Tag Archives: richard ii

1400: Thomas le Despenser, for the Epiphany Rising

On this date in 1400, the Thomas le Despenser was beheaded — as much a lynching as an execution — by a mob at Bristol.

“I have to London sent
The heads of Salisbury, Spencer, Blunt, and Kent.”

-Henry’s loyal (for now) nobleman Northumberland summing up the destruction of the Epiphany Rising in the last scene of Shakespeare’s Richard II

House Despenser had painstakingly rebuilt its position in the three generations since Thomas’s great-grandfather, the notorious royal favorite Hugh Despenser, was grotesquely butchered for the pleasure of Roger Mortimer. (Readers interested in a deep dive should consult this doctoral thesis (pdf))

By the end of the 14th century, the family patriarch, our man Thomas, had by 1397 parlayed his firm support of Richard II against the Lord Appellant into elevation to a peerage created just for him, the Earldom of Gloucester.

The “Gloucester” sobriquet had just gone onto the market thanks to the beheading that year of the attainted Duke of Gloucester and the consequent revocation of that patrimony. This ought to have been a hint, if his ancestors’ fate did not suffice, that such glories are fleeting. Thomas le Despenser had barely two years to enjoy his newfound rank before Richard II was deposed by Henry Bolingbroke who now styled himself Henry IV.

Despite initially making his terms with the new regime, Despenser joined a conspiracy of nobles that contemplated a coup d’etat during the 1399-1400 holidays — the Epiphany Rising, whose misfire has brought other victims to our attention previously.* Titles are the least of what one forfeits in such circumstances; Thomas managed to grab a boat for Cardiff and possible refuge but to his unhappy surprise the ship’s captain put in at Bristol to deliver him to his enemies: death was summary, his head posted to the capital for duty on the London Bridge.

The Despensers had already proven the resilience of their line in the face of the violent death of this or that scion and although this was a rough coda for their century of glory they were not done for the English political scene by a long shot. Thomas’s widow Constance** got her own plotting afoot by conspiring unsuccessfully in 1405 to kidnap Richard II’s heir from Henry’s custody as an instrument to leverage for political realignment. (Constance, Executed Today is grieved to report, was not executed for this.)

* Episode 134 of the History of England podcast grapples with the Epiphany Rising.

** Constance’s brother is popularly believed to have betrayed the Epiphany Rising.

1397: Richard FitzAlan, Earl of Arundel

“Torment me not long, strike off my head in one blow”

-supposed last words of Richard Fitzalan, Earl of Arundel, to his executioner

On this date in 1397, the Earl of Arundel was condemned and immediately beheaded in London’s Cheapside.

Not to be confused with his grandfather, the Earl of Arundel* beheaded 71 years earlier for loyalty to his deposed king, our man Richard FitzAlan earned the chop for being a thorn in his king’s backside.

As one of England’s great magnates, Arundel had played a principal role for many years in the bloody struggle with King Richard II over power and prerogatives; he was one of the three original Lords Appellant whose rebellion against Richard brought about their “Merciless Parliament” in 1388, and its purge of royal loyalists.

Powerless at that time to impede the Lords Appellant, then-21-year-old King Richard quietly nurtured hatred of his foes for many years until he was in a position to really strike them. This was a delicate and a long-term business, but Richard’s bitterness proved equal to the revenge. In 1397, Richard finally — per Froissart — “decided upon a bold and daring move. He had reflected that it was better to destroy than to be destroyed and that speedy action could prevent his uncle from ever being a threat to him again.”

Said uncle was the Duke of Gloucester, another one (the senior one) of those difficult Lords Appellant. To conquer Gloucester required daring indeed: Richard lured him away from the considerable protection of his own retinue on the pretext of a hunting trip, and led him into an ambush where the Earl Marshal could arrest him undefended.

Needing now to stay ahead of the news, Richard flew for London to complete his counter-coup and the next day had Arundel arrested along with the other of the three original Lords Appellant, the Earl of Warwick. Mighty Gloucester had been spirited secretly to Calais to be murdered in prison; a more formal version of the same fate awaited Arundel.**

It may be said that the Duchess of Gloucester, with her son Humphrey and her two daughters, were naturally deeply distressed when their husband and father was brought home dead, and the Duchess had to suffer another blow when the King had her uncle. Earl Richard of Arundel, publicly beheaded in Cheapside, London. None of the great barons dared to thwart the King or dissuade him from doing this. King Richard was present at the execution and it was carried out by the Earl Marshal, who was married to Lord Arundel’s daughter and who himself blindfolded him. (Froissart, again)

* The Earl of Arundel rank still exists today as a courtesy title held by the Duke of Norfolk’s heir; it has existed nearly continuously since it was created in 1138 for a Norman nobleman.

** Warwick got enough political pull on his behalf to survive in captivity; he’d eventually be released when one of his Lords Appellant allies deposed Richard II and made himself King Henry IV … a feat that he accomplished with the aid of our Arundel’s younger brother, who also happened to be the Archbishop of Canterbury.