Richard, Earl of Cornwall (1209–1272) is a significant figure in the history of Berkhamsted Castle and in European history. Created Earl of Cornwall in 1227, he was the first of a long line of Earls – and then Dukes – associated with Berkhamsted.
Richard was born 5 January 1209 at Winchester Castle, the second son of King John and Queen Isabella, Countess of Angoulême. On the death of King John, Richard’s elder brother Henry succeeded their father at the age of 16 as King Henry III.
Richard held numerous titles, such as Count of Poitou. Richard sometimes acted as regent for his brother in his French territories of Poitou and Brittany. In 1225, when Richard turned 16, Henry made him High Sheriff and Earl of Cornwall. This powerful position allowed Richard to amass a fortune in tax revenues, and he became one of the wealthiest men in Europe. It is reputed that Richard was responsible for the construction of Tintagel Castle in Cornwall as a symbol of his dominion over the ancient kingdom.
In 1231, Richard was granted two castles – Wallingford Castle in Berkshire (now Oxfordshire), and Berkhamsted Castle. Richard lavished much money on renovating both properties. Berkhamsted in particular was in need of extensive repairs after the damage caused by the siege of 1216 during the First Barons’ War. In 1254 he added a three–storied tower and made further repairs after disturbances in 1263 and 1264. Richard’s building work was so intense that the local timber supply was severely affected, according to the chroniclers of Dunstable.
Richard took Wallingford as his main residence, but Berkhamsted Castle became the administrative centre of Earldom of Cornwall. This began Berkhamsted’s long association with the Cornwall title, which continued after the Earldom was superseded by the title Duke of Cornwall, created for Edward the Black Prince in 1337. Today, the Berkhamsted Castle site remains the property of the Duchy of Cornwall, the continuation of centuries of association with the heirs to the throne.
During the early 1240s, Richard took part in the Crusades, although he did not fight in any battles. His enthusiasm for castle building found an outlet when he led the reconstruction of the fortified Crusader city of Ascalon (now Ashkelon in Israel), which had been demolished by Saladin in 1191.
The Earl of Cornwall was an important and powerful figure across Europe. At one point, the Pope offered to make Richard the King of Sicily, but he refused. In 1256, Richard was elected King of Germany, or King of the Romans (Rex Romanorum). This title was awarded by the German Electoral Princes, the rulers of the myriad smaller states that made up the patchwork of the Holy Roman Empire. Electing the first Englishman King of Germany was controversial — Richard was opposed by the Princes of Saxony, Brandenburg and Trier. Richard was crowned King of the Romans on 27 May 1257 by the Archbishop of Cologne, seated on Charlemagne’s throne in the magnificent Cathedral of Aachen (or Aix-la-Chapelle). This title placed Richard just lower than the Holy Roman Emperor, and the complex power structure of the Empire, holders of this title usually went on to be crowned Holy Roman Emperor by the Pope. In celebration of his coronation, Richard donated generously towards the construction of a new city hall for Aachen, the Grashaus, opposite the cathedral. However, Richard never ascended to become Holy Roman Emperor. Perhaps if 13th-century imperial politics had taken a different turn, Berkhamsted might have become an important centre of European power.
During the Second Barons’ War (1264–1267), Richard fought with his brother against Simon de Montfort’s rebels. On 14 May 1264 Richard was taken prisoner at the Battle of Lewes after trying to hide from the barons in a windmill. He was released from captivity in 1265.
Richard of Cornwall married three times and had six legitimate children. His first wife, Isabel Marshal died in 1240. With his second wife, Sanchia of Provence, Richard fathered Edmund of Almain, who later succeed to his father’s title as 2nd Earl of Cornwall. After Sanchia’s death, Richard married Beatrice of Falkenburg, but they had no children. Richard also had several mistresses who bore him a number of additional children.
In 1270 Richard and Edmund went a pilgrimage to Trifels Castle in Germany and brought back a prized holy relic, a phial of liquid purporting to be the True Blood of Jesus. Edmund brought the Trifels relic back to England and presented it to the Cistercian monks at Hailes Abbey in Gloucestershire in 1270, who built a shrine there.
Richard’s son by his first wife, Henry of Almain, was mudered by Simon de Montfort’s sons in 1271 and was also buried at Hailes Abbey. Henry’s heart was removed and placed in a shrine in Westminster Abbey (a ceremony mentioned in Dante’s Inferno).
After being paralysed by a stroke, Richard died at Berkhamsted Castle on 2nd April 1272. He and was buried next to Sanchia and Henry of Almain at Hailes Abbey. Edmund founded a monastery at Ashridge near Berkhamsted in his memory, and presented them with part of the Holy Blood of Trifels. Both Hailes and Ashridge became important shrines, attracting thousands of pilgrims from all over Europe.
Richard’s coat of arms as Earl of Cornwall was “argent, a lion rampant gules crowned or a bordure sable bezantée”. The “bezantée”, meaning gold coins, is a heraldic device that has later been incorporated into the heraldry of the Duchy of Cornwall and into Berkhamsted’s coat of arms, granted to the borough in 1618. A carving of Richard’s heraldic shield can also be seen in the nave of Westminster Abbey.