Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Thomas (1277?-1322)

THOMAS, Earl of Lancaster (1277?–1322), was the eldest son of Edmund, earl of Lancaster [see Lancaster], a brother of Edward I, by Blanche of Artois, widow of Henry, count of Champagne and king of Navarre. Their marriage took place between 18 Dec. 1275 and 18 Jan. 1276, so Thomas's birth cannot be placed earlier than the latter part of 1276. But he was old enough in 1290 for abortive negotiations to be opened respecting his marriage with Beatrice of Burgundy (Rymer). In 1293 he frequently appears as one of the guests of his first cousin, afterwards Edward II (Extracts from the Issue Rolls of the Exchequer, Henry III–Henry VI, p. 109). His father died in June 1296, and, though still a minor in the king's custody, Thomas was allowed on 9 July 1297 to receive the homage of the tenants of the lands of his late father, and next year did homage and had livery of his lands in full (except his mother's dowry). He thus became earl of Lancaster and Leicester, and in February 1301 he was also styled ‘earl of Ferrers or Derby’ (Doyle). He took part in the expedition which ended in the battle of Falkirk on 22 July 1298. But though his name appears second in the list of barons who joined in the Lincoln letter of 1301 addressed to the pope on the subject of Scotland, it was not until the accession of Edward II that he began to play a leading part in affairs.

At the coronation he carried the sword called ‘curtana,’ and on 9 May 1308 received the grant of the stewardship of England as appendant to his earldom of Leicester. If Thomas was not already one of the enemies of the royal favourite Gaveston, he soon became one. Gaveston held a tournament at Wallingford in which he showed himself the earl's superior in skill in arms, thus adding gall to the bitterness with which the holder of three earldoms, cousin of one king and half-brother of another by marriage, must have regarded the foreign upstart's transformation into an earl of Cornwall (Trokelowe, p. 65). Though Gaveston was banished, Thomas and the other earls still continued distrustful of the king, and on 24 May 1309 the king had to authorise Gilbert de Clare, earl of Gloucester, and others to assure the safety of Thomas when coming to him at Kennington (Rymer, ii. 75). After Gaveston's return from banishment in the summer of 1309, he further offended Lancaster by causing one of his particular adherents to be turned out of his office in favour of one of his own creatures (Monk of Malmesbury, ii. 161–2). Thomas and four other earls refused to attend a council summoned for 18 Oct. at York (Hemingburgh, ii. 275). In spite of a prohibition issued by Edward on 7 Feb., he and others of the barons attended the parliament which met in March 1310 in arms, and by threats of withdrawing their allegiance forced the king to consent to the appointment of twenty-eight ‘ordainers,’ by whom his own authority was to be superseded until Michaelmas 1311, and who were to make ordinances for the redress of grievances and the good government of the kingdom. Lancaster was one of the six co-opted earls on this commission, his father-in-law, Henry de Lacy, earl of Lincoln and Salisbury, being one of the two co-opting earls. The latter died on 28 Feb. 1311 (Annales Londonienses, p. 175), and Thomas added the earldoms of Lincoln and Salisbury to those of Lancaster, Derby, and Leicester, in right of his wife Alice. The story related by the annalist Trokelowe (pp. 72–3) of the old earl's last advice to his son-in-law to uphold the liberties of the church and Magna Charta and follow the advice of the Earl of Warwick is interesting as showing how the people afterwards came to look on Lancaster. He nearly came to open war with the king shortly after, by refusing to do homage to Edward at Berwick for his new lands because it was outside the kingdom, though he had journeyed north on purpose. The king yielded by meeting him a few miles within the English border at Haggerston (Chron. de Lanercost, p. 215); Gaveston was present, but Lancaster ignored his presence, much to the king's anger. The homage was repeated in London on 26 Aug. (Parl. Writs, ii. 42). The ordinances which were published on 10 and 11 Oct. contained a decree of banishment on Gaveston, to which Edward, after a humble entreaty that his ‘brother Piers’ might be forgiven, had been obliged at length to consent. But Lancaster and others had to be forbidden to attend parliament in arms (Cal. Close Rolls, p. 442). Gaveston returned in January 1312, and the king countermanded the summons for a parliament on the first Sunday in Lent (12 Feb.) Lancaster, acting for the others, demanded Gaveston's withdrawal, and sent a private message to the queen that he would not rest till he had rid her of his presence. Armed bands were collected under the pretext of tournament, and Lancaster stole north by night. He surprised Edward and Gaveston at Newcastle-on-Tyne, and captured the greater part of their baggage. They fled hastily to Scarborough by sea, where Edward left Gaveston, proceeding himself to York. Then the earls of Pembroke and Warenne besieged Gaveston in Scarborough, while Lancaster hovered between to cut off Peter from all chance of rejoining the king. On 19 May Gaveston surrendered to Pembroke on condition of his safety being guaranteed until the parliament which was to meet on the first of August. If Edward and Gaveston could come to no agreement with the barons then, Gaveston was to be replaced in Scarborough Castle, as he was at the time of his surrender. Pembroke proceeded southward with his prisoner, but the Earl of Warwick took advantage of Pembroke's over-confidence to kidnap Gaveston at Deddington, sixteen miles north of Oxford, and carry him off to Warwick. Here, with the full concurrence of the earls of Lancaster and Hereford, Gaveston was condemned to death. Lancaster assumed the chief responsibility for his death by having him conveyed to Blacklow Hill in his lands to be beheaded (Monk of Malmesbury, ii. 180).

