This dissertation is meant to be a study of political and constitutional ideas in early-fourteenth-century England. More specifically, the subject is the gentry community of the county of Lancashire, and their relations with Earl Thomas of Lancaster – the dominant magnate in the region – and with the crown, in the period 1311 to 1323. Through a careful analysis of these associations, I hope to be able to answer some questions concerning certain commonly held contemporary ideas about society; in particular the expectations men had of what constituted good lordship. When we know more about this, it is possible to look at how these expectations were met by Thomas of Lancaster.
A major historiographical issue among the historians of late medieval England today is whether the gentry of this period preferred the independence of dealing directly with the crown, or if they preferred magnate intermediates. How does this apply to the gentry of Lancashire under Earl Thomas of Lancaster? Did the gentry of this particular county enjoy virtual self-government under the king, or did they take advantage of the patronage of the most powerful magnate in the realm? The answer seems to be neither. Lancaster was too aloof, too involved elsewhere to maintain anything but the most superficial relationship with anyone but his most powerful, or most trusted Lancashire retainers, yet his avarice and jealousy did not allow him to leave the county to its own devices. What the men of Lancashire got instead was Lancaster's favourite Robert Holland installed as a second-in-command, receiving powers and gifts unmatched by any other of Lancaster’s retainers. The problem with Holland was not necessarily one of personality; his acquisitiveness was simply a result of the land-hunger shared by all of his class, in an age where landed wealth was the measure of a man’s worth. Rather, the problem was that the powers he received far exceeded his rank. His powers might have been those of an earl, but his beginnings were those of a simple knight, and his acquisitions were perceived by his neighbours as little more than simple theft. In return for this, Holland could offer little in ways of royal favour, even when Lancaster was in favour with the king, as Holland’s powers were only indirect.
Yet, the question remains: were the remaining gentry craving the attention of their earl, or did they wish for nothing more to be left alone? We have very little evidence of how these men thought, the ideas they held on lordship and government. We do have the chronicles’ claim that the men behind the great Lancashire rebellion of 1315 were primarily carrying out a fight against the earl, but even if we were to take this at face value, it can still not be interpreted as a principal stand on the rebels’ side, a general dislike for magnate lordship. The administrative records give quite the opposite impression, the gentry of Lancashire seem to have been more than willing to accept offices from Lancaster, be it his own, or those procured from the crown. Even Bickerstaffe, one of the main rebels, served him as deputy sheriff for several years. The gentry of Lancashire would probably have been good retainers, had the earl only let them.