Richard, 1st Earl of Cornwall

by Susan Flantzer

Reconstructive drawing of the seal of Richard, Earl of Cornwall as King of the Romans

Richard, the second of the two sons and the second of the five children of King John of England and Isabella of Angoulême, was born at Winchester Castle in England on January 5, 1209. He was the only brother of King Henry III of England. All of Richard’s four siblings survived into adulthood, made excellent marriages, and all but Joan had children.

Richard’s siblings:

A 13th-century depiction of John and his legitimate children, (l to r) Henry, Richard, Isabella, Eleanor, and Joan; Credit – Wikipedia

On October 18, 1216, when Richard was only seven years old, his father King John died leaving his elder son Henry, a nine year old, to inherit his throne in the midst of the First Barons’ War (1215–17), in which a group of rebellious barons supported by a French army, made war on King John because of his refusal to accept and abide by the Magna Carta. In July of 1217, Richard’s mother Isabella of Angoulême left England and returned to France to assume control of her inheritance of Angoulême, basically abandoning her children by King John. In 1220, she married Hugh X of Lusignan, Count of La Marche with whom she had nine children, who were Richard’s half-siblings.

In 1225, on his 16th birthday, Richard was created Earl of Cornwall by his brother. The income from Cornwall provided him with great wealth and made him one of the richest men in Europe. That same year Parliament commissioned Richard of Cornwall to lead the campaign to recapture Gascony, now in France, (1225 to 1227). The campaign was successful and Gascony remained in English hands for 200 years.

On March 30, 1231, at St. Mary the Virgin’s Church in Fawley, England, 24-year-old Richard married 30-year-old, widowed Isabel Marshal, daughter of William Marshal, 1st Earl of Pembroke, who had served three kings: Henry II, Richard I, and John, and had been protector of King Henry III, and regent of the kingdom. This was Isabel’s second marriage. She had been previously married to Gilbert de Clare, 4th Earl of Hertford and 5th Earl of Gloucester, and had given birth to six children during her first marriage.  King Henry III was quite displeased with his brother’s marriage and wanted his only brother to make a more advantageous marriage. Henry also feared the influential and wealthy Marshal family who often opposed him. The marriage lasted only nine years as Isabel died in 1240 after giving birth to a son who also died. Richard and Isabel had a total of three sons and a daughter, but only one son survived childhood:

  • John of Cornwall (born and died 1232)
  • Isabel of Cornwall (1233 – 1234), died young
  • Henry of Almain (1235 – 1271), married Constance of Béarn, no issue, murdered by his cousins Guy and Simon de Montfort
  • Nicholas of Cornwall (born and died 1240), died shortly after birth along with his mother

In September 1240, Richard led an army of a dozen English barons and several hundred knights to the Holy Land to participate in the Barons’ Crusade. Richard saw no action, but he did negotiate a truce, continued the rebuilding of Ashkelon castle, negotiated for an exchange of prisoners, and reburied the remains of crusaders.

In 1239, after the birth of King Henry III’s first son and heir, the future King Edward I, provisions were made in case of the king’s death, which favored Henry III’s wife Eleanor of Provence and her maternal Savoy relatives and excluded Richard. To placate Richard, Eleanor of Provence suggested that Richard make a second marriage to her sister Sanchia, the third daughter of Ramon Berenguer IV, Count of Provence and Beatrice of Savoy. On November 23, 1243 in Westminster Abbey, Richard married Sanchia of Provence. The cost of the wedding was mainly paid by a tax imposed upon the Jewish people of England. The marriage lasted until 1261 when Sanchia died at the age of 33 at Berkhamsted Castle in Berkhamsted, Hertfordshire, England. Sanchia was buried at Hailes Abbey in Winchcombe, Gloucestershire, England which had been founded by Richard to thank God after he had survived a shipwreck. Richard and Sanchia had two sons. Only Edmund survived childhood and he eventually succeeded to his father’s title Earl of Cornwall.

