23 August 2010

Tragic Tales: John of Eltham, Earl of Cornwall

By Blythe Gifford

This month's theme, Tragic Tales, summons visions of monumental disasters, but sometimes, history's tragedies whisper, rather than shout.

Such was the story of John of Eltham, brother of King Edward III of England. He was a man of great promise, who committed bad acts and achieved great victories, died unmarried at twenty, was slandered after, and has since been forgotten.

I discovered him in writing HIS BORDER BRIDE. Because I feature characters born on the wrong side of the royal blanket, I needed a plausible parent for my hero. In researching the war between England and Scotland in the early 14th century, I discovered that John played an instrumental military role in the conflict. In fact, he spent many months in Scotland, certainly long enough to father a son.

He was four years younger than his brother the king and born in the Castle of Eltham, hence his moniker. He was named Earl of Cornwall at the age of 12, the last son of a king to die an earl instead of a duke.

Caught in the throes of the war between his father, Edward II, and mother Isabella, his growing years were turbulent. He was passed between his parents and even held in the Tower of London for a time before his brother, at age 17, led a coup against their father and assumed the power that went with his kingly title of Edward III.

Information on John is scant, but what we do know suggests he was highly competent, and highly trusted by Edward.

He was named "Guardian of the Realm" when Edward III was out of the country; was asked to open Parliament in Edward's absence, and was named Warden of the northern Marches, which gave him virtual autonomy in that portion of England.

At 17 he was a key commander in the Battle of Halidon Hill, a devastating defeat for the Scots. Later he commanded an army in the southwest of Scotland that put down resistance to Edward Bailliol, the Scots king supported by his brother.

But all these "heroic" acts were recorded by historians on the southern side of the border. The Scottish saw him differently. So differently, in fact, that historian Tom Beaumont James writes that the tale of his death "challenges the distinction between history and story."
To the Scots he was a ruthless destroyer, who, among other crimes, burned the beautiful Lesmahagow Abbey when it was filled with people who had sought sanctuary from the wrath of the English troops. As Scottish chronicler tells it, this violation of the sacred laws of sanctuary so enraged King Edward that he killed his own brother in fury.

A tragic tale. One that my hero was told about his father. One that made him fear he had inherited the same bad blood.

One that, as near as we can now tell, was not true.

John did die, suddenly, at age 20, probably from a fever. Edward buried his brother with all honors in a beautiful tomb in Westminster Abbey and had masses said for his soul regularly, hardly the act of a man who had killed his brother.

And there was one other fact about John of Eltham, Earl of Cornwall, that peaked my romantic imagination. Half a dozen brides had been proposed for him, including daughters of the king of France and of the king of Castile and Leon, but he never married and died without "legitimate issue."

Ah! But what about illegitimate issue? History records none, so I was free to create one: a man who must face the terrible truth about his past and learn to make peace with it.

A small tragedy of history that I tried to make right.


Annie Solomon said...

LOVED hearing about your hero's background! How cool to use real history to infuse your books. So, if I got it right, your hero could be heir to the English throne. The story of the 3 Edwards is always fascinating--the second always coming off as weak and (ahem) unmanly. And, of course, the 3rd Edward the strong, capable one. Did he have his father killed? I can't remember. Anyway, enjoyed the history lesson...

Pamala Knight said...

Blythe, you are THE BEST when it comes to forming credible historical folks into your extremely interesting characters. Especially since I always learn something while I'm enjoying the story you've laid out. Pretty tricky and yet wonderful of you ;-).

Thanks for sharing John of Eltham's tale with us.

Blythe Gifford said...

Yes, he COULD have been an heir, but since his uncle, Edward III, had many healthy boys and he was a half-Scots bastard, he would have been well down the list.
Legend is that Edward II was murdered in a most unpleasant fashion, but not, near as I can tell, by his son. Yet another murder unfairly pinned on Edward III??

Blythe Gifford said...

Thanks, Pamala. I LOVE the history part and always like to feel as if perhaps my story COULD have happened somewhere off-stage. And if I can get my readers a teensy bit interested in the history that fascinates me, I'm thrilled!

Mary Reed McCall said...

Fascinating blog!! I can't wait to read the book, now. When is it scheduled to be published? :)

There are so many stories out there re: Edward II, most erroneous and several promoted by movies like BRAVEHEART...

For a wonderful blog by a true historian of all things Edward II, check out: http://edwardthesecond.blogspot.com/

The blog host, Kathryn, is a British teacher of English, living in Germany...and she reads and writes solely about Edward II/the issues and people that involve him. She is a tireless researcher, who also gleans much of what she learns from original documents in medieval French. ;)

I've written and asked questions of her in the past, when I was writing my medievals (set just a little earlier, in 1307 or so), and she's always glad to help. At the least, her blog is worth a look for anyone writing works set in 14th century England/France.

Thanks again for a wonderful blog post. I love how history and fiction can sometimes blend together in wonderful ways!


Blythe Gifford said...

Mary, the book was out in May from Harlequin Historical, so should still be available. (Also in e-book form.) I have read and enjoyed the Edward II blog you mentioned. Nice to know there are several of us interested in these little corners of history.

Allison Chase said...

What a beautiful blending of fact and fiction! Thanks for sharing John of Eltham's story, Blythe. I hadn't heard of him before, but I love medieval history. It always amazes me how young some of these people were when they led battles or ruled countries.

Morgan Mandel said...

You do make history sound fascinating. Poor guy to die so young. I guess those were rough times.

Morgan Mandel

Deb said...

Edward III did not lead a coup against his father. He may have been a figurehead of the coup, but it was actually his mother, Isabella, and his mother's lover, Roger Mortimer, who lead the coup and forced Edward II to abdicate. (Edward II was later murdered in a rather nasty way--I'll let you google that one.) As soon as Edward III was old enough and had amassed enough power, he deposed and executed Roger Mortimer and had his mother sent to a convent for the rest of her life.

Blythe Gifford said...

Thanks Allison and Mary. Glad you enjoyed it. Deb, you are certainly correct and thanks for the clarification. I did "shorthand" that part of the history. Edward III's "coup" that brought him into his personal rule was actually against his regents, Mortimer and Isabella, who had taken power from Edward II several years earlier and made Edward III their figurehead.

April said...

Just finished reading this one and it was great.

Blythe Gifford said...

April - that's wonderful to hear! So glad you liked it.

Patti-Ann said...

Edward II was not "later murdered in a rather nasty way". In fact he may have escaped his jailers and lived out the rest of his life on the in Italy. However, Mortimer's plan was to murder him. The tales of the "red poker" death are not contemporary and most certainly published to put Queen Isabelle in a bad light. Really, historic novels are great but you have to read the history for the real thing. Having said that I enjoy your work Blythe. It would be comforting to think that perhaps John might have sired a son and had a love of his life. His early years were tragic because his father was such a feckless ruler but his mother loved him very much.

Little Angelic Rose said...

I love the idea behind this novel. Huge fan of Edward III and of course his brother was very dear to him. Looking forward to reading it.