Confess yourself a traitor and a renegade! And so go to meet your doom. Traitor! (Brigstocke Sheppard, 1889: 413, in M. Lewis)

During an excavation of the Cistercian Monastery of Hulton Abbey, Staffordshire, in the 1970s, the disarticulated remains of a mature adult male were uncovered, revealing some very unusual peri-mortem cut marks. The man is thought to be Sir Hugh Despenser the Younger, a man so dastardly it may not be possible to catalogue his crimes and his punishments in just one post. Radiocarbon analysis puts the remains within the fourteenth century, and osteological analysis suggests the man was older than 34 years at the time of his death, which has led archaeologists to believe he is, in fact, Sir Hugh.

Political tension and turmoil in fourteenth-century England saw the ante being well and truly upped for the worst scoundrels of all: traitors. The most extreme of all punishments was reserved for traitors, for whom it was deemed that one death was not enough. In the late thirteenth century, Kind Edward I expanded the punishment for traitors (from being dragged by a horse’s tail to the place of hanging) to include disembowelling, burning, beheading and quartering. The punishment of hanging, drawing and quartering was highly ritualistic and symbolic – drawn from a horse’s tail for betrayal of the king, hanging for murder, disembowelling for sacrilege, and quartering for travelling around the countryside to plot the betrayal. Included here is a work by contemporary artist Jean Froissart of Sir Hugh’s very public departure from this world.

Froissart's depiction of the execution
Froissart’s depiction of the execution

This punishment was not actually used very often, and only one set of remains have ever been excavated which show injuries consistent with it.

Sir Hugh Despenser the Younger was an advisor to King Edward II, and the son of the Earl of Winchester. Sir Hugh’s misdeeds began by taking control of assets that weren’t his – he managed to secure the inheritance of his wife and her two sisters through political manoeuvring and by attacking his brothers-in-law, later having them charged and convicted of treason to secure their estates.

His wife, Eleanor de Clare, just happened to be the niece of Edward II, which gave Sir Hugh access to the king. Increasingly unpopular with the baronage, Sir Hugh’s greed began to run away with itself and he appropriated various castles and estates (including Goodrich Castle, pictured), allegedly ordered Lady Baret’s arms and legs broken until she went insane, and evicted the Welsh from their lands and installed his own men in their roles. There is also an allegation that Sir Hugh’s crimes even extended to the rape of the Queen. By 1321, the barons managed to convince Parliament to banish Sir Hugh, but he could not be kept down and once the rebellious barons had been defeated by Edward II, Sir Hugh was back in control six months after his exile to York.

Goodrich Castle. Photo credit: Castle Wales
Goodrich Castle. Photo credit: Castle Wales

Queen Isabella’s hatred of Sir Hugh led to his downfall, after she and her consort Roger Mortimer led a rebellion against her husband. Sir Hugh and the defeated Edward II were captured, and Sir Hugh was executed on 16 November 1326. A few weeks after his death, his head was displayed on London Bridge, and the quarters of his body were sent for display in Newcastle, York, Dover and Bristol. A few years after that, Sir Hugh’s wife petitioned for the return of his remains and was given a thigh bone, a few vertebrae and his head. These are the bones missing from the Hulton Abbey skeleton. The pathology of the skeleton revealed a wealth of cut marks made with a sharp blade, the separation of the head from the body (there are very distinctive cut marks which indicate beheading on vertebra C3), and the general division of the body into quarters. The picture on the right shows the precision cutting of the quartering. The remains indicated a number of stab wounds, including to the throat and lumbar vertebra. In short, there was not one part of the remains that had not been affected by peri-mortem injury.

The L2
The L2

Sir Hugh’s life of medieval villainy, political intrigue, power, influence and outrageous greed culminated in the most extreme of medieval punishments. His coat of arms is still shown inverted at Cardiff Castle as a sign of disgrace. Although his own name is forever associated with his crimes, his family managed to salvage their standing. A direct descendent of his, Anne Neville, became the queen consort of none other than King Richard III, whose own remains have been the subject of speculation, analysis and attention. And while King Richard III has recently been buried in Leicester Cathedral, remember that the villain of the piece is packed away on a shelf at the University of Reading in a box marked HA16.

Works cited

Brigstocke Sheppard, 1889: 413, in M. Lewis

LEWIS M., A traitor’s death? The identity of a drawn, hanged and quartered man from Hulton Abbey, Staffordshire, Antiquity 82 (2008): 113–124)



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