Richard was born 5 January 1209 at Winchester Castle, the second son of Isabella of Angouleme and John (the phony King of England from Disney’s Robin Hood; he actually became a real king). Richard’s older brother was Henry III (born 1 October 1207), who reigned from 1216 to 1272.
Not a lot is known about the early years of Richard, but he did know how to speak English. He was knighted by his brother at age 16, was titular head of a continental campaign, and received the earldom of Cornwall. Throughout much of the later 1220s and early 1230s, Richard was an important baronial ally against his brother. In his capacity as an opposition leader, though, Richard didn’t do anything of note – except enriching himself. Every time he challenged Henry, Richard ended up with more money and lands, suggesting that his opposition might have been rather self-serving (a shocking accusation against a medieval baron).
Although her influence cannot be proven, Richard tended to side with the barons of England during the lifetime of his first wife, Isabella Marshal. The daughter and widow of great barons, Isabella was older than Richard and might have influenced his behavior. She certainly drew him into closer connections with her family, for during his marriage Richard rarely rebelled without doing so in concert with one of Isabella’s five brothers.
When Isabella died in 1240, Richard generally ceased to be a rebellious thorn in his brother’s side. Isabella died in January, and Richard left England in June on a Crusade to the Holy Land. Like nearly every crusade since the First Crusade, this trip was unsuccessful militarily, although Richard did confirm a truce and conducted a prisoner exchange. After the fiascoes of previous crusades, this was a shining achievement. As Sidney Painter, medieval historian, stated in the multi-volume A History of the Crusades, “Richard of Cornwall deserves some credit for what he did but far more for the mistakes he did not make” (485). Way to not horribly screw up, Richard!
On the way home, Richard visited Emperor Frederick II, “Stupor Mundi” or “Wonder of the World.” This excessively cultured ruler was a perpetual annoyance to the papacy, which had excommunicated the emperor several times. The crowning moment of this spat was undoubtedly when the pope excommunicated Frederick for going on Crusade - while the emperor was still excommunicated! Perhaps like multiplying negative numbers, Frederick figured two excommunications put him back in communion.
Anyway, Richard’s younger sister Isabella had married Frederick in 1235, so Richard was certainly well-taken care of by his brother-in-law. Among his various amusements, Frederick had a harem of Saracen girls who would perform amazing tricks such as balancing on large spheres. These lovely ladies might have performed other services, but the monastic chroniclers of the day are surprisingly reticent about such matters.
Just a few months after his return to England in January 1242, Richard went on campaign with Henry III to France. As usual, the campaign was a disaster, and the English only escaped because Richard, capitalizing on the good will he had accrued by freezing dozens of French prisoners in Jerusalem, arranged an overnight truce, allowing the English to run away under cover of darkness. That’s right; the French weren’t always cheese-eating surrender monkeys.
After another less-than-stellar campaign, Richard decided to get married again. His second bride was Sanchia of Provence, younger sister of the queens of England and France. For the first thirteen years of her marriage, Sanchia had to content herself with the title of countess and being wife to the richest man in England (even richer than his brother the king), until Richard finally managed to get elected King of the Romans in 1256. King of the Romans was actually the title held by a Holy Roman Emperor before he was crowned Emperor, so Richard was geographically King of Germany and some bits of Italy (not including Rome). He and his wife were crowned in Aachen in May 1257. The Aachen Cathedral treasury even has a few items that were owned by Richard, including a chest decorated with the imperial arms and the arms of Cornwall.
Despite being King of Germany, Richard still spent much of his time in England. During his absence, the barons had forced reforms on Henry III, reforms that the king refused to acknowledge. To telescope several years’ worth of history (as Shakespeare was wont to do), civil war broke out in England, led on the baronial side by Simon de Montfort (Henry’s French brother-in-law) and on the royalist side by the future Edward I. Richard made an effort to help Henry, but his military ineptness was proven once again when he was captured at the battle of Lewes, hiding in a windmill. Richard missed the final battle of Evesham, in which Edward decisively defeated de Montfort, whose corpse was subsequently mutilated and parts parceled out to royalist supporters. One woman even received de Montfort’s genitals, evidence she had really helped Henry!