Neither the king nor Pembroke ever forgave Lancaster for this act of violence, though Edward was too weak at the time to bring the offenders to justice. Lancaster thought it prudent to come to the parliament to which Edward summoned him on 20 Aug. at the head of a small army. The earls of Gloucester and Richmond mediated, and after the earls had made a formal submission on 19 Oct., the king timore ductus granted them a full pardon on 9 Nov. (Flor. Hist. iii. 337). This did not conclude matters, however, and negotiations still went on under safe-conducts. Lancaster restored the jewels and horses he had captured at Newcastle on 27 Feb. and 29 March 1312, but it was not until 16 Oct. 1313 that a complete amnesty for all offences committed since the beginning of the reign was granted (Monk of Malmesbury, ii. 195). Lancaster refused to be reconciled with Hugh le Despenser. Edward summoned him to accompany him in an expedition against the Scots as early as 23 Dec. 1313 (Rymer, ii. 238). But Thomas and his party refused, alleging that the king had not carried out the ordinances, especially as regards the removal of evil counsellors. All they did was to send the strict legal contingents due from them (Lanercost, p. 224). Edward's disaster at Bannockburn obliged him to seek a new reconciliation with Lancaster, who had assembled an army at Pontefract under the pretext that the king, if successful in Scotland, intended to turn his arms against him. This took place in a parliament held in the last three weeks of September. The ordinances were confirmed. Edward was obliged to dismiss his chancellor, treasurer, and sheriffs, who were replaced by Lancaster's nominees. Hugh le Despenser went into hiding, though he still remained one of the king's counsellors (Chron. Edw. I and Edw. II, ii. 208; Flor. Hist. iii. 339). In the parliament which lasted from January to March 1315 he and Walter Langton were removed from the council, the king was put on an allowance of 10l. a day, and Thomas was made his principalis consiliarius (Chron. Edw. I and Edw. II, ii. 209).

