Born around 1085, Isabel de Vermandois had the blood of kings flowing through her veins. Her father was Hugh Capet, younger son of King Henry I of France. Her mother was Adelaide de Vermandois, a descendant of the ancient Carolingian dynasty. She was 1 of her parents’ 9 surviving children; 4 boys and 5 girls.
As with many medieval women, there are no images of Isabel; not even a description of her appearance. Her life can be pieced together, somewhat, through her marriages and through her children. When researching her, her name also frequently appears as Elizabeth – Isabel being the French version of her name.
From her birth, as the granddaughter of the King of France, Isabel was a valuable prize. Her childhood proved to be depressingly short. By 1096 a marriage was mooted between Isabel and Robert de Beaumont, Count of Meulan, who was 35 years her senior.
Robert de Beaumont was a seasoned warrior and courtier, with lands in both England and Normandy. He had fought alongside William the conqueror at the Battle of Hastings and was with William II Rufus when he was killed in a hunting accident in the New Forest. A loyal supporter of Henry I, he would fight for his king at the Battle of Tinchebrai in 1106, and receive the earldom of Leicester in 1107.
The marriage was originally opposed by the church; the prospective couple were related within the prohibited degrees and Isabel was not yet at the minimum legal age to marry – 12. Before leaving on Crusade, however, Isabel’s father was able to persuade Pope Urban to issue a dispensation and the marriage went ahead in 1096.
Isabel was around 11 years old, Robert de Beaumont was about 46.
Isabel gave Robert 9 children; the first was a daughter, Emma, born in 1102. Twin boys followed in 1104; Waleran and Robert de Beaumont, earls of Worcester and Leicester, respectively. The brothers were active supporters of King Stephen during the conflict with Empress Matilda, popularly known as the Anarchy, but while Robert would come to terms with Matilda’s son, the future Henry II, in 1153, Waleran was distrusted due to his support of Louis VII of France.
Another daughter, Isabel, was a mistress of Henry I before being married to Gilbert de Clare, 1st Earl of Pembroke. Through her son Richard de Clare, 2nd Earl of Pembroke, she would be the grandmother of Isabel de Clare, wife of the great knight and Regent for Henry III, William Marshal.
Isabel’s marriage to Robert de Beaumont seems to have ended in scandal and controversy. The chronicler Henry of Huntingdon reported that she was seduced by William de Warenne, 2nd Earl of Surrey, suggesting they had a love affair, which lasted for several years. It’s hard to blame a young woman of 30, in an arranged marriage to a man more than twice her age, for looking elsewhere for love and comfort.
William de Warenne had failed, in 1093, to obtain a royal bride for himself in a match with Matilda of Scotland (she went on to marry Henry I), and so looked elsewhere for a bride. It seems that de Warenne hatched a plot to kidnap Isabel – possibly with her approval – after de Beaumont refused to grant his wife a divorce. Huntingdon has the aged warrior dying of shame following his wife’s betrayal:
But when he was at the height of his fame, it happened that another count stole his wife, by intrigue and violent treachery. Because of this, in his old age his mind was troubled, and, darkened by anguish, he passed into the shadows of grief, and never again experienced happiness or cheerfulness. After days given over to sorrow he fell into an illness that heralded his death …Henry of Huntingdon, The History of the English People 1000-1154
However … Henry of Huntingdon’s accusations may well be a misinterpretation of the facts; and be based on rumours arising from Isabel and William marrying within only a few months of her first husband’s death.
Whether the story is true, or not, is highly questionable, but great for the novelists. However, Robert de Beaumont died soon after, on 5th June 1118, and William and Isabel married as soon as they could; William was approaching 50, had been Earl of Surrey for 30 years and, as yet, had no heir to succeed him.
