Thomas Plantagenet, 2nd Earl of Lancaster

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Thomas Plantagenet.

Thomas, Earl of Lancaster (c. 1278 – March 22 1322) was one of the leaders of the baronial opposition to Edward II of England. A descendant of Henry III of England, Edward was his cousin. Thomas Lancaster led two rebellions against Edward. The first, in 1310, resulted in Parliament imposing restraints on Edward's profligate spending and imposition of a supervisory council, which Thomas headed. From 1314 until 1318, Thomas effectively governed England. In 1321, following more years of miss-rule, he again headed a revolt. This time, he and his supporters were defeated. Thomas was found guilty of treason and executed. Fellow rebel Roger Mortimer, 1st Earl of March, who escaped from prison, later led a successful coup against Edward, who was deposed.

Thomas Plantagenet upheld the principles of Parliamentary oversight of kingly power that had begun to develop in England subsequent to the 1265 Parliament convened by Simon de Montfort, 6th Earl of Leicester to curb the power of Henry III. These principles included the right of all classes, commoners as well as nobility, to be represented. The rule of law applied equally to low and high alike. A king who failed to rule justly could be deposed. In 1327, Parliament deposed Edward II for failing to keep his coronation oath, which bound him to honor the law. Thomas, who had taken part in Edward's coronation ceremony, wanted Edward to keep his oath. In trying to hold the king to account, he lost his life. Yet Thomas made a valuable contribution to the development of constraints on kingly power and to defending the rights of parliament to supervise and to limit royal power. In time, these constraints would result in full-blown democratic government.


Thomas Plantagenet was the eldest son of Edmund Crouchback, 1st Earl of Lancaster and Blanche of Artois. His paternal grandparents were Henry III of England and Eleanor of Provence. His maternal grandparents were Robert I of Artois and Matilda of Brabant, who was a daughter of Henry II, Duke of Brabant.

Titles and lands

From his father Thomas Plantagenet inherited the Earldoms of Lancaster, Leicester, and Derby.

By his marriage to Alice de Lacy, Countess of Lincoln, daughter of Henry de Lacy, 3rd Earl of Lincoln, he became Earl of Lincoln, Earl of Salisbury and the 11th Baron of Halton upon the death of his father-in-law in 1311. Master of five earldoms, he was one of the wealthiest and most powerful men in England.

Thomas of Lancaster's main possessions (Maddicott).

Thomas Plantagenet was in possession of many key fortresses, particularly in northern England. He was responsible for the extension of Pontefract Castle and in 1313, he began the construction of Dunstanburgh Castle a massive fortress in Northumberland.


His marriage to Alice de Lacy was not successful. They had no children, though he had two illegitimate sons. In 1317, she was abducted from her manor at Canford, Dorset by Richard de St Martin, a knight in the service of John de Warenne, 8th Earl of Surrey. This incident caused a feud between Lancaster and Surrey; Lancaster divorced his wife and seized two of Surrey's castles in retaliation. King Edward then intervened, and the two Earls came to an uneasy truce.

Although divorced from his wife, he continued to hold the powerful Earldoms of Lincoln and Salisbury. This was due to the marriage contract the two families had agreed, in effect upon the death of his father-in-law, Earl Thomas held these earldoms in his own right, not in right of his wife.

Conflict with Edward II and death

Edward's Coronation

He served in the coronation of his cousin, King Edward II of England, on February 25, 1308, carrying Curtana, the sword of St Edward the Confessor. Edward vowed to "maintain the laws and rightful customs which the community of the realm shall have chosen," as well as to "maintain peace and do justice." The reference to the "community" was an innovation.[1] This was an oath "not simply to maintain the existing law, but to maintain the law as it might develop during the reign."[2]

At the beginning of the King's reign, Lancaster openly supported Edward, but as the conflict between the king and the nobles wore on, Lancaster's allegiances changed. He despised the royal favorite, Piers Gaveston, 1st Earl of Cornwall, who mocked him as "the Fiddler," and swore revenge when Gaveston demanded that the King dismiss one of Lancaster's retainers.[3]

Chief Councilor of England

Plantagenet, known as Lancaster, was one of the Lords Ordainers who demanded the banishment of Gaveston and the establishment of a baronial council - a committee of twenty-one leading barons- to oversee England's governance. Parliament passed regulations that restricted Edward's ability to spend, and to act without consultation. His private army helped separate the King and Gaveston, and he was then was one of the "judges" who convicted Gaveston and saw him executed. Edward was infamous for his profligacy, and love of entertainment.

