“One of the most capable and appealing men of his day
Richard of Cornwall was born in Winchester in 1209 as the second son of King John and Isabella d’Angoulême. His brother Henry became king on the death of their father in 1216. The brothers did not get along well together in their youth and Henry had to mollify Richard by naming him the Earl of Cornwall in 1227. It was a most fortunate title, for the tin mines of Cornwall would soon make him one of the richest men in Europe. He married for the first time in 1231, to Isabel Marshal. She had six children, was nine years older than him and recently widowed following the death of her husband, the earl of Gloucester. Richard, moreover, was a well-known womanizer, but theirs was a satisfying marriage that produced four children, though only one, Henry of Almain, grew to adulthood. In 1238, he rebelled after Simon de Montfort married his sister Eleanor in secret with Henry’s connivance. He and Simon were eventually reconciled and took the cross together in 1240, but they sailed for the Holy Land in separate ships. He saw no major engagements during the crusade, rather played an important role as a diplomat. Thanks to his efforts, the soldiers who had fallen into captivity were released and those who had fallen period were buried. He returned less than a year later and immediately married his sister-in-law Sanchia of Provence, bringing him closer to Henry and his court. He had three children with Sanchia, but otherwise paid little attention to her. He left her alone in his luxurious castle in Wallingford while he took a host of lovers. Sanchia died in 1261.
Richard’s wealth attracted the interest of several powerful groups on the continent. When Frederick II died in 1250, the papacy offered him the crown of Sicily in return for a considerable amount of money. Richard refused the offer with his now famous expression, “Why not offer me the moon instead?” When the title King of the Romans became vacant in 1256 following the unexpected death of William of Holland in battle against the Frisians, several imperial families vied for the succession. These included Czech king Přemysl Ottokar II, but he failed to receive the support of Pope Alexander IV and most of the electors, who feared his power. They preferred to have a relatively weak king who would not interfere in their domestic affairs. The other two candidates, King Alfonso of Castile and Richard, were wealthy and celebrated for their crusading experience, and since neither was connected to the Holy Roman Empire, their title would to be mere formality. Richard’s desire for the throne brought him into diplomatic contact with the Czech kingdom. At first Ottokar was rather remiss about the situation. Unlike the other electors, he demanded nothing for his vote and belonged to neither camp. He got none of the 28,000 pounds that Richard spent buying the votes of the other electors. The chronicles of that time say that Richard was able to bribe anyone he wanted, because his coffers were overflowing with silver. The election was nevertheless dramatic and uncertain. It was supposed to start on 13 January 1256 in Frankfurt am Main, but the city was occupied by armed supporters of Alfonso just prior to the voting. The Archbishop of Cologne therefore decided to hold the election in a military camp in front of the city fortifications. In addition to the Archbishop of Cologne, Richard received the vote of the Archbishop of Mainz and Margrave Louis of the Rhineland. Ottokar also gave him his support.
On 1 April 1256, however, Alfonso was elected the King of the Romans in Frankfurt by the Archbishop of Trier, Margrave of Brandenburg, Duke of Saxony, and also by King Ottokar. His election was confirmed by the same embassy that confirmed Richard three months earlier. Richard had the support of Alexander IV, but the pope refused to come out against Alfonso because together with King Louis of France, he was among the most ardent fighters against the Muslims in the Mediterranean and the pope could not afford to alienate him. The situation became deadlocked and was further aggravated by the fact that neither of the elected kings had any interest in the German lands. Alfonso was never once there and Richard only occasionally in the Rhineland, where England had commercial interests (he would record a total of four short visits between 1257 and 1269). Both kings of the Romans faced criticism in 1261 for failing to act. A new candidate appeared at this time in the form of ten-year-old Conradin, the last of the Hohenstaufens. This development led to an alliance between Ottokar and the Archbishop of Mainz, who continued to support Cornwall. Richard gained another elector, the new Archbishop of Trier, when he visited the Rhineland. While his position was still not assured, it was nevertheless stronger and more legitimate than Alfonso’s, not to mention young Conradin’s, who nobody officially suggested (for fear of the pope). As Richard’s most powerful supporter, Ottokar asked him to formally confirm their domains as fiefs, which would legitimize their territorial gains won at the expense of Hungarian King Bela (defeated in battle at Kressenbrunn in 1260). Richard issued the appropriate charter on 9 August 1262 in Aachen. The charter contains his praise for the Czech king’s support, which he explicitly declares was obtained by no bribes and only on his own free will. He also confirmed the king’s possession of Bohemia, Moravia, Austria and Styria.
When a rebellion led by Simon de Montfort broke out in England in 1264, Richard remained true to his brother and was defeated together with him at the battle of Lewes in May 1264. He escaped from the battlefield and hid in a windmill, but was found and captured. His captivity, which would continue until September 1265, gave the impression that his throne was vacant. A group of imperial princes led by the Wittelsbachs of Bavaria attempted to put Conradin on it, but their move was blocked by the pope and Ottokar also came out against it. Richard received Ottokar’s congratulations upon his release and an offer to help him consolidate his position in the empire. He promised to bring in the electors of Brandenburg and Saxony into his camp in return for Richard’s recognition of the succession rights of his daughters (his son Václav was not yet born at this time). Also helping out Richard at this time was the newly elected pope, Clement IV, the former Guy Foucois, who was a friend of the English royal family. He unconditionally supported his position as the King of the Romans. While Richard never had much real power in the German lands, the recognition of the papal curial gave his rule a certain luster and legitimacy.
Soon after his release, Richard named Ottokar his administrator for imperial estates on the right bank of the Rhine (the left bank was administered by the Archbishop of Mainz). He also gave the Czech king a free hand dealing with the estates held by Conradin. This agreement allowed Ottokar to occupy Chleb. Finally, Richard extended to women the right of succession to the Czech throne. The charter, however, was not preserved. He subsequently played little role in the affairs of the empire, although he grew closer to the Wittelsbach clan after the death of Conradin (at the expense of Ottokar). Richard married for a third time in 1269 but his final days were saddened by the death of his son Henry, who was murdered in 1271 by the vengeful sons of Simon de Montfort. He died on 2 April 1272 at his castle Berkhamsted in Hertfordshire after suffering a stroke the previous December. He was buried next to his wife Sanchia and son Henry at the abbey in Hailes, which he founded.
Vlastimil Vondruška is the author of historic novels on the Czech Přemyslids