The Earliest Roots of the Wars of the Roses: Edward II and Thomas of Lancaster?


It may seem bizarre to go back to the reign of Edward II (reigned 1307-27) when talking about the Wars of the Roses, but bear with me.

Edward and his cousin, Thomas Earl of Lancaster, got on together quite well in the early years of Edward’s reign. Gradually, though, a feud between them grew to the point where it became deadly. It arose from Edward’s very close relationship with his particular friend, Piers Gaveston. Lancaster clearly resented Gaveston’s influence – to put it mildly – and was instrumental in Gaveston’s downfall and death.

Immensely powerful, Lancaster was effectively the leader of the opposition to Edward’s kingship, and was at best unhelpful and uncooperative in his dealings with Edward. For example, he was careful not to take part in the Bannockburn campaign, and frequently refused to attend parliaments and councils. There is some evidence to suggest that Lancaster was not in the best of health and this may help explain his tendency to spend much of his time inactive at Pontefract Castle, his stronghold in Yorkshire, instead of taking part in campaigns either with or against the King.

A rising of marcher lords in particular against Edward II and his new favourites the Despensers led to a situation where the rebels withdrew into Yorkshire. Here Lancaster (who had certainly been in their counsels throughout) combined with them, but they were heavily defeated at the Battle of Boroughbridge. Most of the leaders not killed in battle were executed, the most important of those executed being Lancaster himself on 22 March 1322. Lancaster was not allowed to speak in his own defence, nor to have anyone to speak for him. He was the first earl to be executed since Waltheof in 1076.

Naturally, his extensive land holdings were confiscated. His brother Henry was, in 1324, allowed to become Earl of Leicester, but other lands were either kept by Edward II himself or redistributed to others, notably the Despensers.

Incredibly (given that Thomas was neither a particular able man nor a notably pious one) a religious cult of Thomas of Lancaster emerged. Miracles were claimed on his behalf and there was a campaign to have him canonised. It is hard to see this cult as anything but a straightforward political campaign against Edward II and (later) against Edward’s legacy.

After the fall of Edward II, the judgement against Thomas of Lancaster was reversed. (This process may conveniently be called “The Judgement of Thomas of Lancaster”.) Naturally, his lands were restored to his brother and heir, and subsequently passed by inheritance to Blanche of Lancaster and then, after her death, by “the courtesy of England” to her husband, John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster and uncle to Richard II.

Thomas of Lancaster was not the only one to have a cult attached to him. The equally unsuitable (on the face of it) Edward II was also revered as a saint by many individuals. Once again there was a strong political element to it. Richard II supported this cult because he saw the fate of his great-grandfather as an insult and a threat to his kingship, and to kingship in general. It did not help that during the turmoil of 1386-1388 Richard was threatened with the fate of Edward II by his uncle, Thomas, Duke of Gloucester.

So by the 1390s there were two rival cults in active operation. That of Edward II, representing the untrammelled power of the Crown, was openly sponsored by King Richard, who sought to persuade the Pope to canonise his great-grandfather. That of Thomas of Lancaster, representing, in effect, the right to oppose the crown and limit its authority, was sponsored, slightly more quietly, by John of Gaunt and Bolingbroke.

The political importance of the cults is obvious. For example, if Richard could have Edward II canonised, it would imply that Edward’s opponents – and by extension, his own – were wrong in the eyes of God, and indeed downright wicked. Richard’s position would be immensely strengthened by such a development.

Yet there was an even more practical element to this. If Edward II was justified in executing and forfeiting Thomas of Lancaster, did not that imply that the Judgement of Thomas of Lancaster should be reversed? After all, making war on king who also happened to be a saint was not something to be passed over.

The reversal of the Judgement was extremely tempting for Richard II and his allies. First of all, it would solve the problem of the “overmighty subject” John of Gaunt, who would, at a stroke, be relieved of much of his property. Not all, but certainly enough to cut him down to size. Secondly it would enrich Richard himself, and certain of his allied nobles, not least Thomas Despenser, Lord Despenser, the King’s cousin by marriage. Thirdly it would emphasise the argument that “Edward II was right” and thus seriously weaken Richard’s own critics.

The problem was that Gaunt was so powerful it was simply not practical politics to denude him of so much of his inheritance.

Thomas Despenser came of age in 1394, and, after taking part in Richard II’s expedition to Ireland, he must almost immediately have begun to draft his claim for the reversal of the sentences passed against his ancestors, Hugh the Younger, and Hugh Despenser, Earl of Winchester. The implications were far-reaching. The earlier Despensers, at the time of their fall, had been immensely rich and in possession of huge tracts of land, some of which had been gained by dubious means, to say the least.

