Saturday, 24 November 2012

24th November, 1326: The Execution of Hugh Despenser

On the twenty-fourth day of November, 1326, a sharp, glistening, silver knife sliced into the flesh of an emaciated man called Hugh Despenser, who had spent the last two weeks on hunger strike in a dingy county jail in Oxford. This man had once been one of the mightiest lords of his generation, enjoying the special favor of England’s king, Edward II. No-one looking at that poor, starving, screaming wreck of a human being could possibly have doubted the old Biblical saying, ‘O, how the mighty are fallen.’

Hugh Despenser was stripped naked by the time the assault on his body began. He had to be. The law had sentenced him to be castrated before being hanged and cut into quarters. Like most executions in the Middle Ages, Despenser's death happened in public. Executions were like a kind of theatre for the local population. Like bullfighting or dog-fights, a living creature was trapped in the centre of the ring and the spectacle would only be over once that creature had died in the most hideous and traumatic way imaginable. Medieval parents would often bring their children along to watch these executions. It set a good example for the little ones, because it showed them what could happen to anyone who broke the law, disobeyed the King or angered the Church.

A terrible scream tore from Hugh Despenser’s ravaged throat, in the same moment as an almighty cheer erupted from the crowd. The dying man had not been a popular figure with the general population. There were rumors that his relationship with King Edward had been much closer than it seemed; too close, some said. Even if it hadn’t been, Lord Despenser had been too rich, too powerful and too arrogant. It was fun for the good people of Hereford town to see someone so pompous being brought back down to earth. As the awful, terrible ritual of the castration continued, the crowd kept chanting and jeering and singing.

One woman, however, did not cheer or clap or cry as Hugh Despenser’s life was ripped from him. She sat on a specially-constructed viewing gallery and watched the death of her enemy with hardly any sign of outward emotion. She was strikingly lovely to look at; even if her sumptuous gown and jewels hadn’t made her stand out from the crowd, her beauty would have. Her skin was as white and smooth as ivory, her hair was sun-kissed blonde and her body was tight, trim and slender, even after four pregnancies. Her name was Isabella of France, Queen of England and Lady of Ireland. They called her ‘the beauty of beauties.’ She was thirty-one years old and it was she who had orchestrated Hugh Despenser’s execution.

Royal wives in the Middle Ages were expected to be gracious, loving, well-bred, obedient, merciful and charitable. No woman had ever ruled England in her own right; the only queens in English history so far were those who held their titles because they had married a king. It was men who were supposed to lead the government, not women. It was the queen’s job to obey him and to have babies who could carry on the family’s rule into the next generation. Some queens obeyed the rules; some did not. Isabella was the twelfth queen of England since the Norman armies had conquered the country in 1066 and in that time, there had been some remarkable women who wore the crown. There had been queens who were so intelligent that their husbands could not make any major political decisions without them. There had been queens who had been able to beg or bully favours from popes and warriors. There had been queens whose ambition for their children knew no limits. One queen of England was so intensely religious that she drank the dirty bath water used by lepers, hoping to imitate the loving humility of Jesus Christ. There had been queens who had married for love, some for money and many for politics. There had been beautiful queens, ugly queens, happy queens and miserable queens. Despite the constraints placed upon them by their title and by royal protocol, each had managed to carve out a life and an identity for herself. None, however, had done it quite like Isabella. She had schemed, she had lied, she had raised an army and driven her husband off the throne, and now she was watching the public torturing to death of the man who many, including Isabella herself, believed had been her husband’s lover. Even if Hugh hadn’t been Isabella’s competition for Edward’s love, he had still been competition for his money, land and power. And in Isabella’s books that was just as upsetting. Maybe even more so.

Far from being the crying effeminate weakling imagined by movies like Braveheart, Edward II had been tall, muscular and physically vital. Whatever his sexual preferences had been, he had done his duty by fathering four children with his beautiful French queen. Earlier on in his reign, Edward's lover, Piers Gaveston, was horribly murdered by rebels and Edward had nurtured a cancerous hatred of his nobles since that day. Increasingly tyrannical, he had alienated many of the upper classes and played into Isabella's hands. By the time he replaced Gaveston with the equally greedy and unpopular Despenser, Isabella was ready to liaise with her brother, the King of France, and her own lover, Roger Mortimer, to create a rebellion that would finally topple Edward from his throne and hand de facto power to Isabella and Roger. With Edward falling, Hugh Despenser soon found himself robbed of royal protection and defenceless in the face of widespread hatred. Few tried to save him when Isabella's army caught up with him and hurled him into jail. Knowing Isabella as he did, it says a lot that Hugh Despenser tried to starve himself to death rather than submit to her and her executioners. 

