Constable of England (1376-1397)
1st Earl of Buckingham (1377-1397), Duke of Gloucester (1385-1397)
De facto Ruler of England (1388-1389)
Born 1355 Died 1397
Thomas was the fifth and youngest son of Edward III, king of England and Philippa of Hainault, born at Woodstock Palace in Oxfordshire on the 7th of January 13551. Sometime before the year 1376 he was betrothed to Eleanor de Bohun, daughter and co-heiress of Humphrey de Bohun, 7th Earl of Hereford, who had earlier died in 13732. It was through his marriage that Thomas obtained the office of Constable of England, a hereditary position previously held by the Bohun family. In the following year his nephew Richard II succeeded as king he was created Earl of Buckingham at the coronation on the 16th July 1377. Since Richard was but ten years old at his coronation and it was natural therefore that Thomas, as the king's uncle, should take some part in the government of the kingdom. The Hundred Years War continued to smoulder and Thomas was initally engaged in defending the coast against the French and their Castilian allies who sought to take advantage of the change in government.
In 1380 Thomas was appointed the king's lieutenant in France and commanded the army that invaded northern France and laid siege to, but failed to take, the town of Nantes. On his return to England in the following year Thomas was rather dismayed to learn that his nephew Henry Bolingbroke had married his wife's sister, Mary de Bohun. This was a source of some friction between Thomas and his brother John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, as it meant sharing out the vast Bohun inheritence3, although it appears that they were soon entirely reconciled whilst they were occupied in crushing the Peasants Revolt in 1381.
It was during Richard's Scottish expedition of 1385 that he was created Duke of Gloucester on the 6th August, but despite this particular mark of favour Thomas remained at odds with the king. It seems that Thomas felt that his nephew relied too much on the advice of lesser men and failed to give due regard to the views of those better qualified by birth and experience to so; prominent amongst whom was of course Thomas himself. With his older brother John away in Spain pursuing his Castillian ambitions, and therefore unable to restrain his more headstrong brother, Thomas capitalised on the general discontent within the kingdom and placed himself at the head of a baronial party who were critical of the perceived extravagance and incompetence of Richard's government and whose criticism was dircted in particular at the king's key advisers, Michael de la Pole, 1st Earl of Suffolk and Robert de Vere, 9th Earl of Oxford.
Under Thomas' leadership this baronial party forced Richard to dismiss Michael de la Pole from his post as Lord Chancellor in 1386 and accept the supervision of commission appointed to reform the kingdom and the royal household. When it became clear that Richard had little intention of abiding by this agreement, Thomas, together with four other prominent magnates formal appealed for treason a number of the king's ministers. These Lords Appelant, as they became known, took up arms against the king and defeated the Earl of Oxford at the battle of Radcot bridge in December 1387, forcing de Vere to flee to the continent.
Abandoned by de Vere, Richard II was unable to prevent the Lords Appellant from entering London and taking charge of the government. It seems that it was the intention of Thomas to depose Richard but that he was persuaded otherwise by his fellow Appellants and so they contented themselves with dismissing Richard's advisers from government. In the following month he appeared as the leader of the lords appellant in the Merciless Parliament, which met in February 1388 and was packed with his supporters, where "he took a savage revenge upon his enemies, while not neglecting to add to his own possessions."
Whilst the Lords Appellant, with Thomas as their leader, ran the country for the next year, it soon became apparent that they were incapable of forming an effective government. In May 1389 Richard II was permitted to regain control of the administration and appoint his own ministers once more. Thereafter Thomas had made his peace with the king and was even employed occasionally on public business, although he largely remained in the background. But whilst and on the surface it seemed that relations between the two were amicable, the king was simply biding his time.
In 1396 Richard II agreed a twenty-eight year truce with the French and to seal the deal agreed to marry Isabella of Valois, daughter of the French king Charles VI. Thomas was opposed both to the peace with France and to Richard's second marriage and made his views on these matters very clear. This certainly provided the pretext for Richard to act against his uncle, but in truth the king had neither forgotten nor forgiven those who had earlier challanged his authority and caused the death of many of his friends and supporters. By 1397 Richard felt he was in a strong enough position to act and on the 11th July 1397 Thomas was arrested at his home in Pleshey Castle, Essex and bundled off to Calais. Rumours soon began circulating of his death, although Thomas remained alive and well and held in safe custody in Calais. On the 17th August a justice, named Sir William Rickhill, was ordered to Calais to extract a suitable confession from the duke. On the 8th of September Thomas duly confessed his guilt to the crime of treason and it is most likely that he was killed very shortly afterwards.
When parliament met later that same month it was announced that Thomas had died of natural causes; nevertheless he was posthumously declared guilty of treason and his estates forfeited. His body was returned to England and buried at the Collegiate Church of the Holy Trinity in Pleshey, but was later moved to Westminster Abbey. Described as "a man of choleric temper and militant tastes", Thomas was best known for his impatience, hot temper and lack of judgement. An agressive and vindictive politician, he was never a very popular man whilst he was alive. He nevertheless attracted something of the reputation of a martyr once dead, and was later portrayed as one of the victims of Richard II's 'tyranny'.
From April 1374 by virtue of his betrothal to Eleanor de Bohun, Thomas was in receipt of the third penny of the counties of Essex and Northampton, a fact which has led some to conclude that he had inherited the title of Earl of Essex. However it is worth noting that he was described simply as Constable of England when called to the parliament of 1377, and that when he was created an earl Richard chose the long unused dignity of Buckingham to ennoble rather than those of Essex or Northampton to which he had some hereditary claim.
By his marriage with Eleanor he had one son, Humphrey, who inherited the Buckingham title, but not that of Gloucester and later died unmarried; and four daughters, the most notable of whom was Anne, who was successively the wife of Thomas, 3rd Earl of Stafford, Edmund, 5th Earl of Stafford, and William Bourchier, Count of Eu.
1 Technically the fifth surviving son, very probably the seventh actual son of Edward and Philippa taking into account a William and another Thomas who died in their infancy.
2 It seems that Thomas and Eleanor were contracted to marry in 1374, and were married at the latest by 1376, despite the fact that Eleanor was only around seven at the time for their betrothal.
3 Which Thomas had meant to keep for himself by the simple means of preventing his sister-in-law Mary from marrying anyone at all.
4 There was in particular a profound annoyance over the award of the dignity of Duke of Ireland to de Vere as he was not of royal blood.
- The entry for GLOUCESTER, THOMAS OF WOODSTOCK, DUKE OF in the 1911 Encyclopedia Brittanica and the entry for Gloucester, Thomas of Woodstock, duke of in the The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia.
- Charles Arnold Baker The Companion to British History (Longcross Press, 1996)
- Burkes Peerage Vol 11 1851 reproduced at