The Plantagenets, unlike the Tudors, were prone to having huge families. Today we tend to remember only the off spring that gained the throne for themselves or stood out from the rest of the crowd – usually by doing something fairly dramatic.
Most people with an interest in history will probably be able to say that King John had a son called Henry. Henry was born in 1207 meaning that he became king at the tender age of nine. He was crowned in Gloucester Cathedral with one of his mother’s, isabella of Angouleme, circlets on account of his father having lost the crown jewels in The Wash prior to popping his clogs. Henry was fortunate in having the loyalty of William Marshal who helped the young king negotiate his way through invasion by the French and the barons remaining stroppy for a prolonged period of time – John had the First Barons’ War, Henry experienced the Second Barons’ War. It was during Henry’s reign that Simon de Montfort rebelled- effectively starting the aforementioned Barons’ War. Henry sought to model himself on Edward the Confessor rather than his own father but sadly seems to have had some very similar problems both at home and abroad.
Less well known is the fact that two years after Henry’s birth John and Isabella produced Richard – as in ‘the spare’ to go with the heir. Richard became the Count of Poitou in 1225 but gave it back in 1243. He was also the Earl of Cornwall, the King of Germany (he was elected to this title and only visited the Rhineland four times – no where else in Germany was very keen on him) and the King of the Romans.
Henry’s generosity to his brother cannot be underestimated. The lands he gained with his Cornish title made him extremely wealthy – not that it stopped the brothers squabbling. Richard rebelled against Henry on at least three occasions. In addition to the land that his brother gave him Richard also benefited from marriage to Isabella Marshal, the daughter of William Marshall. After Isabella’s death following childbirth Richard went on to marry Sanchia of Provence who was the sister of Eleanor – conveniently married to big brother Henry. It was partly because of Eleanor’s influence that Richard found himself with the title king.
Richard spoke English at a time when most of the nobility were still only speaking French – not yet having grasped that King John had lost huge swathes of land over the Channel and that ultimately, despite various interludes in the various wars that would punctuate the Medieval period that they were not going to get it back and they certainly weren’t going to be successful during the reign of Henry III.
He went on the sixth crusade, fought against Simon de Montfort (he’d not been impressed when his sister Eleanor was married off to Simon) and managed to get himself taken prisoner after the Battle of Lewes. The story of the de Montfort link doesn’t get any happier. Ultimately Eleanor’s sons would murder one of Richard’s sons in revenge for Simon de Montfort’s death. Richard died in 1271 and was buried in Hailes Abbey of which he was a patron.
Ironically despite not getting on particularly well with his brother Richard, John named three of his sons Richard – a legitimate one and two illegitimate ones. One of them was called Richard FitzJohn of Dover. He became Baron of Chilham in Kent. John cannily married this son off to an heiress called Roese who was conveniently a ward of the crown. The third Richard became constable of Wallingford Castle.
Another son Oliver died during the Siege of Damietta (somewhere in modern Egypt) during the sixth crusade in 1219 – this particular royal bye-blow was carted home and buried in Westminster Abbey.There was also an Osbert, a Geoffrey, an Odo and a Henry who seems to have had a complex relationship with King John – “Henry, who says he is my son but who is truly my nephew”… leaving historians trying to calculate birth dates and whether it was possible that the Young King, Geoffrey or even the Lionheart himself could have fathered him. There was also a John who may have been a knight but equally might have been a clerk somewhere in Lincoln or possibly London depending on which source you refer to! Interestingly history knows more about John’s illegitimate daughter Joan because John married her off to Llewelyn the Great and because of her role as a negotiator between her husband and father.
One fact is very clear John fathered more illegitimate children than any other Plantagenet king except Henry I and seems to have provided for them- a fact which surely must be accounted a positive aspect of John’s complex character. Henry III recognised his brothers in that many of them held government posts – the Plantagenets recognised that a royal brother was to be trusted only if he couldn’t make a claim on the crown himself. However, and as always somewhat frustratingly, very often history knows little more than their names.