Execution Day November 24th 1326

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 50 foot 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. These shall be covered in  two other 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)

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15 Responses to Execution Day November 24th 1326

  1. Alianore says:

    Great post, Lady D! Can’t wait for the next two.

    Poor Hugh! Whatever terrible things he did, nobody deserves to die like that.

    I’m working on your question about Hugh’s patience and howling. 😉 Paul Doherty’s Isabella and the Strange Death of Edward II says (p. 106) “according to one chronicle, such a horrid sound came from him as had never been heard before.” He

  2. Alianore says:

    Forgot to say: poor Simon of Reading didn’t even get a mock trial, did he? ‘Insulting the queen’ indeed! What nonsense, but apparently so serious you could sentence a man to death for it without having to try him first. I’m sure his real crime was loyalty to Hugh Despenser. And I’m equally sure that hardly anoyone who witnessed his ‘execution’ (murder) had the slightest idea who he was.

  3. Alianore says:

    I checked Hugh’s entry in the ODNB, and it doesn’t say anything there about his great patience – in fact, there’s very little on his execution.

    OK, I’ll shut up now. 🙂

  4. Lady D. says:

    Alianore – lol! I like how you’re boosting my comment figures! Thanks for doing all that searching – I can’t find the source either. I think it’s the sort of comment (about him suffering patiently that is) that you desperately want to be true – that Hugh should have gone to his death so bravely. I really hope there is a primary source. However, I must admit, I doubt he’d have been up to asking

  5. Gabriele C. says:

    I like Isa less and less. There were good reasons to have Hugh condemned to death, for sure, and in a time where symbols played such an important role, the death of a traitor with all the grisly details may have been justified.

    But partying while watching the execution? Really.

    And if Ed was there and she made him watch, I’ll get positivey pissed. Their marriage was not that

  6. Lady D. says:

    I think Mortimer was as much to blame as Isa for the barbarity of the execution etc – after all, there had been a blood feud between them for all their lives.

    Like I said, Ed being there is speculation – but it should be considered as a possibility. And yes, I think at this stage that Isa probably was besotted by Mort and also on a high from such a great victory. Honest – you couldn’t

  7. Wonderful posts here about history, specifically the more intimate details.

  8. Lady D. says:

    Thankyou Barbara, and welcome. It’s always great to have encouraging comments.

    I think that sometimes the intimate details in history can get overlooked. I always try to get at the story behind the story which often involves alot of detective work , staring into space thinking and trying (!) to translate documents from the Anglo-Norman or Latin. Luckily I have a very understanding mother

  9. Melisende says:

    I guess the manner of Hugh’s death shows the vindictive nature of Isabella.

    Whether Mortimer played some part in the choice of “method” is open for question.

    And as for Isabella “partying” during the execution – time will show that one later monarch is particular adopted the same attitude whilst his wife was being executed – no guesses as to who HE was…

    Great posts!

  10. Lady D. says:

    Hi Melisende.
    Yes, I think that Isabella did have a vindictive streak in her as far as Despenser was concerned – although, as I shall discuss in the next post, the method had a great more to do with symbolism than just sheer sadism.

    The most vindictive act, in my opinion, was the removal of Eleanor’s youngest daughters and their forced veiling in separate nunneries. That was

  11. I agree about the young daughters and the forced veiling. Definitely vindictive and so unnecessary.

  12. Liz says:

    Hello. I only found this blog today and felt I had to say a few words. I had no idea who Hugh Despenser was: though I had of course heard of Edward II! So: this Despenser was in fact (one of) the lover(s)? of "the gay king"? Actually I found the man and this site referenced on ExecutedToday!

    Firstly: gotta pull you up on sth. "Then his belly was cut open, his entrails

  13. Liz,

    Thanks for dropping by – now let me take your points one by one. First of all you call Edward "the gay king" – which shows your depth of knowledge, or lack of, of Edward II. Although he is popularly known as being homosexual, there is actually no definitive contemporary accounts which corroborate this – as any professor of medieval history today will tell you. Any

  14. paulalofting says:

    Hi Jules
    I really enjoyed reading this very detailed account of such an awful execution. Terrible though it is, it brings to life the seemingly unbearable experience that such poor unfortunates have suffered and the attitudes to life in general of the medieaval mind, partying indeed whilst watching another human being's harrowing suffering. I am looking forward to reading your novel on

  15. senarf says:

    After reading the last two posts, I just want to say a great big thank you, to you Jules, for all your hard work on this site. I am always impressed by your dedication to questioning past events along with your dedication to accuracy. Once again, thank you and by the way I will in the future, with your permission, be referencing you.

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