On 8 Aug. Thomas was appointed chief commander against the Scots, superseding his enemy, the Earl of Pembroke. In the autumn one of his own tenants, Adam de Banastre, rose against him, fearful of punishment for a murder he had committed. Banastre seems to have made use of the king's name, and is said to have borne his banner. But Lancaster's lieutenants easily crushed him (Monk of Malmesbury, ii. 214). The parliament which met on 28 Jan. 1316 was postponed till his arrival on 12 Feb., after which he was requested by the king in parliament to be president of the council, and accepted the office on certain conditions on 17 Feb. (Parl. Writs, i. 156–7). But neither had any confidence in the other. An assemblage at Newcastle was postponed from 24 June to 10 Aug., and then to Michaelmas. Thomas started towards Scotland, only to find that the king refused to follow him. Edward went only as far as York, and, if we are to believe the somewhat pro-Lancastrian account of Robert of Reading (Flor. Hist. iii. 176), he plundered the north of England and then returned south. Lancaster retired to his castle at Pontefract, while the royal party met at Clarendon on 9 Feb., probably to plot his overthrow. The Earl of Warenne was selected to surprise him, but was seized with a sudden panic on approaching Lancaster's country. One of the knights of his household, however, succeeded in carrying off the countess at Canford in Dorset, very probably with her connivance, for she was accused of infidelity to her husband (ib. p. 178). This led to a private war between the two earls. Thomas harried Warenne's lands, and some of his followers took Knaresborough Castle. Thomas received renewed summons for an expedition to Scotland, but, as before, there were continual postponements. The efforts of the cardinal legates and Pembroke issued in another abortive agreement between the king and the earl in July to reserve their differences for the parliament which was to meet on 27 Jan. 1318. This did not of course prevent Edward threatening Thomas with the army he had gathered under the pretext of the Scottish war, and the private war still went on merrily as ever. On 3 Nov. the king intervened, ordering Lancaster to desist (Cal. Close Rolls, p. 575). The parliament summoned at Lincoln for 27 Jan. was prorogued until 12 March, and then until 19 June, and finally revoked on account of the invasion of the Scots. But the capture of Berwick on 2 April 1318 by the latter was more potent than all the negotiations in bringing the parties to agreement. Thomas insisted on the punishment of the grantees of the royal grants made contrary to the ordinances, and the removal of his enemies from the king's councils. A solemn reconciliation took place near Leicester on 5 Aug.; among the conditions were a confirmation of the ordinances and the establishment of a sort of council consisting of two bishops and a baron with a baron or banneret of the household of the Earl of Lancaster, who were always to accompany the king to execute and give counsel on all weighty matters (ib. p. 113). Edward and Thomas entered Scotland together about 15 Aug. and laid siege to Berwick, but mutual distrust and the king's ill-concealed projects of vengeance led to the abandonment of the siege through Lancaster's departure. He was accused by the king's party of having been bribed by the Scots. He refused to attend the two councils of magnates held in January and October of the next year, but there was a lull for a time in the struggle.

With the private war which arose early in 1321 between the younger Despenser and his rivals for the Gloucester inheritance, Hugh de Audley and Roger d'Amory began the last act. At a meeting summoned by Lancaster at Sherburn in Elmet, he and his party declared against Despenser, and on 15 July Edward had to consent to the banishment of both father and son. But Lady Badlesmere's insult to the queen on 13 Oct. and the capture of Leeds Castle on 31 Oct. strengthened his hands. The conference which, in spite of Edward's formal prohibition, Thomas summoned at Doncaster on 29 Nov. (ib. p. 505) did nothing. Thomas's holding aloof when the king was besieging Leeds Castle can be explained by his enmity to Badlesmere, but his vacillation after its capture and the recall of the Despensers proved his incompetence as a leader. However effective his policy of sulky inaction had been on previous occasions, it was of no avail against the sudden burst of energy which Edward now put forth. Instead of marching to the assistance of his adherents in the south, the earl lingered in the north, and even on 8 Feb. 1322 his attitude was still so undecided that Edward could write to him inhibiting him from adhering to the king's contrariants (ib. p. 515). The royal levies assembled at Coventry on 28 Feb. Thomas tried with the small force at his disposal to check the king's advance at Burton-on-Trent. He was successful for three days, but the royal army crossed the river at another place, so that, after some show of offering battle, he and his followers set fire to Burton, and went north to Tutbury and thence to Pontefract. Robert de Holand deserted with five hundred men he had collected, if we are to believe a story in the chronicle of William de Packington which has come down to us, epitomised in Leland's ‘Collectanea’ (ii. 464, ed. Hearne). Lancaster's followers held a council at this last place, and resolved to push on to his castle of Dunstanburgh in Northumberland; but Lancaster refused, proposing to stay at Pontefract, until Robert de Clifford drew out his dagger and threatened to kill him. They left Pontefract, hoping to find refuge in the last resort with the Scots, with whom Thomas had already been in correspondence under the pseudonym of ‘King Arthur.’

On 16 March they reached Boroughbridge, but found their passage over the Ure barred by Sir Andrew Harclay and a force which had been collected to act against the Scots. The Earl of Hereford fell in the attempt to force a passage, and, deserted by most of his followers during the night, Thomas had to surrender next morning. He was taken to York, and then to the king at Pontefract on 21 March. The principal count in his indictment was his late rebellion, but it also raked up his attack on the king and Gaveston at Newcastle, and accused him of intimidating the parliaments of the reign by appearing at them with armed men, and of being in league with the Scots. Refused even a hearing, he was condemned to a traitor's death, the usual revolting details being commuted to beheading in consideration of his near relationship to the king. Seven earls are mentioned as present at his trial, presumably as members of the court (22 March). He was taken the next day on a sorry nag to a slight hill just outside the town and there beheaded (Trokelowe, pp. 112–24; Chron. Edw. I and Edw. II, i. 303, ii. 77, 270; Flor. Hist. iii. 206, 347).

