Thursday, September 10, 2020

Heritage Open Days: St Thomas of Pontefract

Did you know? Pontefract was the site of reputed miracles in the 14th century.


This is just one of the fascinating stories featured in a talk from the Wakefield Museums & Castles programme about the folklore surrounding Pontefract Castle.  For Heritage Open Days, we're sharing a taster of the talk, which aims to establish which castle myths are fact and which are fiction, with this tale of Thomas of Lancaster.

Thomas of Lancaster with St George
Unknown author / Public domain

Thomas inherited the Earldom of Lancaster in 1296, when he was just 18.  He had married Alice de Lacy two years earlier and, by agreement of the marriage contract, he went on to inherit her father's titles and lands at Lincoln and Pontefract, which he retained even after he and Alice divorced in 1318.

Family feud

Lancaster was involved in a long running feud with his cousin, King Edward II.  It centred around Lancaster and a number of other barons’ intense dislike of two royal favourites: Piers Gaveston and Hugh le Despenser.  His dislike for the two was rooted in his jealousy at how closely they seemed to control Edward, and in the closeness of their relationship, which was seen to be unnatural.

Lancaster acted as “judge” in the trial and subsequent execution of Gaveston in 1312.  He went on to lead a rebellion against Despenser in 1321.  This time, however, he was defeated at the Battle of Boroughbridge, where he was captured, taken to Pontefract Castle and tried.  Incidentally, he was tried in the Royal Apartments at the castle, having been held in “Thomas’s Tower” (now known as the Constable Tower), which ironically had supposedly been constructed for the sole purpose of holding Despenser!  The King, who by this point had developed an intense dislike for Lancaster, sat on the tribunal himself alongside two members of the Despenser family. 

Foreground: The Royal Apartments, scene of Thomas’s Trial

Back right: The Constable Tower, site of the Thomas’s Tower.

Lancaster was not able to give evidence in his defence, and was sentenced to be hung, drawn and beheaded. This was later commuted to a simple beheading owing to his royal blood.  The act was to be carried out on a hill behind the castle on 22nd March 1322.

Miracle man

Lancaster's rebellion against an unpopular king won him popularity with the people.  His objection to the King's controversial close relationship with a single advisor saw him gain support from his men and other barons.

Thus, when miracles were reported at the site of his execution - including that of a cleric curing his blindness by rubbing sand from the spot into his eyes - people were quick to call for Thomas' canonisation. One of his knights even financed a chapel on what is now known as St Thomas' Hill. He was venerated locally until the Reformation in the 16th century.

1888 map of Pontefract, showing St Thomas’s Hill, St Thomas’s Mill, and the site of St Thomas’s Chapel

Long forgotten

Despite a petition from the Commons to Edward III calling for his canonisation, Thomas was never granted official sainthood. Today, Pontefract’s 'saint', who was celebrated for acts that would now be considered hate crimes or treason, is largely forgotten. There are now houses on the site of the former chapel and even the tower that Thomas built was later remodelled and renamed.  But if ever you are looking for an unusual fact about Pontefract, you can say it was the site of supposed miracles in the 14th century and claimed its own saint.

Visit our Heritage Open Days: Hidden Histories of Wakefield Museums & Castles page for more from our weird and wonderful collections and sites.

1 comment:

  1. Saints took on the role of tourist attraction in the Middle Ages. People flocked to their shrines in the hope of a miracle, spending money in the local area. So it was a good commercial decision to publicise a local saint which would encourage visitors. York had St William and other towns had their own saints to inrease their tourist offer.


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