The Many Earls of Cornwall

By Douglas S. Files

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The peninsula of Cornwall in the extreme southwest of England was settled by Celtic tribes in the Bronze Age.  Cornish chieftains ruled over the region through the Roman conquest.  In the first millenium A.D. they generally held out through raids by the Vikings and the Kings of Wessex.  Following the Norman invasion, William the Conqueror initially named a tribal leader named Cadoc Earl of Cornwall.  As a member of the Cornish royal line, Cadoc was expected to keep his people in order and he held significant sway over that region.

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1st Creation of the Earldom of Cornwall (circa 1069)

In 1069 the defeated King Harold’s sons launched an invasion into Southwest England from a base in Ireland.  When Brian, son of the Count of Penthievre, destroyed the invaders’ forces, William I granted him lands in Cornwall.  But he returned to Brittany and died without issue.  Soon thereafter the King seized much of the county’s land and gave it to his half-brother Robert, Count of Mortain.  Robert became the second-largest landholder in the realm.  When he died in 1091 his son William inherited the earldom and held it for 15 years.  William had always detested his cousin King Henry I and in 1104 he revolted.  When Henry beat him in battle in 1106 he incarcerated the wayward earl and stripped him of all lands and titles. 

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Detail from the Bayeux Tapestry: Half Brothers Odo, Bishop of Bayeux, William the Conqueror, and Robert, Count of Mortain

Some Cornish lands in the Norman period remained in the hands of the Church.  Others belonged to Cornish lords like Judhael the Breton of Totnes who owned one manor in the county during the late 11th century.  Local lords built four castles in Cornwall during the Norman period: Launceston, Trematon, Restormel and Tintagel.  Parts of each remain standing, a tribute to their builders.       

Over the ensuing centuries, English kings named many men Earl of Cornwall, but each time their line died out and the title lapsed.  Since 1421, the eldest son of the Sovereign has been named Duke of Cornwall, and the tradition continues to the present day.

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Restormel Castle

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Trematon Castle, Cornwall

2nd Creation, 1140    

Alan the Black, a.k.a. Alan Penthrievre of Brittany, fought for King Stephen of England.  He married the daughter of the Duke of Brittany, whose favor King Stephen wanted to attract.  So he created Alan Earl of Richmond and Cornwall in 1140.  Unfortunately, the very next year Earl of Chester, Ranulf de Gernon, took Cornwall from Alan in the Battle of Lincoln.  When Alan died 5 years later his eldest son Conan considered the Earldom of Richmond his birthright, even though he did not hold it.  He did inherit Brittany in France, though, so he remained a powerful Celtic lord.

3rd Creation, 1141

Reginald de Dunstanville (1110-1175), an illegitimate son of King Henry I (“Reginaldus, Henrici Regis filius, comes Cornubiæ”), was granted the Earldom of Cornwall in 1141 by his half-sister Empress Matilda.  Initially King Stephen recognized the title, but when Reginald sided with the Empress and took up arms against King Stephen, he forfeited his titles and lands. 

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Arms of Baldwin de Redvers’ Son William

4th Creation, 1180

Baldwin de Redvers (circa 1160-1188) served as 3rd Earl of Devon from toddlerhood to his death as a young man.  He married the heiress of Raoul, Prince of Deols in France.  Created Earl of Cornwall at age 20, he died 8 years later. 

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Arms of King John of England

5th Creation, 1189

King Henry II of England had several sons who fought for land and power.  After some indecision he finally chose Richard (the Lionheart) to succeed him.  When the king died in 1189 Richard had already sworn to go on Crusade.  Immediately upon acceding to the throne, Richard had to shore up his power to prevent his brother John from taking power while he was away in the Holy Land.  Thus Richard created John Earl of Cornwall and Gloucester and Count of Mortain, while simultaneously retaining control of key castles to stop John from becoming too powerful.  In return for these honors, John swore not to set foot in England for 3 years.

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King Richard and Philip II at Acre during the Third Crusade, John on a stag hunt

King Richard’s plan did not work as expected.  The two regents he appointed fought bitterly with each other and the nobles became unhappy.  John, Earl of Cornwall, did not stay out of England.  Instead, he inserted himself into the power void and established an alternative court, complete with his own Justiciar and Chancellor.  The City of London sided with John against Richard’s regents and John imprisoned one of the regents in the Tower.  Still out of the country, Richard’s luck did not improve.  The Duke of Austria captured him on his journey home and held him for ransom.  Several times John attempted to seize the reins of power in Richard’s absence but he failed to establish and maintain control.  When Richard was ransomed, he forgave his 27-year-old younger brother and left his titles intact, but he reclaimed the lands he had granted John.  When Richard died in 1199 his younger brother, the Earl of Cornwall, became King and the peerage of Cornwall merged into the Crown. 

