The Warennes and the First Cluniac Priory in England

Lewes Priory Sussex

As with so many nobles of the eleventh century, Gundrada and William de Warenne were known for their piety. Either in 1077 or 1081-3 (the dates vary according to the sources) the couple set off on a pilgrimage to Rome. Unfortunately, they never actually made it as far as Italy, due to the outbreak of war between the pope, Hildebrand, and the Holy Roman Emperor. They did, however, reach the magnificent abbey of St Peter and St Paul at Cluny in Burgundy, where Gundrada’s brother, Gerbod, was now a monk and they themselves were received into the fellowship of the monks.

Shortly after the Norman Conquest, Gerbod had been made Earl of Chester, but had resigned this position and returned to Flanders in 1071. Gerbod’s return home had been essential to guarantee the safety of the family’s lands and interests there. The former earl of Chester’s eventual fate is uncertain, however; one report has him killed while another sees him imprisoned. His most likely fate comes from a third account, which claims that Gerbod accidentally killed his lord, Count Arnulf III, the nephew of Queen Matilda, at the Battle of Cassel in 1071. According to this last account, Gerbod travelled to Rome to perform penance for killing his young lord, but was prevented from his self-imposed mutilation by Pope Gregory VII. Instead, the pope sent him to Abbot Hugh at Cluny, who gave Gerbod absolution and admitted him to the order as a monk.1 This would explain William and Gundrada’s visit to Cluny and the Warenne attraction to the Cluniac order, which led to the foundation of the priory of St Pancras at Lewes, the first Cluniac priory founded in England.

The memorial to the 1264 Battle of Lewes, in the grounds of Lewes Priory

Although Abbot Hugh was absent at the time of the de Warenne’s visit, the abbey at Cluny inspired the couple, they ‘were so struck with the high standard of religious life maintained there that they determined to put their proposed foundation under Cluny, and accordingly desired the abbot to send three or four of his monks to begin the monastery. He, however, would not at first consent—fearing that at so great a distance from their mother-house they would become undisciplined’.2

It was only after William and Gundrada managed to gain the backing of the king,, William the Conqueror, that the abbot gave his consent and eventually sent a monk named Lanzo, to act as prior, with three other monks to found the community. William gave them the church of St Pancras at Lewes, which had recently been rebuilt in stone, and the land surrounding it. Their territory was extended by William de Warenne acquiring ‘all the land and the island near Lewes which is called Southye’ for his monks, in return for, every Nativity of St John the Baptist, the delivery of ‘ten arrows, barbed, shafted, and feathered.’3 William and Gundrada were expecting to build a community to house twelve monks. All the churches on the vast Warenne estates were given to the priory, including endowments from the lands of Gundrada’s brother Frederic in Norfolk, recently inherited by Gundrada. The priory was to pay a fixed sum of 50s a year to the abbey at Cluny, but the independence of the Lewes monks was severely restricted, with the right of appointing its prior and admitting new monks being solely the reserve of the abbot of Cluny.4 A second priory, started by William but finished by his son, also William, was built on the family’s lands at Castle Acre in Norfolk.

The Cluniac order were unique in the church in that they had been granted exemption from excommunication by Pope Alexander II in 1061, who declared that anyone attempting to excommunicate the monks of Cluny would be ‘accursed by our Lord and St Peter, and fit to be burnt in eternal fire with the devil and the traitor Judas, and to be cast down with the impious into the abyss and Tartarean chaos.’5 The order had been founded in the year 910 by monks seeking to pursue a more austere lifestyle and a stricter interpretation of the Rule of St Benedict, laid down in the sixth century and the basis for medieval monastic life. Cluniac monks were renowned for the length and rigour of their church worship, the strict rules that governed them and their freedom from lay control and episcopal control, save for the pope. Their stringent rule contrasted with the order’s love of art and decoration, as demonstrated in the magnificent façade of the Cluniac priory of Castle Acre in Norfolk.6

Castle Acre Priory, Norfolk

The first Cluniac priory in England, St Pancras was also the acknowledged chief among Cluny’s establishments in England, all of which were founded within 150 years of the Norman Conquest; it became one of the wealthiest monasteries in the country. The family chronicle, the Warenne Chronicle may have originated at St Pancras Priory. Although it is also called the Hyde Chronicle, it is so called because it was discovered at Hyde Abbey in Winchester. It’s origin before that is unknown, so it is entirely possible that the chronicle originated was written at Lewes. This would also explain the chronicler’s extensive knowledge of the Warenne family.

Not only did the priory receive gifts and grants from each successive earl of Warenne, but also from other quarters, including those who wished to be buried there and those wanting to become monks. Among the grants issued to the priory over the years were allowances of venison for sick monks, fishing rights, the monopoly of eels from the Warenne’s Yorkshire properties and the right of taking wood three days a week from Pentecost (fifty days after Easter Sunday) to St Peter’s day (29 June).7 Of the Warenne earls of Surrey, all were buried at the priory at Lewes, except the third earl, who died on crusade in the Holy Land, and William of Blois, the first husband of Isabel de Warenne, who was buried in France. In addition to the family members, Lewes Priory was the chosen final resting place for the rich and noble, including earls and countesses of Arundel, and members of the prominent Nevill, Maltravers and Bohun families.

