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.
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.
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)
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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