Hugh Despenser did not die an easy death. As he was hacked to pieces, Isabella hosted a small picnic in the viewing gallery for her friends and ladies-in-waiting. When, at long last, Hugh’s mutilated body lay dead, silently spewing blood into the cobblestones of Hereford marketplace, Isabella stood-up and left. At her command, the dead man’s head was taken back to London and displayed on a pike on top of Tower Bridge, as a symbol of the Queen’s power over her enemies. After two hundred and fifty years, an English queen had dared to seize power for herself. Her son, Edward, was only a boy and Isabella could hope to hold power until he reached adulthood. Slipping out of the gown she had watched Despenser’s execution in, Isabella changed into her dress for the evening, as the executioners cleared up the mess outside, made by the grizzly death of a man who had defied her.


  1. With all due respect, Mr. Russell, I disagree with your post. Admittedly, athough not an expert, I am a life long lover of History, particularly of Medieval times.

    I can't help but question whether your post reflects viewing King Edward II, his neglected wife, Queen Isabella, and Piers Gaveston, Hugh le Despenser, and Hugh Jr., through a distorted, modern lense, as opposed to a reflection of actual history.

    You seem overly protective of King Edward II, despite his reportedly complete military incompetence, cowardice, and his well- known rejection of his queen.

    Instead, making excuses for King Edward's unacceptable behavior of the times, by engaging in immoral behavior with dubious characters and granting them titles with enormous lands and riches. And you question why people hated him?

    He is the one who alienated himself from his Queen, his barons, and his subjects. He made those enemies all by himself. The Queen can hardly be blamed for that.

    As for his having four kids, you failed to mention that his relationship with his queen was very poor. She hated him, due to his fawning over Gaveston.

    Accordng to The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Royal Britain, it was only after Gaveston was executed, that his relationship with Queen Isabella improved, and their son, named after Edward, was born Nov. 3, 1312. Then, of course, comes along Hugh le Despenser. Who could blame the woman for being fed up?

    But, you seem to do just that. Was she power hungry? Probably. Who wasn't back then? But, she also appears to have been a woman who took her duties seriously too. Something King Edward II apparently never did.

    Did she shack up with Mortimer? Sure did. Was it right? Probaby not. Was it needed? Apparently it was.

    Although I found your blog, and this post very interesting, I have to say that I'm disappointed that your review of History, in this instance, appears to have been reviewed through modern, ultra liberal colored lenses, rather than the truth.

  2. I think you'll find referring to me as "ultra-liberal" would raise a laugh in most quarters.

    I am sorry that my post did not quite reach the length of a biography and take in everything you considered relevant to Edward II, Hugh Despenser and Isabella of France's lives. Alas, restrictions on time, length and relevance were to blame.

    I am sure, of course, that your reference to "ultra liberal colored lenses" is not a pointed jab at my defence of a homosexual. Surely, of course, you could not be so narrow-minded nor so silly. I did not touch on Edward II's political capabilities; although I'm quite certain I did attest to Hugh Despenser's unpopularity. I commented that the standard presentation of Edward's personality and mannerisms are inaccurate, which they are. Perhaps if I ever post on the full catalogue of errors committed by him during his reign, it be might more to your taste. I can only apologise that in this post, commenting on an execution that occurred in the early fourteenth century, I was pandering to some kind of liberal agenda.

    I find Isabella's decision to personally witness the executions to paint her in an unpleasant light, yes. It seems to me to be rather more than simply a case of being fed-up, don't you think? When one is capable of enjoying a bracing picnic while a man is castrated in front of you, one is capable of a thirst for blood that was remarkable even in the medieval context. Isabella was seen as bloodthirsty by her own contemporaries. Furthermore, on the point of her taking her duties seriously, you seem to be becoming as blind and silly as you saw my article to be. Isabella was deposed and shunted off into exile the second her son reached maturity. Roger Mortimer was executed. She was extravagant, incompetent, self-indulgent and deeply unpopular. Simply because Edward II wasn't a very good king does not mean the woman who replaced him was any better. In fact, in many ways, she was every bit as reckless; she may even have been a damn sight worse.

    But I concede that could just be the rose-tinted splendour of the liberal goggles making me say that, rather than a knowledge of the fourteenth century.

