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Was the younger Despenser buried in two places at the same time….?

Execution of Hugh Despenser the Younger – Hereford, 24 November 1326

We Ricardians know all about the problems, if not to say mysteries, that can arise from the final resting places of famous figures from the past. It doesn’t help that in the medieval period especially a person’s remains could be moved from place to place. Edward IV had his father and brother moved from Pontefract south to Fotheringhay, and Richard III had Henry VI moved from Chertsey Abbey to St George’s Chapel, Windsor. And, of course, for centuries there was the puzzle as to whether the remains of Richard III himself were thrown contemptuously into Leicester’s River Soar, or actually buried at Greyfriars. The latter eventually and very famously proved to be the case.

Now I have happened on another “where was he buried?” mystery, this time from the end of the reign of Edward II. While researching a few details about the later-in-the-14th-century marital goings-on of the 10th/3rd Earl of Arundel, Richard Fitzalan, known as “Copped Hat”, I found myself reading about his first wife, Isabel le Despenser, whom he married on this day, 9 February, in 1321. She was the daughter of Hugh Despenser, 1st Lord Despenser, known to history as Despenser the Younger, to distinguish him from his father, who was, yes, Despenser the Elder. Both were favourites of Edward II, and came to the fore after the abduction, trial and execution of another of the king’s favourites, Piers Gaveston. All three came to nasty ends, as (probably) did Edward II himself, and there is there is a famous illustration of the hanging, drawing and quartering of the younger Despenser in Hereford, see above.

Because of her father’s attainder and shameful execution, Isabel became an inconvenience to Copped Hat. Besides which his lustful and ambitious eye had fallen upon Eleanor of Lancaster, who’d be a much more advantageous Countess of Arundel. As Copped Hat was one of the richest and most influential magnates in the England of Edward II’s son, Edward III, he didn’t have any trouble at all in gaining the Pope’s permission to annul his first marriage, thus clearing the way for Eleanor to slip into the earl’s marital bed.

Where is all this leading? Well, to the fact that the younger Despenser’s widow was apparently granted her husband’s remains (well some of them – ‘the head, a thigh bone and a few vertebrae’) and she had them buried in a lavish tomb at Tewkesbury Abbey.

But in 2004 there were reports that Despenser’s remains had been found during archaeological excavations at Hulton Abbey in Staffordshire. These “new” remains lacked the very bones that had been returned to the younger Despenser’s widow and buried at Tewkesbury in Gloucestershire.

So, if the Hulton Abbey remains are indeed those of the younger Despenser, why wasn’t all of him returned to his widow? Why send her some of him, and then bury the rest at Hulton Abbey? He died in Hereford, and was then buried in Staffordshire and Gloucestershire?

To read more about this medieval mystery, go to  the Reading University website and here 

THE WHITE LYON & THE MOURNING SWORD

Within walking distance of Hereford Cathedral, stands an imposing hotel called the Green Dragon. That was not always its name, however; in the 15th c it was The White Lyon and was used as the headquarters of Edward of March, soon to be Edward IV, around the time of the Battle of Mortimer’s Cross. It had a long-term history of receiving important visitors even before the Wars of the Roses, being a popular hostelry for pilgrims to the shrines of St Thomas Cantilupe and the Saxon St Ethelbert in the cathedral.

On February 2, after Edward won the day at Mortimer’s Cross, he retired to Hereford with several of the enemy commanders as prisoner–including the elderly Owen Tudor, “grandfather” of Henry Tudor. Tudor, as an important prisoner, was held in the White Lyon while his fate was decided. He believed he was going to be shown mercy, perhaps because of his age–but Edward had no inclination to show clemency and Owen Tudor was promptly beheaded in the Market Place. A plaque  on the ground commemorates his execution. It was said that after he was beheaded, a madwoman  took his head, set it up on the market cross and lit candles around it as she combed the blood-matted hair…

There is also another Wars of the Roses connection in Hereford that few seem to know about. In the Town Hall is a fine collection of plate, Town Charters dating back into the Middle Ages sealed by Richard Lionheart and Henry III, and ceremonial swords and maces. One of these is the ‘Mourning Sword‘ (You’ll note that Gloucester also has a ‘Mourning Sword’ presented by Richard III). This was given to the city by Henry VIII and was supposed to have been the battle-dented, broken sword of his “great-grandfather” Owen Tudor.

I was fortunate enough to find out about this item on a trip to Hereford where I inadvertently booked into the Green Dragon without having an idea that ‘Ed was here’ some 600 years before me! I had no idea about the sword either until reading a local magazine. So off I trotted to the Town Hall, not sure if the item  was available for public viewing or not. The first gentlemen I spoke to at the desk, didn’t seem certain–he rang upstairs and asked, “Do we have a Mourning Sword?’ A few minutes later I was being ushered up the stairs to meet the Mayor’s assistant, who very kindly offered to show me the treasures of Hereford’s past.

