Earl of Cornwall (1328-1336)
Born 1316 Died 1336
John was the second of the two sons of Edward II and Isabella of France, born on the 14th August 1316 at Eltham Palace in Kent and therefore the younger brother of the Edward who later became Edward III. John was raised in his elder brother's household by a nurse named Matilda Pyrie until 1320, when he was transferred to his mother's household, where he remained until 1325 when he was given his own household.
His mother Isabella later became disenchanted with her marriage, and whilst in France on a diplomatic mission in 1325, joined with the exiled Roger Mortimer in a plot to remove her husband from power and replace him with her elder son Edward of Windsor, who was with her at the time. Possibly motivated by a desire to secure at least one son, king Edward placed John in protective custody at the royal apartments at the Tower of London. He remained there until the October of 1327, when during the excitement initiated by his mother's invasion of the country, he was released by the London mob and proclaimed Guardian of the City.
His father being deposed as king and his elder brother Edward of Windsor crowned as Edward III on the 1 February 1327, John was later granted the title of Earl of Cornwall at the age of twelve on the 6th October 1328. He was also appointed Guardian of the Realm for a period during the summer of 1329, and once more in 1331, although of course given his youth other more senior figures such as the Archbishop of Canterbury were appointed to assist him in carrying out his duties.
After Edward III had thrown off the shackles imposed by Roger Mortimer in 1330, John became involved in his brother's attempts to renew the war against Scotland. John fought at the battle of Halidon Hill in 1333 when he was placed in nominal command of the right wing and afterwards served in the Roxburgh campaign over the winter of 1334-1335, during the course of which he helped defeat a force of Scots that broken through into Redesdale in January 1335. His brother subsequently made him Warden of the March on the 2nd February 1335, and he again participated in the summer campaign of 1335. It was during this latter incursion into southern Scotland that John was responsible for much destruction, burning several churches, including Lesmahagow Abbey which was levelled to the ground.
Scottish sources such as John of Fordun and Andrew Wyntown record the tradition that Edward was angry with his brother because of his desecration of Lesmahagow and remonstrated with him when they later met at Perth in 1336. Edward lost his temper and in the words of one chronicler "there with a knife reft his brother of life". Naturally in these circumstances the death of John was seen as divine vengance for the prior destruction of Lesmahagow Abbey; "There was the vengeance tane perfay, Of the burning of that Abbey" as Mr Wyntown put it.
Other more reliable sources however reject fratricide and state that John simply died of a fever, but whatever the exact cause, John certainly died in Perth on the 13th September 1336 at the age of twenty. His body was returned to England and he was buried at St Edmunds Chapel in Westminster Abbey in London on the 13th January 1337, where he was later given a rather splendid tomb which features what is regarded as a very fine example of the early use of alabaster.
During the course of John's short life various marriage partners were proposed, including a daughter of the king of France, the daughters of the Count of Blois and the Lord of Coucy, and the daughter of Gui, brother of the Duke of Brittany. Nothing came of any of these suggestions, although it does appear that John was betrothed to Maria, daughter of Ferdinand IV or Fernando IV, king of Castile and Leon, where the necessary papal dispensation was obtained in 1334. However
there is no evidence that the marriage ever took place, and John therefore died without any legitimate issue.
Eltham is now a suburb of London (SE9 to be precise), although Eltham Palace has survived and is currently in the care of English Heritage. John of Eltham is a largely forgotten character except in south London where schoolchildren pay an annual visit to place flowers at his tomb in Westminster Abbey.
The short life of John of Eltham is understandably not well documented. There are few basic facts on genealogy sites such as thepeerage.com, the rest is a question of pulling together the few fragmanted references from the following sources;
- Annals of Lesmahagow
- Ian Mortimer The Greatest Traitor (Plimlico 2004)
- Andrew Ayton, Edward III and the English aristocracy at the beginning of the Hundred Years War from: Harlaxton Medieval Studies v.7 (1998)
The above article has been revised in the light of some additional information provided by the entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, John (John of Eltham), earl of Cornwall by Scott L. Waugh. (25 Sept 2006)