Thomas of Lancaster: Saint or Sinner?

On the 22nd March 1322, Thomas, 2nd Earl of Lancaster, and the second most powerful man in the realm after King Edward II, was beheaded on the orders of the King and his peers, on a hill, overlooking his great castle at Pontefract. What brought this powerful man to this ignominious end, has been debated for centuries. To many in Pontefract, Thomas was a venerated saint, who stood up to tyranny; whilst to others, he was a Machiavellian magnate who looked to undermine the king at every opportunity, to satisfy his own ambitions for power. Where does the truth lie?

Born in 1278 to Edmund Crouchback, brother of King Edward I, Thomas through his lineage – his mother Blanche of Artois was the granddaughter of Louis VIII of France, his half-sister, Joan, was wife to Philip IV of France – was the cousin of Edward II and uncle to Isabella, the future queen of England. With his marriage to Alice de Lacy in October 1294, the earldoms of Lincoln and Salisbury would come into his possession. With the death of his father in June 1296, the earldoms of Lancaster, Leicester and Derby, also came into his keeping. The five earldoms gave Thomas a huge conglomeration of power. Used wisely, it could have made Thomas a great supporter of the crown but, in opposition, they could and would be a great source of danger to the king.

Thomas was a devout ally of Edward I and when he died and his son – Edward II – ascended the throne on 7th July 1307, this situation continued for a period of time. Indeed, Thomas carried Curtana – the sword of Edward the Confessor – at Edward’s coronation on 25th February 1308. From 1300 onwards, Thomas had been a frequent visitor to Edward’s court and had seen the king’s growing affection for his court favourite, Piers Gaveston, without any recorded signs of disapproval. Although banished in Feb 1307 by Edward I, Gaveston was quickly recalled on his death by Edward II and made Earl of Cornwall – a title normally given to members of the Royal family. However, even with this ‘insult’ and Gaveston’s marriage to the king’s niece, Margaret de Clare, Thomas still seems, generally, to have supported his king.

What seems to have changed the situation was the integral role Gaveston played at Edward’s coronation, whilst being allowed to mock publicly the barons. Indeed, Gaveston openly called Thomas ‘a churl’ (peasant). By 1309, Thomas was the de facto leader of opposition to the king and a principal member of the Lords Ordainers who would draw up a list of 41 articles called the Ordinances; the really contentious clause, from the king’s perspective, being clause 20, which called for the banishment of Gaveston as an ‘open enemy of the king and his people’. Gaveston left the country in November 1311, but would soon return the following year. From this moment on, Thomas and his king would be forever at loggerheads.

By June 1312, Edward and his court favourite had lost much of their support and Gaveston was captured at Scarborough castle, by the Earl of Warwick. There would be no trial for Gaveston. Lancaster would take the prominent role in his sentencing; Gaveston was not allowed to speak in his own defence and was quickly sentenced to death.

The following day, June 19th 1312, Gaveston was taken by two Welsh knights to Blacklow Hill, near to Lancaster’s castle at Kenilworth, with Thomas and two other nobles, riding behind. With one word from Thomas, one of the knights ran Gaveston through the stomach with his sword, whilst the other cut off his head. This was nothing short of murder and the choice of location spoke volumes about Lancaster’s major role in the death of the king’s companion. The relationship between Lancaster and his king would now be one of mutual hatred with Edward continually seeking his revenge.

For a short while from 1312 onwards, there was an uneasy peace but, with Robert the Bruce making constant raids on northern England, Edward marched north to look to restore his lands and status and ‘deal’ with Lancaster. Thomas would not support Edward in this campaign, but would raise a considerable army himself, fearing that if Edward was victorious, he would turn his attention on him. However, with his defeat at Bannockburn in June 1314, Edward could not defend his territories against the Scots without his powerful northern magnate, Lancaster.

Although appointed as the king’s chief councillor by the Lincoln Parliament of 1316, Thomas was beginning to cut an increasingly isolated figure.  With the death of key supporters like Guy Beauchamp, Earl of Warwick, other barons began to view Thomas suspiciously and as a bully. Lancaster blatantly refused to attend court and tried to control the king from afar. Thomas progressively cut an angry and remote figure, ‘striking out’ from Pontefract whenever he felt like it.

Edward now claimed Lancaster was a traitor and had new favourites in the Despensers (Hugh the Elder and Younger), When John de Warenne, owner of Sandal castle, had Alice de Lacy abducted from her household at Catford (a far from unwilling captive many sources concluded), Thomas was outraged and started a local war, capturing both Sandal and Conisbrough Castles. In 1317 (and, some sources say a few years later), on Edward’s march past Pontefract Castle in his Scottish campaigns, he would be twice jeered by Thomas and his supporters. For Lancaster flagrantly to oppose the king with banners unfurled, was treason, punishable by exile or life imprisonment.

