17 April, 2022

Huchon Despenser's Great Hunting Adventure, 1322

Hugh 'Huchon' Despenser, born in 1308 or 1309, went hunting between July and October 1322, and a large roll of his expenses survives in the National Archives (E 101/379/4). The roll refers to Huchon throughout as le seignour, 'the lord'; although he was only an adolescent, just thirteen or fourteen, he was the eldest great-grandchild of Edward I, grandson of the earls of Gloucester (Gilbert 'the Red' de Clare, d. 1295) and Winchester, and the eldest son and heir of the lord of Glamorgan. Huchon is also called Hughe le Despenser le juvene, 'the young', in the roll. Confusingly, he bore the same name as his grandfather Hugh Despenser the Elder (b. 1261), who had been made earl of Winchester earlier in 1322, and his father Hugh Despenser the Younger (b. late 1280s). The National Archives identifies the person in the roll as Hugh the Younger, but that it was in fact Hugh's eldest son is apparent from an entry on the Close Roll dated 21 July 1322, where Edward II sent letters to the sheriffs of no fewer than twenty-three counties, informing them that he was sending "Hugh son of Hugh le Despenser the Younger...to take fat venison of this season in the king's forests, chases and parks". [Calendar of Close Rolls 1318-23, p. 577; Calendar of Patent Rolls 1321-24, p. 184] Furthermore, it's highly doubtful that Hugh the Younger, royal chamberlain and favourite, and the man really in charge of the kingdom in and after 1322, would have taken three months away from court to go hunting. 

The start of the expense roll states that Huchon would be going, in the original spelling, to "the counties of Cantebrigg [Cambridge], Huntingdon, Suff[olk], Essex, Hertford, Middelsex, Oxenford, Bokingham, Warwyk, Leycestre, Nottingham and Nicol [Lincoln]". Another royal letter sent on 10 November 1322 states that Huchon and companions hunted in Lincolnshire from 17 to 25 October, and from the roll it is clear that the expedition began in the Huntingdon/Kimbolton area on Monday 26 July 1322. [Calendar of Close Rolls 1318-23, p. 609] On 9 and 10 August, Huchon was near Barnwell, a manor which belonged to his grandfather the earl of Winchester, though the clerk who made up the account often forgot to add his location.

Huchon was accompanied by nine men and a number of dogs: twelve greyhounds, five bercelets, thirty-four buckhounds, and eight harriers. His nine companions' names were Thomas Borhunt (a huntsman), Richard Wygemore (a larderer, i.e. in charge of storing the meat), John Abbot, Peter Bul (these two were both berners, i.e. in charge of the hounds), John Suthwyk, Stephen Woxbrigg (these two were both ventrers, which I think means in charge of the carthorses carrying the meat, but I might be wrong on that), Hugh Preest, John Bacun (these two were both berceleters, in charge of the bercelets), and Richard Herlyngton (in charge of the harriers). There are also several references to garsones, literally 'boys', apparently some other young men who were temporarily helping out in some way. One 'boy' was given 3d for coming to see Huchon on behalf of the sheriff of Middlesex. There's one reference on 3 August 1322 to a man who was paid three shillings because he 'took care of the lord', but I can't make out his job title. I assume it's either sergeant or surgeon, though the spelling is weird. The roll mentions some of the same men and their job titles as Edward II's letter of 21 July recorded on the Close Roll, which I somehow find very pleasing, and two other men are named as accompanying Huchon as well: his magister or tutor Hugh de Lulleford, and his valet, i.e. attendant, Gilbert le Noreys. These two men appear on the expense roll but not in Edward II's letter.

Edward told all the sheriffs to receive any venison taken by Huchon and his crew, "and to cause it to be put in barrels and salted, and kept until further orders". Eight horses appear in the roll of expenses, though they aren't, unlike the dogs, specifically mentioned in Edward's letters. It cost between 10d and 12d a day to provide hay for them, plus another 20d to 24d daily for four bushels of oats, and 4d to 8d for straw for their bedding. I presume at least some of these eight horses were packhorses to carry the meat, though Huchon was certainly on horseback. His courser is mentioned once and Huchon received a mark (thirteen shillings and four pence) for a new saddle for the animal from his great-uncle the king, and on another occasion 'the lord's palfrey' is mentioned as well. At least six of his companions appear to have been on foot, as six pairs of shoes and six pairs of boots were bought for them.

