The Lost Prince – John of Eltham

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The Great Hall of Eltham Palace

John of Eltham was the 2nd child and youngest son of Edward II of England and Isabella of France. He was born on 15th August 1316 at Eltham palace in Kent. Edward II had given Eltham to his queen, as a gift and she stayed there often.

John’s birth was a reassurance of the continuation of his father’s dynasty; his elder brother Edward of Windsor – the future Edward III – had been born in 1312. Although he had lost Scotland after the Battle of Bannockburn 2 years earlier, Edward’s throne was relatively secure when John was born. Edward II himself was not personally under pressure; as he had been when his eldest son was born.

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Eltham Palace today

The St Albans Chronicler reported how happy the king was, with the birth of his new son. Eubolo de Montibus was rewarded £100 for bringing the news of the birth to the king in York on 24th August. On the same day Edward II himself wrote to the Dominican friars, asking them to pray for the king, the queen, Edward of Windsor and John of Eltham, ‘especially on account of John’ who was not yet 10 days old.

Although miles away in York, Edward arranged for coverings of cloth-of-gold to be delivered for the font in Eltham’s chapel, to be used during John’s baptism. He also ordered a robe of white velvet to be made for Isabella’s churching ceremony.

Edward II also saw to the practicalities of his new son’s finances, ordering Edward of Windsor’s Justiciar in Chester, Sir Hugh Audley the Elder, to pay the rents, from the manor of Macclesfield, to the queen to cover John’s expenses. When a daughter, Eleanor of Woodstock, was  born in 1318, all 3 children were housed together at Wallingford Castle, near Oxford.

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Coat of arms of John of Eltham, Earl of Cornwall

In 1320, however, their household was rearranged again and John and Eleanor went to live with their mother, Queen Isabella, while 8-year-old Edward joined the king’s household.

Edward and Isabella’s relationship seems to have been cordial, at least, until after the birth of their last daughter, Joan of the Tower, in 1321.

At the age of 6, in August 1322, John was given the Lancastrian castle of Tutbury.

Edward’s defeat of his cousin, Thomas of Lancaster, and rebel barons at the Battle of Boroughbridge in 1322 seems to have precipitated the final breakdown of the marriage. With the defeat of the rebels, Edward was able to lavish power on his favourite Hugh le Despenser the Younger.

As Despenser’s authority and influence over the king grew, Isabella’s waned. She had to turn to Hugh’s wife Eleanor, the king’s niece, as intermediary to get the king’s approval of her requests.

In 1323 and 1324 Isabella spent a lot of time in London, seeing a great deal of her children, including John. However, in September 1324 John and his sister, Eleanor, were removed from their mother by the king. They were placed in the care of Eleanor Despenser.

Prince John of Eltham
Prince John of Eltham

In 1325 Queen Isabella was sent to France to negotiate peace with her brother, King Charles IV. John and his sisters remained in England, but Isabella managed to persuade Edward II to send his son Edward of Windsor, newly created Duke of Gascony, to France to do homage for his French lands. With the heir in her custody Isabella and her lover, Roger Mortimer, planned their return to England.

On Mortimer’s invasion in 1326 there was anarchy in London. The mob broke into the Tower of London, intending to set up 9-year-old John of Eltham as ruler of the city. However, Edward II was soon captured and in January 1327 he was forced to abdicate in favour of his eldest son, 14-year-old Edward III.

Edward II was probably murdered at Berkeley castle in September 1327, although some historians now argue he escaped and lived on the Continent as a hermit, under papal protection.

Although Edward was now king, Roger Mortimer was de facto ruler of England. John was a natural ally to his brother against the growing oppression of Mortimer. When Mortimer demanded he receive the Earldom of March at the forthcoming Salisbury Parliament, Edward countered by insisting his brother be given a rich earldom. And in October 1328, on the last day of parliament, John was created Earl of Cornwall.

From May to June of 1329 John was appointed Guardian of the Realm while Edward III travelled to France to pay homage for his French possessions; he was briefly appointed Guardian again in April 1331 when Edward went on pilgrimage to northern France.

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Halidon Hill memorial

Married to Philippa of Hainault, with a son, Edward, in the cradle; in October 1330 Edward III had managed to overthrow the hated Mortimer and began his personal rule. In the lead up to the coup John must have been with his brother almost constantly; he witnessed 66 charters between January and October 1330, 10 more than Mortimer himself.

Edward was very fond of his brother. They had shared the terror of Mortimer’s dictatorship. John had benefited from the flood of estates and rewards following Mortimer’s downfall; Edward had been too cautious to distribute such largesse to his non-royal friends.

While their sisters married – Joan to David of Scotland and Eleanor to the Count of Guelders – John remained very much a stalwart of Edward’s lavish court. A writ in March 1334, for clothing for the court, has John sharing the costs of pearls used to decorate 7 hoods; while Edward footed the bill for 2 of the hoods, John financed 5 of them.

