I’ve spent the past week or so revisiting research into the earls of Cornwall during the medieval period. Back in 2011 I wrote an article – ‘A Brief History of the Earls of Cornwall’ – that was published in The Cornish Banner. It was based on a brief overview of the lives of the Cornish earls, and it was formed on the basis of a selection of smaller articles (of 500 words or so) that I had written previously for another local publication. On re-reading the article and the research I decided on plunging back in with more dedicated reading with the hope of constructing a short book that would be available for online publication later in the year. But, before that happens, here’s a snapshot into one of the earlier articles about Robert, Count of Mortain – the first Norman earl of Cornwall.
The Battle of Hastings in 1066 completely changed the direction of English history. King Harold was defeated and in his place came a new order of Norman nobility. William came, he saw, and – of course, according to his name – he conquered.
Fighting beside William the Conqueror was his half-brother, Robert, Count of Mortain. Robert had fought on William’s behalf many times against French kings, and now against England he contributed one hundred and twenty ships to the invasion fleet.
His reward for such effort was vast: 549 manors given to him from across England, with 248 of them resting in Cornwall, including the castles of Launceston and Trematon. He became Earl of Cornwall in all but name. It was a life full of honours, William giving him his original title Count of Mortain in the 1050s.
The Count was described unflatteringly ‘as a man of heavy, sluggish disposition.’ But this did not discount ‘the courage of his race.’ He was a respected commander and landlord, always aware to avoid the scandal that so easily surrounded his brothers and nephews.
There is little mention of Robert during the following two decades; all of which points to him spending more time at home in Normandy than on his newly acquired Cornish land. But he makes an appearance – that subsequently became vital – on William’s deathbed in 1087. Robert came to plead for the release of his brother Odo who had been imprisoned for revolt against the king in 1082.
The Conqueror was hesitant about Odo’s release, stating: ‘My brother Odo is a man not to be trusted – ambitious, given to fleshly desires, and of enormous cruelty.’ His release, he forewarned, would be ‘the ruin of thousands.’ But despite such misgivings, William acquiesced to Robert’s request, and Odo was freed.
William’s crown passed to his son, William Rufus (known as Red William due to his quick temper). Immediately, Rufus had a rival for the throne: his elder brother, Robert Curthose (meaning he of short trousers; i.e.: fat). On William’s death, Curthose was given Normandy, following Norman tradition; yet he wanted the larger, plumper estates England had to offer. On hearing his brother’s royal promotion he raised hell, dragging in his uncle, Odo, who subsequently pulled Robert of Mortain into the feud.
The rebellion failed. Curthose was paid off and Odo was exiled to Normandy. Uncle Robert was excused punishment and pardoned, leaving him to continue living off the fat of his vast lands until his death sometime in the mid-1090s. His role as de facto Earl of Cornwall was continued by his son, William, on whose future held yet more familial hatred and bloody revolt.