Thomas of Lancaster: the Turbulent Earl

Albert Makinson offers a study of Edward II's “over-mighty subject” who, having suffered a violent death as a rebel against the King, became a popular hero and a strong candidate for canonization.

Throughout the later Middle Ages there was no more irritating problem for English kings than the “over-mighty subject.” Again and again the Crown was faced with disturbances that arose from the concentration of too much wealth and power in the hands of one of the nobles. Aggressive kings might deal with the problem more or less effectively by absorbing baronial energies in wars abroad; but for others it proved insoluble, and sometimes fatal.

During the fourteenth century these difficulties centred largely in the Earls and Dukes of Lancaster, whose power and influence were second only to the King’s; there were times, indeed, when the King was subservient. When, in 1399, the Duke of Lancaster seized the crown from Richard II, he achieved a rough-and-ready settlement of a troublesome situation that had first come to a head ninety years earlier, with the antagonism between Edward II and Thomas, the second Earl of Lancaster. Thomas, however, was a very different character from Henry of Boling-broke: had it not been so, he might well have anticipated Bolingbroke’s decisive action.

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