Several brides were proposed for him; Jeanne, a daughter of the Count of Eu, Mary of Blois and Mary of Coucy among them. In October 1334 John received a papal dispensation to marry Maria, a daughter of Fernando IV, king of Castile and Leon. However, the marriage never took place.

When Edward turned his attentions to Scotland, John was with him. Edward III supported the claims of Edward Balliol, against David II Bruce, for the Scots crown. David’s forces were defeated at the Battle of Halidon Hill. While Edward III commanded the central division the king’s uncle, the Earl of Norfolk, led the right with Prince john by his side. Hand-to-hand combat followed a terrifying onslaught of arrows, and the Scots were routed.

Tomb of John of Eltham, Westminster Abbey.
Tomb of John of Eltham, Westminster Abbey

John was also by his brother’s side during the 1335 and 1336 campaigns in Scotland. In June 1335 John joined the muster at Newcastle. The 1335 war was without compromise: looting, raping, killing and burning.

John appears to have been a competent and ruthless commander. Trusted by his brother he commanded a force in southern Scotland, putting down opposition to Edward Balliol. It is said that Joh burned down Lesmahagow Abbey when it was filled with people who had sought sanctuary from the English troops.

In 1336 John led a great council in Northampton while his brother was still in Scotland. The council decided to send an embassy to France to seek a compromise over the developing hostilities (France were promising to aid the Scots). John was soon back with Edward III in Perth where he died on 13th September 1336, just a month after his 20th birthday.

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Weepers on the tomb of John of Eltham

Thomas Gray, writing in 1355, said John died a ‘good death’, it is thought he died of a fever, brought on by his military exertions. There were, however, rumours of foul play and the Scots even suggested John was stabbed by an enraged Edward at the altar of the Church of St John, angry at his brother’s ruthlessness against the Scots.

Edward III was very upset by John’s death. He ordered 900 masses to be said for his brother’s soul, and even a year later his accountant noted extra alms-giving by the king in john’s memory.

John was buried in Westminster Abbey on 13th January 1337 and Edward III had an alabaster monument erected in St Edmund’s Chapel. The effigy has a moustache and is wearing a mixture of mail and plate armour, with John’s coat of arms on the shield. The Weepers surround the base of the tomb and could be representative of John’s family members.

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Photographs: The Weepers © the V&A Museum, London; Tomb of Prince John of Eltham © Westminster Abbey; all other pictures courtesy of Wikipedia

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Sources: The Perfect King, the Life of Edward III by Ian Mortimer; The Life and Time of Edward III by Paul Johnson; The Reign of Edward III  by WM Ormrod; The Mammoth Book of British kings & Queens by Mike Ashley; Britain’s’ Royal Families, the Complete Genealogy by Alison Weir; Brewer’s British Royalty by David Williamson; The Plantagenets, the Kings Who Made Britain by Dan Jones; edwardthesecond.blogspot.co.uk; westminster-abbey.org.

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My book, Heroines of the Medieval World,  is now available in hardback in the UK from both Amberley Publishing and Amazon UK and worldwide from Book Depository. It is also available on Kindle in both the UK and USA and will be available in Hardback from Amazon US from 1 May 2018.

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Tracing the fortunes of the women who had a significant role to play in the momentous events of 1066, Silk and the Sword: the Women of the Norman Conquest will be released in the UK on 15 November 2018 and is available for pre-order on Amazon UKAmazon USAmberley Publishing and Book Depository.

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©2015 Sharon Bennett Connolly

Edmund Crouchback, Edward I’s Loyal Brother

arms_of_edmund_crouchback_earl_of_leicester_and_lancaster-svgThe fourth child and second son of Henry III and his Queen, Eleanor of Provence,  and named to honour the Old English royal saint, Edmund was born in London on 16th January 1245.

From an early age, Edmund was involved in his father’s schemes to extend Angevin influence across Europe; in 1254 Henry accepted the crown of Sicily from the Pope for the 9-year-old Edmund, but this came to nought and he was to be officially deprived of the kingdom in 1266, when the Pope handed Sicily to Henry’s brother-in-law, Charles of Anjou.

Henry and Eleanor are known to have been devoted parents and had a very close relationship with all their children. However, Edmund grew up in a time of great upheaval in the kingdom. Henry was locked in a power struggle with his barons, led by his brother-in-law, Simon de Montfort, Earl of Leicester. The barons were against expensive entanglements in Europe – such as Edmund’s claim to the Sicilian crown – and what they saw as Henry’s inept and ineffective rule in general.

BodleianDouce231Fol1rEdCrouchbackAndStGeorgeThe conflict known as the Barons’ War would lead to what is now seen as the first recognisable English parliament, and to the eventual defeat and destruction of Simon de Montfort at the Battle of Evesham in 1265.

Although Edmund’s youth during the war years meant he took no major part in the conflict, following de Montfort’s death, Edmund was given his lands and titles, including the castle at Kenilworth, which was still holding out against the king. Edmund commanded the Siege of Kenilworth, which held out for 6 months, until starvation forced the garrison’s capitulation.

