As noted in previous blog posts I’ve been busy recently reading deeper into the relationship of the Earls of Cornwall and the royal family of the Normans and Angevins in the 11th-12th centuries. Whilst researching and writing up a new piece I’ve re-read some of my old articles. This was a short piece written for ‘Cramleigh’ and published a few years ago. It holds up fairly well, despite the odd typo and piece of ill-informed material.
For three decades the twelfth century was one of relative harmony. Henry I had sat upon the English throne for three decades, overseeing his growing and prospering kingdom. But on his death came a crisis of succession, and all of this order was at an end. In its place came nineteen winters of war and rebellion; known rather ominously as ‘The Anarchy.’
Before his death, Henry obtained the loyalty of the barons of the land to his daughter and only living heir, Matilda. The first to do so was his favourite nephew, Stephen of Blois. But upon Henry’s death in 1135, the very same Stephen was the first to submit a rival claim to the throne, stating his uncle had changed his mind about his daughter upon his deathbed. Stephen seized the initiative and raced for London, sailing from France and landing at Whitesand Bay. The barons flocked to him, meaning Matilda was deposed before her coronation; all before Stephen placed the crown upon his head.
But the new king’s reign was far from happy and secure; within a handful of years the barons were rebelling, looking towards Matilda as the rightful heir. The west country revolted, and even Stephen’s appointed lieutenant of Cornwall, William Fitz Richard – one of the most powerful nobles in the region – switched his allegiance, giving the Cornish lands to his son-in-law, Reginald de Dunstanville.
Reginald was an illegitimate son of Henry I, and as half-brother of Matilda, the pair formed a natural alliance and waged civil war against Stephen. Reginald’s first stop was the seizure of Launceston Castle, in which – states Elliott-Binns – he ‘wrought such havoc that the Bishop of Exeter placed him under the ban of the Church.’ Stephen fought fire with fire, heading to Cornwall with the ruthless Alan of Brittany (otherwise known as ‘Alan the Black’). Together they chased out Reginald and the rebels; Alan’s reward was the title of Earl of Cornwall.
After securing the county, Alan went north to fight the insurgents, where he met defeat at the Battle of Lincoln in 1141. Deprived of his Cornish lands, he tried to take advantage of changing fortunes by pledging his allegiance to Matilda, before returning back to Stephen the following Christmas.
Throughout these stormy and bloody years the fortunes of either side rocketed up and down like a see-saw, all of which meant a breakdown of central authority and order. F.E. Halliday paints a gruesome picture: ‘In the west country people were reduced to eating raw herbs and roots and the flesh of dogs and horses, while the harvest rotted in the fields because the peasants had ran away or died of famine.’
The civil war was brought to an end when both Stephen and Matilda came to an agreement: Stephen was to remain on the throne, and on his death the crown would pass to Matilda’s son, Henry of Anjou. In 1154 King Stephen was dead, and Henry II would restore order to the kingdom. It was to Reginald in which he entrusted the earldom of Cornwall. Upon the earl’s death in 1175, the earldom was established, its holder bearing a strong connection to a member of the royal family…for better and for worse.