16 May, 2010

Saint Thomas Of Lancaster

Further to my last few posts, here's one about the aftermath of Earl Thomas of Lancaster's execution on 22 March 1322. Miracles were being reported at the site of Thomas's execution and at his tomb within weeks of his death and were reported to Edward II at the parliament which began in York in late April 1322; here's how the extremely pro-Lancastrian author of the Brut chronicle reports them (the Brut is in English; I've modernised the spelling and quoted extensively as it's such a fascinating insight into the fourteenth-century mindset). "And soon after the good earl of Lancaster was martyred, a priest, that long time had been blind, dreamed in his sleeping that he should go to the hill that the good Earl Thomas of Lancaster was done to death, and he should have his sight again."

The priest had this dream for three consecutive nights, so made his way to the hill in Pontefract, and "devoutly he made there his prayer, and prayed God and Saint Thomas that he might have his sight again. And as he was in his prayers, he laid his hand upon the same place there the good man was martyred on; and a drop of dry blood and small sand cleaved on his hand, and therewith he rubbed his eyes, and anon, through the might of God and of St Thomas of Lancaster, he had his sight again, and thanked Almighty God and St Thomas. And when this miracle was made known among men, the people came thither on every side, and knelt, and made their prayers at his tomb that is in the Priory of Pontefract [Pountfrett], and prayed that holy martyr, of succour and of help, and God heard their prayer. Also there was a young child drowned in a well in the town of Pontefract, and was dead three days and three nights; and men came and laid the dead child upon St Thomas's tomb, the holy martyr; and the child arose there from death unto life, as many a man it saw; and also many people were out of their mind [miche peple wer' out of here mynde], and God hath sent them their mind again through virtue of that holy martyr. And also God hath given to cripples their going, and to the crooked their hands and their feet, and to the blind also their sight, and to many sick folk their health, that had diverse maladies, for the love of his good martyr."

The chronicler goes on: "Also there was a rich man in Condom in Gascony; and such a malady he had, that all his right side rotted, and fell away from him; and men might see his liver, and also his heart; and so he stank, that scarcely men might come near him. Wherefore his friends were for him full sorry. But at the last, as God wanted, they prayed to St Thomas of Lancaster, that he would pray to Almighty God for that prisoner, and promised to go to Pontefract for to do their pilgrimage. And the good man soon after slept full soft, and dreamed that the martyr St Thomas came unto him, and anointed all over his sick side. And therewith the good man awoke, and was all whole; and his flesh was restored again, that before was rotted and fell away; for which miracle the good man and his friends loved God and St Thomas evermore after. And this good man came into England and took with him four fellows, and came to Pontefract; and came to that holy martyr, and made their pilgrimage; but the good man that was sick came thither all naked, save his breeches; and when they had done, they turned home again into their country, and told of the miracle whereso that they came. And also two men have been healed there of their morimal [cancer or gangrene] through help of that holy martyr, though that evil be held incurable."

According to the Brut, when the two Hugh Despensers "heard that God wrought such miracles for his holy martyr, and they would not believe it in no manner wise, but said openly that it was great heresy, such virtue of him to believe." It goes on to say that Hugh the Younger sent a messenger to Edward II, who according to the chronicler was on pilgrimage, to inform him about the miracles. The story gets pretty disgusting: as Hugh's messenger passed through Pontefract, he "made his ordure" at the place where Thomas had been beheaded, and later suffered punishment for this sacrilegious act when a "strong flux" came upon him and he "shed all his bowels at his fundament," which prevented him reaching the king. [1] Lovely.

In 1323, 2000 people, some of them from as far away as Kent, gathered to pray and make oblations at Thomas of Lancaster's tomb. [2] Edward II, from Barnard Castle in early September 1323, ordered Richard Moseley, his clerk and the constable of Pontefract Castle, to "go in person to the place of execution of Thomas, late earl of Lancaster, and prohibit a multitude of malefactors and apostates from praying and making oblations there in memory of the said earl not to God but rather to idols, in contempt of the king and contrary to his former command." (Edward making his view of the situation pretty clear, there.) Feelings were running high: Moseley and his servants were assaulted, and two of them, Richard de Godeleye and Robert de la Hawe, were killed. [3] The archbishop of York, Edward II's friend and ally William Melton, twice had to remind his archdeacon that Thomas of Lancaster was not a canonised saint and order him to disperse the throng gathering at the earl's tomb, some of whom were crushed to death. [4] Several months earlier, in June 1323, Edward had been forced to order the bishop of London (Stephen Gravesend, another friend and ally of his; both Gravesend and William Melton joined the earl of Kent's plot to restore Edward in 1330) to prevent people praying and making offerings at a tablet in St Pauls "whereon are depicted statues, sculpture or images of diverse persons," Thomas of Lancaster's among them, "as the king learns with displeasure that many of the people go to the said tablet and worship it as a holy thing without the authority of the church of Rome, asserting that miracles are done there." The Croniques de London describes this object instead as a tablet which Thomas of Lancaster had had made to celebrate Edward's granting of the Ordinances in 1311. [5]

