Nicholas de Litlington - Hugh Despenser's Illegitimate Son?
Updated: Feb 16, 2022
According to several historians, Nicholas de Litlington, the preeminent Abbot of Westminster Abbey from 1362 - 1386, was an illegitimate offspring of either Hugh Despenser the younger or Hugh Despenser the elder. His clerical life has been well-documented, but the his origins still remain unclear.
Nicholas de Litlington (or Lytlington, Lytlyngton, Litlyngton) became the Abbot of Westminster Abbey in 1362 after being its prior for the past twelve years. An energetic man, he set about improving the abbey, and carrying on the improvements started by his predecessor Simon Langham (who, although had, in succession became the bishop of Ely, continued to fund the abbey’s restoration). Not only did his work improve the life of the monks already cloistered there but also seemed to help recruit further numbers to replace those who died during the Black Death of 1348-50.
He attended parliament when it was held at Westminster and was frequently requested to try petitions there. He is also well known for the commissioning of an expensive illuminated manuscript known as the Litlington Missal, which still exists. As well as a respected holy man, politician, builder and administrator, it seem that Litlington also had a rather secular liking of wealth and extravagance. He amassed a large collection of plate and loved hunting. He also had, among his possessions at his death, certain items of armour. There is a story that when he was seventy years of age, upon hearing of a threatened French invasion, he donned his armour and presented himself to partake in the realm’s defence. The story also goes that the dimensions of the armour were so vast, that it could not be sold on to anyone else. Obviously, the man liked his food as well!
So, apart from anything else, Litlington seems to have been a great character. However, there is another side to his story - one that has stirred up great controversy - his parentage. Many genealogy sites claim - incorrectly - (thanks to Dugdales Baronage of England) that he was an illegitimate son of Edward III and his mistress Alice Perrers. However, just a small amount of investigation shows that if this had been the case then it would have indeed been a miracle. Litlington died in 1386: if the above story of his age is true (and there is no reason to think that it is not), then that puts his birth date at 1316 or thereabouts. Edward III was born in 1312 and Alice around 1348 so it is pretty nigh impossible that they were his parents. In addition Litlington never claimed that he was from royal blood.
In her book, Westminster Abbey and its Estates in the Middle Ages, Barbara Harvey noted something quite extraordinary about Abbot Nicholas. This was that he used the Despenser coat of arms, albeit with a slight differentiation on the bend, and that he surmounted his initials with a coronet. He used these freely - in the tiles on the floor of the refectory in Westminster Abbey, on the bosses in the cloister, in the glass windows of the Jerusalem Chamber and on his personal collection of plate. Most notably they are found in the extravagant illuminated Litlington Missal, which he commissioned in 1383/84.
It seems that the other members of the Despenser family had no objections to his use of their heraldic devices, even though such familial privileges were often closely guarded. In fact he seemed to have been on good terms with certain members of the remaining Despenser family after 1326. For example he dined with Henry Despenser, Bishop of Norwich and grandson of Hugh the younger, as well as serving as attorney for Henry’s brother Edward in 1373.
But the question remains: if Nicholas was a member of the Despenser family, where did he fit in? One clue to this comes from Nicholas himself, who named his parents as being ‘Hugh and Joan’. The only Hughs of the right period who bore the Despenser coat of arms were Hugh the elder and Hugh the younger. It is therefore very probable that Nicholas was an illegitimate son of one or the other. However Joan, at the moment, is impossible to trace.
In a bid to try and track down the illusive beginnings of our abbot, I have done hours of researching online and nearly ended up cross-eyed as a result. To begin with, I thought I’d try and see what relevance the name of Litlington might have so I trawled through the parish records of villages with that or similar names. I could not find any direct unequivocal links with the Despenser family, but I did come close. There is a village of Litlington in Cambridgeshire which, in the early 14th Century consisted of five manors. One of these manors, Dovedales, was originally held in the honour of Gloucester and so was included in the estates partitioned between the three de Clare sisters. It seems though that this particular manor was given to Margaret and thence to her second husband Hugh Audley. Although Hugh Despenser coveted Audley and Margaret’s lands, I could not find any record that he had either visited the manor or taken it off his sister in law.
Another of the manors at Litlington was called Huntingfields. I did some searches on this manor and was extremely excited when I came up with it being granted to Hugh Despenser the younger. However, this excitement was rather short-lived as on closer inspection not only had the manor been gifted in 1325 (far too late for Nicholas to be conceived there), it was also in Nottinghamshire. Wrong time, wrong place!
Of course, it is possible that the Litlington name has nothing to do with a place of origin at all. The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography puts forward the theory that his name came from a village in Middlesex called Littleton or Litlyngton, where the abbey had some land. Maybe it was just a place he liked and wanted to be associated with.
My latest attempt to trace some clues to his parentage lie within the heraldry aspect. As I already said, the bend on the coat of arms shows three small objects, which, as author Susan Higginbotham has suggested, could be fleur de Lys. Could it be something related to the mysterious Joan - was she French? I am also puzzled why the parts of the shield which are normally white on the Despenser coat of arms are blue, but this could just be sheer elaboration on the part of the artist. What really interests me, however, is the coronet on top of the initials ‘NL’. Different types of coronets signified different types of rank. For example an earl’s coronet is different from a barons, and that is what I need to identify here. Is the coronet that of an earl or a baron? Hugh the younger was still a baron at his death whereas Hugh the elder was an earl. What I am wondering is, would the type of coronet on top of Nicholas’s initials provide a clue as to whether his father was Hugh the baron or Hugh the earl. Again, this may be a complete red herring and the coronet may signify something else: I certainly can’t identify it with certainty from the picture alone. To this end I have contacted the College of Arms (or Herald’s College) in London to see if they can enlighten me. Unfortunately, up to the date of this post they have yet to answer my query.
Even though we cannot say for certain who Nicholas’s parents were, I feel sure that he was fond of them. He founded an anniversary for them and also for himself at Great Malvern Priory (also associated with the Despenser family), to be celebrated on September 26th each year.
When he died on November 29th 1386, he had led a full and useful life. He had enriched the Westminster Abbey that he loved so much, leaving it, amongst other items, two silver-gilt chalices; 48 dishes and two chargers; 24 saltcellars of silver; two silver jars for wine; twelve silver plates; a mitre and a pastoral staff. Even though his family tree cannot be sketched with any certainty, it certainly seemed that he inherited some of the positive Despenser traits - administrative skills, a talent for getting rich and also the knack of getting to the top!
Royal Bastards of Medieval England by Chris Given-Wilson
Living and Dying in England, 1100-1540: The Monastic Experience by Barbara F. Harvey
Westminster Abbey and its Estates in the Middle Ages by Barbara F. Harvey
Plantagenet Ancestry: A Study in Colonial and Medieval Families by Douglas Richardson, Kimball G. Everingham
Transactions of the London and Middlesex Archaeological Society: Volume 2, Part IV ('The Jerusalem Chamber' by the Rev. Thomas Hugo, 1860)
The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography online at http://www.oxforddnb.com
British History Online at http://www.british-history.ac.uk
And once again, many thanks to Susan for her help and suggestions