26 October, 2010

The Trial and Execution of Thomas of Lancaster

A post about Thomas, earl of Lancaster's trial and execution on 22 March 1322, as described in several chronicles of the fourteenth century. (Edward II executed around twenty other baronial rebels, whom he called the Contrariants, at the same time.)

A quick recap: Thomas and his allies lost the battle of Boroughbridge to Andrew Harclay on 16 March 1322 - Edward II, a few miles away at Doncaster, informed Pope John XXII of the victory on 18 March* - and the earl was taken via York to his own castle and favoured residence of Pontefract, whose constable surrendered without a fight to Edward on 19 or 20 March. Lancaster was condemned to death in the great hall of the castle, following a so-called trial in which he was not allowed to speak, and executed on 22 March. The official indictment appears in Foedera*, and comprises the many charges and accusations Edward II summoned up against his cousin, including treason, as Lancaster and other Contrariants had invited several of Robert Bruce's liegemen to England in 1322 to ride with them against their king. The charges also included Lancaster's and his household's jeering at Edward as the king passed through Pontefract on his way from York to London in the late summer of 1317**, and Lancaster's blocking of the roads in an attempt to prevent Edward's travelling through Yorkshire earlier a few weeks previously; Edward II, not a man to forget an insult, had never forgiven Lancaster for preventing his passage through his own kingdom or for his appallingly rude lèse-majesté. The death of Piers Gaveston in June 1312 was not mentioned, but few contemporary chroniclers failed to point out that Edward had revenge for Piers' murder much on his mind.
[* Foedera 1307-1327, pp. 477-479.]
[** Et cum dominus Rex a partibus Eboracum se divertisset versus partes australes, & venisset cum familia sua, transeundo juxta Pontem Fractemdictus Thomas comes & homines sui exierunt castrum praedictum, & ad despiciendum dominum Regem, acclamaverunt in ipsum Regem vilissime & contemptibiliter cum magno tumultu, in maximum contemptum ipsius domini Regis]

Although the sole blame for Lancaster's execution was heaped on the two Hugh Despensers at their own so-called trials in October/November 1326, the two men and Edward II were not the only ones who condemned Lancaster to death: the earls of Pembroke, Richmond, Kent, Arundel, Surrey, Atholl and Angus also sat in judgement on him, as did the royal justice Robert Malberthorpe. Edward II, Kent and Richmond were Lancaster's first cousins; Pembroke his first cousin once removed; Surrey, Atholl and Angus had once served in his retinue.  (As, indeed, had several of the knights who fought against Lancaster at Boroughbridge.)

The Chronicle of Lanercost: Edward "sent for the earl to come to Pontefract, where he remained still in the castle of the earl; and there, in revenge for the death of Piers de Gaveston (whom the earl had caused to be beheaded), and at the instance of the earl's rivals (especially of Sir Hugh Despenser the younger), without holding a parliament or taking the advice of the majority, caused sentence to be pronounced that he should be drawn, hanged and beheaded. But, forasmuch as he was the queen's uncle and son of the king's uncle, the first two penalties were commuted, so that he was neither drawn nor hanged, only beheaded in like manner as this same Earl Thomas had caused Piers de Gaveston to be beheaded. Howbeit, other adequate cause was brought forward and alleged, to wit, that he had borne arms against the king of England in his own realm; but those who best knew the king's mind declared that the earl never would have been summarily beheaded without the advice of parliament, nor so badly treated, had not that other cause prevailed, but that he would have been imprisoned for life or sent into exile. This man, then, said to be of most eminent birth and noblest of Christians, as well as the wealthiest earl in the world, inasmuch as he owned five earldoms, to wit, Lancaster, Lincoln, Salisbury, Leicester and Ferrers [Derby], was taken on the morrow of St Benedict Abbot in Lent and beheaded like any thief or vilest rascal on a certain hillock outside the town..."

Scalacronica: "Thomas, earl of Lancaster, was beheaded at Pontefract in revenge for Piers Gaveston ['Peris de Gauirstoun'], and for other offences which he had often and habitually committed against the king, and at the very place where he had once heckled, and made others heckle, at the king as he [Edward] was travelling to York."

Anonimalle: "...the king sent him [Lancaster] to Pontefract, which place the said earl loved more than any other town in the world. And there the king entered the said earl's castle, and with Sir Hugh [Despenser the Younger] met him and degraded him by malicious and contemptuous words in his face, in mockery of him. The which Sir Hugh, Sir Edmund earl of Arundel and Sir Robert Marbelthorpe made themselves his justices...they sentenced him to be beheaded on the 20th day of March, that is, St Cuthbert's Day, in a place which the said earl much loved to visit to amuse himself, and this decapitation was done because of Sir Piers Gaveston ['Pieres de Gavastoun'] aforementioned, whom the king much loved."

