Thomas of Lancaster was the son of Edmund Crouchback who was the second surviving son of King Henry III. Crouchback refers to the fact that he fought in the ninth crusade so was entitled to wear a cross stitched onto the back of his clothes – no Richard III tendencies. But I digress, Thomas of Lancaster is the grandson of Henry III, just as Edward II is the grandson of Henry III – making them cousins; though they clearly weren’t the kissing variety by the end of Thomas’s life as this rather graphic image from the Luttrell Psalter demonstrates.
He was one of the richest and most powerful men in the country. He held five earldoms, was the Sheriff of Lancashire, the Steward of England and held several key strategic castles in the North including Pontefract. He fought in Scotland during Edward I’s wars and when Edward II was crowned he carried Edward the Confessor’s sword during the coronation ceremony.
The main problem was that Thomas and Piers Gaveston, the king’s favourite could not stand one another. It didn’t help that the upstart Gaveston was given a more important role during the coronation or that he referred to Thomas as ‘the churl’ or ‘the fiddler’. Despite this Thomas was initially loyal to his cousin. But as time went by it became apparent that Edward was blind where his favourite was concerned. Thomas was part of the group of barons who saw Gaveston banished- for the third time it might be added- but when the royal favourite returned to England in 1311 to spend Christmas at court despite Edward II agreeing to his banishment hostility was almost bound to break out into violence.
In Spring 1312 Edward and Piers were forced to flee York when they heard that Thomas of Lancaster was leading an army in their direction. They fled to Newcastle, leaving the pregnant Queen Isabella to deal with the irate earl as best she could. Unfortunately for the king and his friend, Thomas of Lancaster swiftly changed direction and surprised the monarch in Newcastle. Apparently the king and Piers fled with little more than they wore. It took Lancaster four days to catalogue everything that had been left behind while the king and his crony found a ship to take them south to Scarborough.
Edward demanded his fortress of Scarborough back from the control of the Percy family which they obligingly handed over and Edward left Piers Gaveston in charge. Once Thomas ascertained that the king wasn’t in residence, he besieged the castle and Piers surrendered being more of a courtier than a warrior. Thomas took Piers south for trial but the Earl of Warwick – nicknamed the ‘Black dog of Arden’ by Gaveston (and who definitely wasn’t one of Gaveston’s admirers) took the royal favourite out of Thomas’s hands, tried and executed him.
Following the disaster of Bannockburn in 1314 Edward was forced to submit to his cousin and it was Thomas who tried to rule for the next four years. It would have to be said that Thomas was a bit of a thorn in Edward’s flesh prior to this period. He refused to attend parliament and there is some evidence that he didn’t send enough men to aid his cousin against the Scots. It was during this time that Scottish raiding along the borders became prevalent and in 1318 Thomas fell from power. In 1321 Thomas was at the head of a rebellion once more. He met with forces loyal to the king at the Battle of Boroughbridge where he was taken prisoner, tried and finally executed at Pontefract Castle – for treason and rudeness towards Edward…which certainly puts a whole new meaning on the naughty step…oh yes, and for plotting with Scotland.
He was buried in Pontefract Priory (a Cluniac monastery). All that remains of the Priory is the name Monk Hill.