The Death of a Traitor: are these the bones of Hugh Despenser the Younger?

Human remains at Hulton Abbey

In 2004, the human remains excavated from Hulton Abbey (AD 1219-1538) in Stoke-on-Trent, Staffordshire were delivered to the University of Reading on long-term loan. Among this collection were the remains of the Audleys of Heleigh, a family who rose to prominence in the courts of Edward I and Edward II.

Vertical cut marks to the lower spine (note straight edge to the right of each bone). The vertebra on the right also has a horizontal cut mark suggesting the body was cut in half.During the 1970s excavations, the remains of a disarticulated skeleton were recovered and their location in the chancel suggests that they belonged to a wealthy member of the congregation, and potentially, to one of the Audley family. The bones of this individual are remarkable because they display numerous perimortem cut marks throughout. Browne (2004) has suggested that the cut marks are battle injuries and that additional cut marks were added when the body was 'divided' and boiled to allow for its transportation back to Hulton Abbey for burial.

A re-analysis of the remains at Reading suggests that in fact, the body had been quartered; a brutal form of execution reserved for the most notorious of criminals. This has led to a new investigation into the possible identity of the remains, and the first osteological description of the lesions associated with this practice. Before the 16oos, hanging, drawing and quartering was a rare form of execution, with only a few men known to have suffered this horrible fate at the time of the Hulton Abbey burial.

Mary Lewis discusses the human remains excavated from Hulton Abbey


Hugh Despenser the Younger

One man, Hugh Despenser the Younger was related to the Audleys by marriage. Hugh was the son of Hugh Despenser, Earl of Winchester, and an advisor to Edward II. He was married to Eleanor de Clare, niece of Edward II who, with her two sisters Margaret and Elizabeth, was heiress to one of the largest fortunes in England. Margaret was married to Hugh Audley. Despenser's influence in court came from him being a favourite of Edward II, and it was rumoured that he was the King's lover.

Contemporary painting of the execution of Hugh Despenser the Younger. (With kind permission from the Wellcome Trust Picture Library).When England was invaded in AD 1326 by Queen Isabella and her consort Roger Mortimer, Despenser was captured and executed at Hereford. He was 40 years of age. Edward II abdicated and was killed in AD 1327. The power that Despenser had wielded in the court, and perhaps his personal relationship with the king, had outraged Isabella to such an extent that his execution was particularly public and brutal. His crimes and their punishments are outlined thus:

…as a thief therefore you shall be hanged; as a traitor…you shall be drawn and quartered, and your quarters dispersed throughout the kingdom; and as you were outlawed, by our Lord the King and by general consent, and have come back to the court…you shall be beheaded; and because at all times you have been disloyal and a formenter of strife between our Lord the King and our most noble Lady the Queen…you shall be disembowelled, and after that you bowels shall be burned. Confess yourself a traitor and a renegade! And so go to meet your doom. Traitor! Evildoer!! and Convicted!!! (Brigstocke Sheppard, 1889:413)

"On 24 November 1326…Despenser was roped to four horses…and dragged through the city to the walls of his own castle, where enormous gallows had been specially constructed…Despenser was raised a full 50 feet…and was lowered onto the ladder. A man climbed along side him sliced off his penis and testicles, flinging them into the fire below…he then plunged a knife into Despenser's abdomen and cut out his entrails and heart…the corpse was lowered to the ground and the head cut off. It was later sent to London, and Despenser's arms, torso and legs were sent to be displayed above the gates of Newcastle, York, Dover and Bristol." (Mortimer 2003:162)

The cut mark to this neck vertebra is a classic sign of beheading.In 1330, Despenser's widow petitioned for Despenser's remains to be buried in Tewkesbury Abbey and she is said to have secured his head, a 'thigh bone' and a few vertebrae. The very bones that are missing from our skeleton! Radiocarbon analysis carried out by the Oxford Laboratory in 1990 dated the remains to AD 1050-1385 (two sigma, 95% confidence). The date of Hugh's death in AD 1326 fits and the age of the skeleton, estimated to be between 35-45 years, is also consistent. If the remains from Hulton Abbey are indeed those of Sir Hugh Despenser the Younger, then this is the first reported case of such an execution.

This research was published in:

Lewis ME (2008) A Traitor's Death: the identity of a drawn, hanged and quartered man from Hulton Abbey, Staffordshire.. Antiquity 82: 113-124.

The paper was shortlisted for Antiquity Prize, and runner-up for the Ben Cullen Prize, 2009.

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Number of items: 36.


