Thomas of Lancaster: Scoundrel and Traitor

English Heritage

Dunstanburgh Castle 

Dunstanburgh Castle
Dunstanburgh Castle in Northumberland is one of the most impressive, powerful and dramatic of the ruined castles in the care of English Heritage. It stands alone by the seashore, rising against a huge skyscape. Its ruins standing on their promontory have been described as one of the most moving sights in the whole of Northumberland. But it is also a great mystery. 

Why did it come to be built? What was its purpose? Why did it take the form it did? And why was it built in this remote spot?

The answer to all these questions may lie in the life of its founder, Thomas, Earl of Lancaster, who died in 1322.

Thomas of Lancaster
Thomas can be described in three words beginning with ‘R': he was rich, he was royal, and most importantly, he was rebellious.

During his time as Earl of Lancaster, Thomas was involved in two rebellions. The first took place in the year 1312, during the reign of King Edward II.

Thomas became prominent in a cartel of nobles intending to get rid of the king’s favourite and alleged lover, Piers Gaveston, whom Edward had made Earl of Cornwall.

Gaveston, whatever his sexual proclivities, was an outspoken man, and arrogant beyond his comparatively humble birth. Certainly his influence over the king was of an order that irritated the established nobility.

Lancaster and his allies therefore rebelled against the government of Piers Gaveston and forced Gaveston and Edward II to flee to Yorkshire.

Pursued by the earls, Edward managed to escape by sea. But Gaveston was captured.

While being brought south, supposedly to a trial in the Midlands on land belonging to Thomas of Lancaster, Piers Gaveston was summarily executed.

Allegedly his head was presented to Lancaster as one of the leaders of the rebel faction.

Edward II was heartbroken at the loss of his close personal friend and favourite. But realising the power of the nobles, he was too weak to do anything other than issue a pardon to everyone who had been involved.

However, Thomas may have realised that actually Edward’s forgiveness was very shallow. It seems significant that in the very next year, 1313, we have evidence that Thomas was building a new castle on the remote Northumberland coast.

This is the castle that we now see as Dunstanburgh.

A Northern Sanctuary
Why did Thomas of Lancaster choose to build his castle in such a remote place?

Because Dunstanburgh Castle is close to the Scottish border, the traditional view is that it may have been conceived as part of a border defence against Scottish incursion. But in fact there is much evidence to suggest that something different was the case.

Dunstanburgh Castle was far more about defending an earl from his English enemies than it was about protecting the English from Scottish interests. And Thomas of Lancaster’s English enemies were many.

Thomas seems to have been incapable of making friends, keeping his wife, holding an army together, or indeed keeping anyone together. As a leader of a political faction he was sadly lacking.

It seems all too likely that it would have been necessary for him to create a refuge for himself away from the centre of English government in the south of England.

The design of the castle is very interesting. It takes the form of a curtain wall surrounding an enormous – and almost entirely empty – enclosure.

We know that this wasn’t the first structure on the site. Archaeological work carried out in the early 2000s suggested that there was an Iron Age promontory fort there. But this was certainly the first castle to have been built on the site.

The most distinctive form in the castle is the great gatehouse, with its two massive drum towers. Although it now stands in ruin, it is an excitingly sculptured form.

Archaeological work has revealed a number of surprises at Dunstanburgh, not least the fact that when Thomas of Lancaster built it, the castle was actually formed into an island by the artificial creation of a string of freshwater meres, or lakes, around its western flank.

These meres would have had the effect of turning the castle into an island in the sea.

Unfortunately, Dunstanburgh was not enough to protect Thomas from his enemies in the south.

He rebelled again against Edward II in 1322, this time against the king's new favourites – the father and son both called Hugh Despenser.

This time, Thomas was unsuccessful.

As support for his rebellion fell apart, Thomas decided to escape to the north and take refuge at Dunstanburgh.

But he didn’t get far. A royalist army intercepted him and defeated his army. Thomas was taken to the city of York, and humiliatingly pelted with snowballs as he was marched through the streets.

He was then taken to his own castle at Pontefract, where he was placed on trial, found guilty of treason and summarily executed.

Dunstanburgh is still one of the most beautiful sights in Northumberland and one of the most evocative castles anywhere in England.

In its ruined state it has become something of a blank canvas, in which the imagination of all visitors over the centuries has been able to run wild.

Credits: Story

Jeremy Ashbee, Rose Arkle

Visit Dunstanburgh Castle

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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