I woke this morning to the interesting, if unappetizing, news that remains of a corpse found at Hulton Abbey in Staffordshire have been identified by an anthropologist, Mary Lewis, as being those of Hugh le Despenser the younger, husband of the heroine of The Traitor’s Wife. (Sorry, had to stick a little promo in here!)
In the article (which isn’t for the faint of stomach; the graphic picture of Hugh being disemboweled is also included), Lewis notes that the body had been chopped into pieces, beheaded, and stabbed in the stomach (i.e., for disemboweling). This, of course, is how the unfortunate Hugh died. The body was of a man over 35 (Hugh would have been probably about 40) and could be dated between 1050 and 1385. Hugh died in 1326.
I, however, am not convinced that this body is Hugh’s. As the Telegraph article points out, Hulton Abbey belonged to the estates of Hugh’s sister-in-law, Margaret de Clare, and her husband, Hugh d’Audley. The Audleys had no love for the Despensers: after the battle of Boroughbridge in 1322 and before the fall of Edward II and the Despensers in 1326, Audley was a royal prisoner, and his wife, Margaret, was confined to Sempringham priory. It seems unlikely that they would have wanted Hugh le Despenser buried on their estates, or that the Despenser family would have wanted him buried there.
Moreover, Hugh’s body parts seem to have been on display until at least December 15, 1330. That’s when “the friends of Hugh le Despenser the younger” were given permission by Edward III to “collect his bones . . . and to carry them whither they may wish.”** The order was directed to officials in London, York, Bristol, Carlisle, and Dover, these being the cities that were displaying part of Hugh. Hugh’s widow, Eleanor, at this time had some land, though she had been forced to sign over her most valuable estates to the crown earlier in 1330. Moreover, by January 1331, she had been restored to all of her lands, including Tewkesbury, the abbey of which contains Hugh’s tomb. So there would seem to be no good reason why she would have to bury Hugh, or parts of him, on land belonging to her sister and her husband when she had perfectly good land of her own to bury Hugh’s body parts.
So whose corpse is this? Personally, I suspect it was someone killed after the battle of Boroughbridge, when Edward II, who could be ruthless, executed a number of those who had rebelled against him. Most of these men seem to have died by hanging, with no dismemberment following, but some are known to have been decapitated and may have been quartered as well. As Audley had been in rebellion against Edward II, it would make sense if one of his executed followers was subsequently buried on Audley’s estates.
**Because of the following passage in Charles Dickens’ Our Mutual Friend, I have never been able to read this order with a straight face. In the chapter entitled “Mr. Wegg Looks After Himself,” Silas Wegg, an amputee, is paying a visit to Mr. Venus, an articulator of bones who has come into possession of one of Wegg’s legs:
‘Where am I?’ asks Mr Wegg.
‘You’re somewhere in the back shop across the yard, sir; and speaking quite candidly, I wish I’d never bought you of the Hospital Porter.’
‘Now, look here, what did you give for me?’
‘Well,’ replies Venus, blowing his tea: his head and face peering out of the darkness, over the smoke of it, as if he were modernizing the old original rise in his family: ‘you were one of a warious lot, and I don’t know.’
Silas puts his point in the improved form of ‘What will you take for me?’
‘Well,’ replies Venus, still blowing his tea, ‘I’m not prepared, at a moment’s notice, to tell you, Mr Wegg.’
‘Come! According to your own account I’m not worth much,’ Wegg reasons persuasively.
‘Not for miscellaneous working in, I grant you, Mr Wegg; but you might turn out valuable yet, as a–‘ here Mr Venus takes a gulp of tea, so hot that it makes him choke, and sets his weak eyes watering; ‘as a Monstrosity, if you’ll excuse me.’
Repressing an indignant look, indicative of anything but a disposition to excuse him, Silas pursues his point.
‘I think you know me, Mr Venus, and I think you know I never bargain.’
Mr Venus takes gulps of hot tea, shutting his eyes at every gulp, and opening them again in a spasmodic manner; but does not commit himself to assent.
‘I have a prospect of getting on in life and elevating myself by my own independent exertions,’ says Wegg, feelingly, ‘and I shouldn’t like–I tell you openly I should NOT like–under such circumstances, to be what I may call dispersed, a part of me here, and a part of me there, but should wish to collect myself like a genteel person.’