Longsword by David Pilling

Sunday, 16 October 2011

Don't speak ill of the dead...

...so they say, but in the case of Hugh Despenser the Younger (1286-1326), one is left with little choice. I previously blogged about Eustace Folville, one of the villains in my novel, and Despenser is another. Eustace was a thoroughly undesirable man, a career criminal and murderous gangster, but mere small fry by comparison to this unlovely monster.

The picture to the left is an illustration of Despenser's execution in 1326, a ghastly affair even by the standards of the time. His suffering was deliberately prolonged for as long as possible, though I won't go into details. The picture gives some idea of the tortures inflicted on him. Even so, it's difficult to have too much sympathy.

Hugh rose to power during the latter stages of the reign of Edward II, replacing the murdered Piers Gaveston and disgraced Roger D'Amory (among others) as that unhappy monarch's favourite. There were rumours of a sexual relationship between the two men, and it's perfectly feasible. Unlike the relationship between Gaveston and Edward, though, which had been one of mutual devotion, Hugh was concerned merely with the grabbing and keeping of power.

Along with his father, the slightly less repellant Hugh Despenser the Elder, Hugh set about abusing his position, and between the years 1318-1326 did his utmost to acquire lands, castles and titles, cheerfully twisting and breaking the law along the way. His thugs frequently intimidated rich heiresses, widows and helpless child wards into signing over their property, and had a rough way with those who refused. One lady who tried to resist him, a Lady Baret, was horribly tortured until she went insane. Along with the rumours that Hugh attempted to rape Edward's Queen, Isabella, it seems that a streak of violent misogyny can be added to the list of his vile character traits.

In the end, he simply made too enemies. Isabella seems to have had a particular grudge against him, and she and her lover, the Flashman-esque Roger Mortimer, conceived the torments that were inflicted on him at his execution. Much to their satisfaction, he is said to have uttered a 'ghastly inhuman howl' as the knives went into his body.

And that was the end of Hugh Despenser. Jolly good thing too, you might say. Like Eustace, he was a compelling man to write about...just not one I would care to meet.


  1. Hello David,
    Looks good but the referenced photo doesn't show up. It may be a security setting on my machine but I haven't noticed the problem before. Hope I can sort it out.

  2. Hi Don! The pic seems ok here - probably a problem on your machine. Do feel free to 'follow' my blog :)