In 1066 William de Warenne joined his namesake the Duke of Normandy on his expedition to conquer England. De Warenne is one of the few named knights involved in the Battle of Hastings, and one of William of Normandy’s most trusted captains.
Sometime in the years either side of the Conquest, William had married Gundrada.
Gundrada’s parentage has long been a subject of debate among historians. For many years she was believed to be the daughter of William the Conqueror and his wife, Matilda of Flanders. It seems the misunderstanding arose with the monks at Lewes Priory, when a copy of an earlier charter claimed she was the daughter of Matilda of Flanders. Lewes was founded as a Cluniac monastery by William and Gundrada and it may be that the monks got carried away with the idea of their foundress having royal blood, or that there was an error when copying the charter from the original.
For whatever reason, the claims by Lewes Priory have caused controversy throughout the ensuing centuries. In the sixteenth century Leland believed that she was the Conqueror’s daughter, while Orderic Vitalis had stated that she was ‘Sister of Gherbode, a Fleming, to whom King William the First had given the City and Earldom of Chester’¹ By the 1800s it was thought that Gundrada was not a daughter of the King, but of the queen, Matilda, by an earlier, forgotten marriage to a Flemish nobleman called Gerbod.
Other suggestions have included that she was an adopted daughter, raised alongside William and Matilda’s own children who were of a similar age. Alternatively, due to her Flemish origins, it has been argued that the confusion arose as she had joined Matilda’s household at an early age; an assertion supported by Matilda’s gift to Gundrada of the manor of Carlton in Cambridge – a manor Gundrada later gave to Lewes Priory.
In 1888 in the English Historical Review, Freeman used the priory’s original charter to conclude that there was no familial relationship between Gundrada and William the Conqueror. In it, while the king and William de Warenne, both, mention Gundrada, neither refer to her as being related to the king or queen. Freeman stated ‘there is nothing to show that Gundrada was the daughter either of King William or of Queen Matilda; there is a great deal to show that she was not.’²
It now seems more likely that Gundrada was a Flemish noblewoman, the sister of Gerbod who would be, for a brief time, Earl of Chester. Her father may also have been called Gerbod, and was the hereditary advocate of the monastery of St Bertin; a title which later will pass down through the de Warenne family. Another brother, Frederic, had land in Sussex and Kent, even before the Conquest. The brothers, it seems, were deeply involved in the politics of Flanders and Normandy; indeed, it is thought that Gerbod resigned his responsibilities in Chester in order to return to the continent to oversee the family’s land and duties there. Frederic, along with the count of Flanders, was witness to Count Guy of Ponthieu’s charter to the abbey of St Riquier in 1067.
William de Warenne was well rewarded for his part in the Norman Conquest, receiving lands in 13 counties, including the Honour of Consibrough in South Yorkshire, previously owned by the last Saxon king, Harold II Godwinson. De Warenne’s brothers-in-law had also joined the expedition, and Frederic was rewarded with the lands of a man named Toki; in Norfolk, Suffolk and Cambridgeshire, worth over £100.
However, Frederic was unable to enjoy his good fortune for long, as he was killed in the rebellion of Hereward the Wake in 1070. His lands, still known as ‘Frederic’s Fief’ in 1086, were inherited by his sister, who retained control of them throughout her lifetime. One manor was given to the abbey of St Riquier, possibly by Gundrada in memory of her brother.
Gundrada’s other brother, Gerbod resigned his position in Chester in 1070 and returned to Flanders which was in the midst of civil war, following the death of its count. Gerbod’s return was essential to guarantee the safety of the family’s lands and interests. the former earl’s fate is uncertain; one report has him killed while another sees him imprisoned, and a 3rd claims Gerbod accidentally killed his lord, Count Arnulf, at the Battle of Kassel in 1071. According to this last account, Gerbod travelled to Rome to perform penance and eventually became a monk at Cluny.
It seems that neither brother raised a family, as Gerbod’s lands in Flanders were also inherited by Gundrada; the family interest in the abbey of St Bertin would eventually be passed on to Gundrada and William’s 2nd son, Reynold.