  3. Dear Anon, what a shame you came onto Gareth's blog and chose to spout such myths about Edward II and Isabella. You say "his relationship with his queen was very poor. She hated him, due to his fawning over Gaveston." and mention his "complete military incompetence, cowardice, and his well- known rejection of his queen." Well-known to whom, may I ask? Several contemporary chroniclers, while criticising Edward for his loss at Bannockburn, point out that he fought 'like a lioness deprived of her cubs'. Not even his worst enemies ever accused him of personal cowardice. Edward and Isabella were married for almost 20 years and their relationship was complex; it ended spectacularly badly, but you make the common mistake of assuming it must have been a disaster from start to finish. You cannot possibly know that Isabella hated her husband because of Piers Gaveston - it's just your assumption and there is no evidence for it whatsoever. There is, indeed, much evidence of mutual affection and support between the two for many years. They were complex people and their relationship was correspondingly complex and changed over time. Saying that 'Isabella hated her husband' as though this was the only thing she ever felt for him in nearly two decades strikes me as - pardon me - frankly childish.

    I wonder what you consider Edward's 'immoral behaviour'. Loving men? Well, he certainly did that, and made no bones about it. Isabella did the same thing, had an affair with a married man who might well also be described as a 'dubious character', whom she made earl of March and gave vast lands, many of them other people's. Evidently she had no capacity for learning anything from her husband's mistakes, and she made herself as deeply unpopular as he had been - the Brut chronicle says that in the late 1320s 'the community of England began to hate Isabel the queen'. Given that it took her son a matter of minutes in October 1330 to overthrow her regime, and that her and Mortimer's downfall was greeted with as much joy among the populace as Despenser's had been - and given the number of rebellions against her and Mortimer's rule - I really can't agree that she took her duties seriously, as you claim. Their only real interest seems to have been in acquiring as much money and land as possible. Edward II left nearly £80,000 in his treasury in November 1326; Isabella and Mortimer left just £41 four years later. She bankrupted her son's kingdom, signed away all his claims to Scotland without his consent and gave away almost all of Gascony to her brother Charles IV.

    You say 'it was only after Gaveston was executed, that his relationship with Queen Isabella improved, and their son, named after Edward, was born Nov. 3, 1312. Then, of course, comes along Hugh le Despenser. Who could blame the woman for being fed up?'

    Piers Gaveston was executed on 19 June 1312, and Edward III was born only five months later - Isabella was already four months pregnant at the time of Gaveston's death. Hugh Despenser only became close to Edward in or after 1318. Yes, maybe Isabella was fed up, but numerous queens throughout history had to tolerate their husbands' mistresses. The difference in her case is that her husband's (presumed) lovers were men. I wonder if you'd react the same way as you have here if Edward II's lovers had been women?

    Gareth, many apologies for coming onto your blog and writing this long essay, but I simply couldn't let that comment pass without responding!

  4. No need for apologies, Kathryn - that was fascinating and very well-argued.

  5. As someone who has made a study of Hugh Despenser's life over the years, I must congratulate you on a well written post (although I am a bit confused where the reference to him being held in an Oxford jail came from - he was actually first taken to Llantrisant Castle and then to Monmouth and hence to Hereford, where he was executed).

    Unfortunately you will always get misinformed commenters wanting to argue to the toss, even though they have obviously studied the history much less than you have (and have probably only read a couple of the popular and more sensationalist - and inaccurate - history books out there to do with this period. Both your rebuttal of Anon's comments, nd that of Kathryn Warner's (an expert on Edward II) were very well done - and I can't add anything other than my support of your views. Thankyou for the post!

  6. I must say that before I started reading the Edward II research of Kathryn Warner and Susan Higginbotham, I only knew the myths about him. I am glad to know that he was a better king than popularly thought. I have learned so much.

    What a moving account. Isabella had something wrong with her to want to witness such carnage, but then she did come from a rather cruel family. I remember reading an account of Hugh's execution on Susan Higginbotham's blog many years ago and it has always struck me as a particularly vicious and sadistic execution, even among hangings/drawings/quarterings.

    I banned anonymous comments from my blog long ago; it makes life easier. However, in defense this Anonymous person having the temerity to use the word "immoral" it might be good to remember that in the 14th century homosexual activity, known then as "sodomy", WAS considered immoral by most people. Perhaps Anonymous was referring to how the general population would have reacted in those days.

    For that matter, this blog has in the past had many devout Catholic readers and fans, people who still hold to traditional Catholic teachings on sin and morality. I hope we are still welcome here.