After the disaster at Bannockburn in 1314, when he was defeated by Robert I of Scotland, Edward submitted to Lancaster, who in effect became ruler of England. In 1416, Parliament appointed him Chief Councilor.[4] He attempted to govern England, but was unable to keep order or prevent the Scots from raiding and retaking territory in the North. He aim was to "control the royal government and restore its finances," however, rather than to further his own interests. He "based his policies on a strict adherence to the ordinances and an appeal to the work of Simon de Montfort." De Montfort, who led the rebellion of 1263-1264 against Henry III of England, had established a new parliament in 1265 with elected representatives, from which the modern idea of a democratic, representative parliament would later develop. Lancaster also tried to restore the power of the Stewards of England. In 1318, when he lost Berwick to the Scottish, his popularity with the barons declined and he was persuaded to "to accept a diminished authority."[5] His wife left him during this period, assisted by the John, Earl Warrenne against whom he began a private war in 1217.[6] Edward then appointed Hugh Despenser the younger as his chamberlain, and began to take up the reigns of government once again.

Out of government

The new leadership, eventually headed by Hugh le Despenser, 1st Earl of Winchester and his son Hugh Despenser the younger, proved no more popular with the Baronage, and in 1321 Lancaster (who had stayed away from Parliament as long as Despenser was in power) was again at the head of a rebellion. The rebel barons convinced Parliament to banish both Despensers, who went into exile in August 1321. Hugh became a pirate in the English Channel, "a sea monster, lying in wait for merchants as they crossed his path."[7] Edward, however, was determined to crush to rebellion and recall his chamberlain, moved decisively against the rebellion.

Defeat and execution

Lancaster and his allies were defeated at the Battle of Boroughbridge, and he was taken prisoner.

Lancaster was tried by a tribunal consisting of, among others, the two Despensers, whom Edward had immediately recalled and re-instated, Edmund FitzAlan, 9th Earl of Arundel, and King Edward himself. Lancaster was not allowed to speak in his own defense, nor was he allowed to have anyone to speak for him. Because of their kinship and Lancaster's royal blood, the King commuted the sentence to mere beheading (as opposed to being drawn, quartered, and beheaded). Lancaster was convicted of treason and executed near Pontefract Castle. One of the other leading rebels, Roger Mortimer, 1st Earl of March, who had served as Edward's Lord Lieutenant of Ireland but who had become disgusted with Edward's profligacy, was imprisoned but managed to escape to France. The following year, Edward's wife, Isabella of France visited her brother, the French king to mediate a dispute with Edward, who refused to pay homage for his fief in Gascony. In France, Isabella became Mortimer's lover, and the two started to plot against Edward.

The tyranny

The four years that followed became known as "The tyranny." Hugh Despenser the Younger more or less ruled the country, without consulting Parliament. He accumulated vast personal wealth by dispossessing legal heirs, especially widows. "For four years," writes Given-Wilson, "Edward and the Despensers ruled England as they pleased, brooking no opposition, growing fat on the proceeds of confiscated land and disinherited heirs."[8] Edward and the Despensers ignored the law of the land, bending it to suit their interests.

In 1326, and Roger Mortimer and Edward's now estranged Queen, Isabella, finally invaded England. Edward had hardly any allies, and before long was imprisoned and deposed. The invasion force was rather small but many soldiers simply refused to fight against Mortimer. King Edward was placed in captivity and later deposed. Hugh's father was executed, at Bristol, and Hugh himself was brought to trial. Unlike Lancaster, Hugh was drawn and quartered; indeed, his execution was particularly gruesome. He was dragged behind four horses to his place of execution, where a great fire was lit. He was then stripped naked, and biblical verses denouncing arrogance and evil were written on his skin. Next, he was hanged from a gallows 50 ft (15 m) high, but cut down before he could choke to death, and tied to a ladder, in full view of the crowd. Climbing up beside him, the executioner sliced off his penis and testicles which were then burnt before him, while he was still alive and conscious. Finally, his corpse was beheaded, and his body cut into four pieces, and his head mounted on the gates of London.[9]

Lancaster's posthumous pardon

In 1326 or 1327, Parliament posthumously reversed Thomas's conviction, and Henry Plantagenet was further permitted to take possession of the Earldoms of Lancaster, Derby, Salisbury, and Lincoln.

Thomas became venerated as a martyr and saint within a few months of his death. Hagiographies were written about him, and Edward III wrote three times to the Pope requesting his canonization. He was never canonized, though rumors to that effect arose in the 1390s, when his cult experienced something of a revival.

After his death his titles and estates were forfeited, but in 1323 his younger brother Henry successfully petitioned to take possession of the Earldom of Leicester.

Coats of Arms of Edmund Crouchback, Earl of Lancaster, and his successors.