William de Warenne, 2nd Earl of Surrey, had a chequered career. He had succeeded his father in 1088, but was disinherited by Henry I for his support of Henry’s brother Robert Curthose, Duke of Normandy, in his attempt on the English throne. De Warenne was restored to favour in 1103 and thereafter remained loyal. He would be one of the earls present at Henry I’s death on 1st December 1135 at Lyons-la-Foret.
On his marriage to Isabel, William assumed the Vermandois coat of arms as his own and the blue and yellow checks became known as the ‘Warenne chequer’.
Isabel and William had several children; their son and heir, William, the future 3rd earl was born in 1119. He would die on Crusade in January 1148 in the Battle of Mount Cadmus, at Laodicea in Turkey, whilst fighting in the elite royal guard of his cousin, King Louis VII of France. His only child, a daughter, Isabel, became the greatest heiress in England.
Another 2 sons followed, Ralph and Rainald, and 2 daughters. Gundreda married Roger de Beaumont, Earl of Warwick and Ada married Prince Henry of Scotland, Earl of Huntingdon, son and heir of David I of Scotland. Two of Ada’s sons became kings of Scotland; Malcolm IV and William the Lion.
Isabel’s 2 families seem to have got on quite well. Not only did Gundreda de Warenne marry a cousin of her Beaumont siblings, but William de Warenne also had both his son and step sons with him when he attended Henry I on his deathbed. The Beaumont and Warenne half-brothers looked after each other, and their interests, during the period known as the Anarchy, when King Stephen and Empress Matilda were vying for the crown. Young William de Warenne, the 3rd Earl, was only 18 or 19 when his father died, and was guided and advised by his half-brothers Waleran and Robert, 15 years his senior.
Although her life was tinged with scandal, Isabel of Vermandois has had a great influence on the history of England and Scotland. From her are descended the greatest families of England and all subsequent Scottish monarchs.
William de Warenne died in 1138, having held the earldom of Surrey for 50 years; he was buried at his father’s feet at Lewes Priory. Isabel survived him by almost 10 years, dying around 1147/8. She was also buried at Lewes Priory, close to her husband.
Pictures taken from Wikipedia, except Castle Acre, which is ©2019, Sharon Bennett Connolly
Sources: Early Yorkshire Charters Volume 8: The Honour of Warenne, Edited by William Farrer and Charles Travis Clay; England Under the Norman and Angevin Kings by Robert Batlett; Brewer’s British Royalty by David Williamson; The History of the English People 1000-1154 by Henry of Huntingdon; Britain’s Royal Families, the Complete Genealogy by Alison Weir; british-history.ac.uk; kristiedean.com; knight-france.com.
Coming 31 May 2021:
Defenders of the Norman Crown: The Rise and Fall of the Warenne Earls of Surrey tells the fascinating story of the Warenne dynasty, of the successes and failures of one of the most powerful families in England, from its origins in Normandy, through the Conquest, Magna Carta, the wars and marriages that led to its ultimate demise in the reign of Edward III.
1 family. 8 earls. 300 years of English history!
Defenders of the Norman Crown: Rise and Fall of the Warenne Earls of Surrey will be released in the UK on 31 May and in the US on 6 August. And it is now available for pre-order from Pen & Sword Books, Amazon in the UK and US and Book Depository.
Also by Sharon Bennett Connolly:
Ladies of Magna Carta: Women of Influence in Thirteenth Century England looks into the relationships of the various noble families of the 13th century, and how they were affected by the Barons’ Wars, Magna Carta and its aftermath; the bonds that were formed and those that were broken. It is now available from Pen & Sword, Amazon and from Book Depository worldwide.
Heroines of the Medieval World tells the stories of some of the most remarkable women from Medieval history, from Eleanor of Aquitaine to Julian of Norwich. Available now from Amberley Publishing and Amazon and Book Depository.
Silk and the Sword: The Women of the Norman Conquest traces the fortunes of the women who had a significant role to play in the momentous events of 1066. Available now from Amazon, Amberley Publishing, Book Depository.
©2015 Sharon Bennett Connolly