Thomas of Lancaster's cult grew in popularity at least in part as a reaction to the tyranny of Edward II and the Despensers' regime. One of the charges against Hugh Despenser the Younger in November 1326 declares that Hugh "had him [Thomas] falsely imprisoned and robbed, and in his own hall in his castle, by your royal power which you had seized from our lord the king, had him judged by a false record contrary to law and reason and Magna Carta and also without response, and you had him martyred and murdered by hard and piteous death...And because you knew that God made miracles by my good lord whom you murdered so cruelly against the law without cause, you, Hugh, as a false Christian, sent armed men into Holy Church and had the doors of monasteries shut down and closed so that no-one was bold enough to enter the Church and worship God or his saints." Whether, or to what extent, that latter statement is true, I'm not sure.

Thomas of Lancaster wasn't the only dead nobleman elevated to a heroic, saintly status in the 1320s. The great unpopularity of the Edward II/Despenser regime after the king's defeat over his enemies in 1322 meant that the Contrariants, who were, when all's said and done, little more than a bunch of treacherous, violent criminals, were praised and remembered with great affection because they were seen to have opposed the king and his favourites. Two Contrariants executed in March 1322 in Bristol were Henry de Montfort and Henry Wilington: in September 1323, miracles were also said to have taken place at their execution site. The mayor of Bristol told Edward that Montfort's brother Reginald bribed a ‘poor child’ of the city with two shillings "to pronounce to the people that he received healing of his sight." Men named William Cliff (presumably a different one to the man of this name arrested for aiding the earl of Kent in his 1330 plot to restore Edward II) and William and John Corteis "went there many times and preached to the people that miracles were done and forcibly maintained this, saying that without doubt the things done there were true." [6]

After Edward II's downfall in 1327, a campaign to canonise Thomas of Lancaster began in earnest. Edward's half-brother the earl of Kent - one of the men who condemned Thomas to death, and also one of the men who sat in judgement on the younger Despenser and accused him of murdering Thomas, hypocrisy which doesn't seem to have bothered anyone at the time - visited Pope John XXII in 1329 to ask him to canonise Thomas. (Kent seized the opportunity while at the Curia to ask the pope for his help in rescuing the supposedly dead Edward II from imprisonment.) A text written in Latin probably in the late 1320s laments Thomas as "the blessed martyr" and "flower of knights," and says "the pouring out of prayers to Thomas restores the sick to health; the pious earl comes immediately to the aid of those who are feeble." It begins "Rejoice, Thomas, the glory of chieftains, the light of Lancaster, who by thy death imitatest Thomas [Becket] of Canterbury, whose head was broken on account of the peace of the Church, and thine is cut off for the cause of the peace in England; be to us an affectionate guardian in every difficulty." The notion that Thomas was condemned to death unfairly and was a freedom fighter for the people of England against royal despotism also appears: "He is called Earl Thomas, of an illustrious race, he is condemned without cause, who was born of a royal bed. Who when he perceived that the whole commons were falling into wreck, did not shrink from dying for the right, in the fatal commerce...he is delivered to dire death, on account of which England mourns. Alas! he is beheaded for the aid of the commons...O Thomas, strenuous champion of plentiful charity, who didst combat for the law of England's liberty, intercede for our sins with the Father of Glory, that he may give us a place with the blessed in the heavenly court." [7] (One might suggest that if Thomas of Lancaster had in fact cared at all about the common people, he would have protested against the Contrariants' abuse of them in 1321/22 and tried to protect them rather than supporting and condoning it.) Although Thomas was never actually canonised, his hat and belt preserved at Pontefract were used as remedies in childbirth and for headaches as late as the Reformation. [8] Amazing...


1) The Brut or the Chronicles of England, ed. F. W. D. Brie, vol. 1, pp. 228-230.
2) J.R. Maddicott, Thomas of Lancaster 1307-1322: A Study in the Reign of Edward II, pp. 229-230.
3) Calendar of Inquisitions Miscellaneous 1308-1348, pp. 528-529.
4) Natalie Fryde, The Tyranny and Fall of Edward II 1321-1326, p. 153.
5) Calendar of Close Rolls 1318-1323, p. 723; Flores Historiarum, ed. H. R. Luard, vol. 3, p. 213; Croniques de London depuis l’an 44 Hen III jusqu'à l'an 17 Edw III, ed. G. J. Aungier, p. 46.
6) Calendar of Chancery Warrants 1244-1326, p. 543.
7) T. Wright, The Political Songs of England, pp. 268-272.
8) Maddicott, Lancaster, p. 329.


