The problem with a study of Hugh Despenser’s execution is that although it appears in detail in several secondary sources, the authors often do not reference where they got the details from. Several chronicles mention the execution, including Knighton, Froissart, Jean le Bel, the Annales Paulini, the Brut and a Cambridge, Trinity College manuscript MS R.5.41, with varying amounts of detail and with various anomalies in the record of events. Until I am able to see these primary sources for myself, translate and cross-reference them, I’m afraid this post will echo the books I have already read. However, as usual, I will drop in a few morsels of speculation!
After the judgement had been read out, Hugh was dragged to his place of execution. Most of the sources say that he was dragged by four horses instead of the usual two. Was this maybe to make the point of the importance of his death or perhaps just to provide a greater spectacle for the watching and jeering crowd? How he was dragged – whether wrapped in a hide or on a hurdle of some kind is not known, however I suspect that in his already weakened state, being dragged over the rough roads wrapped in a hide would probably have been more than his body could have taken. And the powers that be (Isabella and Mortimer) certainly would not have wanted him dead before he faced his justice.
His place of execution is also a matter of debate. Some sources say that the gallows were built just outside of the castle walls, and others that they were situated in the town’s large market-place. Either site would have had its benefits. The fact that he was executed outside his own castle would have really hammered home the disenfranchisement of both his lands and his life. As many of the sources say that the trial took place in the market, then it would make sense that he was dragged elsewhere to meet his doom, i.e. the castle. Also – and this is really high speculation once again – if Edward II had been taken to Hereford (as I suggested was possible in the last post), he would most likely have been imprisoned for the duration in the castle. What better way to make a point about despised favourites than to have one hung where he could hear (and perhaps see?) it being done? But, as I said, this is pure speculation and I do not have a shred of evidence to back this up (at this time) other than that Henry of Lancaster, Edward’s captor, was also at the trial.
The market place is the other contender. In some ways I feel that this is the more practical option. After looking at the layout of Hereford castle (as it would have been – there is nothing left now) – it was surrounded on three sides by a moat and on the fourth by the River Wye. I find it hard to see where would have been a good place for the gallows to have been built. Of course there may have been some open ground inside the walls and close to the castle that I am not aware of. Or maybe the execution actually took place outside of the city walls altogether (there is no evidence for this). On the other hand the market place was central and had enough room for a gallows and a large crowd to bear witness. Some of the area of the old market still exists in Hereford but a large extent has now been built on by modern shops such as M&S and Macdonalds.
What does seem to be agreed upon is that the gallows themselves were about 50foot high – extremely tall and again emphasizing the importance of Hugh’s death at the hands of the state. I would imagine that such a structure could not have been put up overnight so maybe Hugh’s trial and execution at Hereford were already a foregone conclusion before he even reached the walls. Underneath the gallows a huge fire was lit, its purpose to be clear all too soon.
Hugh was hung from the cross-beam and slowly strangled until he was semi-conscious. Then he was released from the noose before he could choke to death and most probably revived with slaps or cold water before being stripped and tied to a ladder (or some other kind of frame/table). Then the executioner climbed up beside him and, according to Froissart, cut off his penis and testicles before throwing them into the fire below. Then his belly was cut open, his entrails and heart pulled out and, once again, burnt in the fire below. Probably (and mercifully) by this stage he was now dead. After this he was taken off the ladder, beheaded and his body cut into quarters. The different parts were to be sent to various places: the head (placed on a pike) to London to be displayed on London bridge, and his limbs to Bristol, York, Dover and Newcastle. The crowd, by all accounts, went ecstatic at his demise, with great cheering and celebration. Queen Isabella and Mortimer, also apparently watched the event – even feasting while doing so. Obviously all the blood didn’t put them off their food.
As to how Hugh behaved at his death, according to Weir (who does not state a source for this), Despenser ‘at first suffered with great patience, asking forgiveness of the bystanders, but then a ghastly, inhuman howl broke from him’. This makes for an irresistible image of a man trying to die bravely and it is the sort of sentiment that is likely to be repeated often because of its emotive elements. Unfortunately Weir is not always the most reliable of biographers and without a direct reference to the source I cannot say whether this is part of a chronicle or just an embellishment of the text. Hopefully, when I have studied all the relevant documents I shall be able to either confirm or deny this part. If anyone has any info on this, please let me know.
Hugh was not the only victim of the scaffold that day. His loyal fellow captive, Simon of Reading was also sentenced to hang for having allegedly insulted the Queen (which probably wasn’t a difficult thing to do). However he was hung far below Despenser as his crimes were considered to be less (they could hardly have been more!) and he was hung until dead. Despenser’s colleague, Baldock, being of the church, was handed over to the decidedly unsympathetic Bishop Orleton of Hereford. Orleton imprisoned Baldock in his London residence. However a mob managed to break in and snatch him. Their justification was that only the City itself should have the right to a prison, and so Baldock was taken to Newgate where, it is reported, he died from terrible abuse at the hands of the other prisoners.
Two more issues arise from Hugh’s execution: the symbolism of the manner of his death (especially the castration) and also the aftermath, and what it meant for his family and associates. I shall cover these two issues in the next two posts.
King Edward II – Roy Martin Haines
The Tyranny and Fall of Edward II – Natalie Fryde
The Greatest Traitor – Ian Mortimer
Isabella – Alison Weir
“Deconstructing Identities on the Scaffold: the Execution of Hugh Despenser the Younger, 1326” – Danielle Westerhof
Herefordshire County Council website
Image: Illusration of Hugh the younger Despenser’s execution from a manuscript of Froissart (Bibliotheque Nationale MS Fr. 2643, folio 197v)