27 October, 2017

27 October 1326: Execution of Hugh Despenser the Elder, Earl of Winchester

On this day 691 years ago in 1326, Hugh Despenser the Elder, earl of Winchester, was hanged in Bristol on the orders of Queen Isabella and her allies including Edward II's half-brothers the earls of Norfolk and Kent and cousin the earl of Leicester (now styling himself earl of Lancaster as well). Despenser was sixty-five years old, born on 1 March 1261, not ninety as stated by the later chronicler Jean Froissart. He was left to hold Bristol after his son Hugh the Younger and Edward II went on to South Wales to try (unsuccessfully) to raise troops, and sent a letter to them on 18 October, the last letter Hugh the Younger would ever receive from his father. Isabella of France and her allies arrived outside Bristol on the same day, and on the 27th the city fell to them. The earl of Winchester was given a show trial during which he was not allowed to speak on the same day, and immediately hanged in his armour on the gallows where common criminals were executed. His head was placed on a spear and sent to Winchester, the town of which he was earl, to be displayed there in public, and supposedly the rest of his body was fed to dogs. Pretty vile even by the standards of the day. A chronicler of Bury St Edmunds claimed that Queen Isabella tried to save Despenser's life, but Bury St Edmunds is on the other side of the country from Bristol and therefore hardly seems like a reliable source, especially as no-one else mentions this tale. Besides, I'm not sure how Isabella's social inferiors would have overridden her wishes in public. Despenser was widely hated in England not only for his association with the regime of his son in the 1320s, but because of his own greed, brutality and corruption, especially in his capacity as justice of the forest. Still, if English medieval noblemen were executed merely for being greedy, brutal and corrupt, there wouldn't have been any English medieval noblemen left.


Anerje said...

As an Earl, shouldn't Despencer have been beheaded? The aftermath of his execution just sickens me.

sami parkkonen said...

Pretty brutal. I wonder did Isabella give any orders how to handle this case.

Anonymous said...

I like to think that Aymer de Valence was a good egg who displayed astonishing patience in his dealings with Edward, but feel free to put me right!