The Remains of Hugh Despenser the Younger (or were they?)


In the last few days, reports have appeared that the remains of the younger Hugh Despenser may have been found at Hulton Abbey in Staffordshire. One such report, from the Telegraph, can be seen online here.

To sum up the article, the skeleton showed signs that it had been subject to being hung, drawn and quartered and decapitated – precisely the death that Hugh had suffered. Radio carbon dating put the age of the bones between 1050 and 1385 and tests suggest that the man was over the age of 34 when he died. So far, so good: the cause of death, time period and age all fit (Hugh was between 38 and 40 when he was executed in 1326). Before 1300, execution by being hung drawn and quartered was extremely rare and limited to a few individuals. Even later, in Edward II’s reign, that form of execution was still relatively uncommon – saved only for the worst traitors. On the surface, then, it would seem that Hugh could be a candidate as the owner of the bones.

But other things also need to be considered, not least the location of burial. Hulton Abbey was on land owned by Hugh’s brother-in-law, Hugh Audley. The article suggests that Despenser’s body was brought there because of family connections. In this alone, the argument loses a lot of ground. Audley and Despenser may have been connected through family ties (they were both married to de Clare sisters) but any closeness ended there. In 1317, when Hugh inherited his third of the de Clare estates (through his wife Eleanor), he decided it wasn’t enough and in 1320 also tried to take some of Audley’s lands off him. The two became enemies and it ended up with Audley being exiled from court and joining the anti-Despenser contingent which eventually succeeded in getting the Despensers banished from court and disinherited in 1321. After the battle of Boroughbridge in 1322, Audley then spent the next four years imprisoned, largely because of Despenser.

So, Audley had no love at all for Despenser and I cannot see any reason at all why he would want to bury his brother in law in Abbey Grounds on his land. In fact, if he’d got hold of it I wouldn’t have put it past him to dump it down some disused mineshaft! Anyway, it wasn’t as if Despenser’s body had nowhere else to go.

And that brings me onto a second point to do with his burial. Practically all documentary evidence that exists states that in 1330, after Edward III’s coup over Roger de Mortimer and his mother, Eleanor de Clare was allowed to gather together her late husband’s remains and give them a burial at Tewkesbury Abbey. Tewkesbury Abbey was the traditional burial place of both the de Clares and the Despensers – their tombs and graves surround the High Altar, and Hugh had been a patron of the Abbey too. Eleanor constructed a magnificent tomb for him just to the right of the High Altar and facing out into the south ambulatory. The whole thing is in a bit of a poor state now and an Abbot John’s tomb slab has replaced Hugh’s (as well as his effigy). Nevertheless, at the time, it was a fitting, elaborate and expensive memorial for her husband to be put to rest in. Therefore the question begs to be asked – why on earth would Eleanor go to so much trouble only to have Audley bury Hugh up in Staffordshire – a place with no Despenser connections?

The article also states that ‘only the head, a thigh bone and a few vertebrae were returned to her. These are the bones that are missing from the Hulton Abbey skeleton.’ Despite a lot of searching around I cannot find reference to Eleanor receiving just these bones or of anything so detailed. If such a reference exists and anyone reading this knows of it – please, please let me know so I can eat humble pie! Apart from the earlier chronicles mentioning Hugh’s burial at Tewkesbury, the only other references I can find in connection with this come from a marvellous book: Tewkesbury Abbey: History, Art and Architecture (edited by Richard K Morris and Ron Showsmith, Logaston Press, 2003). The first one reveals that Hugh’s tomb was opened sometime in 1795, a report of the time stating: ‘when on removing the lid there appeared to be nothing remaining in it except some pieces of rich gold tissue, ornamented with the arms of de Clare, probably part of the sacerdotal habits, the gift of one of the Clares.’ Unfortunately these remnants were probably part of Abbot John’s burial and not Despenser’s.

The other reference to Hugh’s burial, also cited in the above book, is from the fourth volume of The Itinery of John Leland in or about the years 1535-43 (L.T. Smith (ed), London 1906-10). It says that: ‘one of the quarters [of Hugh the younger] was buried by the lavatory of the high altare.’ Of course, it is impossible to state that such a report written over two hundred year later is by any means reliable or exact, but it is yet another account that Hugh’s remains (or what was left of them) came to Tewkesbury. Personally, I think that, after transport to (and later from) their places of display, as well as three or four years exposure to the elements, the remains were not in a particularly good condition and were also probably incomplete. I certainly doubt that Eleanor would have wanted to see her former husband in that sorry state.

After reading the article, I contacted Dr Mary Lewis, a biological anthropologist at Reading University who has been studying the skeleton, to ask her about the bones. Although she has put forward the theory that it could be Hugh Despenser the younger, she also says that is in no way certain. After looking at the historical record it is my instinct that the remains at Hulton are not those of Hugh Despenser. However, they are obviously of someone who suffered a dreadful form of execution, and I think that that someone might exist somewhere in historical record. Therefore, if anyone has any other information that may help Dr Lewis with the identification of this skeleton, please either get in touch with her or let me know and I will pass it on.

And finally – I would really like to thank Dr Lewis for bringing Hugh Despenser the younger to greater public attention than he has had for a long time and for provoking several interesting discussions on the net!

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