6th Creation, 1217

In 1215 King John granted Henry Fitz-Count, the bastard son of Reginald de Dunstanville, the right to farm the County of Cornwall.  Over age 40 at the time, Henry had served as Sheriff of Cornwall and proven to his liege that he could maintain order among the Cornish.  After John’s death the following year King Henry III re-affirmed the grant.  Even though Henry governed Cornwall, the grant did not specifically name him Earl of Cornwall, so it was unclear if he ever was the Earl.  In any case, Henry Fitz-Count resigned the position in 1220 to go on Crusade, returning his Cornish lands to the King.  Henry Fitz-Count died two years later while still in the Holy Land. 

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Richard, Earl of Cornwall

7th Creation, 1225

Three years later, King Henry III granted the earldom of Cornwall to his 16-year-old brother Richard.  Born at Winchester Castle in 1209, Richard was King John’s second son.  County Cornwall provided him with significant wealth and he campaigned on the King’s behalf in Poitou and Brittany in France.  Still, three times Richard rebelled against his brother and had to be bribed with gifts.  In 1231 he angered his brother by marrying Isabel Marshal, widow of the King’s adversary the Earl of Gloucester.  Upon his wife’s death 9 years later, Richard joined the 6th Crusade.  He was elected King of Germany in 1256 and King of the Romans (Holy Roman Emperor) the following year.  These titles were more honorary then real, and he spent little time in Germany.  At age 60 the wealthy noble married a beautiful 16-year-old, which goes to show that the more things change, the more they stay the same.  Richard died in 1272 at age 63, having done little with Cornwall other than to reap copious taxes from it.

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Edmund of Almain, 2nd Earl of Cornwall

Edmund of Almain, 2nd Earl of Cornwall (7th Creation)

The title King of the Romans passed outside Richard’s family – to a Hapsburg, as fate would have it.  But his son Edmund (1249-1300) succeeded him as Earl of Cornwall.  As a child, Edmund accompanied his parents to Germany.  When his father was captured in the Battle of Lewes, the adolescent Edmund was imprisoned at Kenilworth Castle.  On his second trip to Germany Edmund procured a “relic of Christ’s blood” which he donated to the monks at Hailes Abbey, Gloucestershire.  Upon his father’s death in 1272, the King legally recognized Edmund as his heir, and on the feast day of Edward the Confessor, he invested him as 2nd Earl of Cornwall.  The Earl always styled himself Edmund of Almain, however, referring to his father’s status as King of Germany.      

Upon the death of King Henry III, Edmund joined the governing council and wrote to Edward I, advising him of the news.  In 1279 the new king appointed the Earl of Cornwall to the Regency Council when he travelled to France.  The wealthy Edmund also frequently loaned the king money.  From 1282-1284 Edmund ran the English government during the king’s campaign in Wales.    Three years later when the Welsh rebelled again, Edmund led the fight against them, borrowing from Italian merchants to pay for the campaign.  When the Archbishop of Canterbury called upon the Earl of Cornwall to answer criminal charges, Edmund claimed that the Archbishop had violated his parliamentary privilege.  The king agreed and fined the archbishop 10,000 pounds.  This was one of the first cases involving parliamentary privilege in the history of English law.  Upon Edmund’s death without children in 1300, his estates and titles reverted to the Crown. 

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Coat of Arms of Piers de Gaveston

8th Creation, 1307

The son of a Gascon knight, Piers de Gaveston made a good impression on King Edward I and he assigned him to the household of his son Edward of Carnavon.  The two boys, who were about the same age, took to each other strongly – many thought too strongly.  Piers became embroiled in disputes between the King and the Prince, and Edward I exiled young Piers from his realm in 1307.  There exists some evidence that he did this not to punish de Gaveston, but his wayward son.  A chagrined Prince Edward lavished gifts and money on his friend as he departed.  He even asked the king to create Piers Count of Ponthieu, which so ired the king that he pulled out wads of his son’s hair.  A few months later, however, the king died and his son succeeded as Edward II.  He immediately recalled Piers de Gaveston to court, where he became his favorite. 

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Initial from the charter granting Gaveston the earldom of Cornwall, showing the arms of England at top,
and Gaveston's coat of arms impaled with those of de Clare below

In 1307, less than a month after succeeding to the throne, Edward II created de Gaveston Earl of Cornwall.  The established nobility opposed this action, partly on the basis of his low birth and partly because the last three earls of Cornwall had been members of the Royal Family.  Moreover, Edward I had apparently intended for one of his younger sons to inherit the earldom.  In addition, the king granted Gaveston the right to marry the sister of the powerful Earl of Gloucester, which catapulted him into the highest ranks of the English nobility.