Susan Higginbotham said...

Fascinating! (Wonder what Thomas of Lancaster's widow thought about all of this?)

Louis X said...


Rachel said...

Fascinating indeed; Lancaster might have had some good qualities (hey, I like to think the best of people ... sort of), but I'd never have picked him as a candidate for sainthood!

Although the sainthood cult thing is not as pronounced these days, you see an element of it in the over the top outpourings over the deaths of celebrities (especially those who were less than saintly in their lives). A group of Australian comics performed a song that lampooned this tendency to eulogise public figures to a ridiculous extent especially if they die prematurely (it provoked TEH OUTRAGE! in the tabloids, thus proving the point of the song) which had as its refrain, "Even tools turn into top blokes after death."

Anerje said...

Erm, this is the Thomas of Lancaster, murderer of my beloved St Piers???!!! Hardly recognise him from the Brut description! That guy from Gascony sounded in a bad way - am amazed he was a recipient of Thomas, as he had no great liking for Gascons:>

I agree with Rachel when she says the modern cult of celebrity is akin to medieval 'sainthood thinking'. Look at the re-action to Michael Jackson's death last year. Not sure if Rachel has ever seen UK 'celeb' mags - with what I term z-list celebs being photographed going to the tanning salon! yes, really! And speculation about whether Cheryl and Ashley Cole will ever get together again.

I'm sure the followers of Lancaster wanted him canonised so he could continue tobe a thorn in Edward's side, and also, the local clergy must have been rubbing their hands at the thought of all those pilgrims eading North. A very lucrative business.

Clement Glen said...

This is a very interesting point, Kathryn, about how and why certain historical characters become elevated to hero worship.

This is particularly noticeable in more recent times with the romancing of events like the ‘Great Train Robbery’ and the amount of books and pages printed by the tabloid press on characters like Ronnie Biggs-looking further back to Jesse James, Ned Kelly and even Dick Turpin.

All these people were historically absolute toe-rags, but for some reason there is something in us that is fascinated with these people and wants to glamorise their way of life.

Anonymous said...

Can anyone recommend web sites where one can search and read primary sources such as Close Rolls etc for Edward's reign?

Kate Plantagenet said...

Thanks for including the original wording. Wonderful stuff. I found this post totally fascinating and I have enjoyed the thought provoking comments.

Rachel - you are so right about the whole celebrity thing today being like sainthood/culty thing in the past - and I am going to put the word 'tool' back into my vocab. Love it!!! Haven't used it in years.

Kathryn Warner said...

Susan, I'd love to know Alice's opinion of it all!

Rachel, thank you! Great point about modern celebrities; I'm thinking of a British woman who became extremely famous after appearing on Big Brother and was ridiculed for years on end in the media, died very young of cancer a while ago and is now depicted as - yes - some kind of saint.
'Tool' is such a great word! ;-)

Anerje, yes, that's our Piers' murderer, and a traitor to boot! Amazing, isn't it?

Clement, great points! I'm reminded of the film Natural Born Killers, which pointed out the fascination with supposedly 'glamorous' murderers and toerags.

Kate, thanks! I think the comments are more interesting than my post, hehe. ;-)

Kathryn Warner said...

Anon: you can see the Patent Rolls here: http://www.uiowa.edu/~acadtech/patentrolls/

And the Close, Fine Rolls etc: http://www.lib.byu.edu/fhc/index.php

Rachel said...

Kate - you've got to love the Chaser boys! Generally it was sledge-hammer undergraduate humour, but they were often spot on. I was reminded of it during the aftermath of Carl Williams' death (for the non-Melburnians reading this, he was a notorious crook and shameless media-slut who ordered numerous hits of other criminals, and was murdered in prison about a month ago). Not that he's being touted for sainthood, but something about the saturation coverage made me think of it. It wouldn't surprise me; after all, like Clement mentioned, Ned Kelly's been made a "hero" a century after his death.

Kathryn - that woman you mention even rated articles in our newspapers ... and UK Big Brother wasn't even shown here! It's extraordinary isn't it?

Well I suppose it sells papers, trash mags and ghost-written biographies now, just as the sainthood movements 700 years ago would have been good revenue raisers. Funny to think that even though society is much more secular, there's a drive to find a kind of "saint-substitute" in popular culture, and plenty of people quite happy to cash in on that tendency. Plus ça change ...

Gabriele Campbell said...

Well, most Roman emperors were deified, including some I'd not have put on the list*. There must be something in human nature to need some sort of idols.

BTW, who are Cheryl and Ashley Cole? :)

* And Hadrian almost didn't make it though he wasn't a bad emperor. Maybe it was that boyfriend thing his wife didn't approve of. ;)