Thomas, Earl of Lancaster b. (c) 1278-1322 – Part1

Part 1 – Minority to 1313

Throughout the majority of Edward’s reign there can be little doubt that one of the biggest pains in the bum (if you pardon the expression!) was his cousin, Thomas, earl of Lancaster. Lancaster was not only a constant source of anxiety to Edward, he was also an implacable enemy of the Despensers. It therefore pays to take a closer look at this man who, despite not having any charisma as well as very poor political judgement, nevertheless caused Edward’s regime so much trouble.

Thomas Plantagenet was born around 1278, the eldest son of Edmund, brother to Edward I and Blanche, the daughter of Robert, count of Artois (and also the son of King Louis VIII of France). His half-sister on his mother’s side, Joan, was married to Philip IV, the king of France and mother to the future kings Louis X, Philip V and Charles IV as well as Isabella, Edward II’s future queen. With such a pedigree it is little wonder that he probably expected more from the corridors of royal power and privilege than he got.

Nevertheless, in his younger days he seems to have been a favourite of Edward I, and he and his cousin, the future Edward II appear to have had a close and affectionate friendship. This is quite poignantly illustrated (especially in light of future events) by a letter Edward sent to Thomas when he was sick. In it he says that he hopes to be able to join Thomas soon and offer him some comfort.

In 1290, there were plans for Thomas to marry Beatrice, the grand-daughter of the duke of Burgundy. This, however never worked out and in 1294 he married Alice de Lacy – daughter of Henry de Lacy, the earl of Lincoln – instead. Upon his marriage he received a share of the Lacy lands plus the promise of the remainder on de Lacy’s death. The marriage was not a happy one however, and produced no children.

Edmund died in 1296, leaving his son to inherit the earldoms of Lancaster and Leicester. Although he still hadn’t come of age, his tenants were commanded to pay homage to him in July 1297. It was in this year, too, that he saw his first military service in Flanders and was knighted at Ghent on 1st November 1297. Over the next ten years Thomas’s star seemed to be in no danger of falling from favour. He fought alongside the King at Falkirk and Caerlaverlock, as well as accompanying Prince Edward to Perth in 1304-5 and again to Scotland in 1306-7.

After the death of Edward I, Thomas remained on good terms with Edward II for a while – receiving royal grants including the Stewardship of England, as well as dining frequently in his company. This lasted for a good eighteen months. At this point Thomas even seemed favourable enough to Gaveston, taking no part with the other barons’ protests at his high-handedness. In this he clashed with Henry de Lacy, which must have put even more strain on his marriage with Alice.

However, in the winter of 1308-9, after Gaveston’s exile, things began to change for the worse. The reasons for this are not clear but, according to an article by Andy King (‘Thomas of Lancaster’s First Quarrel with Edward II’, in Fourteenth-Century England III, ed. Mark Ormrod (Woodbridge Boydell & Brewer, 2004)), it may have had something to do with a petty dispute between Lancaster and the King. It was over the illegal actions of a royal official who seized a manor Lancaster thought was his. As I said, it was nothing more than a petty squabble that should have been easily solved. Instead the enmity between Lancaster and his royal cousin grew out of all proportion and was to have a huge effect on the realm thereafter.

Of course it may be that there were other factors involved in Lancaster’s disaffection – ones that have not been recorded for us to see. But the upshot of it all was that, as the other barons reconciled with Edward during Gaveston’s absence, Lancaster removed himself from court and the king stopped granting him favours. He even opposed Gaveston’s recall to court in June 1309 even though he had previously been on friendly enough terms with the man.

Of course, Gaveston being Gaveston, he was soon stirring up discontent among the nobility again. This time Lancaster joined the opposition and, during a tournament at Dunstable, he and the other earls drew up a charter of complaints against the king, including judicial malpractices and abuses as well as the practice of purveyance (the right of the Crown to requisition goods and food needed for household and military use) – something which had become an oppressive burden on the country at this time. One of the chief aims of the charter, though, was to once again remove Gaveston from the King’s side. Lancaster seems to have thrown himself into his role with great enthusiasm and soon appeared to be the figurehead for the rest of the dissenters.

