Lecture Details and Reviews

Death of a Traitor? The case of a hanged, drawn and quartered skeleton from Hulton Abbey, Staffordshire.

12th June, 2012 Dr Mary Lewis
Analysis of a set of bones redeposited in a medieval abbey graveyard showed that the individual had been beheaded and chopped up, and this in turn suggested one of England's more gruesome execution practices. Since quartering was generally reserved for the infamous, the author attempts to identify the victim and proposes a Royal connection. Dr Mary Lewis teaches the method and theory behind the study of human skeletal remains, osteological techniques and palaeopathology at undergraduate and Masters level. Mary specialises in non-adult skeletal pathology and in the personal identification of children in forensic anthropology. She examines the changing pattern of disease in children in relation to socio-economic transitions in the past (Romano-British to Anglo-Saxon; urban to industrial) with particular focus on metabolic and infectious diseases. Her other research interests include the use of stable isotope and trace element analysis in reconstructing past migratory patterns in the UK. Mary's recent publications include The Bioarchaeology of Children (CUP, 2007), and anthropological contributions to The Scientific Investigation of Mass Graves by Cox et al. (2008). She regularly publishes in journals such as the American Journal of Physical Anthropology has contributed to books on leprosy, environmental archaeology and forensic anthropology. In 2009, Mary completed research into Diaspora in Romano-British communities which examined the osteological and isotopic evidence for diversity and migration during the Roman period, in addition Mary explored the impact of migration on the health of children living in Poundbury Camp, Dorset. Mary is currently compiling information on child health in Britain though the ages.


Reviewed by Valerie on 1st January, 2012

The last lecture of our season was mesmerising if rather gruesome. Dr Mary Lewis provided us with fascinating detail and historical drawings, which showed us a closer glimpse into what medieval executions were like. The skeleton, which was the focus of the lecture, was one of a group found at Hulton Abbey during the 1970’s and 80s. Hulton Abbey was a Cistercian Monastery built in 1219 by the Audleys who, later, were advisors to Edward I. The skeleton was disarticulated and looked like a bone dump that had been moved and reburied. Initial analysis showed there were lots of cuts made at the time of death on the skeleton, cuts, which make the bone glisten as if it is wet. The skeleton was from a mature male 5 foot 8 inches in height, who probably died between 1219 and 1385.

Dr Lewis set out to prove in her lecture that the cause of death was not battle trauma, but hanging, drawing or quartering, followed by the body being boiled as part of a ritual to de-flesh the bones so they could be easily returned home for burial. She has examined the cuts and marks on the bones in great detail and strongly believes that this was the first case of a person being subjected to this form of execution. She provided convincing proof of the skeleton being hung [by hanging off a ladder], drawn [pulled along by a horse on a pallet] and quartered.

Dr. Lewis has also tried to name the skeleton by studying written and pictorial historical research. It was initially suggested that it belonged to Sir William Audley who died in the Welsh Rebellion on November 6th 1282. However the skeleton was too young and it was subsequently thought to belong to Hugh Audley, although he had not actually been executed and was 65 when he died.

Later research has shown that the skeleton probably belongs to Sir Hugh Despencer the Younger, the brother- in-law of Hugh Audley. Despencer was a deeply unpopular and brutal man who had been an advisor to Edward II. He fell from power when Edward was deposed, was tried for treason and executed at the age of 40.

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