The sword is in a case with two maces and a Cap of Maintenance. It is not used in any of the regular ceremonial functions of Hereford and will only be taken out for public use upon the death of the monarch. The assistant explained its history to me, then, to my great surprise, opened the cabinet,  removed the sword and handed it to me. “You can take off the sheath,” he kindly offered.  Unlike the other 17th C sword in a nearby case, which was light, poorly balanced and purely  for show, unsheathed the Mourning Sword was clearly a finely-balanced medieval blade, showing the odd mark from use. It had been broken near the hilt and the hilt replaced by another showing the arms of Hereford.

It was a great honour to handle this ancient weapon, and although Owen was on the ‘opposite’ side to where my sympathies lie, I must admit I felt a shiver pass down my spine as I held it, and as I walked back to the White Lyon/Green Dragon in the heavy, eerie fog, I could only think of that cold February Day when the Parhelion shone in the sky and the blood of the man who ‘once laid his head in Queen Catherine’s lap’ spread out on the cobblestones of Hereford.

THE WHITE LYON, HEREFORD

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THE MOURNING SWORD, TOWN HALL, HEREFORD

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The Treasures of Hereford Article

BLOOD OF ROSES NOVELLA, COVERING MORTIMER’S CROSS & OWEN TUDOR’S EXECUTION

BLOOD OF ROSES (A Novella of Edward IV’s Victory at Towton)

Richard, Duke of York and his second son Edmund were killed at the battle of Wakefield at the bitter end of  1460. Within weeks, the Duke’s eldest son Edward was on the road with a mighty army, seeking revenge–and a crown.

The novella BLOOD OF  ROSES by J.P. Reedman covers the period  from the Duke’s death to Edward’s Coronation on June 28 1461. Edward’s early battles are curiously sidelined  in most fiction, despite their importance, while his amorous pursuits often seem to take the fore! This ‘slice of life’ fiction book tries to redress that balance slightly.

In February 1461 Edward fought the first of his battles for the throne at Mortimer’s Cross, where the parhelion, the Three Suns, appeared  in the sky. Edward sensed the fear and doubt growing in his men at the sight of this phenomena, and, aged only 18, showed great cleverness in convincing them it was a GOOD omen–the sign of the Holy Trinity. The battle went decively for the Yorkists, with Jasper Tudor’s father Owen being executed in Hereford’s town square. Legend says a deranged lady took his head and sat on the market cross crooning to it as she brushed its hair…

With Edward were the Croft family of Croft Castle, which is on the Welsh borders. This is the family made famous by the letter sent from Ludlow to the Duke of York by his young sons, Edward and Edmund, asking for bonnets and other items. At first reading, one section of the letter seems to  be against bullying behaviour by the Croft sons, who were also at Ludlow, but is in fact, on second reading,  against the ‘odious and demeaning’ treatment of them, a fact recently noted by Dr John Ashdown-Hill. Richard Croft went on to serve Edward IV (so clearly no  friction there!), then Richard III and Henry Tudor.

Mortimer’s Cross was a great victory but there was then a distinct setback when the Earl of Warwick was defeated by the Lancastrians at St Albans, and King Henry, until then a Yorkist prisoner, taken  to rejoin his wife, Margaret of Anjou. Nonetheless, Edward entered London and was proclaimed king, although he sworehe would not wear the crown until he had defeated his enemies utterly. Gathering his army, he began a hard march north.

At Ferrybridge, the Lancastrians attacked the Yorkists over the damaged bridge crossing the Aire, in a night-raid led by Lord Clifford, the presumed murderer of Edmund of Rutland, who had appeared suddenly with his ‘chosen’ men, the Flower of Craven. At first the Yorkists were thrown into disarray, with Lord Fitzwalter being hewn down the moment he stepped from his tent to see what the commotion outside was about. Luckily, William Neville, Lord Fauconberg, the most experienced commander of the Yorkist host, took the lead and crossed near Castleford to attack the Lancastrian flank. Fauconberg was a small-framed man, often described as ‘little Fauconberg’ who had a long military career, having served in France, including at the famous Siege of Orleans. He was an uncle of Edward, being the third son of Ralph Neville, Earl of Westmorland and his wife Joan Beaufort (Edward’s maternal grandparents.) Fauconberg  made short work of Clifford’s Flower of Craven, and Clifford himself was killed, mostly like by an arrow when removing his gorget.

Then the Yorkist army pushed on to Towton, fought on Palm Sunday and in a fierce snowstorm. Some have questioned the possibility of a  snowstorm that late in the year, but looking at our recent March weather, it is not impossible at all that there was indeed heavy snow! The bad weather was advantageous to the Yorkists, with the worst of the weather being at their backs and driving into the faces of their enemies. The Lancastrian archers were at a distinct disadvantage with the strong wind blowing their arrows astray.

The battle was hard fought, nevertheless, as the Lancastrian forces far outnumbered those of the Yorkists. However, when the Duke of Norfolk’s contingent arrived, led by John Howard, the battle finally turned in Edward’s favour. A rout ensued and the battlefield became a killing field. The waters of nearby Cock Beck ran red with blood and filled with bodies. The area was afterwards called Bloody Meadow.