Mercifully, neither Edward or Lancaster had the strength or will to defeat each other at this time, and the result was an exhausted stalemate. Whilst there was a brief peace in 1318, it soon fell apart the following year with the lacklustre support provided by Thomas to the siege of Berwick. With the siege floundering, Edward is reported to have said, ‘when this wretched business is done, we will turn our hands to other matters, for I have not forgotten the wrong done to my brother Piers.’ With Robert the Bruce continuing to march as far south as Castleford but leaving Lancaster’s castle at Pontefract unscathed, it is hard not to draw the conclusion that there was an ‘understanding’ between Robert and Thomas.

For the next 3 years, Thomas would pretty much stay at his fortress at Pontefract but, by late 1321, his support was dwindling further, whilst that for the king, due amongst other things to Edward’s patronage, was growing substantially.

On 1st March 1322, the Archbishop of York, came into possession of letters between the Scot, Sir James Douglas, and ‘King Arthur’. Arthur was undoubtedly Lancaster, and with the publication of the letters, his following dissolved. When Lancaster, with his banners unfurled, tried to prevent Edward crossing the River Trent, he and his remaining supporters were now treasonous rebels. Fleeing back to Pontefract, Thomas was eventually persuaded to take flight towards his castle at Dunstanburgh in Northumberland. However, he was cut off at Boroughbridge by Sir Andrew de Harcla on 16th March 1322, and with only seven hundred men to his name (some sources say more, but whatever the size and composition of Lancaster’s force he was outnumbered), was quickly surrounded, defeated and captured the next day. Brought back to his mighty fortress at Pontefract, the end would be swift for Thomas, Earl of Lancaster.

On the 19th March 1322, the Constable of Pontefract Castle had surrendered the fortress to the king’s supporters, and it would be here that Edward would stand trial for treason. In the Great Hall, in a trial that mirrored that of Piers Gaveston, with Lancaster not allowed to speak in his own defence, he was found guilty of treason and sentenced to be hanged, drawn and quartered. In deference to Lancaster’s royal status and some surmise the intercession of Queen Isabella, the sentence was commuted to a simple beheading.

On a bitterly cold morning on the 22nd March 1322, Thomas, dressed in penitential rags and sitting astride a scrawny mule, was taken to a hill overlooking his castle, and with his face towards Scotland (symbolic of his alleged treachery), was beheaded with two or three clumsy strokes. The bloodied corpse was gathered up by monks of the nearby Cluniac Priory of St John and buried to the right-hand side of the altar.

Soon after his death, Thomas began to be seen as a ‘second Simon de Montfort’; a symbol of resistance to the tyranny of the crown. Within six weeks, news of miracles happening at his tomb began to circulate, and, indeed, by 1323, as many as two thousand pilgrims, from Lancashire, Kent, Essex and other counties were in Pontefract. On three occasions, in 1327, 1330 and 1331, Edward III would seek canonisation for Thomas, but to no avail.

So, how do we sum up Thomas? The Dictionary of National Biography stated that ‘despite his tragic end, it is difficult to say anything favourable of Thomas of Lancaster. His only policy was one of passive resistance to the crown’. Mckisack states he ‘was his own worst enemy, since although he lacked political capacity, his ambitions were essentially political‘. He has also been described as the ‘most impossible of medieval politicians … an ideal leader for a party without ideals, most effective in opposition’. Helen Castor stated that he was ‘more aware of his entitlement to demand loyalty than the qualities needed to inspire it’.

The only positives that seem to be said about Thomas – be they from contemporary or modern writers – is that he was ‘generous to the poor and a bountiful patron of the clergy’, but even that is prefixed by a description of him as rude, insolent and a murderer.

Perhaps the best description of Thomas we have come across is as follows; ‘A man of limited ability much taken with private feuds, lacking in charisma or serious political acumen, sulky, vindictive, self-seeking and vicious’.

It is hard not to compare Thomas to that other great Plantagenet-era revolutionary, Simon de Montfort, some 50 to 60 years earlier. Simon had clear political ideas, knew how he wanted to govern given the opportunity and, most importantly, knew how to inspire his men to follow him even when that was to lead to certain death at the Battle of Evesham in 1265. It would appear that Thomas had few if any of these qualities, which led, ultimately, to his demise. However, it does beg the question, “What would have been the outcome if he had possessed these qualities in abundance?”

So, was Thomas a ‘saint or a sinner’? We will leave that to our readers to draw their own conclusions but, what is perhaps best to say in ending, is that Thomas readily exemplified a recurring theme of the medieval Plantagenet and later dynasties: like many who would follow him i.e., Henry IV, Richard Duke of York, Richard III and Henry Tudor, he sought to overthrow the ruling monarchy to further his/their own aims.