Hugh Despenser’s Execution at Hereford 24th November 1326 (republished)

Illusration of Hugh the younger Despenser’s execution from a manuscript of Froissart (Bibliotheque Nationale MS Fr. 2643, folio 197v)

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.

The Location

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.

The Execution

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.

Simon of Reading and Baldock

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: His Life, His Reign, and Its Aftermath, 1284-1330 – Roy Martin Haines
The Tyranny and Fall of Edward II 1321-1326 – Natalie Fryde
The Greatest Traitor: The Life of Sir Roger Mortimer, 1st Earl of March: The Life of Sir Roger Mortimer, Ruler of England 1327-1330 – Ian Mortimer
Isabella: She-Wolf of France, Queen of England – Alison Weir
Deconstructing Identities on the Scaffold: the Execution of Hugh Despenser the Younger, 1326” – Danielle Westerhof
Herefordshire County Council website



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10 Responses to Hugh Despenser’s Execution at Hereford 24th November 1326 (republished)

  1. Anerje says:

    Poor Hugh's execution is one of the worst I've read about. Isabella, more than Mortimer, IMO, really wanted him to suffer. It beggars belief that they feasted as they watched.

    • Kim says:

      Poor Hugh as you call him, preyed upon the vulnerable, one such person, a widow, he tortured without mercy, breaking both her knee caps, forcing her to sign over her husbands estates to the Dispenser family. After signing she was thrown out onto the road, much to the laughter of Hugh. She was one of many, Hugh was one of the most hated men in England, poor I do not think so.

      • Julie Frusher says:

        I think the woman you are referring to here was Lady Baret, wife of the Contrariant Stephen de Baret who was hanged, drawn and quartered for treason in 1322. At his trial in 1326, Hugh was accused of the following:

        “…lady Baret who you pursued for the sake of profit and property and in the manner of a tyrant, made ribald comments and caused her to be beaten so greatly that it broke her arms and legs, shamefully against the rules of chivalry and against reason, on account of which the good lady is forever more driven mad.”

        See here for the full post.

        So, I’m afraid there’s no mention of breaking her kneecaps specifically or throwing her out on the road. And she certainly wasn’t forced to sign over her lands to the Despenser family (I think you may be thinking of Elizabeth Comyn here) because, as a traitor, her husband’s lands (meaning hers too) would have already been forfeit to the crown. Also, there is nothing to back up the accusation in any other contemporary source (such as the chronicles, which were nearly all anti-Edward and Hugh, or the grievances brought to light in 1327) – and you would think that such an incident might have got a bit more notice if it had happened. There are, in fact, several accusations against Hugh at the trial which were either embroidered, false or could be laid at the feet of Edward II himself (but of course, at that stage, they daren’t accuse an annointed monarch). See this post about the trial here.

        I’m not saying that Hugh wasn’t guilty of any crimes – he was certainly an extortionist, pirate and land-grabber, especially from widows – as was his father and Edward II. As for being the most hated man in England – he probably was amongst most of the nobility as he posed a huge threat to their lands and access to the king. As for the common people – he seems no better or worse than his contemporaries among his own tenants, and among the other common people of the land – well, they tended to follow whichever way the wind was blowing, and that was usually the same way as their overlord. He wasn’t totally hated though – he still had some supporters at the end, although dwindling in number. You also have to remember that he was a man of his times – where land equalled money and power, and that he had the best opportunities to seize them, being the king’s favourite. Mortimer, when he gained power after 1327, was just as bad.

        As for the ‘poor’ comment – I don’t think that any man deserved that kind of death, even the traitors who Edward and Hugh had executed.

        • Kim Burton says:

          Tried a couple of times to send a comment, to say thank you for your information. Seems there is some difficulty with the site. Would write more but this is the third and thank you once again.

  2. Kim says:

    I apologise for typing Dispenser, Despenser was the family name, I was thinking of the tortures Hugh dispensed.

    • Julie Frusher says:

      No problem about the spelling typo :-). As for torture, there is no actual proof that he had anyone tortured (although I’m sure his men may have indulged on occasion on his command). His main modus operandi was to imprison people and then demand a forfeit of either money or land through the system of recognizances. In fact he was very good at using the way the law worked to his advantage (and sometimes twisted it a little too, as in the case of the rights of the Marcher Lords) – his father probably did even more of this than he did, although that is rarely noted. Instead of physical violence he seems to have relied instead upon threats to get his way, and of course, his standing with Edward. To trot out the ‘torture’ trope and immediately follow the lead of several popular historians who have patently not done much thorough research, and who see Hugh the younger as a 2D moustache-twirling villain is to just perpetuate the inaccurate and often tabloid-like myths concerning the man. To sum up – he wasn’t a good man by any means, but he wasn’t much worse than some of his contemporaries either (unless you were a magnate with land at that period). And many false stories and propaganda have added to his notoriety too. Anyway, I shall stop here – feel free to read through some of the other posts on the site which were written after much intense research of primary sources.

      • Kim says:

        Thank you Julie,always enjoy learning about our History. Wrote a longer email than this only to be told there is a fault, so I am not writing too mich this time. All history has been changed to suit the way people would have us look at certain events. Technology has changed, unfortunately I do not think we have changed with it.

        • Julie Frusher says:

          Glad I could help Kim – there is much misinformation out there on the bookshelves parading as historical fact. I like to try and double-check my resources and also not totake anything written down in chronicle as undisputed fact as usually the chroniclers were either biased towards one side (or patron), were totally unreliable, or had heard something from someone who had heard it from someone etc.Some famously quoted chronicle entries (in those aforementioned historical books) are often from works that weren’t written until some time after the event and often with pleasing a prticular reader in mind – so they can’t be wholy trusted either. The further back you go, the murkier history becomes until you just have a few facts and a lot of speculation.

          Sorry you had trouble with your reply – actually I also had trouble when I tried replying yesterday. I hit ‘reply’ and the whole comment vanished, never to be seen again! (Thanks WordPress!!) But at least you got there in the end. And if you have any other questions, then please don’t hesitate to ask 🙂

  3. Kim Burton says:

    Seems like my mail is now being received, shall read more and look out for fabrications.

  4. Wendy Loveridge says:

    Thank you Jules, very gruesome but so interesting. It’s hard to believe we were so vile! I know I shouldn’t compare by today’s standards but it’s hard to believe that our ancestors didn’t have the same feelings as we do. Poor Hugh, a greedy, manipulative man maybe, but not deserving of such appalling treatment.

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