A less-than-chivalric move in 1269 saw Edmund and his older brother, Edward, conspiring against Robert de Ferrers, Earl of Derby, a former Montfort supporter, depriving him of his titles and lands – all of which were passed to Edmund.

In April of the same year, Edmund married Avelina de Forz, daughter of the Earl of Devon and Aumale. The marriage produced no children and Avelina died in 1274.

In 1268 Edward and Edmund had both taken the cross, promising to take part in Crusade to the Holy Land. Although logistics meant they didn’t leave immediately, the brothers travelled separately and Edmund arrived in the Holy Land in September 1271. It is likely that his soubriquet of ‘Crouchback’ comes from him wearing a cross on his back during the Crusades, as there is no evidence of any physical deformity.

After some minor victories, but realising their force wasn’t big enough to retake the Holy Land, and reinforcements from Europe were not forthcoming, Edward signed a 10 year truce with the Muslim leader, Baibars. The following month, May 1272, Edmund sailed for home.

150px-BlancheArtoisHenry III died in November 1272 and Edmund’s older brother ascended the throne as Edward I. Edmund was loyal to his brother, throughout his reign, playing a supporting role, both militarily and diplomatically. In 1276, Edmund married again; to Blanche of Artois, the widowed Countess of Champagne, whose daughter, Jeanne of Navarre, would marry Philip IV of France in 1284, making Edmund step-father to the French Queen.

Blanche would outlive Edmund, dying in Paris in 1302. They had 4 children together. Thomas was born before 1280 and was executed on the orders of Edward II, following a failed rebellion and his defeat at the Battle of Boroughbridge. Their second son, Henry would eventually succeed to his brothers titles of Earl of Lancaster and Leicester. Born around 1281, he married Matilda, daughter of Sir Patrick de Chaworth, and they had 7 children together; their eldest son being Henry of Grosmont, 1st Duke of Lancaster. A third son, John, Lord of Beaufort and Nogent, was born before May 1286 and died around 1317, leaving no children. Their only daughter, Mary, died young in France.

In Edward’s 1277 Welsh campaign Edmund, the biggest landowner in south Wales, was given the command of the southern army. This second, smaller contingent of the invasion of Wales provided support to Edward’s main army. Having set out shortly after 10th July, Edmund’s force drove deep into Wales, facing little opposition compared to Edward’s army. The main landholders of the south had already capitulated, or had fled to join the Welsh prince, Llewellyn, in the north. Edmund’s army had reached their objective of Aberystwyth by 25th July and, at the start of August, began the construction of the castle there. By September the war was over, Edmund disbanded his army on the 20th – leaving a small contingent to garrison the castle – and returned to England.

Edmond1In 1294 Edmund used his familial connections with the French crown to broker a peace deal with France; an agreement intended to foster a long-lasting peace and to see his widowed brother Edward married to Margaret, Philip IV’s sister. Edmund agreed to hand over several cities, including Bordeaux, in Gascony, on the understanding they would be returned to Edward on his marriage.

The French had no intention of returning the Gascon lands, and in April 1294, Edmund realised he had been duped; the French ejected the English Seneschal of Gascony and Edward prepared an invasion force, ordered to muster on 1st September.

However, rebellion in Wales meant the postponement of the Gascon expedition and Edmund and his forces were ordered to Worcester. The Welsh having been subdued and Edmund having recovered from unspeicifed illness that struck him at the end of 1295, Edmund and his army finally set sail for Gascony in January 1296.

It was to be Edmund’s last campaign. The French were well entrenched and the English failed to retake Bordeaux, or any of the towns along the Garonne. His money running out, Edmund was forced to retire to Bayonne, where he fell sick, dying there on 5th June 1296.

A devastated Edward I called on his churchmen to pray for ‘our dearest and only brother, who was always devoted and faithful to us…and in whom valour and many gifts of grace shone forth’.

He was buried in Westminster Abbey, recently completed by his father, Henry III.

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Pictures of Edmund’s coat of arms, seal and Edmund with St George, and of Blanche of Artois, courtesy of Wikipedia.

Further reading: Marc Morris A Great and terrible King; Sara Cockerill Eleanor of Castile: Shadow Queen; Roy Strong The Story of Britain; Mike Ashley The Mammoth Book of British Kings & Queens; Derek Wilson The Plantagenets; Alison Weir Britain’s Royal Families.

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My Books

Silk and the Sword: The Women of the Norman Conquest

From Emma of Normandy, wife of both King Cnut and Æthelred II to Saint Margaret, a descendant of Alfred the Great himself, Silk and the Sword: the Women of the Norman Conquest traces the fortunes of the women who had a significant role to play in the momentous events of 1066.  Available now from Amazon UK,  Amberley Publishing, Book Depository and Amazon US.

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Heroines of the Medieval World

Telling the stories of some of the most remarkable women from Medieval history, Heroines of the Medieval World,  is now available in paperback in the UK from Amazon UK, and in the US from Amazon US  and worldwide from Book Depository.

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©2015  Sharon Bennett Connolly