The 'Trial' of Hugh Despenser the Younger
Updated: Feb 16, 2022
On the morning of the 24th November, 1326, just outside the walls of the city of Hereford, Despenser, Baldock, Reading and their captors were met by Sir Thomas Wake and Jean de Hainault. There, Hugh was stripped, dressed in a surcoat bearing his coat of arms reversed, and a crown of nettles was put upon his head. Then he was placed on the mangiest hack that could be found. As if to press home the point, verses from the Magnificat ('He has put down the mighty from their seat and hath exalted the humble.') and Psalm 52 were inscribed either onto his bare skin or else onto his clothes (the different versions aren’t too clear on this). The words were certainly appropriate to his situation. In particular, Psalm 52 must have sounded as if it was meant for him:
Why do you boast of evil, you mighty man? Why do you boast all day long, you who are a disgrace in the eyes of God?
Your tongue plots destruction; it is like a sharpened razor, you who practice deceit.
You love evil rather than good, falsehood rather than speaking the truth. You love every harmful word, O you deceitful tongue!
Surely God will bring you down to everlasting ruin: He will snatch you up and tear you from your tent; He will uproot you from the land of the living.
The righteous will see and fear; they will laugh at him, saying, "Here now is the man who did not make God his stronghold But trusted in his great wealth and grew strong by destroying others!"
Mind you, I would be very surprised if they managed to write the full-length version on him!
Hugh was then paraded through Hereford. He was accompanied by Baldock, also wearing a surcoat with reversed arms and a crown of either nettles or thorns. In front of them, Simon of Reading was made to carry a banner, once again displaying the Despenser arms reversed. The Annales Paulini states, oddly, that he also had his intestines draped over the pole, but this is hardly likely - he’d have been unable to carry it in a disembowelled state! All the way through the streets the little group was accosted by the sound of horns and drums and people jeering and throwing whatever they could get their hands on.
The whole spectacle was designed for maximum humiliation. However, it was not unusual. There are other accounts of traitors being brought to their judgements and executions in similar manner. For example, in 1295, Thomas de Turberville, suspected of colluding with the French was taken to his trial in Westminster dressed in rags and tied onto a pathetic excuse for a horse. On the way, he was surrounded and taunted by men (including the hangman) dressed as devils.
But the display was not only for the amusement of the crowds: it also had its symbolic side. Through the stripping away of his finery and the taking of his good quality mount, Hugh was beginning the process of being stripped of his rank and privilege. The crown of greenery was a mocking echo of his baron’s coronet and that his arms were shown reversed was a sign of shame upon his family’s name. It meant that his coat of arms - and therefore his line - had technically ceased to exist.
The ‘trial’ itself was held in the marketplace, part of which still exists today in the city. The proceedings appear to have been presided over by Sir William Trussel but the other judges that were there included Henry, earl of Lancaster and Leicester, the earl of Kent, Thomas Wake, Jean de Hainault and, of course, Roger de Mortimer. It is also possible that Isabella was present although it is unlikely that she would have taken an active part.
As it had been at his father’s judgement, Hugh was not allowed to speak in his defence. Even if he had, it is quite probable that he would have not been able to say much due to his extreme dehydrated state. The charges, which had been agreed on beforehand by the assembled tribunal, were then read out by Trussel. Some of them were accurate enough but others were outrageously unjust (and I shall be exploring them one by one in future posts). The original charges are still extant in four documents and are extremely long - including the names that Hugh was accused of stealing land from. However, at present these documents have remained out of my grasp, so instead here’s a shortened version of the charges as given by GA Holmes in his article ‘Judgement on the Younger Despenser 1326’. The phrasing and numbering is mine.
1. Returning to the realm whilst still being banished, without parliament’s permission.
2. Of committing piracy and in particular robbing two dromonds (large merchant ships) of goods to the value of 60,000 livres esterlins ‘to the great dishonour of the king and the realm’.