  7. This comment has been removed by the author.

  8. (I deleted my original comment because I inexplicably left a word out of my opening sentence! ...)

    Of course they are. They are more than welcome and you in particular Elena-Maria. While the standard of civil discourse has slipped across the Internet over the last year, I have no desire to see my blog become somewhere were only one kind of person feels free to interact. That being said, freedom of speech mandates a certain freedom of response and I have decided to become slightly firmer in my own responses to ideas that I find either offensive or sly in intent. I do not especially expect there to be too many of such comments from Catholics, or from any Christian, but if they do make such comments, I will reply as my views and conscience indicate I should and simply hope that they aren't too offended. I myself have nearly had to swallow my tongue at some comments in the last few months and keeping things civil, as well as welcoming, is often trying. I can understand why some blogs are so ambivalent about Anonymous comments.

    The question of Edward II's sexuality and the general population's reaction to it is certainly an interesting one. Measuring the mass public's attitudes in the Middle Ages is, obviously, a very difficult task, given the dearth of relevant sources. It's always possible to confuse reactions within the elite with those of the general, often-unheard, contemporary population. Equally, it's possible that a perceived vice was only objected to once it became a folly. Meaning that a king or princess were allowed their private life up to a certain point and that point usually was when their private life led to them ruling in an unjust or preferential way. Looked at from this point of view, Piers Gaveston and Hugh Despenser attracted public opprobrium because they were seen as greedy and rapacious. Had they remained discreet and non-divisive, as previous or subsequent rumours regarding the homosexuality of William Rufus, Richard the Lionheart, James I or William of Orange did, then it's entirely possible that both of them would have died in their beds, rather than in such a grotesque fashion. In much the same way, adultery was regarded as a sin but a tolerable one until the royal mistress was seen as exerting undue influence over the crown, at which point the monarch's private life was once again used to discredit him - Alice Perrers under the aging Edward III, Roger Mortimer with Isabella or, of course, Madame de Pompadour or Madame du Barry with Louis XV of France.

    The Anonymous commentator did, however, rightly point out that Edward II's political track-record was less than impressive. While he was personally brave, physically strong and financially competent, he was also heavy-handed and enraged by criticism. His political miscalculations and an unenviable situation inherited at the end of his father's Scottish campaigns had far, far more to do with his eventual destruction than what was going on in his heart. Where the commentator did go awry, I felt, was in proclaiming that Isabella was light to Edward's dark. She was brave, like him, but also, as Kathryn pointed out, a financial imbecile and a grossly irresponsible regent.

    There is, also, an argument that should be acknowledged that states that while the earlier relationship between Edward II and Piers Gaveston was much more likely to have been both sexual and romantic, the relationship with Despenser the Younger was not. Despenser capitalised on the King's need for close male company, his feud with the barons and his generosity - but they were not lovers. I think I acknowledged in the main article - or hope I did, anyway - that the true nature of Edward and Despenser's relationship may never properly be understood.

    Jules, thank you very much for your comment. I appreciate it.

  9. There was no such concept as homosexuality in this period. It only came into being in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. To suggest otherwise is anachronistic.
    However, this is a very interesting post on an intriguing period.

  10. No, Conor, it isn't anachronistic. Otherwise, I wouldn't have used it.

    Simply because a word did not exist in the Middle Ages does not mean that the behaviour associated with it did not. If I were only to write with words that were around at the time of Edward II, this would have been a very short and very confusing article, indeed. There was no such concept as schizophrenia, diabetes, myopia or cancer, either, but that doesn't mean they didn't exist. It would not be anachronistic to describe Henry VI or Charles VI as schizophrenic, surely - even though the word did not exist at the time? Homosexuality did not appear simply because someone discovered a word for it in the nineteenth century; a word was discovered for it because it existed.

    I'm glad you found it interesting, thank you.

  11. I am not disputing that it never existed. Of course behaviour which we would now associate with homosexuality did occur, but as you will know having read Retha Warnicke, a concept of homosexuality did not exist until the nineteenth century. Having also read over fifty works on the emergence of homosexuality in this period, her argument can be seen as persuasive. All homosexual acts up until around the 1880s were classified as being sodomy - that was my point, not that homosexuality did not exist.

  12. Not that I am disputing Professor Warnicke's credibility - although you are selling her short in saying that simply because she's read fifty books she can be seen as persuasive. A master's student has probably read more than that on a topic they're specialising in. I would guess that Professor Warnicke has probably also read actual original sources relating to this topic. She has also spent years studying the early modern era; that alone should make her work worthy of consideration. Although, from what I recall, despite her vast amount of reading, you have dismissed her theories on Anne Boleyn as unpersuasive.

