De facto Ruler of England (1314-1318)
2nd Earl of Lancaster (1296-1322)
2nd Earl of Leicester (1296-1322)
2nd Earl of Derby (1296-1322)
Earl of Lincoln (1311-1322)
Earl of Salisbury (1311-1322)
Born c1277 Died 1322
Thomas was the eldest son of Edmund Crouchback, the Earl of Lancaster and therefore a grandson of Henry III and also, through his mother Blanche of Artois a great-grandson of Louis VIII of France.
On his father's death in 1296 he inherited the earldoms of Lancaster and Leicester (and very probably that of Derby as well). He later married Alice de Lacy, daughter and heiress of Henry de Lacy, the Earl of Lincoln, so that when Henry died in 1311 he thus obtained his father-in-law's earldoms of Lincoln and Salisbury.
His cousin Edward of Carnarvon became Edward II in July 1307, and immediately annoyed everybody by recalling Piers de Gaveston (previously exiled by his father Edward I) and showering him with gifts including the earldom of Cornwall. Thomas became the focus of the opposition to Edward's delegation of authority to Gaveston. Initially Thomas and his supporters engineered the banishment of the detested king's favourite in 1308, only to find that Piers Gaveston was soon recalled by the king.
In 1310 the opposition therefore took on a more formal aspect and organised itself into a committee of twenty-one leading barons known as the Lords Ordainers, including naturally Thomas himself. These Lords Ordainers drew up a list of forty-one articles known as the Ordinances of 1311 which sought to impose restrictions on Edward's power and once more exiled Gaveston.
Once again Gaveston returned in the January of 1312 and this time Thomas led a revolt against the king, captured Piers de Gaveston and killed him in June 1312. A full scale rebellion was only averted by Edward's acceptance of the Ordinances of 1311.
Although Thomas was thereafter reconciled with the king in 1313 and was pardoned for his rebellion of the previous year he declined to take part in Edward's Scottish expedition of 1314. A wise decision as it turned out, as the expedition ended with the disaster of Bannockburn on the 24th June 1314. Thomas took advantage of events to take effective control of the government away from Edward, taking personal command of the forces raised to fight the Scots, and packed the government with his own supporters.
However truth be told, Thomas wasn't that much better at running things than Edward. He quarrelled with the other barons who began to resent his assumption of power and soon began his own private war with John de Warrene, after the latter assisted his wife Alice de Lacy in running away from him. There was a widespread famine in the years 1315-1316 and the war in Scotland went as badly as before with the Scots threatening to take Berwick. In 1318 Thomas was replaced by a more moderate group of barons under the leadership of Aymer de Valence, the Earl of Pembroke, and was forced by the Treaty of Leake to relinquish his grip on the government.
From 1319 onwards the younger Hugh Despenser began to be similarly favoured by Edward as Gaveston had before and came increasingly (with his father) to dominate the government. Thomas took no part in public affairs and indeed was suspected of reaching secret deals with the Scots, who mysteriously spared his lands when they were raiding the north of England.
Eventually Hugh Despenser attracted almost as much opposition as Gaveston, particularly as Hugh Despenser sought to obtain as much of the massive de Clare inheritance as he could lay his hands on, antagonising various Marchers Lords whose interests were threatened by this ambition.
In 1321 Thomas sought to take advantage of this climate of discontent and rebelled against Edward once more, drawing his support from disaffected barons in Wales and the north of England. For once Edward II acted with a sense of purpose and having first dealt with rebellion in the Welsh marches moved against Thomas himself, forcing the latter to retreat from Burton-on-Trent to Pontefract, and from there to Lancaster. It was at nearby Boroughbridge that the two armies clashed in March 1322, although in truth the battle of Boroughbridge was little more than a brief skirmish where most of Thomas troops rapidly deserted.
Thomas was later arrested whilst praying at Boroughbridge church, paraded around York before being taken to Pontefract castle. There he was formally tried for treason, and very naturally convicted of said crime and sentenced to be hanged, drawn and quartered, which was commuted to a simple beheading on account of his royal blood. He was executed near Pontefract on the 22nd of March 1322.
Generally speaking, judgements made Thomas are not complimentary; he has been variously described as "a coarse, selfish and violent man, without any of the attributes of a statesman"1 and as "vindictive, greedy and cruel, and lethargic when presented with real power"2. He appears to have been disliked by everyone particularly his wife who was only to eager to get way from him.
But as is often the case his reputation improved with age, and he became more popular in death than he ever was in life. His Lancastrian successors portrayed him as a patriot and a defender of popular liberties, his tomb at Pontefract became to be associated with miracles, and there was even talk of him being put forward for canonisation. Which is why he later became known as 'Thomas the Martyr'.
On his death he left no children and consequently his younger brother Henry of Lancaster became his nominal heir.
1See the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica
2See the The Companion to British History
The 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica entries for
DESPENSER, HUGH LE
LANCASTER, THOMAS, EARL OF
Charles Arnold Baker The Companion to British History (Longcross Press, 1996)
The Honour of Pontefract
Hugh le Despenser
House of Lancaster