Thomas of Lancaster, Part 3: 1319-1322


Apologies for the wait on the last part of the Lancaster bio – it took more writing than I expected! hence it is also longer than I expected – so it might be a good idea to go and grab a cuppa or other drink of choice if you are planning to read it in one go. All I can say is… Phew! It was fun to research and Thomas is an interesting figure, but I’m glad it’s written now and I can go back to a bit more stuff on Mr Despenser again!

Part Three – 1319-22

During the first part of 1319 all seemed to be well again. Lancaster seemed pleased with the agreement that had been reached and he even managed to drag himself away from Pontefract. In May he attended the parliament at York and even seemed to be in a happy mood for once – although this may have had something to do with the fact that his enemy, Hugh Despenser the elder was not present – having gone on pilgrimage. He petitioned Edward for the right to appoint the steward of the household, which, had it succeeded, would have meant that Lancaster would have had control over household spending giving him a very powerful hand on the rudder. Of course, the petition was refused, but, for once, this did not seem to send Lancaster back into his usual sulks.

Later that year, Edward organised another Scottish campaign and this time Lancaster gave him the support of his forces – something Edward desperately needed after the fiasco of the last attempt. However, Lancaster insisted that his army was paid for by him, and not the crown – a move that gave him freedom from any obligations or contracts that came from remuneration from the king. In other words, he was still his own man.

Even with Lancaster’s presence, the offensive was another shambles – largely due to Edward’s political incompetence. It all started at the siege of Berwick in September, when the barons discovered that Edward had already promised the custody of the town to the younger Despenser and Damory. With all the dissent and arguments that ensued, the Scots managed to sneak by their attacker sand started laying waste to Yorkshire. As a result, Lancaster withdrew his support and Edward was forced to make a truce with the Bruce in December. There were some rumours that Lancaster had been collaborating with the Scots (probably after his involvement with them in 1318) but there seems to be no evidence for this and at this time it does seem unlikely.

By the start of 1320, everything was back to how it had been in 1316-18. Lancaster refused to attend the York parliament in January and remained in his lands. Favourites again seemed to rule Edward’s heart and mind – not to mention his patronage. In particular Hugh Despenser the younger was growing ever more powerful, extending his lands in south Wales by illegal and violent means guaranteed to alienate the Marcher lords at court. Even worse for Lancaster, Edward managed to successfully petition the pope to absolve him from his oath to the Ordinances. Now it seemed that Edward was free to do as he wished.

It wasn’t just the land-grabbing greed of Hugh Despenser that infuriated the magnates at Edward’s court – it was also the fact that he and his father had complete control over who could see the king (and only then through bribes), as well as any written communication. In effect, they now had the means to extend themselves as much as they wanted – in theory anyway. In practice, they had to get past the likes of the earl of Hereford, Damory and Audley (who were now out of favour) and the de Mortimers.

Angered by what they saw as a complete disregard of ancient Marcher traditions in the way that Despenser took the lordship of Gower, they organised a coalition against him and asked Lancaster for his help. He must have been rather pleased that the southern barons were now, at long last, not only on his wavelength, but also seeing in him a natural leader for their campaign. Through various meetings, the Marcher lords and Lancaster produced a list of grievances to be presented to the king at the July parliament by the earl of Hereford. This included a request that the younger Despenser be removed from court and temporarily given into the custody of Lancaster. Of course, Edward was never going to surrender Hugh Despenser, and especially not to the man who had had his other favourite, Gaveston, murdered. With the petition falling on completely deaf ears, the stage was set for the beginnings of a civil war.

The marcher lords invaded the Despenser lands, as well as those of their allies, and wreaked destruction on a massive scale burning villages and crops and causing mass misery for those who depended upon the land. Strangely, while this was going on, Lancaster took no physical part in the assaults, preferring, once more, to stay in the north and arrange things from there. It is not clear why he took the passive option, but possibly it had something to do with the participation of his former enemies Damory and Badlesmere. Lancaster was the sort of man not only to hold a long grudge, but also to let it influence his actions, even if it was unhelpful to the eventual goal.

He arranged two more meetings, firstly at Pontefract in May, and secondly in Sherburn in June, both with the purpose of strengthening the coalition against the crown and drawing up a general bill of grievances. Lancaster also tried to get the northern lords to join with him in his purpose to oust the Despensers, but in this he failed. His neighbours would only agree to join him if they felt that their mutual interests were being threatened, and at that time, they were untroubled by the Despensers’ rapaciousness.

The wholesale devastation of the Despenser estates continued throughout the summer, with the rebels – or Contrariants as they became known – moving south towards London. Even Pembroke, that most diplomatic and least radical of the earls now also seemed to be siding with the marchers while also acting as mediator between the two sides. It was mainly his council that eventually persuaded Edward that he had no choice but to acquiesce if he was to avoid an all out civil war. Reluctantly, Edward agreed to the rebels’ demands and the Despensers were sent into exile.

With their main objective achieved, the marchers relaxed their guard. This was enough to allow the infuriated Edward to now go on the defensive. It started when Queen Isabella was refused entry to Badlesmere’s Leeds Castle. This was most probably a contrived event because Edward must have known that a rebel-owned fortress would not have wanted a royal presence within its walls. Nevertheless, Edward now had the excuse to hit back and so he laid siege to the castle. Badlesmere, who was still fighting with the Contrariant forces, requested their assistance in raising the siege but Lancaster forbade them to help. And then, when they retreated back north to Pontefract, Lancaster also refused his former enemy a place of refuge. His private grudges had once again got in the way of good sense and good leadership – something that was becoming apparent to both his allies and his men, who began to desert him.

