Alleged traitor, probable sodomite
Born 1503 Died 1540
Born in the year 1503 Walter Hungerford was the only child of Edward Hungerford and his first wife Jane Zouche, the daughter of John la Zouche, 7th Baron Zouche. Walter was nineteen years old at his father's death in 1522, at which point his father left his entire personal estate to his second wife Agnes Hungerford. As it happens his father's disposition of his property became somehwat academic when Agnes was convicted of murdering her first husband James Cotell, for which crime she was hanged at Tyburn on the 5th February 1523.
Walter was therefore granted livery of his father's former lands on the 15th July 1523, including the manor of Farleigh Hungerford in Somerset. He subsequently became a squire of the body to Henry VIII, and then went through a number of marriages in quick succession. His first wife was Susan, the daughter of John Danvers of Dauntsey in Wiltshire, but she was certainly dead by the 22nd March 1527, as it was on that date on which Walter signed the agreement to marry his second wife. She was Alice, the daughter of William Sandys, 1st Baron Sandys of the Vine who in turn had died by March 1532 when William agreed to marry his third wife, Elizabeth daughter of John Hussey, Baron Hussey of Sleaford which duly took place October 1532.
Walter's career was soon to benefit from the efforts that his new father-in-law made on his behalf, as having become a magistrate for Wiltshire in 1532, the Lord Hussey then wrote a letter to Thomas Cromwell on the 20th August 1532 recommending his future son-in-law. As a result William was appointed to the post of sheriff of Wiltshire in 1533, and subsequently appears to to have proved ao useful to Cromwell that the latter made a memorandum note in June 1535 that Walter ought to receive some kind of reward. The result was that he was summoned to Parliament by a writ addressed to 'Waltero domino Hungerford de Haytisbury chr' on the 27th April 1536, being therefore regarded as the Baron Hungerford of Heystesbury, and duly took his seat in the House of Lords on the 8th June 1536.
It however seems that his new wife Elizabeth was less than happy with her married life as she wrote to Thomas Cromwell in 1536 appealing for his help. She claimed that her husband had kept her imprisoned at Farleigh Castle since their marriage and that Walter's chaplain John A'Lee had made several attempts to poison her. She also wrote that, "I may sooner object such matters against him with many other detestable and urgent causes, than he can against me, if I would express them, as he well knoweth"; hinting darkly that there was much more that she could say about her husband's misdemeanours.
However it does not appear that Cromwell took the slightest notice of these allegations as Walter carried on much as before. Indeed now that he was a peer he found himself invited to attend some of the more important ceremonial occasions, and was present at the baptism of Prince Edward in October 1537, followed by the funeral of Jane Seymour in November 1537. Walter was then appointed to the county bench for Somerset in the following year, and in January 1540 was present at the reception held for Anne of Cleves. All this time Walter was active in the local land market, gradually building up his estates which were worth over £1,000 by the beginning of 1540. Unfortunately having attached himself to Thomas Cromwell during the 1530s he found himself caught up in the latter's downfall.
After Cromwell was attainted on the 15th June 1540, a bill of attainder was introduced in Parliament against Walter on the 2nd July, passed on the 14th, and received its royal assent on the 24th, depriving him of both title and estates and, as it turned out, his life as well. There were three prinicpal charges laid against Walter; firstly that he had employed as his chaplain a man named William Byrde or Bird, the vicar of Bradford in Wiltshire, who was a known traitor and was attainted at the same Parliament for supporting the Pilgrimage of Grace and calling the king a heretic; secondly, that he had employed another chaplain named Hugh Wood who, together with a certain Dr. Maudlin, had apparently practised witchcraft in order to establish the king's date of death as well as his chances of victory over the aforesaid rebels; and last but not least, that he had practised an "unnatural vice".
As it happens it appears to be the last charge that everyone took seriously at the time. As the French ambassador Charles de Marillac wrote in a letter on the 29th July 1540, Walter was "Attainted of sodomy of having forced his own daughter and having practiced magic and invocation of devils" which, of course, may well have been what his estranged wife had earlier been hinting at. (And who also may have been the source of this particular accusation in the first place.) Although it must be said that there are those that suspected that the allegations of treason had more to do with king Henry's desire to possess the Hungerford estates rather than any real political transgression on Walter's part.
Nevertheless Walter was duly beheaded at Tower Hill on the 28th July 1540, the same day as his former patron Thomas Cromwell. The chronicler Raphael Holinshed recorded that Walter was a man "who at the hour of his death seemed unquiet, as many judged him rather in a frenzy than otherwise", and casually mentioned that his torments had a simple explanation since (of course) "he suffered for buggery". According to the Great Chronicle of London his severed head was displayed on London Bridge, whilst his body was buried in the grounds of the Tower of London.
Walter left behind two sons and three daughters. His elder son Walter Hungerford, later known as 'the Knight of Farleigh' was later granted land by Edward VI in 1552, and soon afterwards succeeded in persuading Queen Mary to reverse the attainder and restore to him the confiscated estate of Farleigh Hungerford in 1554. He later died in 1596 without any surviving sons, and the property passed to his half-brother Edward who later died without issue in 1608. However it does not appear that his title was ever restored, and neither the younger Walter nor any of his heirs or descendants appear to have sought to revive the title.
- D. J. Ashton, ‘Hungerford, Walter, Baron Hungerford of Heytesbury (1503–1540)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004
- George Edward Cokayne, Vicary Gibbs, et al, The Complete Peerage (St Catherine's Press, 1910-1959)