Mr. Despenser Collects Himself?

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.

I’ll be interested to see what Alianore, Lady D, and other Edward II/Despenser scholars have to say on this matter!

**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.’

9 thoughts on “Mr. Despenser Collects Himself?”

  1. Hi

    I have severe doubts about the ID too.

    I mean, who was less likely to bury Despenser than Audley? Only Isabella or Mortimer.

    By the way, Susan, it says in the article that only a few bits of Hugh’s body ended up at Tewkesbury, but surely his wife retrieved all the quarters as you depicted in The Traitors’s Wife?

    While I’m typing this, I might as well introduce myself. I am 18 (19 in March) and have been fascinated by history since I was at primary school. At Christmas 2005, two of the books on my Christmas list were Alison Weir’s bio of Isabella and Ian Mortimer’s book on Roger Mortimer. They weren’t even top of my list – I knew virtually nothing about the period, but the books got me hooked. I probably lean more towards Isabella than Ed II, but I know nobody is perfect and that there are two sides to every story. I went to Ludlow, Wigmore, Tewkesbury, Montgomery and Kenilworth in the summer of 2005 and went to Castle Rising in Oct 05 and went to see the tunnel under Nottingham Castle last summer. I am going to Gloucestershire with my parents this summer and plan to visit Gloucester, Berkeley Castle, Chepstow and Goodrich.

    I am also fascinated by Edward III and his reign.

  2. Susan,I found the article to be very interesting, especially after reading your books. I, too, wondered why all (or most) of Hugh wouldn’t be in his tomb. There’s always a little question when someone speaks in definitives — there’s no way to know, absolutely, if the bones are Hugh’s, without further testing — and even then, it can only be known for sure if they already have a sample of Hugh’s DNA.

  3. I’ve just posted on this. I’ve identified three men who I think are the likeliest candidates, and I’m pretty sure it’s not Hugh. I don’t find the arguments in the article convincing at all.

  4. The comment in the Telegraph article about Eleanor only being given part of Hugh’s body (head, thigh, some vertebrae) and these being the bones that are missing from the Hulton skeleton, strikes me as a key part of the suggested identification. If true, it would surely be a startling coincidence if the sleleton wasn’t Hugh and had the same bones missing. But the journalist doesn’t cite a source for the statement that Eleanor only got part of the body. Is it actually known what remains were given to her, or is it just speculation?

  5. Susan Higginbotham

    Thanks for stopping by, Carole! Always nice to have a new visitor. Lynn, good to see you here!

    I’ve posted on Alianore’s blog about this, so I’ll just repeat what I said there and then add something:

    Tewkesbury Abbey: History, Art, and Architecture (a wonderful book for those of you who haven’t seen it; I know Alianore has) quotes Leland (a 16-century writer) as stating that one of Hugh’s quarters was buried at Tewkesbury. I’ve never read about the tomb being opened. W. G. Bannister, who wrote a guidebook to Tewkesbury in the early 20th century, writes that Dugdale said that one quarter was buried there and that the rest of him was brought later. (Banninster, incidentally, mentions several tombs being opened by the Victorians, including that of Hugh the even younger, that of Gilbert de Clare’s widow, and Isabel le Despenser. He doesn’t mention Hugh the younger’s being opened.)

    To me the Audley bit is the deal-killer. Even if the Audley family and the Despensers made up after 1330 (I don’t know if they did or not; there’s just not enough evidence for either Eleanor or her sister Margaret to really know), I simply can’t imagine why Eleanor wouldn’t have buried all of Hugh she could at Tewkesbury, since she had the means to do so. If some parts of him are missing from Tewkesbury, I think it’s more likely that some of them might have deteriorated or disappeared during the four years they were on display from 1326-1330, thereby preventing Eleanor from retrieving some of them.

    It would be great if someone from the abbey could confirm whether Hugh’s tomb had ever been opened!

    Re DNA, Hugh has a son and a grandson buried at Tewkesbury (remains of his son were visible in 1876 when renovations to his tomb were made), so I would think samples might be obtainable if anyone at the abbey was so inclined (which may of course be a very big if). I’m a dunce when it comes to science, though–would this be possible?

  6. I think you, me and Alianore seem to be in agreement on this issue. I spent the day at Tewkesbury Abbey (and got the book you mentioned too – what a coincidence!) and also e-mailed Mary Lewis. Then finally I got my post up on the subject, which more or less repeats what both you and Alianore have said. I couldn’t think of any other possible suspects for the skeleton though.

    Its great to have such a subject for us all to get our teeth into though (and just as I was planning a quiet half term holiday with my daughter!).

    Carole: I live in Gloucester, so if you want to swing by and say hi when you’re here, just let me know!

  7. I’m not an expert but I believe if they could compare the DNA of these “new” bones with the bones known to be Hugh (from Tewksbury), then they could tell if they were a match — that would tell them whether it was the same person. Also, they could compare the DNA of the son and grandson to the bones (from either tomb) — while that wouldn’t tell them who the bones belong to, it could show a familial link.


  8. I should also add that all of this depends on being able to get salvageable DNA — which isn’t always possible.


  9. To get slavageable DNA out of bones is very difficult if there’s no marrow left. You’ll need to grind up a lot of bone. I don’t think that would be allowed. 😉

    The DNA sample from criminals come from blood or sperm, not bone, and are deep frozen for keeping.

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