13 April, 2017

Contrariant Miracles 1322/23

In March and April 1322, Edward II had between nineteen and twenty-two knights and noblemen executed for taking part in the Contrariant rebellion, including his own first cousin Thomas, earl of Lancaster. Here's a reliable list of the names of the executed men; the numbers have often been inflated in modern literature, generally by including the names of men killed at Boroughbridge, and also by talking about a 'bloodbath' and a 'reign of terror' and 'horror piled upon horror' and other such absurdly over-emotional comments which tip over into the hysterical.

This post is about a rather interesting phenomenon which occurred in the aftermath of the executions: many of Edward II's subjects claimed that miracles had taken place at the execution sites of several of the Contrariants. This was, for the most part, a political protest against Edward II, the Despensers and their greedy and tyrannical regime after their victory over the Contrariants in 1322.

Miracles were being reported at the execution site of Thomas, earl of Lancaster, beheaded just outside his Yorkshire castle of Pontefract on 22 March 1322, within weeks of the earl's death. [1] A campaign to canonise Lancaster – surely one of the unlikeliest saints of all time, nearly as unlikely as Edward II himself – began in 1327, and his cult grew in popularity; as late as the Reformation, his hat and belt preserved at Pontefract were used as remedies in childbirth and for headaches. [2] A Latin song written at the end of Edward II's reign or at the beginning of his son Edward III's laments "the blessed martyr" and "flower of knights" (my response to this can be basically be summed up as: ROFL), 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." [3]

In 1323, miracles continued to be reported at the site of Lancaster's execution. 2000 people, some from as far away as Kent, gathered to pray and make oblations at his tomb in Pontefract. [4] The archbishop of York, Edward II's friend and ally William Melton, twice had to remind his archdeacon that 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. [5] Edward sent his clerk Richard Moseley to investigate, the king's attitude to the situation apparent from his description of the crowd as "malefactors and apostates" and his comment that they were praying "not to God but rather to idols." The crowd made their feelings clear, too: Moseley was assaulted, and two of his servants killed. [6] The very pro-Lancastrian Brut chronicle includes a bizarrely disgusting story in which Hugh Despenser the Younger, troubled and angered by the "great heresy" of the alleged miracles, sent a messenger to Edward to inform him about them. As the messenger passed through Pontefract, he "made his ordure" at the place where Lancaster had been beheaded – and later suffered punishment for this sacrilegious act when he "shed all his bowels at his fundament." [7]

Miracles were also said to have taken place at the execution site of the Contrariants Sir Henry Montfort and Sir Henry Wilington in Bristol: the mayor of the city told the king that Montfort’s brother bribed a poor child with two shillings "to pronounce to the people that he received healing of his sight." Edward II ordered an inquisition into the alleged miracles in October 1323. [8] On 28 June 1323, Edward had ordered Stephen Gravesend, bishop of London, to prevent people praying and making offerings at a tablet in St Paul's "whereon are depicted statues, sculpture or images of diverse persons, and amongst others the effigy of Thomas, late earl of Lancaster...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." [9] The French Chronicle of London describes this object instead as a tablet which the earl of Lancaster had had made to celebrate Edward's granting of the Ordinances in 1311. [10]

This whole thing is, I think, most revealing of the contemporary mindset. Edward II was disturbed at the political implications of these alleged miracles performed by his executed enemies, but also, being a very pious man, seems to have been genuinely angry at what he saw as 'apostasy', the worship of false images, and people disobeying the Church.


1) Anonimalle Chronicle, 108: The Brut, 228; J. R. Maddicott, Thomas of Lancaster, 329.
2) Maddicott, Lancaster, p. 329.
3) Thomas Wright, The Political Songs of England, pp. 268-72.
4) Foedera 1307-27, 536-7? 
5) Natalie Fryde, The Tyranny and Fall of Edward II, 153.
6) Cal Inq Misc 1308-48, 528-9.
7) Brut, 230.
8) Cal Chancery Warrants 1244-1326, 543.
9) Cal Close Rolls 1318-23, 723; Flores Historiarum, 213.
10) Croniques de London, 46; Anonimalle, 114.


Anonymous said...

Very interesting, 'miracles', I'm not saying they didn't or don't happen but I would imagine in a very religious era (for most) it was a sign of 'good' or 'portent of doom' and the population believed it. Edward, being a good Catholic, I would assume also adhered to this theory but to reduce his unpopularity would want to suppress any 'good' miracles occurring for his deceased enemies. A perfectly understood strategy on his behalf. I can't fault him for his behaviour, the 'Church' was incredibly important in his time. Amanda

Kathryn Warner said...

You're absolutely right, Amanda. I completely agree.

sami parkkonen said...

My take on this is more cynical: I think the same forces who worked against Edward were in action with these too. I mean, the contrarians had devastated several counties and destroyed properties and lives along their way during the rebellion so claiming them as miracle working saints was pure, in medieval terms, horse manure. And we all know to what all these myths and legends and stories lead into.

As for miracles themselves; in medieval times it was very easy to start the rumors about miracles and so on. There were dozens and dozens of similar stories all across medieval Europe, so much so that sometimes the popes were in despair with all these saints and miracle makings, unless of course, they instigated by the church itself.

Kathryn Warner said...

Cynical views always welcome! :-)

Yes, I think the numerous crimes of the Contrariants are minimised or even ignored these days, as though they were all perfect suffering saintly victims of Edward and Despenser.

sami parkkonen said...

Agreed fully. I wonder when someone will do more balanced study of those men, who btw, also betrayed their king as knights and lords of the realm by failing to participate in the wars of their ruler and anointed king and by openly opposing him, which by the laws of the land was a treason in itself.

Lancaster, for example, did all he could to wreck Edwards rule and most likely so that he could either take the throne or rule as a regent or something in that vein. So, if we look from the perspective of the law, he should have been executed for treason already in 1314 when he let down Edward in Bannockburn, as he did in all the years after that, all the way up to Boroughbridge.

Anonymous said...

I'm just curious ... does anyone know if someone's pre-existing reputation for sanctity before death was a factor in whether they would be hailed as a miracle worker after death? I read in Eamon Duffy's "Stripping of the Alters" that people thought that miracles occurred at the graves of Henry VI (first Chertsey Abbey, then Windsor Chapel) and he certainly qualified, but I also read that there were moves to canonize both Edward II and (later) Richard II, and I am not sure if they did.


sami parkkonen said...

If I remember correctly, both of those kings got some support for sainthood, or at least some one tried to get them canonized, but nothing came out of those.

Many kings and noble men were propped up to be saints or holy men, but not everyone got the official endorsement or acceptance. There were many local "saints" etc. in medieval times, whom we might call "folk saints". The cult of Santa Muerte in today's Mexico reminds me of these unofficial cults.