Richard spent the rest of his life supporting Henry, trying to achieve coronation as emperor (it never happened), and marrying a teenager for his third wife. Tragedy struck when his elder son, Henry, was murdered at Viterbo in Italy, by none other than two of his de Montfort cousins. Henry was slain in a church, while praying at the altar, making it quite the scandal of 1271. Richard suffered a stroke in December of 1271 and died on 2 April 1272. His elder brother Henry died 16 November 1272, paving the way for Edward I (who was on Crusade at the time and wouldn’t return to England for two years).
Richard was succeeded as earl of Cornwall by his second son, Edmund (son of Sanchia), who died childless. The earldom of Cornwall reverted back to the Crown, and was later granted to Edward, the Black Prince (eldest son of King Edward III) as the Duchy of Cornwall. The duchy of Cornwall is still part of the lands given to the Prince of Wales.
Richard had three wives. His first was Isabella Marshal, daughter of William Marshal and widow of Gilbert de Clare. She was nearly nine years older than Richard and already the mother of several children. Married to Richard in 1231, the couple suffered several miscarriages and infant deaths before the birth of Henry of Almain in 1235. Sadly, Isabella died in 1240 due to jaundice and complications from childbirth.
Richard did not remarry until 1243, when he espoused the then-fifteen-year-old sister of Eleanor of Provence, Henry III’s queen. Sanchia of Provence was renowned for her beauty, and she might have worked to convince her husband to throw in his hat for the position of King of the Romans. Sanchia was crowned queen with her husband in 1257, but was unable to enjoy her new position for long. She died in November 1261, probably after a long illness.
After several years without a wife, Richard married for his third, and final, time in 1269. His final wife was Beatrice of Falkenburg, who was about sixteen to Richard’s sixty at the time of the wedding. Beatrice was actually younger than Richard’s second son, Edmund. After Richard’s 1272 death, Beatrice was involved in a series of disputes with her stepson, Edmund, who perhaps resented having to pay widow’s dower. Despite her young age at marriage, Beatrice did not long outlive Richard, dying in her twenties in October 1277.
So that’s Richard, earl of Cornwall, a pretty ordinary magnate who lived in the central middle ages. He wasn’t particularly gifted (although he seems to have been made of somewhat sterner stuff than his much-maligned brother Henry III), but he was a political force because of his wealth and royal blood.
Happy 802nd birthday, Richard!
If you would like to read more (and seriously, why wouldn’t you?) check out some of the titles below:
Paris, Matthew. English History. Volume I-III. Translated by J.A. Giles. London:
Henry G. Bohn, 1852, 1853, 1854.
-This is pretty much the single most awesome chronicle to ever come out of medieval England. It has breadth, depth, human intrigue, and a narrator who is not afraid to tell you how he really feels about people. While not always accurate, Matthew Paris is nearly always entertaining!
And for a truly academic experience read him in Latin (the original language)!
Paris, Matthew. Matthaei Parisiensis, monachi Sancti Albani. Chronica majora. Ed. by H.
R.Luard. 7 vols. London, 1872-1884. [Rolls Series Vol. 57 for those in the know]
Carpenter, David. The Reign of Henry III. London: Hambledon Press, 1996.
Denholm-Young, Nöel. Richard of Cornwall. Oxford: B. Blackwell, 1947.
Powicke, Maurice F. King Henry III and the Lord Edward. Oxford: Clarendon Press,
Roche, T.W.E. The King of Almayne: A Thirteenth-Century Englishman in Europe.
London: John Murray, 1966.
Weiler, Bjorn. “Image and Reality in Richard of Cornwall’s German Career.” The
English Historical Review. Volume 113 (November 1998) 1111-1142.