At the Parliament in February 1310, Lancaster presented a list of complaints to Edward and in March Edward agreed to appoint a number of lords and clergy to look into reforming royal and government policy. These twenty-one men, headed by Lancaster, became known as the Lords Ordainers. A year and a half later, in August 1311, they presented a document of Ordinances. Edward seems to have tried to avoid the whole thing in the intervening time by arranging to be on campaign in Scotland with Gaveston – a campaign that really couldn’t achieve a lot because the dissenting earls and barons refused to send troops.

By August 1311 Edward couldn’t really avoid the issue any longer. He was forced to face up to the earls’ demands for reform. Many of the Ordinances were indeed sensible measures to ensure good government and to prevent abuses against the common people. They also demanded that the baronage should provide their consent in parliament for any new laws or wars the King decided upon. So far, so good, but other ordinances designed to reform the royal household called again for Gaveston’s exile. Not surprisingly, the king baulked. To begin with he refused to accept any of them as he felt that they controlled his divine right of kingship. Then he agreed to accede to them all as long as the one concerning Gaveston was revoked. In the end he was forced to accept the exiling of his favourite as well, under threat of rebellion.

Gaveston left English shores in early November 1311, but not for long. It appears that he returned to England again either by Christmas or in early January: obviously Edward was not prepared to be separated from his beloved for anything. Also, Piers’ wife, Margaret had just given birth to a baby daughter and it is also possible that Piers had returned to see her too. Whatever the reason (and a great post on this can be read on Alianore’s Edward II blog here), Edward revoked the Ordinances and Gaveston’s exile at York in January 1312 and restored his friend to his lands and his earldom.

The Lords Ordainers, were, of course suitably outraged. Archbishop Winchelsea had Gaveston excommunicated and Lancaster demanded his surrender and exile. Predictably Edward refused point blank and the rebel barons started to head north, intent on a confrontation. On 4th May Lancaster took hold of Newcastle, where Edward and Piers had been staying, but they had already fled by sea to the heavily fortified Scarborough castle. For some reason, Edward left Piers there for his own safety and travelled to York via Knaresborough. Why he left him is uncertain – the Vita claim it was an accident, although it would seem a careless one if so. Other chronicles maintain that it was deliberate. There is some record that seems to indicate that while at Newcastle, Piers had suffered some form of illness: the King’s wardrobe accounts detail the costs of a physician and a monk brought in to look after him. Perhaps at Scarborough he suffered a relapse and was unable to ride any further.

Whatever the reason, the Ordainers caught up with Gaveston at Scarborough and besieged the castle until he was forced to surrender to Pembroke, Warenne and Percy. Lancaster had left the siege earlier, worried that his forces would add to logistical problems due to their size. A truce was worked out – probably between the moderate Pembroke and the King whose terms were more than favourable to Gaveston’s future. However as Pembroke travelled south with his prisoner to meet with the king, he was attacked at Deddington by the earl of Warwick who seized Gaveston from under Pembroke’s nose. Gaveston was then taken to Warwick Castle, ‘tried’ by the earls of Lancaster and Warwick and sentences to be executed. On 19th June, he was then taken a few miles away to Blacklow Hill, on the earl of Lancaster’s lands, run through with a sword and beheaded.

The abduction of a prisoner from the safe-keeping of one earl by another and the violence used to secure Lancaster’s ends did nothing to help his cause. The earls Pembroke and Warenne turned back to the king’s side along with others in the moderate camp. Negotiations with Lancaster and the other rebels continued but for now Edward had the upper hand. Lancaster was forced to return Gaveston’s stolen horses and jewels and in return he and the other barons were pardoned. Also, to add further to Lancaster’s woes, one of his main allies, Bishop Winchelsea, died in February1313 and he lost the backing of the clergy for the Ordinances.

From what was possibly a petty beginning to Thomas’s feud with Edward, things had now turned nasty with Gaveston’s death. He may have been pardoned, but Edward was not the sort just to forgive and forget the murder of the one man he loved above all others. Lancaster had dug himself a pretty big hole, and over the next years, instead of trying to lie low, he just kept on digging.

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About Jules Frusher

With an MA in Creative and Critical Writing, I am passionate about the written word. The other great loves of my life are all things Medieval (especially Hugh le Despenser the Younger) and animal behaviour (especially canids and corvids). Give me a castle in the wilderness (with Broadband!) and I'll be happy!
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