As with so many nobles of the 11th century, Gundrada and William were known for their piety. In 1077 the couple made a pilgrimage to Rome; en route, they visited the magnificent abbey of Cluny in Burgundy. They must have been impressed with the abbey, as it inspired them to found their own Cluniac priory at Lewes in Sussex. In 1078 the abbot of Cluny sent over the 1st monks as William and Gundrada were supervising the new monastery’s construction; it would be the 1st Cluniac house in England. All the churches on the de Warenne’s vast estates were given to the priory, including endowments from her brother Frederic’s lands in Norfolk.
Gundrada and William had 3 children together. Their eldest son, William, would succeed his father as Earl of Surrey and de Warenne. He married Isabel de Vermandois, widow of Robert de Beaumont, earl of Leicester; with whom he had, apparently, been having an affair even before the earl’s death. Young William had a chequered career, he supported the claims of Robert Curthose, duke of Normandy, to the English throne against the duke’s younger brother, Henry I. However, duke Robert lost and was captured and imprisoned by Henry. Henry eventually forgave William, who fought for the king at the Battle of Bremule and was with Henry he died in 1135.
A 2nd son, Reynold de Warenne, led the assault on Rouen in 1090, for William II Rufus, in the conflict between the English king and his older brother, Duke Robert. However, by 1105 Reynold was now fighting for the duke against the youngest of the Conqueror’s sons, Henry I, defending the castle of Saint-Pierre-sur-Dives for the duke. He was captured by Henry the following year, but had been freed by September 1106. It is possible he died shortly after, but was certainly dead by 1118 when his brother issued a charter, in which he gave 6 churches to Lewes Priory, for the soul of deceased family members, including Reynold.
Gundrada and William also had a daughter, Edith, who married Gerard de Gournay, son of the lord of Gournay-en-Bray. Gerard also supported William II Rufus against Duke Robert and took part in the Crusade of 1096. Edith later accompanied him on pilgrimage back to Jerusalem, sometime after 1104, where he died. Gerard was succeeded by their son, Hugh de Gournay, whose daughter Gundreda would be the mother of Roger de Mowbray. Edith then married Drew de Monchy, with whom she had a son, Drew the Younger.
William de Warenne was created earl of Surrey shortly before his death in 1088; after he had helped William II to suppress a revolt led by Bishop Odo of Bayeux. De Warenne was wounded during the fighting and died a short time later.
However, poor Gundrada had died in childbirth at Castle Acre in Norfolk on 27th May 1085, therefore never receiving the title of countess. She was buried in the chapter house of Lewes Priory; her husband would be buried beside her 3 years later. Around 1145 new monastic buildings were consecrated at Lewes Priory, Gundrada’s bones were placed in a leaden chest and interred under a tombstone of black Tournai marble, ‘richly carved in the Romanesque style, with foliage and lions’ heads’³. The sculptor was trained at Cluny and would later work for Henry I’s nephew, Henry of Blois, bishop of Winchester and brother of King Stephen.
Following the dissolution of Lewes Priory in the 16th century, the tombstone was 1st moved to Isfield Church; it was moved again in 1775 to the parish church of St John at Southover in Lewes. The remains of Gundrada and William were discovered in 2 leaden chests in 1845 and finally laid to rest at the Southover church in 1847.
The dynasty founded by William and Gundrada would continue until the death of John, the 7th and final de Warenne Earl of Surrey, in 1347.
¹Early Yorkshire Charters Volume 8 Edited by William Farrer and Charles Travis Clay; ²ibid; ³C.P.Lewis, Oxforddnb.com
©2016 Sharon Bennett Connolly.
Pictures: Gundrada and William de Warenne church windows ©lewespriory.org.uk; Castle Acre and Lewes Priory courtesy of Wikipedia; Gundrada’s tombstone and the tombs of Gundrada and William courtesy of findagrave.com.
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; Britain’s Royal Families, the Complete Genealogy by Alison Weir; british-history.ac.uk; kristiedean.com; English Heritage Guidebook for Conisbrough Castle by Steven Brindle and Agnieszka Sadrei; oxforddnb.com.