Today is the 680th anniversary of the death of Hugh le Despenser the younger. I’m too lazy to write a proper blog entry about it. Instead, here’s the scene as I wrote it in The Traitor’s Wife. (It’s not dinnertime fare.)
Leybourne and Stanegrave and their men had made Hugh’s journey to Hereford as miserable as Isabella and Mortimer could have wished. Lest any dozing village miss the fine sight of Hugh le Despenser chained to a mangy horse, a drummer and a trumpeter had been put at the head of the procession to announce his arrival well in advance. This was the cue for villagers to throw anything they could find at Hugh, and at Simon de Reading as well. Hardly anyone knew who the latter was, of course, but as he too was in chains, everyone realized that he had to be associated with Hugh, and his presence made the proceedings twice as fun and provided some consolation for those whose aim was too unsure to hit Hugh himself.
But the true festivities started when the troops, trailed by an ever-increasing crowd of citizens eager to see Hugh hang, reached the outskirts of Hereford, where they were met by a contingent of the queen’s men coming from the city, led by Jean de Hainault and Thomas Wake. There, to the delight of the crowd, Hugh and Simon were dragged off their horses and stripped naked, then redressed in tunics bearing their coats of arms reversed. With the help of a clerk, whose Latin was needed for the purpose, the words from the Magnificat “He has put down the mighty from their seat and hath exalted the humble” were etched into Hugh’s bare shoulders. His chest bore psalm verses beginning, “Why dost thou glory in malice, thou that art mighty in iniquity?” Thus decorated, and wearing a crown of nettles, he was put back on his horse. Then, to the blare of trumpets and drums, accompanied by the howling of the spectators, he was led into the city with Simon de Reading forced to march in front of him bearing his standard reversed. As there were only so many horse droppings that could be found to throw at the captives, the enterprising were selling eggs for that purpose.
Zouche had hoped to miss these proceedings. He had retrieved the records, and the little treasure that could be found, from Swansea, and had delivered his load to the queen two days before. But having made good time to Hereford, he could not leave once the execution had been scheduled. Thus, he was standing in the market square, near the queen, Mortimer, and the Duke of Aquitaine [the future Edward III], when Hugh and Simon, so covered in filth that they resembled scarecrows more than men, were brought there for trial.
Isabella, still clad in widow’s weeds, wore a look of resignation as William Trussell stepped forth to read the charges against Hugh. Only Mortimer, making no attempt to hide his own satisfaction, saw the sparkle in her eyes.
At what passed for his trial, Hugh’s mind wandered from the past to the present, sometimes lucidly, sometimes not. There were many charges against him, some true enough, some with a bit of truth to them, some so patently absurd that it was a wonder Trussell could keep a straight face. Piracy. Returning to England after his banishment. Procuring the death of the saintly Lancaster after imprisoning him on false charges. Executing other men who had fought against the king at Boroughbridge on false charges. Forcing the king to fight the Scots. Abandoning the queen at Tynemouth. (That again, Hugh thought.) Making war on the Christian Church. Disinheriting the king by inducing him to grant the earldom of Winchester to his father and the earldom of Carlisle to Harclay. Bribing persons in France to murder the queen and her son… He drifted off into a world where his death was not imminent, and when he was shaken back to the here and now once more, Trussell was still going on, perhaps beginning to bore those assembled a little. Trussell himself must have sensed this, for he sped through the last few charges (leading the king out of his realm to his dishonor and taking with him the treasure of the kingdom and the Great Seal) before he slowed his voice dramatically for what all were anticipating: his sentence. Though no one could have possibly been surprised by it, least of all Hugh himself, there were nonetheless appreciative gasps as Trussell, all but smacking his lips, informed Hugh what was to be done with him.
“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 the king and our very honorable lady the queen, and between other people of the realm, you will be disemboweled, 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!”
At Hereford Castle, to which Hugh was dragged by four horses, a gallows fifty feet high had been erected. “Just for you!” said one of the men who untied him from his hurdle and hauled him toward the gallows. “Ain’t we the special one, now?”
