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.