Lancaster was now becoming desperate. It seemed that he was hell-bent on armed conflict with his cousin, the king, and his former supporters were becoming less and less keen on taking that risk – especially with Lancaster’s deficiencies. With his support waning, he called another meeting in November to try and encourage more aid from other quarters – including men known to be strong supporters of the king. Of course, that was just clutching at straws. His desperation was further revealed when he appealed for help from the people of London – an unreliable and fickle mass of people at the best of times. And then he went one unforgivable step further – he looked north – towards Scotland.

Such a treasonable move was bound to lose him the moral high ground on which he had previously stood. Nevertheless, the Contrariants now had no option but to fight as Edward slowly moved his forces northward. Even so, they still tried to negotiate with the king and in December sent a message asking for him to approve the exile of the Despensers. Unfortunately for them, a recent ecclesiastical council had already declared the exiles unlawful and the two men had now returned. Edward now seemed to hold all the cards and must have had a smirk on his face when he replied that Lancaster had been lacking in duty and care towards the kingdom and, in his demands, was treating him, the king, as if he were the earl’s subject.

Throughout December and January skirmishes continued between the royalists and the rebels as Edward sought to cross the Severn and found their progress blocked – mainly by the earl of Hereford’s men. For a while it seemed that the marcher barons had the upper hand by capturing three strategic towns and defeating Edward’s forces at Bridgenorth. Finally, at Shrewsbury, Edward managed to cross the Severn and move against the Mortimers. Without support from their Welsh tenants, the Mortimers now suddenly found themselves isolated and were forced to surrender.

News of this crushing defeat caused a great deal of despair among the rebels. The Mortimers were renowned warriors and their capitulation must have seemed like a bad omen. The elder Audley, Maurice de Berkeley and Rhys ap Howel also surrendered and Hereford found it suddenly prudent to remove his forces from Gloucester and head north to Pontefract before he was cut off. Once again the coalition had been damaged by Lancaster’s inability to mobilise his forces to reinforce his allies. His timely intervention on the marches may have completely altered what happened next, but instead he lingered in the north (although whether this was because he was unable or unwilling is still a matter of debate).

Lancaster now laid siege to Tickhill castle which was under the control of William de Aune, one of Edward’s spies. Edward now swung north, to the aid of his constable, bearing down upon Lancaster’s crumbling army. Desertions were now at an all time high and the 10th March saw the most high profile desertion of all. Robert Holland had previously been one of Lancaster’s most loyal aides but now the man had abandoned him and gone over to Edward. Sensing that he was now in danger, Lancaster fled north, along with Hereford, probably hoping to reach his castle at Dunstanburgh.

Now they found themselves trapped between forces loyal to Edward in the north – led by Andrew de Harclay and Edward’s own army pursuing them from the south. The clash finally came on the 16th March at Boroughbridge when de Harclay engineered a brilliant offensive against them. See here for a more detailed description of the battle. Hereford was killed and Lancaster was eventually captured, bringing to an end the hopes and ideals of all those who had opposed the king. Lancaster was taken first to York and then to Pontefract where he was condemned in what amounted to a show trial. The sentence was originally that he be hanged, drawn and beheaded for acts of treason but because of his royal blood this was reduced to merely (!) beheading. This took place on March 22nd 1322 at a place just outside the castle.

Lancaster’s Character
After his death, Thomas of Lancaster – strangely – began to be seen as a potential saint. It was claimed that miracles happened around his tomb, and pilgrims started flocking to his place of burial at Pontefract. Soon it became expedient for the king to close the church and set an armed guard to deter those who still insisted on pilgrimage. That Thomas should be elevated to such exalted levels of holiness would have seemed completely ironic – and rather daft – to those who knew his real character, for the real Thomas was anything but angelic.

Despite his seemingly high ideals about the poor and oppressed, fair patronage and justice, records show that Thomas was actually as vicious, ruthless and corrupt as those he opposed. He was well known for ignoring the matter of the law, especially when he wanted to take land and manors and his harshness as a landlord was also legendary. He seemed to have a complete disregard towards women: his wife Alice left him in 1317 after what was most likely a loveless (and childless) marriage and one chronicler, Higden, claimed that he ‘defouled a greet multitude of wommen and of gentil wenches.’

He was easily offended and bore grudges – a trait which did not inspire loyalty in those around him. He wanted power and yet when challenged at court tended to stay and brood on his estates. He found it difficult to keep friends and allies – especially among his neighbours in the north and the bishops. In addition, when he did have allies, they could not always rely on him for military support – as was the case in the days before Boroughbridge. In conclusion – despite his royal blood, wealth and position, he was a desperately flawed individual who seemed to have a talent for making as hard as possible for both himself and those around him.

Edward II certainly had his faults as a king and many of Lancaster’s Ordinances were indeed worthy suggestions for much needed reform. Yet, Lancaster’s heavy-handedness and lack of diplomacy not only ensured their failure but also forced Edward into un-necessary conflicts, without which his reign may have turned out – at least a little – differently.

Main Sources:

Biography of Thomas, earl of Lancaster – Oxford Dictionary of National Biography Online

Thomas of Lancaster 1307-1322 by J.R. Maddicott

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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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