Despite his tragic end, it is difficult to say anything favourable of Thomas of Lancaster. Marked out by birth and by his position as holder of five earldoms for the rôle of leader of the barons in their revolt against the favouritism, extravagance, and misgovernment of Edward II, he signally failed to show either patriotism, farsightedness, or even the more common virtues of a good party leader. His only policy was a sort of passive resistance to the crown, which generally took the form of refusing to do anything whatever to aid his cousin so long as his personal enemies remained unbanished. In the invention of pretexts for this refusal he displayed an ingenuity in legal chicanery far surpassing that of his uncle, Edward I. Though it was obviously personal aims and personal grievances that influenced his action throughout, some of these pretexts are interesting illustrations of the growth of the idea of a full parliament. In 1317 he refused to violate his oath to the ordinances by attending a council of magnates summoned by the king, because the matters there to be discussed ought to be debated in a full parliament (Murimuth, pp. 271–4). Yet if Lancaster had any political ideal at all, it was the revival of Simon de Montfort's abortive scheme for government by a council of magnates with himself, in the place of Simon, as the chief and most powerful member. The only thing in which he was consistent was the unrelenting hatred with which he pursued those who offended him. Popular idealism, however, made him into a saint and a martyr. All the misfortunes which befell the country were laid at Edward's door, though Thomas's futile policy was quite as much to blame for them. While Edward personified misgovernment, disorder, misfortune abroad, Thomas was converted, though probably not till after his death, into a second Simon de Montfort. Miraculous cures were effected at his tomb at Pontefract, as also at an effigy of him in St. Paul's, to which crowds of worshippers came with offerings. Guards had to be placed to prevent people approaching the places of his execution and burial, and the king wrote an indignant letter to the bishop of London and the dean and chapter of St. Paul's, forbidding them to countenance such proceedings (Flor. Hist. iii. 213; French Chronicle of London, Camden Soc., p. 54; Rymer, ii. 528). Time brought further revenges. On 28 Feb. 1327 Edward III wrote to Pope John XXI, requesting him to canonise Thomas (Rymer, ii. ii. 695). The request was repeated in 1330 and 1331 (ib. pp. 782, 814). Edward III also on 8 June 1327 authorised Robert de Werynton, clerk, to collect alms for building a chapel on the hill where Thomas of Lancaster was beheaded (ib. p. 707). This chapel, which was never finished, still existed in Leland's time.

Thomas built and endowed in his castle of Kenilworth the chapel of St. Mary, to be served by thirteen regular canons (Bliss, Papal Registers, ii. 184).

He married Alice, daughter and heiress of Henry de Lacy, earl of Lincoln and Salisbury, but had no children. His relations with his wife were sufficiently strained to give rise to more than a suspicion of connivance when the Earl of Warenne carried her off in 1317. She was accused of adultery with a lame squire of the name of Ebulo Le Strange, who married her after Lancaster's death.

[The chief narrative sources for Thomas's life are the Annales Londonienses; Annales Paulini; Gesta Edwardi auctore canonico Bridlingtoniensi; and the Monachi cuiusdam Malmesberiensis Vita Edwardi II, all edited by Bishop Stubbs in Chronicles of the Reigns of Edward I and Edward II (Rolls Ser.); the Chron. of Robert of Reading in vol. iii. of the Flores Historiarum, ed. Luard; the Annals of John de Trokelowe; the Chronicles of Adam de Murimuth (Rolls Ser.); Walter de Hemingburgh (English Historical Soc.); Lanercost (Maitland Club); and Scalachronica and Walsingham; the continuator of Trivet (ed. Hall, 1722); and the Chronicon Henrici de Knighton (Rolls Ser.). The Rolls of Parliament, the Parliamentary Writs, and Rymer's Fœdera (all published by the Record Comm.); and the Calendars of the Close Rolls (1307–1323, 3 vols.), and Patent Rolls 1292–1301, 1307–13 (2 vols.) (Rolls Ser.) form an invaluable supplement and corrective to these sometimes partial narratives. Dugdale's Baronage of England, though prolix, supplies many facts; Stubbs's Constitutional Hist. vol. ii. and Pauli's Geschichte von England give the best modern accounts of Thomas and his times.]

W. E. R.