Soon, however, other nobles began to resent the Earl of Cornwall’s close relationship to the King.  When Edward traveled to France to marry Isabella, he designated de Gaveston as regent.  In January 1308 the earls of Lincoln, Warenne, Pembroke and Hereford attacked the King’s favorite in the Boulogne Agreement.  Later that year Parliament also targeted him and demaded his exile.  When the unhappy barons gained the support of King Philip IV of France, Edward was forced, under threat of war, to send de Gaveston once more into exile.  A condition of the exile was that de Gaveston must also be stripped of the earldom of Cornwall.  Edward did this but compensated de Gaveston for the loss with land in Gascony worth an equivalent amount.  Another condition of exile was that if he returned to England, the Archbishop of Canterbury would excommunicate him.  Edward delayed the date of exile and appointed his friend Lord Lieutenant of Ireland with full powers to appoint and dismiss any royal officers there.  At this time Ireland was rebellious and during his exile to Ireland de Gaveston pacified the island.

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Marcus Stone painting (1872) of Edward II and the Earl of Cornwall

From the time of the forced exile, Edward II began working to bring Piers de Gaveston back from Ireland.  He placated several barons and agreed to some political concessions at the 1309 Parliament.  That summer de Gaveston returned to England and Edward reinstated him as Earl of Cornwall.  Unfortunately, the favorite did not keep a low profile.  He mocked the other earls with crude nicknames and influenced the king to grant positions to several of his retainers.  Only 9 months after his return the barons presented Edward with a demand that he reform his Royal Household.  In November 1311 de Gaveston was sent into exile for a third time.      

This time he stayed away only a few months and when he returned the King officially stated that his banishment had been illegal.  The barons who opposed de Gaveston – under the leadership of the Earl of Lancaster -  took up arms.  The earls of Pembroke and Warenne captured de Gaveston and tried and convicted him for failure to obey the terms of his exile.  Two Welshmen ran him through with swords in June 1312 and left his body in the street.  If this seems rough, Edward II’s end was even more ignoble:  under orders from his wife, a hot poker was thrust up his anus.

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The Earl of Warwick standing on the corpse of Piers de Gaveston, Earl of Cornwall

Historians remain divided on the point of whether or not the King and the Earl of Cornwall were lovers.  Several Medieval chroniclers implied this, but the King had 4 children with his wife and de Gaveston fathered 4 with his…and one out of wedlock.  Moreover, the barons at the time only objected to the patronage and influence the King gave to de Gaveston.

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Arms of John of Eltham, Earl of Cornwall

9th Creation, 1328

For 18 years the Cornwall peerage remained merged with the Crown, but in 1330 King Edward II awarded it to his 2nd son John of Eltham (1316-1336).  John was only 12 at the time and he had grown up amidst the fights between his parents.  At one time the young Earl of Cornwall was held in the Tower of London before his brother led a coup against their mother and assumed power.  Edward III placed significant trust in John and gave him significant autonomy to rule over his lands in Cornwall and the Northern Marches.  The Earl commanded troops in one military campaign and burned down Lesmahagow Abbey while it was full of people.  The Scottish people view John as monstrous for this act and writer John of Fordun claims that Edward III was so angry that he had his brother killed.  But modern historians feel certain that John died from illness at age 20.

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Tomb of John of Eltham at Westminster Abbey

The history of the Earls of Cornwall is not a history of Cornwall, as it turns out, but rather a history of the power struggles of the English Royal Family.  In summary, the earldom of Cornwall was created at least 9 separate times before the Duchy was organized in the mid-14th century.  In each case, either no heirs existed past the first generation or the earl was attainted for taking up arms against the king.  Throughout the Medieval period Cornwall was seen as a significant title and a profitable landholding; thus kings only granted it to a trusted ally or a member of the Royal Family.  Still, the Earls of Cornwall often turned on their benefactor.  As can be seen above Edward II’s creation of Piers de Gaveston as Earl of Cornwall catapulted a minor knight’s son to great wealth and the top ranks of the English nobility. 

The tradition of giving Cornwall to a member of the Royal Family has continued and the Duchy has now been held by the heir to the English throne for nearly 700 years.  Many of the Medieval earls did little to develop their Cornish lands, but since the formation of the Duchy more development has occurred.  As it is currently constituted the Duchy’s holdings are estimated at nearly 650 million pounds sterling and it provides a substantial annual income to the current Duke of Cornwall, who has fortunately never taken up arms against his mother, the Queen.