Lewis, M. (2017) Paleopathology of children: identification of pathological conditions in the human skeletal remains of non-adults. Academic Press, pp300. ISBN 9780124104020

Rohnbogner, A. and Lewis, M. (2017) Poundbury Camp in context – a new perspective on the lives of children from urban and rural Roman England. American Journal of Physical Anthropology, 162 (2). pp. 208-228. ISSN 1096-8644 doi: 10.1002/ajpa.23106


Lewis, M. E. (2016) Children in bioarchaeology: methods and interpretations. In: Biological Anthropology of the Human Skeleton, 3rd edition. Wiley Blackwell, New York. (In Press)

Lewis, M. (2016) Childcare in the past: the contribution of palaeopathology. In: Powell , L., Southwell-Wright, W. and Gowland, R. (eds.) Care in the Past. Oxbow. ISBN 9781785703355

Lewis, M. (2016) Work and the adolescent in medieval England (AD 900-1550): the osteological evidence. Medieval Archaeology, 60 (1). pp. 138-171. ISSN 0076-6097 doi: 10.1080/00766097.2016.1147787

Lewis, M. E., Shapland, F. and Watts, R. (2016) The influence of chronic conditions and the environment on pubertal development. An example from medieval England. International Journal of Paleopathology, 12. pp. 1-10. ISSN 1879-9817 doi: 10.1016/j.ijpp.2015.10.004

Shapland, F., Lewis, M. and Watts, R. (2016) The lives and deaths of young medieval women: the osteological evidence. Medieval Archaeology, 59 (1). pp. 272-289. ISSN 1745-817X doi: 10.1080/00766097.2015.1119392

Rohnbogner, A. and Lewis, M. (2016) Dental caries as a measure of diet, health, and difference in non-adults from urban and rural Roman Britain. Dental Anthropology, 29 (1). pp. 16-31. ISSN 1096-9411

Lewis, M., Shapland, F. and Watts, R. (2016) On the threshold of adulthood: a new approach for the use of maturation indicators to assess puberty in adolescents from medieval England. American Journal of Human Biology, 28 (1). pp. 48-56. ISSN 1520-6300 doi: 10.1002/ajhb.22761


Verlinden, P. and Lewis, M. E. (2015) Childhood trauma: methods for the identification of physeal fractures in non-adult skeletal remains. American Journal of Physical Anthropology, 157 (3). pp. 411-420. ISSN 0002-9483 doi: 10.1002/ajpa.22732

Lewis, M. (2015) Fetal paleopathology: an impossible discipline? In: The Fetus: Biology, Culture, and Society. Berghan Books, New York. (In Press)


Eckardt, H., Muldner, G. and Lewis, M. (2014) People on the move in Roman Britain. World Archaeology, 46 (4). pp. 534-550. ISSN 0043-8243 doi: 10.1080/00438243.2014.931821

Shapland, F. and Lewis, M. E. (2014) Brief communication: a proposed method for the assessment of pubertal stage in human skeletal remains using cervical vertebrae maturation. American Journal of Physical Anthropology, 153 (1). pp. 144-153. ISSN 1096-8644 doi: 10.1002/ajpa.22416

Lewis, M. (2014) Children in bioarchaeology and forensic anthropology. In: Encyclopedia of Global Archaeology. Springer, pp. 1392-1395. ISBN 9781441904263 (in the Bioarchaeology and Human Osteology section)

Lewis, M. E. (2014) Sticks and stones: exploring the nature and significance of child trauma in the past. In: Knusel, C. and Smith, M. (eds.) The Routledge Handbook of the Bioarchaeology of Human Conflict. Routledge, London, pp. 39-63. ISBN 9780415842198


Shapland, F. and Lewis, M. E. (2013) Brief communication: a proposed osteological method for the estimation of pubertal stage in human skeletal remains. American Journal of Physical Anthropology, 151 (2). pp. 302-310. ISSN 1096-8644 doi: 10.1002/ajpa.22268

Lewis, M. E. (2013) Children of the golden minster: St. Oswald's Priory and the impact of industrialisation on child health. Journal of Anthropology, 2013 (959472). ISSN 2090-4053 doi: 10.1155/2013/959472


Lewis, M.E. (2012) Thalassaemia: its diagnosis and interpretation in past skeletal populations. International Journal of Osteoarchaeology, 22 (6). pp. 685-693. ISSN 1099-1212 doi: 10.1002/oa.1229


Lewis, M. E. (2011) Tuberculosis in the non-adults from Romano-British Poundbury Camp, Dorset, England. International Journal of Paleopathology, 1 (1). pp. 12-23. ISSN 1879-9817 doi: 10.1016/j.ijpp.2011.02.002

Falys, C. G. and Lewis, M. E. (2011) Proposing a way forward: a review of standardisation in the use of age categories and ageing techniques in osteological analysis (2004 to 2009). International Journal of Osteoarchaeology, 21 (6). pp. 704-716. ISSN 1099-1212 doi: 10.1002/oa.1179

