Curator’s Choice – Pilgrim Souvenir of Thomas, Earl of Lancaster

Posted: 4th December 2020

Humber Museums Partnership - Curator’s Choice – Pilgrim Souvenir of Thomas, Earl of Lancaster

This fragile little object is part of a 14th century pilgrim souvenir. Made of pewter, it is only 4.5cm long. It was found during an excavation in 1975 in advance of the Castle Street road development which cut a swathe across Hull’s Old Town. The site was on the south-side of Mytongate, one of the main roads through the medieval town.

The scene is at first glance, enigmatic – on the left, a man is kneeling with his hands clasped together in prayer. At some point his head has been broken off. Behind him, another man is standing looking down at him, his left hand holding his sword. Intriguing? I certainly thought so – and set out to investigate. The kneeling man is actually Thomas, Earl of Lancaster, and the man standing looming over him with the sword is (yes, you’ve guessed it) his executioner.

Thomas, Earl of Lancaster (c.1278 – 22 March 1322) was one of the wealthiest and most powerful men in England. First cousin to the king, Edward II, he became concerned at the influence of the king’s favourite, Piers Gaveston. After Thomas ordered Gaveston’s execution in 1312, the two became bitter enemies and conflict became inevitable. Lancaster’s power waxed and waned over the next ten years as he and Hugh Despenser, another favourite of the king, vied for control. This Game of Thrones came to a halt at Boroughbridge in 1322 when Thomas was defeated and captured. He was taken to his own castle at Pontefract, tried for treason in front of the king and executed.

Shortly after his death, amid reports of miracles at his tomb, a political and religious cult built up around him and acted as a focal point for popular opposition to Edward II. Pilgrims flocked to the grave and the local craftsmen satisfied the traveller’s desire to purchase souvenirs of their visit by making these panels showing his ‘martyrdom’. Edward III encouraged the cult, and even petitioned the pope to make Thomas a saint. Although this never happened, it does not seem to have mattered; the cult reaching its peak between 1327 and 1350.

A complete panel in the British Museum shows that our little fragment is the last scene in a, not very funny, comic strip. Six images follow his capture, trial, journey by horse to the site of his execution and the execution itself. Remarkably, part of another, slightly larger, panel commemorating Thomas has been found in Hull. This one depicts the penultimate episode in Thomas’s fate – where he is being led to his execution riding a horse. Clearly the cult of this political ‘saint’ was popular in Hull.

I chose this object because it shows how a little broken object can sometimes hold the key to unlocking a brilliant story – in this case of politics and power struggles at the pinnacle of medieval society. I also like to think, that once it was broken off the original panel, a child took great pleasure in taking off the pewter Thomas’s head!

Written by curator of archaeology Paula Gentil

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