    As much as I have just praised her, however, Retha Warnicke is not the relevant authority to reference when discussing general attitudes to sexuality in the early modern/medieval period. Professor Warnicke's work is not about general attitudes to homosexuality; it is about one case involving sodomy's perceived links to witchcraft within the English aristocratic elite. Professor Warnicke is discussing a specific context - as she should, since her book is about Anne Boleyn. She is not discussing (or specialising) in homosexuality's wider origins or in the development of its etymology, terminology and attitudes towards it. There are specialists studying the specifics of homosexuality in the past - men and women like John Boswell, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Michael Warner and Louis Crompton. I am naming only a few, here, but perhaps this name-dropping lends credibility to my point that my description of Edward II was not anachronistic, nor was it the product of ignorance. In due modesty, I knew exactly what I was talking about. I try not to write unless I do.

    In relation to the suggestion that I should have used the word 'sodomy,' I disagree for reasons of both manners and theology. Sodomy had a shifting definition throughout the period. Since the story of Sodom has also been taken to mean blasphemy, paganism, anal sex with either gender, sex outside of marriage, oral sex, foreplay and masturbation, using it to mean solely homosexuality is, frankly, ridiculous and misleading. Nor would I ever dream of referring to someone as a sodomite in a modern article, since it is a grossly offensive term to use. I think we can safely assume that you would not have suggested that I use period-appropriate vocabulary that had been used to describe black people in the nineteenth century if I'd been writing an article about the Old South? Prior to the 1860s, inter-racial marriages were referred to as "miscegenation" and their children as "mulattoes." Not to mention the words used to describe black people themselves, that derived from the Latin word for "black". Those words are period-accurate, whereas phrases like "African-American" or "inter-racial" are, technically, anachronistic. However, that does not mean I would ever dream of using those terms in an article, unless it was to highlight its use in the past.

    Simply because the word existed in period documents at the time does not mean it should be used to describe a person today. I would have been mortified at my own offensiveness if I had described Hugh Despenser as "Edward II's alleged partner in sodomy." Despite the fact that it might have been more period-appropriate, apparently.

    I am well aware of the history of homosexuality and of the emergence of distinct categorisation in the late nineteenth century and, again, in the 1940s and 1950s. However, using modern vocabulary to describe someone who clearly conformed to that word's dictionary definition, even before that word existed, is not anachronistic - particularly in a short blog article. Rather, it is simply a case of good writing.

  13. Gareth you misunderstand me. I wrote that I read over fifty works on homosexuality for an essay, not Professor R. Warnicke - she has undoubtedly gone far beyond that in scope. Are we even sure that the king was homosexual - I have heard theories that he was attracted to women, not just/or solely to men.

    I simply meant that the understanding of what we view homosexuality in the twenty-first century may substantially differ to how courtiers in the fourteenth viewed it, which I think is an obvious point. I also do not see the relevance of the black analogy since I was not suggesting that we view the King as being a sodomite, rather that his contemporaries may have associated homosexual behaviour as a form of sodomy at that particular period.

  14. Conor, you said it was anachronistic - not that perceptions of what it was were different in the Middle Ages. Perceptions of more or less everything were different in the Middle Ages. But perhaps I misunderstood the salient point.

  15. Ok well perhaps I used the wrong word - the perceptions bit was what I was focusing on. But who knows what his sexual orientation actually was - it's such a fluid thing in the modern period at any rate.
    Also a shame to read your post about having a break from writing about the Tudors - although other areas of history are as interesting and deserve to be concentrated on.

  16. As I said, I am continuing to write about them in private. I am simply not participating in some of the web posts for a short time.

  17. Even in modern police reports, sodomy can refer to a number of different behaviors including, but not limited to, same-sex genital behaviors. In Catholic moral theology, sodomy is any genital act outside of procreative sexual intercourse, a concept which goes back to the Old Testament, even the Book of Genesis.

  18. Poor Hugh Despenser, he didn't deserve that kind of punishment. Fuck allthe cunts involved with his execution. I piss on the memory of queen Isabella the whore cunt.

    1. Well said Bill-wonder what the old crow had on her sandwiches whilst watching that poor sod having his old man chopped off

  19. I'm glad I wasn't around in the 14th century. On the other hand if the Sikhs are correct I might have been Isabella.

  20. I would gladly watch this happen to every peado - vile in the country


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