Vertical cut marks to the lower spine (note straight edge to the right of each bone). The vertebra on the right also has a horizontal cut mark suggesting the body was cut in half.

Human remains at Hulton Abbey

During the 1970s excavations, the remains of a disarticulated skeleton were recovered in the chancel which suggested they belonged to a wealthy member of the congregation, potentially one of the Audley family. The bones of this individual displayed numerous perimortem cut marks which had been thought to represent battle injuries and cutting to transport the corpse for burial.

A re-analysis of the remains at the University of Reading now suggest the body had been quartered; a brutal form of execution reserved for the most notorious of criminals. This new investigation then provided a possible identity of the remains, and the first osteological description of the lesions associated with hanging drawing and quartering .

With only a few men known to have suffered this horrible fate at the time of the Hulton Abbey burial. – one name sprang to the fore; Hugh Despenser the Younger.

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 1330, Despenser’s widow petitioned for Despenser’s remains to be buried in Tewkesbury Abbey and she is said to have secured his head, a ‘thigh bone’ and a few vertebrae. The very bones that are missing from this skeleton!   Could this be the remains of a known victim of this most gruesome of executions?

This research was published in:

Lewis ME (2008) A Traitor’s Death: the identity of a drawn, hanged and quartered man from Hulton Abbey, Staffordshire.. Antiquity 82: 113-124.

The paper was shortlisted for Antiquity Prize, and runner-up for the Ben Cullen Prize, 2009.

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From University of Reading – Archaeology Research by Dr Mary Lewis

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