Gundrada died in childbirth at Castle Acre in Norfolk on 27 May 1085. It seems the misunderstanding over Gundrada’s parentage, and the claim that she was the daughter of William the Conqueror and his queen, Matilda of Flanders, arose with the monks at Lewes Priory, when a copy of an earlier charter claimed she was the daughter of Matilda of Flanders. Whether this was accidental or a deliberate misdirection is open to conjecture; the impression of royal links could give houses an advantage over other monasteries when seeking patronage. 

Gundrada died before her husband received his earldom, and so never bore the title of countess. She was buried in the chapter house of St Pancras Priory at Lewes; her husband would be buried beside her three years later. Around 1145, when new monastic buildings were consecrated at St Pancras, 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’.8 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. The inscription on the tombstone, which runs along all four sides and down the middle, reads:

‘Gundrada, offspring of dukes, glory of the age, noble shoot,

brought to the churches of the English the balm of her character.

As a Martha …

That part of Martha [in her] died; the greater part of Mary survives.

she was to the wretched; a Mary she was in her piety.

O, pious Pancras, witness of truth and justice,

she makes you her heir; may you in your clemency accept the mother.

The sixth day of the kalends of June, showing itself,

broke the alabaster containing her flesh …’

Elisabeth M.C. Van Houts and Rosalind C. Love (eds and trans), The Warenne (Hyde) Chronicle

William de Warenne was awarded the earldom of Surrey in the spring of 1088. He did not live long enough to enjoy his new title, however, dying within months, or possibly weeks, of attaining the honour, in June 1088. It is conceivable that William’s epitaph was written by Orderic Vitalis himself, who recreates it in volume iv of his Ecclesiastical History. [45] It reads:

‘Earl William, in this place your fame is kindled.

You built this house and were its generous friend:

This (place) honours your body, because pleasing was the gift

you gave so willingly to the poor of Christ.

The saint himself, Pancras, your heir, who guards your ashes,

Will raise you to the mansions of the blessed in the stars.

Saint Pancras give, we pray, a seat in heaven

To him who for your glory gave this house.’

Elisabeth M.C. Van Houts and Rosalind C. Love (eds and trans), The Warenne (Hyde) Chronicle
St John the Baptist church, Southover

Following the dissolution of St Pancras Priory at Lewes in the sixteenth century, the tombstone was first moved to Isfield Church; it was moved again in 1775 to the parish church of St John the Baptist at Southover in Lewes. The church is situated close to the grounds of the ruined priory and may once have been within the priory’s precincts. The remains of Gundrada and William were discovered in the ruined priory in two leaden chests in 1845 and finally laid to rest in the Gundrada chapel at the Southover church in 1847. 9

The priory founded by William and Gundrada would continue its association with the Warenne family until the death of John, the seventh and final Warenne Earl of Surrey, who was buried there in 1347. The relationship was not always amicable, however; Earl Hamelin, the 4th Earl Warenne and second husband of Countess Isabel, had a long-running disagreement with the founding house at Cluny.

But that is a story for another day….

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Images:

All images are ©2020 Sharon Bennett Connolly

Footnotes:

1Elisabeth Van Houts, Hereward and Flanders (article), Anglo-Saxon England vol. 28; 2A History of the County of Sussex: Volume 2 edited by William Page; 3 Lewes Chartulary quoted in W.H. Blaauw, On the Early History of Lewes Priory, and its Seals, with extracts from a MS. Chronicle, Sussex Archaeological Collections; 4W.H. Blaauw, On the Early History of Lewes Priory, and its Seals, with extracts from a MS. Chronicle, Sussex Archaeological Collections; 5Bullarum. Rom. Pontiff. Collectio, t.l. Roma, 1739-62 quoted in ibid; 6Edward Impey, Castle Acre Priory and Castle, English Heritage; 7Blaauw; 8Warenne, Gundrada de (d.1085) (article) by C.P. Lewis, Oxforddnb.com, oxforddnb.com; 9Elisabeth M.C. Van Houts and Rosalind C. Love (eds and trans), The Warenne (Hyde) Chronicle

Sources:

Elisabeth Van Houts, Hereward and Flanders (article), Anglo-Saxon England vol. 28; A History of the County of Sussex: Volume 2 edited by William Page; W.H. Blaauw, On the Early History of Lewes Priory, and its Seals, with extracts from a MS. Chronicle, Sussex Archaeological Collections; Edward Impey, Castle Acre Priory and Castle, English Heritage; Warenne, Gundrada de (d.1085) (article) by C.P. Lewis, Oxforddnb.com, oxforddnb.com; Elisabeth M.C. Van Houts and Rosalind C. Love (eds and trans), The Warenne (Hyde) Chronicle; Jeffrey James, The Bastard’s Sons: Robert, William and Henry of Normandy; Early Yorkshire Charters Volume 8 Edited by William Farrer and Charles Travis Clay; Rev. John Watson, Memoirs of the Ancient Earls of Warren and Surrey, and Their Descendants to the Present Time, Volume I; Alfred S. Ellis, Biographical Notes on the Yorkshire Tenants Named in Domesday Book (article); C.P. Lewis, Warenne, William de, first Earl of Surrey [Earl Warenne] (d. 1088) (article), Oxforddnb.com

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5 thoughts on “The Warennes and the First Cluniac Priory in England

  1. Paulette 05/09/2020 / 19:18

    This is about one of my family names

    Like

    • Sharon Bennett Connolly 05/09/2020 / 19:37

      Thanks Paulette. I’ve just finished a biography of the Warenne earls, which should be out next year.

      Like

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