Seal of Sanchia of Provence; Credit – Wikipedia

On January 13, 1257, Richard was elected King of the Romans, the title used by the German king following his election by the prince-electors. The title King of the Romans was predominantly a claim to become Holy Roman Emperor and was dependent upon coronation by the Pope. Richard and his second wife Sanchia of Provence were crowned by Konrad von Hochstaden, Archbishop of Cologne at Aachen Cathedral on May 27, 1257. Richard had been elected by only four of the seven German Electoral Princes (Cologne, Mainz, the Palatinate and Bohemia) and his candidacy was opposed by Alfonso X, King of Castile who had received votes from Saxony, Brandenburg, and Trier. Richard was never able to secure and maintain his position as ruler and he made only four brief visits to Germany between 1257 – 1269.

Meanwhile, in England, King Henry III’s relationship with the English barons was deteriorating. Many of Eleanor of Provence’s maternal Savoy relatives came to the English court including uncles Pietro and Bonifacio. Pietro lived in England for a long time, served as a diplomat, and became Earl of Richmond. In 1263, he became Count of Savoy.  Bonifacio became Archbishop of Canterbury, a position secured by his brother-in-law Henry III. In 1247, Henry’s half-brothers from his mother’s second marriage, the Lusignans came to England and competed for lands and promotions with the queen’s Savoy relatives. Henry III’s relatives were rewarded with large estates, largely at the expense of the English barons. From 1236 to 1258, the weak king fluctuated repeatedly between various advisers including his brother Richard of Cornwall and his Lusignan half-brothers, which greatly displeased the English barons. In addition, the English barons were displeased with Henry III’s demands for extra funds, his methods of government, and widespread famine.

The displeasure of the English nobility with King Henry III, ultimately resulted in a civil war, the Second Barons’ War (1264–1267). The leader of the forces against Henry was led by his brother-in-law Simon de Montfort, 6th Earl of Leicester, who was married to Henry’s sister Eleanor. de Montfort wanted to reassert the Magna Carta and force the king to surrender more power to the baron’s council. Richard was a supporter of his brother during the Second Barons’ War. He was taken prisoner at the Battle of Lewes and was imprisoned until September of 1265 when his nephew the future King Edward I led the royalists into battle again, defeating and killing de Montfort at the Battle of Evesham in 1265.

60-year-old Richard made a third marriage to 15-year-old Beatrice of Falkenburg on June 16, 1269 while still nominally King of the Romans. Richard hoped that since Beatrice was German, it would bring him closer to his German subjects and to his German kingdom. When no invitation arrived for the couple’s coronation as emperor and empress of the Holy Roman Empire, Richard decided to return to England in 1269, never to return to Germany. Richard and Beatrice had no children.

Beatrice of Falkenburg; Credit – Wikipedia

Richard had several illegitimate children with his mistress Joan de Valletort. The most prominent was Sir Richard of Cornwall, who married Joan FitzAlan, daughter of John FitzAlan, 6th Earl of Arundel.  Joan and Sir Richard had three sons and a daughter. Their daughter, Joan of Cornwall, married Sir John Howard, from whom the Howard family and the Dukes of Norfolk, are descended.

In December of 1271, Richard had a stroke that paralyzed his right side and caused him to lose the ability to speak. 63-year- old Richard, Earl of Cornwall died on April 2, 1272 at Berkhamsted Castle in Hertfordshire. He was buried next to his second wife Sanchia of Provence and Henry of Almain, his son by his first wife, at Hailes Abbey, which he had founded. His only surviving legitimate child Edmund by Sanchia, succeeded as the 2nd Earl of Cornwall and was buried at Hailes Abbey with his parents when he died. Their tombs were destroyed during King Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries.

Ruins of Hailes Abbey; By Saffron Blaze – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Wikipedia: Richard, 1st Earl of Cornwall

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