A Sad Day at Bristol

Today marks the 680th anniversary of the death of Hugh le Despenser the elder, Earl of Winchester, who was put to death at Bristol on October 27, 1326, by Queen Isabella and Roger Mortimer following their invasion of England. It was a sad end for a man who had been a loyal servant to the crown since the days of Edward I and who had been one of the godfathers to Edward III.

Hugh the elder had been sent to Bristol to hold the town against Queen Isabella’s troops. Edward II and Hugh le Despenser had fled to Wales, where they were on the day of Hugh the elder’s execution. In Bristol, Hugh the elder resisted the queen’s besieging troops for eight days, but finally surrendered on October 26 and was promptly arrested.

The next day, Hugh the elder was tried, if it could be called that, by Roger Mortimer, Henry, Earl of Lancaster, and the Earls of Norfolk and Kent (Edward II’s half-brothers), among others. He had been among those who presided over the trial and execution of Thomas, Earl of Lancaster, in 1322, and his role in this proceeding was prominent in the charges against him, which also included accusations of robbery and treason and of depriving the prelates of the Church of their franchises. Hugh the elder had participated in some of his son’s land-grabs and could be justly accused of robbery on those grounds, but the charge of treason surely required some mental gymnastics to justify, given Winchester’s unbroken record of loyalty to Edward II and his father. Nonetheless, he was sentenced to be drawn through the town, hung, and beheaded. He was to be hung in a surcoat emblazoned with his coat of arms.

According to one chronicler, Isabella pleaded to spare the life of the elder Despenser, who was sixty-five (not ninety as reported by Froissart). Though several historians have accepted this claim at face value, it seems highly unlikely; as queen, Isabella would have hardly needed to plea to the men who were acting in her name.

Edward II’s young daughters, Eleanor and Joan, were at Bristol Castle with Hugh the elder and were reunited with Queen Isabella upon its surrender. The girls had been in the care of Isabel de Hastings, one of Winchester’s daughters. Presumably she had accompanied her charges to Bristol and thus too was at the castle at the time of her father’s capture. According to Froissart, the young girls watched the execution from the castle window.

The sentence was carried out immediately after the trial. Hugh the elder’s head was sent to Winchester, the seat of his earldom, on a spear. One source says that his body was rehung and remained on the gallows for three days, after which it was fed to dogs.

5 thoughts on “A Sad Day at Bristol”

  1. Thanks for writing this, better than I could have done it! 😉

    The problem with the chronicle which states that Isabella pleaded for Winchester’s life is that it’s incredibly obscure – The Memorials of St Edmunds Abbey. I’ve no idea even when it was written – within a few years of the events, centuries later, could be either – and Bury St Edmunds is on the other side of the country from Bristol anyway, so you have to question how reliable it is.

    None of the other chroniclers mention the event, not even Froissart and Murimith who are generally pretty sympathetic to Isabella. I find the whole story impossible to believe, I’m afraid – especially as Isabella had sworn to destroy the Despensers, and was even keen to execute Hugh the Even Younger, Winchester’s grandson, who was only 17 or 18 and not involved in the regime of his father and grandfather at all.

    But Isabella’s apologists don’t let the implausibility of it all stand in the way of a good theory, do they?!

    I always find it amusing that Kent was one of the men who tried the Despensers, but was also one of Thomas of Lancaster’s judges…the hypocrisy of this didn’t seem to bother anybody!

  2. Susan:

    Just had to say hello. I wandered over here from Sarah Johnson’s blog, and decided I’d better add you to Google Reader when I saw you were not only a historical fiction writer named Susan, but your period is 14th-century England! {gulp} Me too!

    Mine is later than yours, though, I think. My first book took place in 1387. Still, I feel like you’re a neighbor!

  3. elena maria vidal

    Wow. What a story…. I logged on right after eating pizza. Time for the mylanta….Or another glass of wine….

  4. Susan Higginbotham

    Alianore, I couldn’t even remember which chronicle it that painted the pretty picture of Isabella begging for Hugh’s life but being overruled by all those mean men. It’s one of those things where you wonder why historians don’t say, “Now, wait a minute . . .”

    Susan, good to see you here! Probably about 1351 or thereabouts is as far as I’m going to go in the fourteenth century for now. My mind begins to boggle (I first wrote “bobble,” which isn’t half bad) with all of the stuff going on in the latter part.

    Elena, apologies! But if you read the blog entry about Kirk the auditor and Fawn the taxpayer below this, it’s bound to restore your appetite.

  5. elena maria vidal

    No need to apologize, Susan! Really, it is a fascinating account, along the line of most medieval execution stories and anullment stories….

    Kirk and Fawn??? Now I am laughing too hard to eat…Think how rich we all would be if we gave up our high ideals of authentic historical fiction and wrote pulp fiction crap all day…But then I would have chronic indigestion…..

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