I recently came across the wonderful story of Isabel d’Aubigny, countess of Arundel, a woman who wouldn’t be cheated – even if it was by the king himself.
Isabel was born sometime in the late 1220s, the daughter of William de Warenne, 5th earl of Surrey and Warenne, and Matilda (or Maud) Marshal, daughter and co-heir of the Greatest Knight, William Marshal, earl of Pembroke. Through her grandfather, Hamelin Plantagenet, illegitimate half-brother of King Henry II, Isabel was a cousin of the king, Henry III.
With such impeccable parentage and family connections, it is no surprise that Isabel made a prestigious marriage. At no older than 8 years of age Isabel was married, in 1234, to 20-year-old Hugh d’Aubigny, 5th earl of Arundel. Hugh’s father, William, 3rd Earl of Arundel, had died in 1221, on his way home from the Fifth Crusade. William had been succeeded as 4th Earl by his oldest son and namesake, who died just 3 years after his father, aged just 21, leaving the earldom to his brother Hugh.
On their marriage, Isabel’s father granted the couple a manor at Marham in Norfolk, worth £40 a year in rent. The charter for this grant offers the only details available for the marriage. In 1242 Hugh accompanied the king on his expedition to Aquitaine. However, after just 9 years, on 7 May 1243, Hugh died; leaving Isabel, at 17 years of age, a childless widow, with a rather large dower.
Within weeks of her husband’s death, on 29th May, Isabel’s marriage was granted to Pierre de Genevre, a Savoyard favourite of the king, Henry III. However, the patent rolls show that provision was made for Isabel to remain unmarried should she so wish; although she would have to pay Pierre for the privilege. Given that she never remarried, she must have been more than happy to pay.
The Arundel inhheritance was divided between Hugh’s 4 sisters; Mabel, Isabel, Nicholaa and Cecily. The earldom itself went to Hugh’s nephew, his sister Isabel’s son, John FitzAlan. Isabel was well provided for, however, with her dower including the hundred and manor of Bourne in Lincolnshire, the manors of Wymondham and Kenninghall in Norfolk, Stansted in Essex and several properties in Norfolk and Buckinghamshire. Suffice to say, she was a very wealthy widow and would continue to be styled Countess of Arundel until her death.
In 1249, the same year as her mother died, Isabel founded the only English convent that was part of the Cistercian order. Established at Marham, 2 Cistercian abbots had inspected it in its first year. Isabel’s brother, John de Warenne, 6th Earl of Surrey, the Bishop of Norwich and Henry III himself all issued charters confirming the abbeys foundation. Along with other endowments, Isabel herself made 11 grants to the abbey in its early years, giving it a strong economic foundation. In 1252 Isabel was granted papal permission to visit the Cistercian house at Waverley to consult with him about her convent; Waverley’s annals record that she granted 4 marks and a cask of wine to the monks there.
Isabel was very protective of her property rights and went on the offensive when they were threatened, even if that meant going against the king. In 1252 Isabel did just that. One of her tenants, Thomas of Ingoldisthorpe, held a ¼ knight’s fee from Isabel at Fring and Snettisham; he also had property in the honour of Haughley, as an escheat from the crown. On his death in 1252 Henry III took all of Thomas’s lands in wardship until Thomas’s heir was of age, including Isabel’s ¼ knight’s fee. In March of 1252 Henry granted the wardship of the lands and marriage of the heir to his former treasurer and keeper of the king’s wardrobe, Peter Chaceporc. Had Thomas held his lands in chief from the king, Henry would have been within his rights to take prerogative wardship, however his land at Haughley was held from the honour of Haughley, which only in the king’s hands as an escheat and Isabel had therefore been treated unjustly in being denied the wardship of his heirs.
