanor was given so little of the body - surely the ravages of time and decomposition are responsible for the absence of more remains in the tomb.

Alianore said...

Hi, Carole!

Carla: The problem is that I don't know the source for the article's statement that Eleanor only received Hugh's head, thigh and a few vertebrae. Maybe Susan knows (she knows a lot more about Eleanor than I do) but I haven't heard it before. The only source I know is the one Susan cites in her post on this, that Eleanor was granted permission in Dec 1330 to collect Hugh's bones. When I read about Despenser's tomb being opened, there was nothing about his skull and vertebrae being there, only a bit of leg bone or something.

So I'm very suspicious of the statement that the missing bits of Hulton Abbey skeleton were the bits given to Eleanor. I'm going to have to write and ask for their source!

And it just makes no sense to me that Eleanor would have received some of the body, while the rest was buried on Audley's land. And again, Susan would know more about this than me, but I don't know of any evidence that suggests the Audleys had much (or any) contact with Eleanor after 1322, that would hint at their willingness to make such a magnanimous gesture towards a man they hated. But I don't know, it's all rather fascinating. ;)

Lady D. said...

Aha, Alianores beaten me to it again - although in my defence I will say that I have been in contact with the anthropologist who put forward the theory and even she says shes not certain that its Hugh! I also think its unlikely but further research may turn up some hitherto unknown documentary evidence. By the way, I shall be doing a post on this later on today in my blog at Lady Despensers Scribery - after Ive been to Tewkesbury Abbey to see if I can get any more answers there!

suburbanbeatnik said...

Hey! Did you get my email? Is it just me, or is it some bizarre cosmic coincidence that I should think of doing a pic of Hugh only about 6 hours ago, just as he's become the man of the hour? *cues Twilight Zone theme*

Alianore said...

Lady D: LOL, didn't know we were in a race to write about this!?

Joanne: got the email, thanks, will write back asap! ;) That really is a coincidence about Hugh!

Susan Higginbotham said...

Tewkesbury Abbey: History, Art, and Architecture (a wonderful book for those of you who haven't seen it; I know Alianore has) quotes Leland (a 16-century writer) as stating that one of Hugh's quarters was buried at Tewkesbury. I've never read about the tomb being opened. W. G. Bannister, who wrote a guidebook to Tewkesbury in the early 20th century, writes that Dugdale said that one quarter was buried there and that the rest of him was brought later. (Banninster, incidentally, mentions several tombs being opened by the Victorians, including that of Hugh the even younger, that of Gilbert de Clare's widow, and Isabel le Despenser. He doesn't mention Hugh the younger's being opened.)

To me the Audley bit is the deal-killer. Even if the Audley family and the Despensers made up after 1330 (I don't know if they did or not; there's just not enough evidence for either Eleanor or her sister Margaret to really know), I simply can't imagine why Eleanor wouldn't have buried all of Hugh she could at Tewkesbury, since she had the means to do so. If some parts of him are missing from Tewkesbury, I think it's more likely that some of them might have deteriorated or disappeared during the four years they were on display from 1326-1330, thereby preventing Eleanor from retrieving some of them.

It would be great if someone from the abbey could confirm whether Hugh's tomb had ever been opened!

Alianore said...

Susan, page 164 of the Tewkesbury book talks about the opening of the tomb in 1795, but apparently it's the tomb of Abbot John Cotes they're talking about, rather than Hugh's underneath: "on removing the lid there appeared to be nothing remaining in it except some pieces of rich gold tissue, ornamented with the arms of de Clare, probably part of some of the sacerdotal habits, the gift of one of the Clares." That was what I was thinking of!

This tomb opening business is all rather mysterious. I still wonder why they opened Edward II's in the 19th century, but didn't open the coffin to see him.

Susan Higginbotham said...

Yeah, you think they would have taken the trouble to check!

elflady said...

Maybe they will now, with all this fuss about Hugh's bones!

Lady D. said...

Just been to Tewkesbury Abbey and, coincidentally, bought Tewkesbury Abbey: History, Art & Architecture book while I was there. I did ask a few people if they knew anything else of the tomb but they didn't and directed me to ask at the Abbey Offices, so I shall e-mail them later. However, the above book does go into pretty good detail on most things, so I would have thought these questions would have been asked already. I shall e-mail Mary Lewis (the anthropologist again to see if she knows where the detailed info about the bones came from!

Alianore: Race? Us? No... we run as a team - a bit like a three-legged race lol!

Gabriele C. said...

This tomb opening business is all rather mysterious. I still wonder why they opened Edward II's in the 19th century, but didn't open the coffin to see him.

And if they'll find bones, the question remains if it is really Ed. You know, he may be buried somewhere in Italy, after all. :)

Alianore said...

Gabriele: yes, he's buried somewhere in Italy, next to Guiseppe. :-)

Bill said...

I worked on the Hulton Abbey site in the 70s as a volunteer with the local archaeological society. It was a heavily waterlogged site. As I recall many remains were removed from around the high altar

I was certainly there when a papal bulla was found dating from the time of Edward III. It was a bulla from Innocent V1 1352-1362

Alianore said...

Thanks for the info, Bill!

bill said...

I spoke to the bloke who excavated the remains today. He was interviewed on local radio recently. He seemed to think that there was a connection with the monastic order. The abbey was cistercian.

The website of the archaeological society is www.StokeArchaeologicalSociety.org.uk

Satima Flavell said...

If perchance the Hulton Abbey bones really are Hugh's, might it not have been that in burying him, Audley was trying to distance himself from his own Mortimer connections?

Alianore said...

Bill: interesting. If you find out any more, please let me know!

Hi Satima! You make a good point, as I can see that after Mortimer's downfall, people would have been rushing to dissociate themselves from him in various ways. But given that Eleanor de Clare's lands had been restored to her by the time Hugh was buried, I can't really see why she would have wanted him buried somewhere else - or why she would have had such a splendid tomb built if he wasn't in it. But...I hadn't considered it from the Mortimer perspective, so I'll give it more thought! :-)