Most of the account details the food and drink consumed during the trip, which in itself is rather fascinating - to see how the men's diet varied day by day, and how much things cost - though it is entirely unilluminating as regards the game they hunted and how much venison they took. Every day, without fail, the company got through two and a half or three gallons (9.5 to 11.4 litres) of wine - three gallons cost 12d - twelve or fourteen gallons (45.6 to 53.2 litres) of ale, and between two and a half and three shillings' (30d to 36d) worth of bread. You could buy a loaf of the cheapest bread for a quarter of a penny, though one assumes that Huchon Despenser, as a partly royal nobleman, was eating bread of a far higher quality than that. The twelve gallons of ale consumed daily cost 24d, i.e. 2d per gallon, and you could always buy a gallon of ale for 1d in the 1320s, so obviously this was also very high-quality stuff and in fact is described as 'good ale' on at least one occasion in the roll. To me this seems like a staggeringly large amount of alcohol for a small group of people to consume every single day, even if we assume that it was weak and watered down and with a pretty low alcoholic content.

The food consumed, at least by Huchon if perhaps not by his more lowly companions, was flavoured with saffron (safferan), which cost a pricy 4d per ounce and was purchased at least twice during the expedition. Every day, wax candles (chandeyl de cyer) were bought for 2½d or 3d and were preferred over the much cheaper but much less nice tallow candles, so again we see that Huchon Despenser wasn't being forced to slum it but was living in the luxury to which he must have been accustomed, given his high rank. To put 3d a day into perspective, that was more than most people in England earned at the time, so it was heck of a lot of money to spend on candles, especially considering that the hours of daylight in late July and August are long. On 7 August, 2½d was spent on 'the lord's cresset', i.e. a lighted torch or other light of some kind set in a container and mounted on a pole.

Below, a typical membrane of the document.

The men ate a lot of fish, especially salmon, herring, roach, pike and eels, and also a lot of stockfish, i.e. dried unsalted fish. Stokfissh(e), incidentally, is a word that always appears in English in Edward II's accounts, which were kept in Anglo-Norman or Latin; this particular roll is in Anglo-Norman. The quantity of herring is usually given as 'half a hundred' (demy C de haring). They ate pottage, i.e. thick soup or broth, pretty well every day, but also meat sometimes: suckling pig is mentioned several times, as is grosse char, literally 'big meat' and meaning meat from animals other than poultry or game. Other food items and condiments mentioned include young pigeons (columbeux), chickens and young chickens, geese, a pheasant on two occasions (which cost 8d both times), a rabbit on two occasions (which cost 4d and 5½d), eggs, onions (only mentioned once), half a gallon of vinegar, 'white grease', fennel, galingale powder, sauce (which kind(s) was/were not specified), endless references to freshwater fish, butter (bure), milk (leet), almonds, and rice (rys). The almonds and rice are always mentioned together, and it was always two pounds of almonds and one of rice or a pound of almonds and half a pound of rice. Sugar (sugre) is mentioned once and cost 3½d per quarter.

There is absolutely no information in the roll about accommodation, so I have no idea where they slept every night, or who cooked all the food mentioned in the roll, or where all the food and drink came from; most of it was fresh, so presumably arrangements were in place to transport it regularly to wherever Huchon might be at the time. When Huchon was near Barnwell, I assume he stayed at his grandfather Hugh Despenser the Elder's manor-house there, and there was a castle at Kimbolton where his great-uncle Edward II sometimes stayed. There are a couple of payments of 3d to a lavender, i.e. a launderer/laundress. As this was almost certainly a woman, she did not accompany the men on their travels, but would have been a local woman hired to wash their clothes. Anyway, that's about all the information I've been able to extract from the document, and will finish this post by saying that I bet it was all massive fun for an adolescent boy at the start of his teens.

EDITED TO ADD, 18 April: there's now a continuation of this post, here.