It was the bloodiest battle ever fought on English’s soil, with figures as high as 28,000 stated for the casualties. Even given the exaggeration of the chroniclers of the day, it was undoubtedly a huge amount of slain. In recent years some of the remains of the fallen have been recovered, mostly around Towton Hall, where archaeologists recently found the remains of Richard III’s chapel to the fallen soldiers subsumed into the inner fabric of the hall. The skeletons recovered showed the terrifying brutality of medieval warfare–shattered skulls, slashing injuries, facial mutilation, slicing marks that may have been the removal of ears…

Chivalry died a death upon this field of blood. But England had a new king–Edward of York, the Sunne in Splendour.

BLOOD OF ROSES IS AVAILABLE IN KINDLE AND PRINT FROM AMAZON

BLOOD OF ROSES

 

INVESTIGATIONS AT MORTIMER’S CROSS

The Battle of Mortimer’s Cross took place on February 2, 1461. Here, in a Herefordshire field, 18 year old  Edward earl of March, gazed up and saw the phenomena known as the Parhelion, the three suns, rising in the sky. His men were frightened but Edward turned the situation to his advantage, telling his army of approx 5000 that the three suns represented the Trinity and were an indication that God was on his side.

Edward’s remit was to defeat the Lancastrian forces of Jasper and Owen Tudor, and thus keep them from joining with the main Lancastrian army of Queen Margaret. Owen Tudor tried to encircle the Yorkist forces with his battalion but he was driven back and routed; when this occurred, Jasper Tudor’s centre also collapsed. The Lancastrians were chased as far as Hereford, where Owen Tudor was captured and beheaded in the town square.

One month later, Edward entered London and was declared Edward IV of England.

Despite the importance of this battle of the Wars of the Roses, it seems there has been little archaeology done on the battlefield. As with so many of these medieval battles, even the exact location of the fighting is debatable. (Some say it took place in the valley with the river Lugg at Edward’s rear, but Gregory’s Chronicle describes a ‘fair plain.)

However, some of these mysteries may well be resolved in the near future. The Heritage Lottery Fund has granted £84,000 to investigate the battlefield, which may contain the mass graves of fallen soldiers.

 

 

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Careless talk really does cost lives

axeandblockToday in 1461, at Hereford marketplace, Owain Tudor was executed and buried in the local Greyfriars. It appears that, although he had commanded Lancastrian troops at Mortimer’s Cross and been captured, he was not expecting this fate. He may well have foreseen himself being ransomed instead until he saw the block.

Perhaps he was executed because he was thought to have married the widowed Catherine de Valois and fathered some children by her, although there is no real evidence at the time and that such a marriage would have been precluded by the 1427 Act, as Ashdown-Hill reminded us in Royal Marriage Secrets. A royal stepmother could not remarry until her son came of age, which Henry VI did not during Catherine’s lifetime.

After her death in January 1436/7, it seems that rumours, including the legend of her watching a naked servant bathing, arose and were exploited for propaganda purposes so as to use him – and his “sons”, Edmund and Jasper – to bolster Henry’s fragile regime as a counterweight to the Duke of York and his cohort. Doubtless Owen played along and boasted about these rumours.

Eight years after his end, the words “This head that shall lie on the stock that was once wont to lie on Queen Catherine’s lap” were attributed to him, although the phraseology varies. Perhaps he should have kept quiet or restricted himself to the facts.

On fairy tales …

I am sure we have all read the story of a bathing servant, Owain Tudor, who then emerged from the water in even fewer clothes than Fitzwilliam Darcy, watched by the widowed and besotted Queen, Catherine de Valois. The story goes on to relate that they married, had two sons and possibly more children. He is then executed at Hereford in 1461 but his very last words are about their relationship.

So where does it come from? A carefully constructed retrospective attempt to make Henry “Tudor” fit into centuries of Welsh prophecy. “Sources” that are rewritten to this end. Owain was a descendant of Llewellyn Fawr’s steward whilst Llewellyn’s daughter Gwladys Dhu had married into the Mortimer line – who were heirs presumptive to the English throne from c. 1390 and Kings from 1461. If the present Queen and her descendants all became unavailable for some reason, we wouldn’t expect her Lord Chamberlain and his family to succeed to or even claim the throne.

There is no real contemporary evidence to fit the story. There is well-documented legislation from 1427/8, forbidding Queens Dowager from remarrying without the consent of an adult King, under penalty of the “husband” losing all his property and rights – effectively attainted. In this case, Henry VI reached his majority after his mother died so she could never have  legally remarried.

There are, however, contemporary rumours mentioned in the ODNB of Catherine having a relationship with the Duke of Somerset, who definitely married only after her death. Her second son even took the Duke’s forename, as we shall see. Might they have used Owain, who had far less to lose, as a cover just in case?

One part of the fairy tale can be confirmed. Owain Tudor was executed at Hereford and buried in the Cathedral, although television cameras couldn’t make it on time to record his last words for posterity. He is still there, even though Henry VIII’s men managed to retrieve the remains of Edmund “Tudor” (Owain’s “son”) from Carmarthen at the Reformation, many miles further from Surrey than is Hereford.

It really is time we gave this story no more credence than Austen’s output.

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