Isabel de Warenne was the only surviving child of William de Warenne, 3rd Earl of Surrey, and his wife Adela, daughter of William III of Ponthieu. When her father died on the Second Crusade to the Holy Land, in around 1148, Isabel became 4th Countess of Surrey and one of the most prized heiresses in England and Normandy, with large estates in Yorkshire.
In the same year, as part of King Stephen’s attempts to control the vast de Warenne lands during a crucial time in the Anarchy – Stephen’s battles with his cousin Matilda to control England – Isabel was married to Stephen’s younger son, William of Blois, who became Earl by right of his wife. William, it seems, was about 7 years younger than his wife, being born in 1137.
William was removed from the succession to the crown by his own father, when Stephen made a deal with Matilda’s son, Henry of Anjou, that the crown would go to him on Stephen’s death. William seems to have accepted this, and served Henry II loyally until his own death in 1159.
As their marriage had been childless, Isabel was once again a prize heiress. Although she seems to have a had a little respite from the marriage market, by 1162 Henry II’s youngest brother, William X, Count of Poitou, was seeking a dispensation to marry her. The dispensation was refused by Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, on the grounds of consanguinity. William died shortly after – it is said, of a broken heart.
Henry was not to be thwarted on bringing the de Warenne lands into the royal family, and his illegitimate half-brother, Hamelin, was married to Isabel in 1164. Hamelin, in an unusual step, took his wife’s surname and bore the title Earl of Surrey in her right.
The marriage appears to have been highly successful. Hamelin was loyal to his brother and his nephew, Richard I, and played a prominent part in English politics whilst Richard was absent on the 3rd Crusade. He also built the highly innovative keep at Conisbrough in the 1170s and 1180s.
Isabel and Hamelin had four surviving children. Their son and heir, William, would become the 5th Earl of Surrey and married Maud, daughter of the great William Marshal. There were also three daughters, Ela, Isabel and Matilda, however it is possible Matilda was Hamelin’s daughter by a previous relationship. One of the daughters – although it is not clear which – bore an illegitimate son, Richard Fitzroy, by her cousin, John (the future King John).
Isabel died at the grand age of 73, in 1203, and was buried at Lewes Priory, alongside Hamelin, who had died the previous year.
Sources: Robert Batlett, England Under the Norman and Angevin Kings; Dan Jones, The Plantagenets; Donald Matthew, King Stephen; Medieval Lands Project on the Earls of Surrey, Conisbrough Castle; doncasterhistory.co.uk
Photos: The de Warenne coat of arms taken from Wikipedia. Consibrough Castle and the seal of Isabel de Warenne © Sharon Bennett Connolly 2015.