Lewis, M. (2011) The human remains. In: Fulford, M. and Clarke, A. (eds.) Silchester: city in transition. The mid-Roman occupation of Insula IX c. A.D. 125-250/300. A report on excavations undertaken since 1997. Britannia Monograph Series (25). Society for the Promotion of Roman Studies, pp. 241-243. ISBN 9780907764373

Lewis, M. (2011) The osteology of infancy and childhood: misconceptions and potential. In: Lally, M. and Moore, A. (eds.) (Re)thinking the little ancesto r: new perspectives on the archaeology of infancy and childhood. BAR International Series (S2271). Archaeopress, Oxford, pp. 1-13. ISBN 9781407308456


Lewis, M. E. (2010) Life and death in a civitas capital: metabolic disease and trauma in the children from late Roman Dorchester, Dorset. American Journal of Physical Anthropology, 142 (3). pp. 405-416. ISSN 0002-9483 doi: DOI:10.1002/ajpa.21239

Leach, S., Eckardt, H., Chenery, C., Muldner, G. and Lewis, M. (2010) A Lady of York: migration, ethnicity and identity in Roman Britain. Antiquity, 84 (323). pp. 131-145. ISSN 0003-598X doi: 10.1017/S0003598X00099816

Chenery, C., Müldner, G. H., Evans, J., Eckardt, H., Leach, S. and Lewis, M. E. (2010) Strontium and stable isotope evidence for diet and mobility in Roman Gloucester, UK. Journal of Archaeological Science, 37 (1). pp. 150-163. ISSN 0305-4403 doi: 10.1016/j.jas.2009.09.025


Lewis, M. E. and Gowland, R. (2009) Infantile cortical hyperostosis: causes, cases and contradictions. In: Lewis, M. E. and Clegg, M. (eds.) Proceedings of the Ninth Annual Conference of the British Association for Biological Anthropology and Osteoarchaeology, Department of Archaeology, University of Reading. BAR International Series (S1918). Archaeopress, Oxford, pp. 43-51. ISBN 9781407304014

Leach, S., Lewis, M. E., Chenery, C., Müldner, G. H. and Eckardt, H. (2009) Migration and diversity in Roman Britain: a multidisciplinary approach to immigrants in Roman York, England. American Journal of Physical Anthropology, 140 (3). pp. 546-561. ISSN 0002-9483 doi: DOI:10.1002/ajpa.21104

Lewis, M. E. and Clegg, M., eds. (2009) Proceedings of the Ninth Annual Conference of the British Association for Biological Anthropology and Osteoarchaeology, Department of Archaeology, University of Reading. BAR International Series (S1918). Archaeopress, Oxford, pp135. ISBN 978 1 4073 0401 4


Barker, C., Cox, M., Flavel, A., Laver, J., Lewis, M. E. and McKinley, J. (2008) Mortuary procedures III – Skeletal analysis 2: Techniques for determining identity. In: Cox, M., Flavel, A., Hanson, I., Laver, J. and Wessling, R. (eds.) The Scientific Investigation of Mass Graves. Towards protocols and standard operating procedures. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, pp. 383-462. ISBN 9780521865876

Lewis, M. E. (2008) The children. In: Magilton, J., Lee, F. and Boylston, A. (eds.) ‘Lepers Outside the Gate’. Excavations at the Cemetery of the Hospital of St James and St Mary Magdalene, Chichester, 1986-87 and 1993. Council for British Archaeology Research Report, pp. 174-186.

Lewis, M. E. (2008) A traitor's death? The identity of a drawn, hanged and quartered man from Hulton Abbey, Staffordshire. Antiquity, 82 (315). pp. 113-124. ISSN 0003-598X


Lewis, M. E. (2007) The Bioarchaeology of Children. Current Perspectives in Biological and Forensic Anthropology. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, pp248. doi: 10.1093/shm/hkm093

Lewis, M. E. and Gowland, R. (2007) Brief and precarious lives: Infant mortality in contrasting sites from medieval and post-medieval England (AD 850-1859). American Journal of Physical Anthropology, 134 (1). pp. 117-129. ISSN 0002-9483 doi: 10.1002/ajpa.20643


Lewis, M. E. and Flavel, A. (2006) Age assessment of child skeletal remains in forensic contexts. In: Schmitt, A., Cunha, E. and Pinheiro, J. (eds.) Forensic Anthropology and Medicine: complementary sciences from recovery to cause of death. Humana Press Inc, Totowa, pp. 243-258.


Bennike, P., Lewis, M. E., Schutkowski, H. and Valentin, F. (2005) Comparison of child morbidity in two contrasting medieval cemeteries from Denmark. American Journal of Physical Anthropology, 128 (4). pp. 734-746. ISSN 0002-9483 doi: 10.1002/ajpa.20233


Lewis, M. E. (2004) Endocranial lesions: their distribution and aetiology. International Journal of Osteoarchaeology, 14 (2). pp. 82-97. ISSN 1047-482X doi: 10.1002/oa.713

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