Parliament and the governance of the realm

Throughout Edward II's reign, Parliament tried to curb his excesses. In 1010-11, Parliament had tried to limit Edward's power and spending. Following the restoration of the Despensers in 1322, Edward issued a statute revoking these ordinances, and began to ignore parliament completely. Yet, although he ignored Parliament, by the end of his life, Parliament was beginning to assert the right to share in power. It appropriated to itself the task of curbing excesses and of minimizing the possibility of one person, king or a manipulator of kings, ignoring on people's rights, confiscating their property, and governing with no concern for the common good. In the end, it was parliament that deposed Edward and it was Parliament that confirmed Edward III of England as his successor. Thomas Lancaster was of the view that the king, like the king's subjects, was under not above the law. In deposing Edward, Parliament stated that Edward,

was incompetent to govern, that he had neglected the business of the kingdom for unbecoming occupations … that he had broken his coronation oath, especially in the matter of doing justice to all, and that he had ruined the realm.[10]


Thomas Lancaster's reputation improved with age. He has been described as "a coarse, selfish and violent man, without any of the attributes of a statesman"[11] and as "vindictive, greedy and cruel, and lethargic when presented with real power."[12] His instinct, however, was to uphold the law and, notwithstanding his faults, he can not be accused of pure self-interest. He saw himself as answerable to Parliament, which, unlike Edward, he did not ignore or manipulate. His critics say that he appointed friends to government posts and that "his rule was as feeble as that of the monarch whom he had superseded."

Later, though, he "won a great reputation for patriotism; and his memory was long cherished, especially in the north of England, as that of a defender of popular liberties."[6] As an admirer of De Montford, Thomas would have subscribed to the principles that had developed subsequent to his Parliament of 1265, that all classes should be represented there, that all taxes except "those sanctioned by custom" must be approved by Parliament and that the "common man" was also entitled to protection, security and justice.[13]

Edward was king at a time when the relationship between king and people was changing. In place of the nation as more or less the personal possession of the monarch, the view of the nation as a community or commonwealth was emerging, in which all freemen (but not yet women) had rights and responsibilities. Kingly power was still understood to be part of the natural order yet even the king had to govern justly, and consult his barons and the representatives of the Commons to raise and spend money, as well as to wage war. Parliamentary government was still a long way off, yet increasingly kings could not rule without Parliament. Edward had vowed to "maintain the laws and rightful customs which the community of the realm shall have chosen," as well as to "maintain peace and do justice" and Thomas had heard this promise. This development of the law was a shared responsibility—through their representatives, the "community of the realm"[14] would have a say in framing these laws for the common good. Thomas Plantagenet did his best to hold the king accountable to his oath. He can be said to have made a valuable contribution to the development of constraints on kingly power. In time, these constraints would result in full-blown democratic government.

Titles, styles, honors, and arms


Inherited from his father, Thomas bore the arms of the kingdom, differenced by a label France of three points (that is to say azure three fleur-de-lys or, each).[15]


  1. Prestwich (2005), 25.
  2. Lyon (2003), 82.
  3. Mortimer (2006), 51.
  4. Arnold-Baker (2001), 776.
  5. Arnold-Baker (2001), 776.
  6. 6.0 6.1 Luminarium, Thomas, Earl of Lancaster (c.1277-1322). Retrieved October 22, 2008.
  7. Mortimer (2006), 111.
  8. Given-Wilson (1987), 32.
  9. Mortimer (2006), 160.
  10. Cross (1920), 123.
  11. Hugh Chisholm, The Encyclopædia Britannica: A Dictionary of Arts, Sciences, Literature and General Information (New York, NY: The Encyclopedia Britannica company, 1911), 148.
  12. Arnold-Baker (2001), 176.
  13. Cross (1920), 118.
  14. Lyon (2003), 56.
  15. British Heraldry Page, Marks of Cadency in the British Royal Family. Retrieved October 22, 2008.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Arnold-Baker, Charles. 2001. The Companion to British History. London, UK: Routledge. ISBN 9780415185837.
  • Cross, Arthur Lyon. 1920. A Shorter History of England and Greater Britain. London, UK: Macmillan.
  • Given-Wilson, Chris. 1987. The English Nobility in the Late Middle Ages: The Fourteenth Century Political Community. London, UK: Routledge & Kegan Paul. ISBN 9780710204912.
  • Lyon, Ann. 2003. Constitutional History of the UK. London, UK: Cavendish. ISBN 9781859417461.
  • Maddicott, John Robert. 1970. Thomas of Lancaster, 1307-1322: A Study in the Reign of Edward II. London, UK: Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780198218371.
  • Mortimer, Ian. 2006. The Greatest Traitor: The Life of Sir Roger Mortimer, Ruler of England, 1327-1330. New York, NY: Thomas Dunne Books. ISBN 9780312349417.
  • Prestwich, Michael. 2005. Plantagenet England, 1225-1360. Oxford, UK: Clarendon Press. ISBN 9780198228448.


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