Julie Frusher said...

Wow - that was some expensive trip for Huchon! It almost puts you in mind of the Grand Tour done by young gentlemen of the 18th - 19th centuries. A sort of adventure/coming of age 'jolly'.But they must surely have been a little drunk at times with all of that alcohol - it makes you wonder about the state of medieval livers! Absolutely wonderful information contained in that document though. Thanks for translating and sharing!

Kathryn Warner said...

I'm so glad you enjoyed it! :-) I've been wanting to look at the document for years, haha!

Chris Klein said...

Great information as always, thank you, Kathryn!

My question is one of the rice ("rys"?) - what was the likely source? I've read rice came to Europe in the 11th century from Asia and was grown in Southern Europe (Spain and Italy, perhaps?) in the 14 - 15th century. Was rice considered a delicacy at the time? It's a very hardy grain, so I wouldn't think so, but it's interesting to consider as it was not native to Britain nor an easy grain to grow there even now.

When I saw that comment, it struck me as odd considering how common rice is worldwide and taken completely for granted, but was it something 'foreign' at the time, or something so common as to be expected? Britain is famous for rice pudding, so I would expect it was a common commodity at some point after the Middle Ages.

I love how you bring out the very fine details of that time as it raises (OK, to me!) other interesting questions.

Kathryn Warner said...

Hi Chris, thank you, so glad you liked the post!

I was quite surprised to see so many references to rice in the roll as it rarely appears in household accounts in England in the early 1300s, and was also surprised that it wasn't nearly as expensive as I would have thought: two pounds of almonds and one pound of rice cost 5d on one occasion, and on another, half a pound of rice only cost half a penny. Given that it was pretty cheap, I might expect to see it consumed more often.

Alan Hedley said...

Great post Kathryn. I have done quite a bit of experimenting on food of this time and how great it was for your body and mind. I have mentioned in the past that you can go days without food with no loss of energy and stamina. as your body enters a state of Ketosis . It explains how mortal men and women could last on the battlefield with pin sharp focus and strength. One thing I have noticed is how little alcohol effects you as the liver can quickly process it because it is not trying to rid the body of sugar and carbs. We all see alcohol as the demon yet Sugar and high carbs are the real killer. The rice, almonds and bread are the only carb loaded food. The rice back then was not like the high starch rubbish of today bread also had much less starch and carbs high fibre slowing down insulin spikes. I would have quite happily ate with Huchon and drank my gallon of good session ale. especially if I knew what was coming a decade later.

Kathryn Warner said...

Hi Alan, thank you for the comment! For a good few years now I've eaten vastly less sugar and refined carbs than I used to, and am astonished at how much better I feel. I love the sound of your research into the medieval diet! What a fascinating topic.

Alan Hedley said...

I was also wondering if they had been making Sholezard,an Iranian persian rice pudding. A recipe they may have seen on the Crusades. was the cook from the Crusades?


decorated with almonds in a rose pattern.

Alan Hedley said...

They could also have been early adopters of the dish "Ryse of Flesh"

beef broth
almond milk

Kathryn Warner said...

Ooooooh, interesting! I wish the cook was named, so I could try to find him on record elsewhere, but sadly he isn't.

Alan Hedley said...

this post has been on my mind for a few weeks now. I was wondering if. Felton, Ercalewe, Fitz Aer, Umramville or Careswell where with Huchon at this time or did they come on the scene later on. I notice also it was after the battle of Boroughbridge. Was Huchon at the battle or this hunting trip was part of his training for his debut to following battles? Your Blogas do keep my mind in the game. alwyas great to read.

Kathryn Warner said...

Hi Alan, thanks for all your great comments recently! I've really been enjoying them. I'm not sure where Felton was in 1322 though went off to Gascony a couple of years later. Ditto Ercalewe, though conceivably he was working for Huchon's aunt Aline Burnell.

Kathryn Warner said...

Oh, and I doubt Huchon was at Boroughbridge, as his father and grandfather weren't there, unless he was squiring for someone else, his uncle-in-law Ralph Camoys maybe. Just a guess as I honestly don't know.