Vita Edwardi Secundi: "On the fourth or fifth day after the capture of the earl of Lancaster, the king coming to Pontefract ordered him to be brought up without delay.  He was at once brought up by the king's command, and for that night he was shut up in a certain tower.  It is said that the earl had recently built that tower, and determined that when the king was captured he should be imprisoned in it for life, and so to have made the prince a lion after the manner of the Lombards.  This was the common story, but I have not heard evidence of its truth.
On the morrow the earl was led into the hall before the justices assigned for the purpose, and charged one by one with his crimes, and to each charge a special penalty was attached, namely, that first he should be drawn, then hanged, and finally decapitated.  But out of reverence for his royal blood the penalty of drawing was remitted, as also that of hanging, and one punishment was decreed for all three.  The earl, however, wishing to speak in mitigation of his crimes, immediately tried to make some points; but the judges refused to hear him, because the words of the condemned can neither harm nor be of any profit.  Then the earl said "This is a powerful court, and great in authority, where no answer is heard, nor any excuse admitted."  Here was a sight indeed!  To see the earl of Lancaster, lately the terror of the whole country, receiving judgement in his own castle and home.  Then the earl was led forth from the castle, and mounted on some worthless mule was led to the place of execution.  Then the earl stretched forth his head as if in prayer, and the executioner cut off his head with two or three strokes...
...Perhaps a hidden cause, not immediate but remote, brought punishment upon the earl.  The earl of Lancaster once cut off Piers Gaveston's head [caput Petri de Gauestone], and now by the king's command the earl has himself has lost his head. Thus, perhaps not unjustly, the earl received measure for measure, as it is written in Holy Scripture."

Brut (modernised spelling): "And now I shall tell you of the noble Earl Thomas of Lancaster.  When he was taken and brought to York, many of the city were full glad, and upon him cried with high voice "Ah, Sir Traitor! Now shall you have the reward that long time you have deserved!" and cast upon him many snowballs, and many other reproofs did him.  But the gentle earl suffered that, and said nothing to another.
And in that same time the king heard of that discomfiture [the battle of Boroughbridge], and was full glad, and in haste came to Pontefract; and Sir Hugh the Spenser, and Sir Hugh his son, and Sir John [sic], earl of Arundel, and Sir Edmund of Woodstock the king's brother, earl of Kent, and Sir Aymer de Valence, earl of Pembroke, and Master Robert Baldock, a false pilede clerc, that was dwelling in the king's court; and all they came thither with the king...And Sir Hugh the Spenser the father and Sir Hugh his son cast and thought how and in what manner the good Earl Thomas of Lancaster should be dead, without judgement of his peers; wherefore it was ordained through the king's justices that the king should put upon him points of treason [traitery].
And so it befell that he was led to the bar before the king's justices, bare-headed as a thief, in a fair hall within his own castle, that he had made therein many a fair feast, both to rich and also to poor...and Sir Robert [Malberthorpe] accused him in this manner: "Thomas!  At first, our lord the king and this court excludes you of all manner of answer. Thomas!  Our lord the king puts upon you that you have in his land ridden with banner displayed, against his peace, as a traitor."  And with that word, the gentle Earl Thomas with a high voice said "Nay, lords!  Forsooth, and by Saint Thomas, I was never traitor."  The justice said again "Thomas!  Our lord the king also puts upon you that you have robbed his folk, and and murdered his folk, as a thief.  Thomas!  The king also puts upon you that he discomforted you and your people with his folk in his own realm; wherefore you went and fled to the wood as an outlaw, and also you were taken as an outlaw."

Thomas is sentenced to hanging, drawing and quartering, which Edward II commutes to beheading "for the love of Quene Isabell," then:
"The gentle knight, when he had heard all these words, with a high voice he cried, sore weeping, and said "Alas, Saint Thomas, fair father!  Alas!  Shall I be dead thus?  Grant me now, blissful God, answer!" but all it availed him nothing; for the cursed Gascon [cursede Gascoignes, i.e. Piers Gaveston] put him hither and thither...They set upon his head in scorn a chaplet, all rent and torn, that was not worth a halfpenny; and after, they set him upon a lean white palfrey, full unseemly, and also all bare, with an old bridle; and with a horrible noise they drew him out of the castle to his death, and cast on him many snowballs [balles of snowe]. And as the tormentors led him out of the castle, he said these piteous words, and his hands held up in high towards heaven: "Now the king of Heaven give us mercy, for the earthly king has forsaken us!"...The gentle earl set him upon his knees, and turned him towards the east; but a Ribaude that men called Hugon of Moston set hand upon the gentle earl, and said in despite of him "Sir Traitor, turn thee toward the Scots, thine foul death to receive [vnderfonge]"; and turned the earl toward the north.  The noble Earl Thomas answered with a mild voice, and said "Now, fair lords, you shall do all your own will."  And with that word the friar went from him full sore; and a ribaude went to him, and smote off his head."


