Thursday, 12 January 2012

Thomas of Lancaster – An Unlikely Saint?

Religious and spiritual life in Europe in the Middle Ages was dominated by the Catholic Church, and every person from the King down to the lowliest peasant lived lives that were ordered around the beliefs, ceremonies and doctrines of that Church. The medieval world was one where heaven, hell, angels, devils and saints were very real, and every parish church would have had brightly coloured murals and paintings depicting them and the relics of saints were big business.  In order to qualify for medieval sainthood the first step was of course to be dead, a person would also generally have had to have lived a holy, virtuous life, to have been a staunch adherent of the Church with not a taint of heresy, and being martyred for your faith certainly got you extra brownie points.  But one of fastest routes to swift canonisation was if miracles were reported occurring at your tomb, when your relics were present, at where you were killed or if something miraculous occurred when you were being implored in prayer to intercede with God on someone’s behalf.

Although this was quite a stiff set of qualifications to acquire before your name could be put forward to the Pope for canonisation, history did provide some very unlikely candidates.  One of these unlikely potential saints was a member of the English royal family, Thomas of Lancaster.  So how did a powerful, wealthy English baron become revered as a saint after his death, with the Commons petitioning for his canonization in the parliament of 1327 and King Edward III writing to the Pope three times to request that he was elevated to sainthood?  Especially a royal baron who had rebelled against his king and had been executed as a traitor?

Thomas of Lancaster


Thomas of Lancaster was born in 1278 and was a double royal as his father Edmund Crouchback, 1st Earl of Lancaster was a son of King Henry III of England and his mother was Blanche of Artois, who had been Queen of Navarre before she was widowed. He was destined to become one of the most powerful and influential barons in England, and held many titles and owned many great estates.  Thomas of Lancaster inherited the earldoms of Leicester, Lancaster and Derby, and on his marriage to Alice de Lacey he also became the Earl of Lincoln and Salisbury, 11th Baron of Halton and 7th Lord of Bowland. Material wealth and more prestige seem to be all that this marriage brought him, as the couple did not have any children and was reputedly an unhappy one.  In a plotline straight from Hollywood, the unhappy Countess was abducted while she was staying at her manor at Canford in Dorset, by a knight called Richard de St Martin, who was a henchman of the Earl of Surrey, John de Warenne. Thomas of Lancaster was infuriated by this high handed behaviour, so he retaliated by divorcing the Countess and taking a couple of the Earl of Surrey’s castles by force.  This altercation between two such powerful barons was potentially very destabilising for England, so King Edward II was forced to step in and broker a shaky truce between the two men.  Unfortunately for the Countess, her now ex-husband got to keep his earldoms of Salisbury and Lincoln as their marriage contract had stipulated that he held these titles in his own right.



Although he was eventually to rebel, in the first few years of King Edward II’s reign he was a loyal supporter of his royal cousin.  He played an in important role at Edward II’s coronation in 1308, carrying the great sword Curtana that had once belonged to King Edward the Confessor. However, King Edward II was prone to having favourites, who he plucked from obscurity and showered with lands, titles and royal favours. Edward was not a monarch who was particularly skilful at playing the game of medieval politics, and he did not seem to comprehend the depth of his baron’s rage that their king was taking his counsel from lowly-born non-entities rather from themselves. In these feudal times rank, wealth and power were everything, and the senior barons of England, including Thomas of Lancaster, felt that Edward II had snubbed them and insulted them.



It was Piers Gaveston, a particular favourite of Edward II, who seemed to really get under Thomas of Lancaster’s skin and set him on the path to rebellion.  King Edward had raised Piers Gaveston from very humble origins, as he originally had been a mere Gascon squire, to be his most powerful advisor and constant companion. Thomas of Lancaster held Gaveston in total contempt referring to him as ‘the Fiddler’, and when Gaveston appealed to the King for the dismissal of one of Lancaster’s entourage he flew into a rage and planned vengeance.  He withdrew his support for the King and joined with the Lords Ordainers, who where a group of powerful barons who were insisting that Gaveston be dismissed from Court and banished and that they would effectively take over ruling the realm. In 1310-1311 Lancaster used his forces to separate Piers Gaveston from Edward II, and the King was forced to renounce his favourite and send him abroad. The barons also met to create Ordinances designed to curb the monarch’s spending and to impose control over the royal officers.

Edward II was, not surprisingly, very unhappy at this turn of events, and started fighting with the Lords Ordainers during 1312 to regain his royal prerogatives and his cherished companion. Gaveston managed to slip back into England, but he was captured by the barons, including Lancaster, who then tried him and had him executed.  Edward II was forced to pardon the barons, but the Ordinances that they had written were scrapped.  But King Edward was soon to face more grief, as on 23rd June 1314 he was heavily defeated by the Scots under the command of Robert the Bruce.  Thomas of Lancaster had not accompanied his King on his attempted invasion of Scotland, and had sent the minimum of troops that feudal law demanded to join the royal army. In the following four years after Edward’s humiliating defeat Lancaster was the de facto ruler of England, but had huge trouble with Scottish raids across the border and continuing squabbles amongst the barons.

In the meantime, Edward II had found a couple of new favourites to lavish his attention on who were Hugh le Despenser, 1st Earl of Winchester and his son Hugh the younger Despenser.  They joined forces with some of the barons who were also discontented with the stalemate of Lancaster’s rule and in 1318 they deposed him and stripped him of his powers to rule.  However, you can’t keep a good rebel baron down for long and Thomas of Lancaster rebelled against the King again in 1321.  His army was eventually defeated at the Battle of Boroughbridge in 1322, and Lancaster was captured. This time there was no escape, and he was summarily tried and condemned by a tribunal comprising King Edward II, the Despensers and the Earl of Arundel.  He was not permitted to defend himself at the trial or have another speak for him, and he was beheaded just outside Pontefract Castle. Edward II also had around twenty of the other rebel leaders executed which was regarded as a shocking number even by the somewhat hardened attitudes of medieval England.

So by now you might well be wondering how a rebel baron, who had divorced his wife, held fierce grudges, and spent his life firmly in pursuit of temporal power and wealth was ever regarded as a suitable candidate for sainthood?  Well it would seem that shortly after his execution, miracles began to occur both at the site of his execution and at his tomb in Pontefract Priory.  These miracles were reported to the King during the parliament that was held in York during April 1322, so they were supposedly occurring within weeks of Lancaster’s death. One chronicler wrote that a blind priest had a dream three nights running that if he went and prayed at the spot of Thomas of Lancaster’s execution that he would be able to see again.  The dream was so powerful, that the priest went to the execution site and prayed.  During his prayers his put his hand on the patch of ground where Lancaster had died, and some dried blood mixed with sand stuck to his hand.  He rubbed this mixture onto his eyes and miraculously regained his sight.  There was also reputedly a drowned child who miraculously revived after being dead for three days when it was placed on the tomb of the executed baron.  Although Thomas of Lancaster was venerated in England as a saint and a martyr because of these supposed miracles, he never officially became a saint as despite all the letters sent to the Pope, he was never canonised. So was this man really a saint, or just a baron who turned traitor against his king and was beheaded for his crimes?

Thomas of Lancaster image Wikimedia Commons Public Domain


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