Isabel took her grievances direct to the king, supposedly berating him for trampling on the rights laid out in Magna Carta. She is said to have asked
‘Where are the liberties of England, so often recorded, so often granted, and so often ransomed?’¹
According to Matthew Paris, the chronicler and a personal friend of Isabel’s (though no particular fan of Henry), Henry scorned Isabel’s argument, ‘derisively and curling his nostrils’ and asked if the nobles of the realm had given her permission to speak on their behalf. Isabel argued that the king had given her the right to speak thus, in the articles granted in Magna Carta and accused the king of being a ‘shameless transgressor’ of the liberties laid down in the Great Charter, breaking his sworn oath to uphold its principles. At the end of the audience, Henry refused to be moved, ‘After listening to her [civilly] reproachful speech, the king was silent, and the countess, without obtaining or even asking for permission, returned home.’²
Isabel was one of the great nobles of England, the daughter of one earl and wife of another, and was obviously undaunted by an audience with the king. And although the king did not react to her reprimand immediately he did, eventually, admit that he may have been in the wrong, issuing a letter to her on 23 May 1253 saying:
‘Since the king has learnt that Thomas of Ingoldisthorpe, whose son and heir is in the custody of Ptere Chaceporc by concession of the king, did not hold from the crown of the king in chief but from the honour of Haughley, which is in the hand of the king as his escheat, and that the same Thomas held from Hugh de Aubigny, once earl of Arundel, a quarter part of the fee of one knight with appurtenances in Fring and Snettisham and the service of which was assigned to Isabella, countess of Arundel, the widow of the foresaid earl, in dower, he has returned to the same countess custody of the foresaid quarter part of a fee with appurtenances; and the foresaid Peter is ordered to give the countess full seizin of the foresaid custody.’²
However, Isabel’s victory was incomplete, as in late 1253, while the king was overseas in Aquitaine, she instigated legal proceedings against Peter Chaceporc ‘for custody of Ingoldisthorpe’. Whether Chaceporc had not relinquished the land, or she believed she was entitled to more land than was returned to her, Isabel in fact lost the suit and was amerced £20 (30 marks) for a false claim. The writ was witnessed by Henry III’s queen, Eleanor of Provence, and his brother Richard, Earl of Cornwall.
As persistent as ever, and although he was overseas, Isabel appealed directly to the king, who responded with a pardon, although it seems he still smarted from the upbraiding she had given him earlier in the year:
‘3 April. Meilham. Henry, by the grace of God king of England, lord of Ireland, duke of Normandy and Aquitaine and count of Anjou sends greeting to his beloved consort E, by the same grace queen of England, lady of Ireland, duchess of Normandy and Aquitaine and countess of Anjou and to his beloved and faithful brother, R. earl of Cornwall. Know that we have pardoned our beloved and faithful Isabella countess of Arundel the 30m. at which she was amerced before our justices against our beloved and faithful … Peter Chaceporc, our Treasurer, for custody of Ingoldisthorpe. We, therefore, order you to cause the same countess to be quit of the aforesaid 30m. by our seal of England provided she says nothing opprobrious to us as she did when we were at Westminster and as we have signified to her by letter. Witness myself.’³
Isabel obviously had an eye for business, given that she could so concern herself with a ¼ knight’s fee out of the 60 that she held. A wealthy widow with impressive family connections, she was renowned not only for her religious endowment of the Cistercian convent at Marham, but also as a patron of religious texts, having commissioned at least 2 saints’ lives, including the life of St Richard of Wyche by Ralph Bocking. Isabel could count among her friends Richard Wych himself, the bishop of Chichester who was later canonised, and Matthew Paris. Paris translated a life of Saint Edmund of Abingdon in to Anglo-Norman verse for Isabel’s personal use.
Isabel died shortly before 23 November 1282 and was laid to rest at her own foundation at Marham; her dower properties passed to her husband’s great-great nephew, Richard FitzAlan, 8th Earl of Arundel. Having spent almost 40 years as a childless widow, Isabel never remarried, her remarkable life dedicated to the patronage of her convent at Markham and religious writers, such as Paris and Bocking. This incredible woman stands out as the countess who reprimanded and humbled her king for his injustices.
Footnotes: ¹quoted by John A. Nichols in Oxforddnb.com; ² quoted by Susanna Annesley in finerollshenry3.org.uk; ³ ibid.
Sources: John A. Nichols Oxforddnb.com; Susanna Annesley finerollshenry3.org.uk; Robert Bartlett England Under the Norman and Angevin Kings; Dan Jones The Plantagenets;David Williamson Brewer’s British Royalty; british-history.ac.uk; Early Yorkshire Charters Volume 8: The Honour of Warenne, Edited by William Farrer and Charles Travis Clay.
Pictures courtesy of Wikipedia: d’Aubigny arms by Sodocan; Warenne arms by Madboy74; Arundel Castle by Chensiyuan; Holy Trinity Church by John Billinger.
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©2017 Sharon Bennett Connolly