3. Of attracting royal power for his own use.
4. Taking arms against the noble men of the realm, with the intention of destroying and disinheriting them.
5. Colluding with the traitor Andrew de Harclay at Boroughbridge resulting in the ‘murder’ of the earl of Hereford, William de Sully, Roger de Berefield and others.
6. Imprisoning the Earl of Lancaster and arranging his death by assumption of royal power.
7. Executing 17 named barons and knights and taking their lands.
8. Imprisoning Roger de Mortimer and his uncle in a ‘harsh prison’ and conspiring to murder them in order to seize their lands for his own profit.
9. Also of imprisoning lord Berkeley, Hugh Audley senior and Hugh Audley junior, the earl of Hereford’s children, as well as their wives and families.
10. Imprisoning Lady Baret and breaking her arms and legs until she went insane.
11. Causing Edward to go to war with the Scots thus putting the realm in danger.
12. Abandoning queen Isabella at Tynemouth priory as the Scottish forces advanced therefore forcing her to make a hazardous journey by sea.
13. Despoiling the bishops of Hereford, Ely, Lincoln and Norwich of their possessions and robbing their churches, thus making war on the holy church itself.
14. Granting the earldom of Winchester to his father and the earldom of Carlisle to de Harclay, thus disinheriting the king.
15. Confiscating lands (including dowry lands) from the queen.
16. Of cruelty and dishonour towards the queen and damaging her noble state.
17. Preventing Edward from travelling to France to do homage for Gascony, resulting in the lands being lost to the French.
18. Sending money to unknown accomplices in France in order to either murder the queen and her son or else to prevent them from returning to England.
19. Of maliciously causing discord between the king and the queen by coming between them.
20. Illegally granting land and favours to his followers.
21. Abusing royal power to imprison those, such as Henry Beaumont, who would not swear an oath of fealty to him.
22. Persuading the king to leave his realm and, contrary to law, taking with him the realm’s treasure and the great seal.
At the end of the list of charges, Trussel then read out what was to be Hugh’s punishment:
Hugh, you have been judged a traitor since you have threatened all the good people of the realm, great and small, rich and poor, and by common assent you are also a thief. As a thief you will hang, and as a traitor you will be drawn and quartered, and your quarters will be sent throughout the realm. And because you prevailed upon our lord the king, and by common assent you returned to the court without warrant, you will be beheaded. And because you were always disloyal and procured discord between our lord king and our very honourable lady the queen, and between other people of the realm, you will be disembowelled, and then your entrails will be burnt. Go to meet your fate, traitor, tyrant, renegade; go to receive your own justice, traitor, evil man, criminal!(translated from the Holmes article)
And here was another indication of his ‘nobility’ being stripped away, for now he was not addressed as lord Despenser, or even sir Hugh. It was now simply Hugh - a name without an honorific - he had sunk from the status of a baron and the son of an earl to being just a common criminal. But this was just the beginning: the worst was yet to come. With the crowd in the marketplace calling for his death, the final act of annihilation was about to commence.
PS - Some of the more eagle-eyed of you may have noticed that one man seems to have been in two places at once. Henry, earl of Lancaster at this point was supposed to be taking Edward to Kenilworth. Instead he turns up at the trial. This rather begs the question - what did he do with Edward on the 24th November? Had he perhaps entrusted the custody of the most important prisoner in the land to a third party? Maybe he had left him for the time being at Monmouth, intending to collect him and continue with the journey after the trial. Or maybe… is it even possible… that Edward may have been taken to Hereford too, and just kept out of the way of prying eyes? No chronicle or account seems to mention the king between Monmouth and his arrival at Kenilworth on Dec 5th. Just a thought…
The Greatest Traitor - Ian Mortimer King Edward II - Roy Martin Haines ‘Judgement of the Younger Despenser’ - GA Holmes ‘Deconstructing Identities on the Scaffold: the Execution of Hugh Despenser the Younger 1326’ - Danielle Westerhof’ Froissart (looked at but not really used as there are so many inaccuracies)