Clement Glen said...

It is so interesting to read the various accounts, with the differing views and odd details.

It makes me realise how difficult it must be for historians like yourself to pick your way through the details and make a decision on what really happened.

Elizabeth said...

Thanks for going to the trouble of posting the various accounts of his execution. I am so fascinated by this man! Currently I'm reading about the Earl of Surrey, who has the distinction of being the last noble Henry VIII executed, and though separated by generations, these two men have so much in common and they're both so interesting. Love reading about Lancaster - a historical crush possibly?

Anerje said...

Now this is a post to relish:> The chronicles seem to agree Edward had sought revenge for Lancaster's murder of Piers - although the Brut is very much sympathetic to Thomas. And the execution is obviously some awful parody for what happend to Piers. Anyone sympathetic to Lancaster should note it wasn't only Edward II acting against him. I doubt Pembroke ever forgave him for besmirching his honour. Plus, I'm sure there was releif from the other nobles that an 'over-mighty subject' had been destroyed.

Anerje said...

And there's no doubt that Lancaster had been a very persistent throrn in Edward's side for some time. Didn't he make himself out to be like 'Arthur' in his dealings with bruce, and his castle was intended to be like Camelot?

Gabriele Campbell said...

Well, Lancaster certainly had it coming. Can't say I pity him. ;)

Clement, historical research is a nightmare. It's also a lot of fun, or maybe we're just a weird bunch. :)

Interesting to see that the Latin text still uses the Roman 'Eboracum' for York.

Kathryn Warner said...

Thanks, Clement! I have to agree with Gabriele - historical research can be a nightmare, but it's enormous fun too! :-)

Glad you liked the post, Elizabeth! I have quite a few posts about Thomas if you're interested in reading more about him (under 'Biographies' in the sidebar) and there's a very scholarly biog of him by J.R. Maddicott (that's very difficult to find at a reasonable price, unfortunately).

Anerje, hehe, thought you'd like this one. :-) The fact that seven earls, several of them his close relatives, sat in judgement on Thomas is often ignored even today in favour of blaming the Despensers. Yes, Thomas called himself 'King Arthur' in his treasonous letters to the earl of Moray and James Douglas in 1322, asking them to come to England and ride with him and his allies against Edward.

Gabriele, I can't find much (any...) sympathy for him either. :-) I like the use of 'Eboracum' too. In Anglo-Norman at the time, the city was called 'Everwyk'.

Andrew Spencer said...

Great to see all these accounts put together in one place.

I know Lancaster gets a pretty hard press these days, much of it justified as he was hardly a particularly pleasant man, but I can't help but feel some sympathy for him.

He stood by the Ordinances longer than anyone else and found himself in an impossible position after the death of Gaveston, an act which Edward made inevitable by his stubborness.

Lancaster was certainly no more self-serving than Simon de Montfort, let the latter is lionised and Lancaster condemned or forgotten.

Anyway, keep up the good work, just thought I'd throw a Lancastrian spanner into the works!

P.s. The archbishop of York is still called Ebor today and signs his name "John Ebor"

Kathryn Warner said...

Andrew, thanks for stopping by and leaving such a perceptive comment! (Yes, Lancastrians are very welcome here too...;) I find it very hard to have any sympathy for Thomas, myself (it's an emotional thing), but I do take your points.

Janet K L Seal said...

Any idea who the other 'contrariants' were? Are there are records of the other men executed at the same time?

Kathryn Warner said...

I did a post about it here: http://edwardthesecond.blogspot.co.uk/2009/06/edward-iis-executions-of-1322.html

Between 19 and 22 men were executed in March/April 1322, including Thomas.

Anonymous said...

Very useful indeed, thanks Kathryn!

Eileen said...

Are you able to confirm whether John De Harrington, first Baron Harington, and adherent of the Earl of Lancaster was indeed one of the barons named among the group who killed Piers Gaveston?

Kathryn Warner said...

I don't know, I'm not familiar with him.

Unknown said...

It is interesting that only one of the chronicles mention it taking more than one stroke to decapitate him. There seemed to be a iconography of depicting his execution in paintings and manuscripts with his neck bleeding as he is stricken. I wonder if that detail was one of things that grew in popularity in the years after his death, along with the push for his canonization?

Anonymous said...

How old was Thomas when he was executed?

Kathryn Warner said...

Probably 44. My theory is that he was born on 29 December 1277.