Thomas Plantagenet, 2nd Earl of Lancaster

Born: c. 1278

Died: March 22, 1322

Pontefract, Yorkshire, England (Age c. 44)

Lancaster in History

When one considers Thomas Plantagenet's close relation to the royal family, it comes as no surprise that he became one of England's wealthiest and most successful magnates. Being the son of Edmund "Crouchback," Earl of Lancaster, made Thomas a grandson of King Henry III, a nephew of Edward I and a cousin of Edward II. On his mother's side, he was also a grandson of the French King Louis IX. Furthermore, Thomas would go on to marry Alice Lacy, heiress to the vast Lacy titles and lands. Upon his father's death in 1296, Thomas became Earl of Lancaster and Leicester and became a personal favorite of his uncle, Edward I, serving with him on a number of Scottish campaigns and becoming a sort of antithesis to Prince Edward, the heir to the throne, who showed little interest in martial activities (making it ironic that he would one day defeat Lancaster in battle). The king's preference for Lancaster over his weakling son did not seem to damage the relationship between the two cousins, and they remained on close terms even into the opening years of the prince's reign as Edward II; one might even go so far as to say that Lancaster was one of the new king's staunchest advocates in the opening year or so of his reign. To say the very least, Edward II was nowhere close to the man his father was and knew nothing about governing the realm, showing favor to a small group of men and virtually ignoring the nobles who held all the power and wealth in England. Edward II's excess of favor shown to one man in particular, Piers Gaveston, would be one of the deciding elements in the alienation between the king and his cousin.

Lancaster showed no animosity towards Gaveston at first, but once he saw that Edward's preference towards his favorite was helping to financially cripple the realm and prevent him from governing effectively, the earl was not willing to passively sit back anymore. Another reason the cousins separated was undoubtedly because the rewards and favor Lancaster had been receiving were now being given to Gaveston, with the earl now virtually ignored. These factors, combined with Gaveston's arrogant and mocking behavior (he created humiliating nicknames for the lords, calling Lancaster "churl"), forced the lords to take further action. Gaveston had already been sent into exile once by a reluctant Edward II, but had returned more arrogant than before. After continued pressure from the magnates, the king agreed to assign a group of lords ordainer to settle some of the issues in the realm. The group consisted of twenty-one members of the nobility and clergy, but Lancaster was undoubtedly the group's leader and, after the death of his father-in-law (the previous leader of the opposition party), became the richest man in the realm and acquired two further earldoms, those of Lincoln and Salisbury. When the ordinances were put into effect in 1311, they represented a way for the king to govern the realm more effectively and to balance out the royal exchequer. However, most knew that their main objective was Gaveston's removal from the king's presence, and the favorite was exiled once again. Unfortunately, the king soon after nullified the ordinances and recalled Gaveston. This time, the insulted nobles would move in for the kill.

The magnates, unwilling to deal with Gaveston's dominance at court anymore, chased off the royal favorite and, after a siege of Scarborough Castle, captured him. Gaveston was then put in the custody of the Earl of Pembroke, a moderate member of the ordainers, to be taken to trial. However, Pembroke's party was intercepted by that of the Earl of Warwick (a close associate and political ally of Lancaster) and was taken to Lancaster's lands, given a mock trial, and executed. This event alienated moderate barons such as Pembroke and the Earl of Surrey, the former of whom considered Lancaster's actions had betrayed his honor, who then rejoined the royal party. With Gaveston gone, Lancaster now attempted to press the issue of the ordinances on the king, but with little success. However, in 1314, the king was forced to deal with the lingering problem of Scottish raids on English territories. Several lords agreed to give him assistance but several others, including Lancaster, outright refused, claiming the campaign violated the terms of the Ordinances. The result was a highly devastating defeat for the English against a much smaller Scottish army at Bannockburn. With this embarrassing loss, the king became almost a non-entity in his own country and was prey for the magnates, who looked to Lancaster to lead the country while the king was down (though not out).

For the next several years, Lancaster was the leading figure in England's government and the king may as well not have even been present. The earl continued to further the elements of the ordinances (this time with more success) while also building up his own wealth and territories. Lancaster, however, despite his seemingly good intentions, was not much more successful a leader than his cousin and did not seem to express any great interest in the gridlock and many issues that went along with governing a kingdom. He was forced to deal with a brutal famine within England and continuous border raids by the Scots. By 1316, Lancaster had lost a majority of his close political allies and was a virtual outcast. Additionally, a new court party was emerging, consisting of two men named Hugh Despenser, father and son, among several others, and the king began to shower them with gifts just as he had done for Gaveston, once again ignoring his cousin. A truce between Lancaster and the royal party clearly needed to be put into effect to prevent the outbreak of civil war. This came with the signing of the Treaty of Leake (1318) but with Lancaster's distinct lack of friends, he was forced to agree to the king's terms, and the favorites that Lancaster hated so much, were to remain at court. The next several years saw better relations between Lancaster and the king and the earl even participated in several Scottish campaigns on his cousin's behalf, though without any real success.

By 1321, the royal party, the Despensers in particular, was becoming far too powerful and the king was continuously providing them with royal grants that he should not have been merely giving away. Many of the grants given to the Despensers were in Wales (including the town of Gower), thus alienating a number of powerful marcher lords, some of whom were members of the royal council. The lords turned to Lancaster for assistance on the matter and began destroying the Despensers' lands. These actions prompted the king to exile his favorites but he soon enough found a reason to let them back into the country. Edward then showed remarkable skill in cutting off the army of the marcher lords and forcing them to surrender at Shrewsbury. The distinct lack of Lancaster's forces certainly aided the king in his victory, and he was now free to pursue Lancaster himself. Many of the earl's men felt that his cause was a lost one and deserted him. Lancaster attempted to flee but was intercepted by the royal army at Boroughbridge. A battle broke out that saw a decisive royal victory and the capture of Lancaster. The earl was given a show trial and executed a week later. In the end, one must agree that Lancaster simply did not know how to handle the immense power he possessed, and it proved to be his downfall. The earl died childless, and the earldom was eventually passed to his brother Henry.

Lancaster in Marlowe

Appears in: Edward II

Within Edward II, the Earl of Lancaster is one of the lords who is against the king and his favorite Piers Gaveston. When the rebellion breaks out and the king is victorious, Lancaster and his ally, the Earl of Warwick, are captured and executed. Within the play, the royal victory comes as a direct result of Gaveston's execution. Historically, Lancaster was not defeated and executed until 1322, ten years after Gaveston's death (though the issue always remained a sore one between the earl and the king).


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