The Death of Hugh Despenser, the Younger

The Death of Hugh Despenser
1286 – 1326
21st Great Grandfather

Hugh Despenser the Younger, who was titled 1st Lord Despenser and born in 1286 was the son and heir of Hugh le Despenser, Earl of Winchester (the elder Despenser), and Isabella daughter of William, 9th Earl of Warwick. He rose to national prominence as royal chamberlain and a favourite of Edward II of England. A series of subsequent controversies eventually led to his being hanged, drawn and quartered.

He is believed to have been the lover of King Edward II (as so too was; Piers Gaveston, 1st Earl of Cornwall).

I descend from Hugh Despenser through my Grandmother Rosie May Janes who was a direct maternal descendant of Hannah Mintern (1774 – 1806). The Minterne family were wealthy landowners and married into some very prominent English families. Hannah’s great-grandmother Hannah Draper (wife of Samuel Mintern 1695 – 1746) was born in 1685 Haselbury Plucknett, Somerset, England, she was in turn the great-granddaughter of another member of the Minterne family, Elinor Minterne (1600 – 1631). Elinor is both my 11th Great Grandmother and 11th Great Grand Aunt, her parents were John ‘of Batcombe’ Minterne (1557 – 1631) and Frances Maye (1581 – 1631). Frances Maye is my link into the Despenser family, her family were granted the manor of Charterhouse, Somerset in 1534 by King Henry VIII. Her 3x great-grandfather was Jenkyn Maye, a wealthy clothier from Chippenham, Wiltshire and he was married to Elizabeth Spencer (1389 – Death unknown) the only daughter of Sir Hugh Spenser (Despenser), (1359 – 1401).

Elizabeth Spencer’s father died before she married, and her mother Sybil lost most of the family land in 1403 in a family feud. So Elizabeth inherited nothing, although she was mentioned in her father’s Will.

The Despenser family by this point had all but died out, and the family had fallen from power some 70 years earlier in 1326 following civil war ‘The Despenser War’. The trigger for the conflict was the tension between many of the barons and the Despenser family. Hugh Despenser the Elder had served both Edward and his father, while Hugh Despenser the Younger had married into the wealthy de Clare family, become the King’s chamberlain, and acquired Glamorgan in the Welsh Marches in 1317. Hugh the Younger had then begun to expand his holdings and power across Wales, mainly at the expense of the other Marcher Lords. The Earl of Lancaster and the Despensers were fierce enemies, and Lancaster’s antipathy was shared by most of the Despensers’ neighbours, including the Earl of Hereford, the Mortimer family and the recently elevated Hugh Audley and Roger Damory. Edward, however, increasingly relied on the Despensers for advice and support, and he was particularly close to Hugh the Younger, whom one chronicler noted he “loved … dearly with all his heart and mind”.

The Despenser family had lost this war and as a consequence Hugh Despenser the younger and his father Hugh Despenser the Elder (1st Earl of Winchester) were executed for treason and King Edward II had abdicated his throne.

Hugh the Elder was executed on the 27th October 1326, he was hanged immediately in his armour at Bristol. He was then beheaded and his body cut into pieces for the dogs. His head was sent for display to Winchester, which had supported King Edward II.

The execution of Hugh Despenser the younger, from a manuscript of Jean Froissart. Source:

The execution of Hugh Despenser the younger, from a manuscript of Jean Froissart.

His son faced trial in Hereford, led by Queen Isabella, the bitter wife of Edward II and her consort Roger Mortimer. THEY ATE their dinner whilst watching the execution. Isabella’s character was very manipulative, known by many as a ‘She Wolf’ a far cry from her loving and sentimental portrayal in the movie (Brave Heart).
Isabella was outraged by Hugh Despenser the younger and perhaps in particular his relationship with King Edward II as a result his execution was brutal and cruel.

…as a thief therefore you shall be hanged; as a traitor…you shall be drawn and quartered, and your quarters dispersed throughout the kingdom; and as you were outlawed, by our Lord the King and by general consent, and have come back to the court…you shall be beheaded; and because at all times you have been disloyal and a formenter of strife between our Lord the King and our most noble Lady the Queen…you shall be disembowelled, and after that you bowels shall be burned. Confess yourself a traitor and a renegade! And so go to meet your doom. Traitor! Evildoer!! and Convicted!!! (Brigstocke Sheppard, 1889:413)

On 24 November 1326 …Despenser was roped to four horses…and dragged through the city to the walls of his own castle, where enormous gallows had been specially constructed…Despenser was raised a full 50 feet…and was lowered onto the ladder. A man climbed along side him sliced off his penis and testicles, flinging them into the fire below…he then plunged a knife into Despenser’s abdomen and cut out his entrails and heart…the corpse was lowered to the ground and the head cut off. It was later sent to London, and Despenser’s arms, torso and legs were sent to be displayed above the gates of Newcastle, York, Dover and Bristol.” (Mortimer 2003:162).

In the 1970’s the remains of Hugh Despenser were found whilst excavations took place at Hulton Abbey.
His bones bare the marks of beheading, and his vertebrae reveals he was cut in half.

Over the next few weeks, I will be posting some more information about Hugh Despenser and his family line. I will also be showcasing a generation by generation (complete with sources) pedigree, of my descent from this family beginning with my grandmother Rosie May Janes.

Many people are sceptical about researching your family history beyond the Parish Records, and many believe it’s not possible, this is true for common ancestors, but not for families of Noble descent. Their pedigrees stretch back centuries (and into known history) as far back as the late Middle ages. The further you travel back in time the less credible the sources become. This is particularly true for the Dark Ages, which little is known about and no known written account exists, it was during this time that legends were born, like King Arthur and Beowulf. History as a factual account begins again during the Roman period and can accurately be sourced and researched yet further back in time.


10 thoughts on “The Death of Hugh Despenser, the Younger

    • Neither can I, very bizarre concept in those days, very barbaric. Isabella the Queen is clearly portrayed very differently in Mel Gibson’s ‘Brave Heart’. Although the last few minutes of the film as she whispers in the dieing Edward I ear is more closely the truth.
      I find the life of Hugh very interesting and I suppose the jealousy of his peers is really what led to his death.

  1. Lovely images….who knew the English were so barbaric!! 🙂 I continue to be amazed by how far back your research can go. I am stuck with the 19th century as my brick wall on all lines, and here you are in the Renaissance. I am learning so much English history from reading your blog!

    • Thank you Amy, I have been very fortunate with my English ancestry, but it’s a work in progress and has taken close to twenty years to research.
      My Eastern European ancestry is a different matter and I only know as far back as 1900. I guess it all depends on how relaxed a country is with releasing records to the public. I am in the same boat as you and we can only hope that these countries our ancestors came from release records before we are too old.

  2. Amazing the things that are done for the cause of “honor, loyalty, and truth”. Thank you for posting this. I love learning about history and the things that have brought us to where we are today. The dark and dismal things like these are not easy to read, but, we can learn from them.
    Our family has been traced back to a man who was banished from Denmark to the American colonies in the 1600’s for burning down a portion of the King of Denmark’s forest. He was listed on the ships roster as “a miscreant”. When you know some of my family today, this description is very true!

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