Hulton Abbey

The Abbey of St. Mary at Hulton was founded by Henry de Audley in 1219, who endowed the abbey with land and money. Its foundation was overseen by an established abbey, or mother house, at Combermere in Cheshire. Hulton Abbey was the last of three Cistercian monasteries to be founded in north Staffordshire. The other two monasteries were located at Croxden and Dieulacres in Leek.

By the late 13th Century the abbey owned a large area of land, two mills, a fishery, a tannery and a fulling mill. The monks were also involved in sheep farming. They had farms or ‘granges’ at Rushton, Normacot (5 miles away – I now live on the site) and Mixon. Despite it’s lands and property, Hulton Abbey was small and poor.

Fragments of architectural stone from the abbey building

As the site now sits between a busy thoroughfare a housing estate (it was once the site of a former school) it is difficult to imagine the tranquility and setting of the original abbey. People use the site to predominantly walk their dogs around with a lot of the surrounding areas now overgrown. I was fascinated walking around and did manage to work out where the church would have been after quite a while of looking at maps and old records. I absolutely loved imagining the hundreds of years of history and ritual that had occurred within these very walls together with the lives of the many individuals who were now buried beneath this earth (including one of England’s most infamous individuals).

14th century plain and printed floor tiles made at the abbey and at nearby Sneyd Green.

The Abbey was dissolved in 1538 on the orders of Henry VIII. The bells were sold and the roofing lead melted down.

Site Guide – the main remaining features visible are from the Church (1) – The cloister, West, South and East ranges are now covered by grass and scrub land

Hugh Despencer … A Traitor’s death?

The identity of a drawn, hanged and quartered man buried at Hulton Abbey who was the notorious favourite of Edward II

Wax Seal from the Hospital of Santo Spirit in Rome. It was probably bought back by a pilgrim and buried with him at Hulton Abbey.

I was watching a documentary one night a few years ago and my ears pricked up at the mention of Hulton Abbey in Staffordshire. I knew immediately where this was but had never joined the very simple dots that the suburb of Stoke on Trent called Abbey Hulton was named so because of this institution. But this wasn’t the most interesting thing I would discover in the next half an hour.

During the 1970s, the remains of a decapitated and disarticulated male, missing several vertebrae and a thighbone, were found at Hulton Abbey. Their location in the chancel suggested that the bones belonged to either a wealthy member of the congregation or a member of the benefactor’s family. In 2004 the remains were transferred to the University of Reading, where analysis suggested that the body had been hung drawn and quartered. Radiocarbon dating dated the body to between 1050 and 1385, and later tests suggested it to be that of a man over 34 years old.

In 2008, Dr Mary E. Lewis of the University of Reading identified the remains as belonging to Hugh Despenser the Younger.  

Despenser was the son of Hugh Despenser the Elder, Earl of Winchester, and was related by marriage to the Audley family. He was married to Eleanor de Clare, niece of Edward II who, with her two sisters Margaret and Elizabeth, was heiress to one of the largest fortunes in England. 

Dispenser was favourite and purported lover, of Edward II, he held great influence at court; Despenser’s political manoeuvrings earned him a number of enemies, including the king’s estranged wife Queen Isabella. These enemies proved to be his downfall when, in 1326, Isabella and her ally, Roger Mortimer, 1st Earl of March, deposed Edward II and sentenced Despenser to death as a traitor. On Isabella’s orders, he was hung, drawn and quartered publicly in Hereford, aged 40.

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.

Lewis based her identification on a number of factors including Despencer’s relationship to the Abbey’s benefactors (The Abbey is located on lands that belonged to Hugh Audley, Despenser’s brother-in-law, at the time), the age of the remains and the cause of death. The missing bones were also cited as proof; in 1330, Hugh de Despenser’s widow, Eleanor de Clare petitioned the crown for the return of her husband’s remains, but is said to have only secured his head, thigh bone and a number of vertebrae (the only bones missing from the skeleton found at Hulton Abbey.

Radiocarbon analysis carried out by the Oxford Laboratory in 1990 dated the remains to AD 1050-1385 (two sigma, 95% confidence). The date of Hugh’s death in AD 1326 fits and the age of the skeleton, estimated to be between 35-45 years, is also consistent. 

I for one certainly believe beyond all reasonable doubt that the bones of Hugh Dispenser were those found within the Abbey.

Telegraph reporting the finding – https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/1579006/Abbey-body-identified-as-gay-lover-of-Edward-II.html

A full and outstanding account of the site and the story by Mary E. Lewis be found here – https://www.reading.ac.uk/archaeology/research/Projects/arch-ML-hugh-despenser.aspx and http://centaur.reading.ac.uk/3748/1/ant0820113.pdf

I CRAK NOTIS (I crack nuts) and a chess piece

Middle piece – a bronze seal matrix – The seal was a squirrel in the centre and the legend ‘I CRAK NOTIS’ (I crack nuts) around the edge. The furthest right is a Rook chess piece

Archaeologists unearthed more than 100 graves within the Abbey Church. some burials were in wooden coffins, a few were covered by decorated stone grave slabs.

Reconstruction of a burial within the Church (Potteries museum)
A wax chalice found in the grave of a Priest symbolised the vessel used in Mass. at Judgement day the owners thought God would recognise their piety and good deeds and admit them to heaven

620 year old hair

Hair from the body of Lady Elizabeth Audley within the Potteries Museum. Elizabeth was a benefactor of the Abbey and was buried there alongside her husband Nicholas in 1400. Her grave was discovered at the abbey in 1886 and although her remains had reduced to a skeleton, her plaited hair was encased in clay and had been preserved. Analysis of the hair has revealed that Elizabeth suffered from split ends and the cut was quite rough, possibly after death.
The eastern part of the church remains visible, with bases of walls standing up to 0.8m high. All the walls are constructed of red sandstone and some retain their ashlar facings. Column bases at the eastern end of the nave and the altar plinths in the chancel and transepts are also visible. All other parts of the church and the other claustral buildings survive as buried features.
View of the remains looking over the Northern end of the Church and chancel where most burials were found including Hugh Despenser. Note the door entrance to the left

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