On this day 1322, Thomas, earl of Lancaster was defeated at the battle of Boroughbridge. Simon Payling from our Commons 1461-1504 project discusses the events that led to Lancaster’s defeat and how his execution prompted a cult-like following for Lancaster.
Thomas, earl of Lancaster (b. c.1278), cousin of Edward II and for much of that King’s reign the leader of opposition to him, has proved a divisive figure in death as well as life. The near-contemporary monastic chronicler Ranulf Higden (d.1364) cited his virtues – his generous alms-giving, his respect for churchmen and his consistency of political action – but balanced them against his more lurid demerits. Not only did he mistreat his wife, the great heiress Alice de Lacy, but he ‘defouled a greet multitude of women and of gentil wenches’; he was murderously vindictive to his enemies; and he supported ‘apostates and evel doers’. The ‘Oh! Earl of Lancaster’ lament of the Vita Edwardi Secundi cited above hints at his pride and overweening ambition. Modern judgments tend to emphasise these negatives. To his modern biographer, John Maddicott, he was, ‘unscrupulous, violent and avaricious’ and ‘not a man likely to convince others that he could either lead or govern’; and, to May McKisack, more neutrally, he was ‘the supreme example of the over-mighty subject whose end must be either to destroy or be destroyed’. Here he appears as, in part at least, a victim of circumstance, with his great wealth and Edward II’s misrule forcing him into the role of leader of opposition, one to which he was ill-suited by temperament and ability. Nowhere are his weaknesses as a leader more clearly illustrated than in the campaign that ended in his execution after the battle of Boroughbridge.
The prelude to that campaign was the rise of a new royal favourite, Hugh Despenser the younger. His ruthless-acquisitiveness in the marches of Wales, as he sought to add to the lordship of Glamorgan, the inheritance of his wife, united against him most of the Marcher lords, headed by Humphrey de Bohun, earl of Hereford. In May 1321 they drove him out of Glamorgan and systematically ravaged his estates, and, in the Parliament of the following July, with Lancaster’s active support, they used the threat of deposition to force the King to exile him. The striking thing about the eight months that followed is the ease with which Edward II turned the tables on opponents who had appeared so strong. Now deprived of the focus their hatred of Despenser had given them, an infirmity of purpose seems to have overtaken them. This, in part, explains their failure to co-ordinate their opposition. But Lancaster’s fatal weakness for placing his own personal enmities before a common purpose was a more important factor. His personal hatred for Bartholomew, Lord Badlesmere, once steward of Edward II’s household but now allied with the Marchers, ensured that the King began his campaign of recovery with a bloodless victory. The Marcher lords had moved to lift the royal siege of Badlesmere’s castle at Leeds in Kent in October 1321, advancing as far as Kingston-on-Thames, only some 50 miles away, but Lancaster ordered them to desist.
The King now turned his attention to the Marcher lords, winning victory against them without the need to give battle. Here Edward was able to exploit the hostility of the native Welsh for the Marchers, but the principal reason for his facile victory was Lancaster’s failure to come to their aid. This, in turn, reflects the earl’s political and military weakness. His efforts to raise a coalition of northern lords against the King had failed, and, more alarmingly still, there were signs that his own great affinity was disintegrating. The most notable desertions were those of the northern lord, William, Lord Latimer, who went on to be one of the royalist commanders at Boroughbridge, and Sir Robert Holland, the earl’s most intimate friend and one who owed his wealth and position entirely to his patronage. So weak was his position that, as the royal army advanced north-east from the Marches, Lancaster, who had advanced south to Burton-on-Trent, withdrew north. His intention was probably to retreat to his cliff-top castle of Dunstanborough in Northumberland, where he might receive help from the Scots. But, on 16 March 1322, he found his way barred at the crossing of the River Ure at Boroughbridge by levies raised in Cumberland by a veteran of the Scottish wars, Sir Andrew Harclay. Battle was joined around the narrow wooden bridge over the River Ure, and Lancaster’s principal ally, the earl of Hereford, was killed early in the engagement as Lancaster’s army failed to force a passage of the river. A truce was then concluded until the following day. The two near-contemporary accounts of the battle differ as to what happened next. According to the Lanercost chronicle, desertions from his ranks caused Lancaster to surrender to Harclay when the truce expired. The Vita Edwardi Secundi, however, indirectly accuses Harclay of duplicity. Afforced by the arrival of the Yorkshire lives during the night, he entered the town before morning and seized the unsuspecting Lancaster when technically the truce was still in force.
Here a parallel is to be drawn with the battle of Ludford Bridge fought, or rather not fought, some 137 years later. Then the duke of York withdrew from the field under cover of darkness and, sensibly, fled without giving battle to a superior force. Lancaster had the opportunity to do the same but either turned it down or delayed and was overtaken by events. Thus, while York survived to fight another day (not that it did him personally much good but his cause survived), Lancaster fell into the merciless hands of Edward II and Despenser. He was executed, after the most summary and questionable legal process, at his own castle at Pontefract on 22 March.
The manner of his death gave the earl an afterlife hardly justified by his personal qualities. It raised him to the status of a popular hero with stories of miracles at his tomb current within a short time of his death. The unpopularity of Edward II and Despenser, which intensified in their period of misrule after Boroughbridge, ensured that the cult took root, and, in the Parliament of 1327, after Edward’s deposition, the Commons went so far as to petition the new King, Edward III, to seek the earl’s canonization. That did not come, but his cult survived, albeit in attenuated form, until the Reformation.