Thomas of Lancaster was not Edward II’s favourite cousin. After all, it was Thomas who was responsible for capturing Edward’s favourite Piers Gaveston and it was Thomas who handed Piers over to the Earl of Warwick and it was Thomas who sat with Warwick in judgement on the favourite. It wasn’t a happy outcome for Gaveston who found his head separated from his shoulders.
The royal cousins patched things up in the short-term but following the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314 when Edward was a rather inglorious runner-up – or perhaps that should be runner away. Lancaster was able to take the moral high ground and wrested power from the king’s hands. Matters weren’t helped by the fact that the barons were resentful of the king’s bad governance, his failure to beat the Scots and the fact that moderate nobles such as the Earl of Gloucester died at Bannockburn. It was inevitable that there would be some form of civil conflict. The trigger was Edward’s new favourite, Hugh Despenser – a particularly unpleasant individual if the chronicles are to be believed. He acquired land that had belonged to Gloucester on the Welsh Marches and then took the opportunity to help himself to a bit more as well. Men such as the Mortimers, Cliffords and even the Earl of Hereford found their land holdings in Wales threatened by Despenser and Lancaster found himself with several very enthusiastic supporters. The time seemed ripe. He elicited support from the Scots and gathered his army.
Luck, however, was not on Lancaster’s side. First he lost many of his stores while trying to ford a flooded river. The king’s army, under the command of the Earls of Surrey and Kent, was larger than expected and Lancaster found himself moving north rather than south. He wasn’t blessed with particularly talented scouts either. No one spotted the King’s northern army under the command of Sir Andrew de Harcla heading south to join with the main army. Lancaster found himself trapped between two forces loyal to the king.
The rebels had no choice but to take the bridge at Boroughbridge if they wished to escape but when they arrived they discovered that de Harcla had got there first. The bridge was guarded by his knights and men-at-arms while the river banks were lined with his archers. At first, the exchange was limited to arrows singing across the river. It was stalemate, until that is, the Earl of Hereford attacked the bridge in heroic style. It was unfortunate that armour did not protect the lower regions because Hereford was disembowelled by one of de Harcla’s spearman who’d climbed under the bridge. There was a moment of panic that saw Roger de Clifford the heir to the castles of Appleby, Pendragon and Brougham felled by an arrow. The rebels withdrew but in good order.
Thomas of Lancaster was forced to parley with de Harcla. He reminded the knight that he’d gained his spurs from Thomas himself. He promised that if de Harcla changed sides that there would be other and greater rewards. De Harcla refused. Finally Thomas agreed that he would surrender the next day or suffer the consequences. Thomas went off for a good night’s sleep in Boroughbridge. De Harcla and his men spent an uncomfortable night watching the bridge. Personally, I like to think that de Harcla wanted his old mentor to slip through the lines and make his escape because the next morning hostilities didn’t recommence until the arrival of the Sheriff of Yorkshire.
De Harcla began his attack on the town (the image of the battle with the burning houses gives some indication of Boroughbridge’s plight). There was no more choice in the matter. Lancaster’s army fled. Lancaster himself sought sanctuary in a chapel just off the market square. His sanctuary was not respected.
These days Boroughbridge is much more peaceful I’m pleased to say and the ramshackle wooden bridge that crossed the River Ure is decidedly more solid these days. Where de Harcla’s men once lined up to stop Lancaster’s army there’s a picnic area. There are some handy interpretation boards with some delightful illustrations along the way and at Aldborough there’s an opportunity to view Boroughbridge’s Battle Cross. Up until the Victorian period it had stood in the market square for five hundred years – one of the country’s earliest war memorials perhaps?
When we set off on the four mile walk around the site of the battle the sun even shone – it was the beginning of June and although we didn’t realise it at the time but it was one of the few hot summer days of 2012. Having said that we did have to pick up our pace over the last mile or so on account of the rather heavy storm cloud that threatened. Better a soaking though than the fate that befell Thomas of Lancaster. He was dressed in his servant’s clothes, paraded through the streets of York, pelted with mud and then tried in his own castle – Pontefract. When they executed him – they made him face in the direction of Scotland.