The Execution of Hugh Despenser the Younger: November 24th 1326
Updated: Feb 16, 2022
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.
After the 'trial', the judgement was read out, and Hugh was dragged to his place of execution. Most of the sources say that he was dragged - most probably tied to a hurdle - by four horses instead of the usual two. This would have been uncomfortable and humiliating. Even in a weakened state, he would have been aware of being bumped over cobbles, through excrement, and his vulnerability to the murderous crowd that filled the streets. Once again, he would have had anything and everything thrown at him, been spat and jeered at all while knowing that what was to come was far worse.
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. In favour of the castle as location, it would make sense that he was dragged from the marketplace to the castle to meet his doom. 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 Macdonald's.
What does seem to be agreed upon is that the gallows themselves were about 50 feet high - 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. As to how Hugh behaved at his death, the St Paul's Annalist recorded that he suffered the incredible pain of his execution 'humbly and patiently.' There again, being half-dead from his self-imposed starvation, I doubt that he was capable of being very vocal.
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 future posts.
Isabella of France - Kathryn Warner
Hugh Despenser the Younger & Edward II - Kathryn Warner
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