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John [John of Eltham], earl of Cornwalllocked

  • Scott L. Waugh

John, earl of Cornwall (1316–1336)

tomb effigy

John [John of Eltham], earl of Cornwall (1316–1336), prince, was the second son of Edward II (1284–1327) and Queen Isabella (1295–1358), daughter of Philippe IV, king of France, and Jeanne de Navarre. John was born at Eltham, Kent, on 14 August 1316 and thus took his name from his birthplace. John lived his life in the shadow of his elder brother, Edward III, and died before he came of age, so that his public career was brief, though active.

As a young child John was entrusted to the care of a nurse, Matilda Pyrie, within his brother's household. He was given lands to defray the costs of his upbringing, and in 1320 was transferred to his mother's household. In 1325 he was given a household of his own. At the age of nine John was caught up in the frenzied violence that broke out in London in the autumn of 1326, when his mother and Roger Mortimer, earl of March, invaded England and overthrew Edward II. John was in the Tower of London with other royal officials. The London crowd broke in, removed them, named John keeper of the Tower and city of London, and placed him in charge of the officials. After his brother ascended to the throne John was often in Edward's company and was frequently a witness to royal charters until his death. In 1328 he was made earl of Cornwall, and in 1333 Edward III promised him £200 per annum, until he received lands worth that amount.

Edward's other task in these years was to find John a suitable wife, a search that ranged far and wide. Initially Edward proposed to marry John to a daughter of the king of France, as part of a proposed peace agreement between the kings in 1329. Marriages with daughters of the count of Blois, the lord of Coucy, Gui, brother of the duke of Brittany, and other lords were also explored between 1330 and 1335. A match between John and Maria, daughter of Fernando IV, king of Castile, progressed as far as a papal dispensation in 1334, because the couple was related in the third and fourth degrees, but there is no evidence that John ever married.

Edward named John keeper of the realm when he travelled to France to perform homage in 1329, but since John was only thirteen at the time the archbishop of Canterbury along with other bishops, Henry of Lancaster, and the mayor of London were appointed to assist him. In 1330 John travelled with Edward to Gascony, and the following year Edward again made him keeper of the realm while he was overseas. During the last years of his life John served closely with his brother in the war in Scotland. He was present at the English victory at Halidon Hill in 1333, and was one of six earls who served in the royal army on the Roxburgh campaign in 1334, when he was eighteen. He defeated a force of Scots invading Redesdale in January 1335, with the help of Henry Percy and Ralph Neville. Edward seems to have been sufficiently impressed with the mettle his brother had shown on these campaigns to name him warden of the march of Scotland on 2 February 1335. He was supported by Percy and Neville, as well as by a large force of men-at-arms and archers. Conditions on the march were turbulent, however, and John withdrew on 19 March. Eight days later he was summoned to Newcastle to serve with the king with 135 men-at-arms.

In June 1336 John was one of several lords appointed by Edward to serve in his place at a meeting of the royal council at Northampton. He returned to Scotland, however, and died on 13 September at Perth. An elaborate funeral procession was held in London, culminating in a ceremony conducted by the archbishop of Canterbury at Westminster Abbey on Monday 13 January 1337, attended by the king and many great lords. His monument, with a fine alabaster effigy, survives.


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