It is obvious from Thomas Despenser’s petition to Parliament that nothing had been forgotten. He even detailed the considerable herds of animals his forebears had lost. It is most unlikely that he went to to this trouble – for the research must have been considerable, and expensive – without, at the very least, the tacit support of Richard II. Despenser was not only high in the King’s favour but an active courtier, as well as being the son-in-law of Edmund of Langley, Duke of York. Given that he moved in such circles he must have had reasonable hope of success. He was also allowed to quarter the arms of the de Clare earls of Gloucester with his own – for which he must have had royal permission, if not encouragement.

The implications were far-reaching. Various prominent people were sitting on lands taken (rightly or wrongly) from the Despensers in the late 1320s. The most prominent of all being John of Gaunt himself. If this contributed to Gaunt and his son, Henry Bolingbroke, feeling insecure, it is scarely surprising.

Despenser’s petition was accepted by the Shrewsbury Parliament of January 1398. But almost immediately he was required by the King to swear that he would not proceed against the Duke of Lancaster. We may safely assume that Richard had been “lobbied” by Gaunt, and that this protection was thus secured. Despenser went on to grant quitclaims to the earls of March and Salisbury – presumably after due negotiation.

The issue remained “live” however, and, following their famous meeting on the road that led to their quarrel, Henry Bolingbroke claimed that Thomas Mowbray had warned him that there was an intrigue to reverse the Judgement of Thomas of Lancaster. It is at least possible that this was true, and that the lords closest to the King were pushing this policy. It is equally possible tht Bolingbroke was well aware of this without needing to be told.

What does seem to be clear is that the matter was at the least a nagging worry at the back of the minds of Gaunt and Bolingbroke. King Richard was not as reliant on Gaunt as he had once been, and now had a very substantial group of supporters among the peers. The situation was not stable enough for comfort.

As is well known, the dispute between Bolingbroke and Mowbray led to both men being banished from the country. Gaunt himself was now in declining health, and he died in February 1399, with his son still in exile in France. Richard now took the Lancastrian lands into his hands and then (allegedly) extended the term of Bolingbroke’s banishment to life.

The odd thing is that Richard continued to send Henry quite lavish cash sums to maintain himself. (He was not like Somerset in the late 1460s, reduced to near-beggary.) In addition, when the Lancastrian lands were farmed out, it is vitally important to understand that they were not permanently alienated. The grants had the reservation “until Henry, Duke of Lancaster, shall sue for the same.”

While Richard II’s exact intentions are rather opaque – he was like Elizabeth I in that at least – the wording indicates that he recognised his cousin as Duke of Lancaster and that his return to England was envisaged at some stage. Had Henry been forfeited in the normal way, he would not have been given the title Duke of Lancaster, but instead a formula such as “Henry, calling himself Duke of Lancaster” or “Henry, late Duke of Hereford.” I stress this point because it seems to be taken as a given by most commentators that Henry had been (in effect) attainted. He simply was not. Though it might be argued he was in limbo.

So why was Henry so anxious to return and overthrow Richard’s government? On the face of it, the matter was not urgent, nor was he threatened with either immediate impoverishment or the permanent forfeiture of his lands.

One factor may be opportunism. Since Richard had gone to Ireland and thus removed all his most prominent supporters and their military potential from England, Henry had a window during which invasion was (relatively) risk-free. It so happened that Richard’s ally, the Duke of Burgundy, was temporarily away from Paris and his influence thereby eclipsed. Henry may simply have thought such a favourable chance might never appear again.

Or was it rather that he feared Richard’s agenda post Ireland? If Richard had returned victorious, or reasonably so, he would have been in a position to do pretty much what he liked. The active nobility were nearly all in his pocket and he certainly had control of Parliament. It would have been an ideal opportunity to reverse the Judgement of Thomas of Lancaster, and Henry, as an exile, would not have been able to do a thing about it. Richard and his supporters, greatly enriched by the booty, would have been just as untouchable as Gaunt himself had been in the 1390s.

(This article was inspired by the author’s reading of Henry IV by Chris Given-Wilson which includes reference to the rival cults of Edward II and Thomas of Lancaster. The structure built upon it is largely a conjectural theory, but it is not without some factual basis. The Judgement of Thomas of Lancaster was absolutely key to the security of the House of Lancaster and its vast inheritance. It seems certain that in the late 1390s, for good reason or not, they began to fear that it might be reversed. My essential argument is that prompted the urgent imperative to remove King Richard II. Once he was gone, the House of Lancaster was secure from this threat. But the disruption in the right line of succession led eventually to the Wars of the Roses.)











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