Simon de Reading, having been drawn behind the usual two horses, was hung on a smaller gallows. Hugh, propped up between his guards because one of his ankles would not allow him to bear any weight on it, shakily crossed himself and whispered a prayer for Simon’s soul.
When he was twelve he had had to have a tooth drawn. His father, always anxious for him, had told him as he lay miserably in the barber’s chair, “Get a pleasant picture in your mind, son, and fix it there. It’ll take your mind off it as it happens.” He’d obeyed, fixing first on his new horse, then, more satisfyingly, on a buxom village maiden he’d long admired, and it had worked, at least to the extent that it’d taken his mind off his tooth until the barber actually yanked it. Eleanor, after the birth of their first son, had told him that her midwife had given her similar advice when her labor pains became intense. “She said, ‘Think of something you enjoy doing, and imagine yourself doing it,’ so I thought of making love to you. Isn’t that terrible? But it helped.”
He thought of his wedding night. He was nineteen years old and pulling the sheets off his skittish little bride, chosen for him by the great King Edward himself, and he had been the happiest creature in the world. She was lovely and sweet and all his, and it had not yet occurred to him to want anything more.
He’d been guilty of no greater sin back then than poaching the occasional deer, and if he had died at that time, there would have been no cheering. Perhaps someone might have even wept for him. If he’d just taken life as it came to him his old father would be nodding off in a comfortable chair by a roaring fire now and his wife would be welcoming some pretty heiress as their son Hugh’s new bride. His son Edward would be mooning over some wench and the rest of his children would be playing some absurd game. The king would be on his throne, taking the purely disinterested advice that Hugh could have offered him but never did.
He’d truly loved them all, and he’d brought them all to ruin. It was by far his worst sin. Why had not Trussell included that in his thunderings?
He prayed for forgiveness, perhaps audibly enough to be overheard by those surrounding him, for there was scornful laughter. Then a man in black appeared beside him. Of the faces that surrounded him, his was the only one that showed no hatred on it. It showed nothing, in fact; the man was simply following his trade. Hugh hoped he was reasonably good at it; Arundel’s executioner, as the queen’s men had delighted in informing him, had been a rank amateur who had taken twenty strokes to sever the earl’s head. He slid his rings off his fingers and handed them to his executioner. “Go to it,” he said tonelessly.
To separate them from the increasingly boisterous crowd, a little stand had been erected near the gallows for the queen and her son and the higher nobility. Still wearing a look of patient, slightly pained endurance, Isabella watched as Despenser, wearing nothing but his crown of nettles, was lifted aloft. Zouche, standing a few feet off with the queen’s other leaders, glanced at young Edward’s face but could read nothing in it.
After dangling in the air a short time, Hugh was lowered to a platform below the gallows, next to which a good-sized fire had been lit. For a moment, he lay still, much to the crowd’s dismay; then, after a few slaps from the executioner, he started to cough and gasp and opened his eyes. The executioner, satisfied that his charge was as awake as he was going to get, nodded to a boy who like a surgeon’s apprentice was standing nearby with several knives and an ax. The boy handed over the smallest of the knives, and the executioner bent to his work.
Despenser let out a strangled cry, and the executioner held up Hugh’s genitals. Amid the cheers and jests, Isabella’s smile was too slight to be detected as they quivered in the air. After dropping them in the fire (“Listen to ’em sizzle!” a spectator shouted happily. “Like bacon!”), the executioner took a larger knife and opened Hugh’s abdomen. Hugh moaned and turned his head back and forth, then grew quiet. He was motionless when his heart was plucked out and thrown into the fire.
The boy handed over the ax. “Behold the head of a traitor!”
The crowd shrieked with sheer joy, and men clapped each other on the backs and shoulders as if they had personally caught the king’s chamberlain and brought him to justice. As the head, which was to be sent to London, was carefully put aside, Zouche found that he could not watch Hugh’s blood-covered body being cut into four pieces. Instead, he stared at the ring on his right hand as he twirled it round and round.