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.