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!