Hugh's Last Journey 1326
Updated: Feb 16, 2022
There are only glimpses of what happened between Hugh and Edward’s capture at Pant-Y-Brad and Hugh’s arrival at Hereford, so much of what follows will be a matter of informed speculation. We know that Edward was taken by Henry of Lancaster to Kenilworth castle, stopping at Monmouth on the way. Hugh, Baldock and Simon of Reading were similarly accompanied by Henry de Leyburne and Robert de Stangrave. De Leyburne had, in 1322 fought with Lancaster at Boroughbridge and afterwards was imprisoned at Devizes Castle. He then managed to escape from captivity and join Isabella and Mortimer in France. I can’t find much on Stangrave apart from that he appeared in the lists at the Dunstable tournament of 1309, was sheriff of Surrey a couple of times and in 1325 he is found claiming for expenses for a summons to parliament.
The route from Llantrisant to Hereford is about 65 miles and the journey took eight days, therefore averaging about 8 miles a day (that is, if they travelled every day at a constant rate). To me, that seems quite slow - even if they walked (which they probably didn't). However, the journey was probably made harder by the November weather, which, certainly on the 16th, had been atrocious. It should also be noted that if the group took the best route to Hereford, they would have done so via Monmouth Castle, where we know that Edward was taken. This does raise an interesting question of whether the captives travelled together up until this point before taking different roads to Hereford and Kenilworth or whether the king was also taken to Hereford with the others.
It was reported by several chroniclers that, since his capture, Hugh had refused all food and water in an attempt to try and starve himself to death before his execution. One account claims that Isabella wanted him executed in London and if that had been the case then in all likelihood he would have been dead before they reached the capital. Starving oneself to death is not an easy option: it is painful and drawn-out. I have a little theory (and it is only that) that he may have thought that if he executed in London, it would be in full view of his wife and children and maybe he wanted to spare them both the horror and the public humiliation. Whatever his motive, his reserves of self-discipline must have been quite substantial to continually refuse all sustenance - and I’m sure his captors, in a frantic bid to keep him alive - must have done all in their power to try and make him eat. There is no record that de Reading and Baldock followed his example.
By the time they reached the outskirts of Hereford, on the morning of the 24th November they probably heard the news that Hugh’s ally, the earl of Arundel had been executed with two of his clerks a few days before. Weak, apathetic, in pain and emaciated, Despenser must have been resigned to his death. I have looked into what happens to the body when it has no fluid or food, and most victims succumb to death within 10-14 days. Still, most victims do not choose to end their lives this way: Despenser did.
And the question of choice brings up another possible reason for his self-induced starvation. After his capture, he had lost his freedom and all control over his actions. However, he still had authority over what went into his mouth and this was something he chose to exercise. He would also have been acutely aware that if he could starve himself to death before his execution, then Mortimer and Isabella would be cheated of what could be considered the ultimate ‘payback’. Despenser had never shown a lack of determination in the past for getting what he wanted and it must have felt to him (if he could feel much due to his weakened state) that he was going to get his way again. After all, better that God judged him than his greatest enemy.
King Edward II - Roy Martin Haines The Tyranny and Fall of Edward II - Natalie Fryde The Greatest Traitor - Ian Mortimer The Chronicles of Froissart (with thanks to Jean le Bel!)