Nicholas de Litlyngton, abbot of Westminster from 1362 until his death in 1386, has been misidentified by Dugdale and many since as an out-of-wedlock son of Edward III. As E. H. Pearce pointed out in The Monks of Westminster, however, this would have required considerable precocity on Edward III’s part, since Nicholas was probably only a couple of years younger than the king.
In fact, Nicholas has been identified by Barbara Harvey, a historian who has written extensively about the abbey, as most likely being a member of the Despenser family. Nicholas, who identified his parents as “Hugh and Joan,” used the Despenser arms, differenced with three fleurs-de-lis on the bend. In 1373, he served as attorney for Edward le Despenser, who left him a gilt hanaper in his will. Nicholas also dined with Henry le Despenser, who was Edward’s younger brother and the Bishop of Norwich. He founded an anniversary of September 26 for himself and his parents at Great Malvern Priory, an abbey manor; tiles there show that the Despenser family, who held Malvern Chase, had a connection with the priory as well.
In his book Royal Bastards of Medieval England, Chris Given-Wilson posits that Nicholas was the out-of-wedlock son of Hugh le Despenser the younger. Perhaps Hugh the elder as his father shouldn’t be ruled out, though: the elder Hugh was widowed in 1306, when he was in his forties, and never remarried. He might well have kept a mistress during this time, and would have been in a good position to ensure that any offspring were well provided for.
Litlyngton had the tastes of his class. He kept hounds, and once made a wax offering for a sick falcon. After becoming abbot, he had his preferred manors fitted with cellars.
Nicholas was professed as a monk sometime before September 11, 1333; in 1334-35, he was listed in the abbey’s infirmary rolls as being at Hendon for a change of air. The air evidently did him good, since he lived for over fifty years thereafter.
During the 1340’s, while he was still a mere monk, Nicholas obtained some important royal benefits for the abbey, which may have given rise to the notion that he was the king’s natural son. Having escaped the ravages of the plague, which killed the abbot and a number of monks in 1349, he was made Westminster’s prior in 1350 and was elected its abbot in 1362. His abbacy was marked by a massive building effort. Using a bequest by his predecessor, Simon Langham, for the purpose, Nicholas resumed work on the nave of the abbey, which had been stopped during the reign of Henry III and had been dormant ever since. Among other projects, Nicholas added a dining hall and the famous Jerusalem Chamber to the abbey. The Jerusalem Chamber was the scene for the death of Henry IV and the meeting place for the translators of the King James Bible. Litlyngton’s Despenser shield can be seen today on the fireplace; his initials appear on the timbers of the room.
In 1383 to 1384, Litlyngton had scribes and illuminators produce what is known today as the Litlyngton Missal, a stunning manuscript that he gave to the abbey’s high altar. It cost £34 4s. 7d. Litlyngton’s initials, under a coronet, frequently appear in the margins of the manuscript, as does his shield, which can also be seen on the page edges when the missal is closed. (Nigel Saul’s The Oxford Illustrated History of Medieval England has a color illustration of a page from the missal showing both the shield and the initials.) Before that Litlyngton had given the abbey refectory 48 trenchers, 2 chargers, and 24 salt cellars, weighing 104 pounds, and the misericord 24 trenchers, 12 salt cellars, and 2 charges, all marked with his initials and a coronet.
Nicholas came into conflict with the crown—now that of the young Richard II—in 1377 when two esquires, Robert Hawley and John Shakell, took sanctuary in the abbey. The two men had been in a dispute with the crown over the ransom for a prisoner they had taken at the Battle of Najera and for their recalcitrance had ended up being imprisoned in the Tower. Having escaped the Tower, the two men fled to the abbey, where overzealous Tower officials pursued Hawley into the choir and killed him during mass. As part of the resulting furor, the Bishop of London excommunicated those involved. When Parliament met that November in Gloucester, a venue evidently chosen because of the recent events at Westminster, the killing of Hawley was still a hot issue. The king’s councilors put forth the argument that no right of sanctuary existed for debtors, an argument that Litlyngton traveled the hundred miles from London to Gloucester to contest. Appearing before the commons, the abbot made an eloquent defense of the right of sanctuary, which the council countered by having John Wycliffe speak against it. (Ultimately, a compromise seems to have been reached, in 1379, the right of sanctuary was withdrawn only as to fraudulent debtors.)
Litlyngton died on November 29, 1386, at his manor at La Neyte, in what now is Pimlico, and was buried in Westminster’s Chapel of St. Blaise; his monument seems no longer to be visible. He left the abbey a miter and a crozier, two chalices, and a quantity of plate. In his last months, he remained an active man: the August before Nicholas’s death, England was panicked with fear of a French invasion. The abbot, who was well into his seventies, and two monks equipped themselves with armor, some of which was found among the abbot’s personal effects at his death, and prepared to hasten to the coast to help in the defense effort. Fortunately for the French, the invasion never materialized.
Chris Given-Wilson, Royal Bastards of Medieval England.
Barbara Harvey, “Litlyngton , Nicholas (b. before 1315, d. 1386),” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, Online Edition.
Barbara Harvey, Living and Dying in England: 1100–1540.
Barbara Harvey, Westminster Abbey and Its Estates in the Middle Ages.
Martyn John Lawrence, Power, Ambition and Political Rehabilitation: The Despensers, c.1281–1400 (unpublished dissertation, University of York, May 2005).
E. H. Pearce, The Monks of Westminster.
Nigel Saul, The Oxford Illustrated History of Medieval England.
Nigel Saul, Richard II.
George Gilbert Scott, Gleanings From Westminster Abbey.