In 1947 Noël Denholm-Young published a biography of Richard of Cornwall that is generally considered a classic, but one in need of an update. For example, in July 1253 King Henry III named a regent to govern the realm while he was abroad. The order reads as follows:
‘Appointment of Queen Eleanor to keep and govern the realm of England and the lands of Wales and Ireland with the counsel of Richard, earl of Cornwall, the king’s brother, until the king’s return from Gascony: and mandate to all to be intendant to her.’
Because Eleanor was five months pregnant at the time, Denholm-Young assumed that ‘the burden of the regency fell upon Richard’. It’s a completely misleading statement. Eleanor gave birth on 25 November, but ten days later, on this day of 5 December in 1253, she issued two orders from the chancery. She was at parliament in January 1254, the first known instance of a woman’s attendance, and she witnessed the letters issued to the counties ordering them to hold local elections to parliament, another first.
If anyone deserves credit for this innovation, it ought to be Eleanor of Provence as the regent, but Denholm-Young sticks with Richard. Fast forward to this century and we might expect the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography to do her justice, but the entry for Eleanor, written by her biographer Margaret Howell, only says of her regency that ‘she acquitted herself extremely well’.
For the biography of Richard of Cornwall, Professor Nicholas Vincent falls back on Denholm-Young’s erroneous assumptions. ‘The burden of the regency fell on Richard alone’, he declares. He goes on to say that it was Richard who ‘took the unprecedented step of summoning two knights from each shire to represent lay opinion in parliament, the first occasion that elected delegates or representatives of the shires had been summoned in this way’.
This is truly remarkable, because Professor Vincent is renowned for his work with original charters and documents. But he certainly isn’t alone. In his biography of Henry III released this year, David Carpenter agrees with Denholm-Young and Vincent that it had to be Richard’s idea for the summoning of the first parliament with a democratic mandate. He notes, however, that Eleanor was the only witness to the letter that was preserved as testament to this historic moment in the evolution of parliamentary government.