The Early Years of the Last Earl Warenne

Arms of the Earls of Warenne and Surrey

John de Warenne, 7th and last Earl of Warenne and Surrey (Earl Warenne), was the only son of William de Warenne, who in turn was the only son of the colourful and rather legendary John de Warenne, 6th Earl Warenne. The 6th earl had been married in 1247 to Alice de Lusignan, half-sister of King Henry III as the second eldest daughter of Isabelle d’Angoulême, Queen of England as the wife of King John, and her second husband, Hugh X de Lusignan, Count of La Marche and Lord of Lusignan and Valence.

Born in around 1224, Alice was seven years older than her 16-year-old husband. The marriage had formed part of King Henry’s much-despised policy of patronising his Lusignan siblings and thus was condemned by Matthew Paris. Rather harshly, Paris claimed that the marriage was ‘beyond the bride’s station.’1 For John’s son and grandson, it would provide them with powerful royal relations in the future; William de Warenne was a first cousin of Edward I and the younger John de Warenne was a second cousin to Edward II.

Alice de Lusignan, Countess of Warenne and Surrey, died on 9 February 1256, just hours or days after William’s birth. She was ‘placed in the earth before the great altar [Lewes priory] in the presence of her brother Adelmar [Aymer], [bishop] elect of Winchester.’2 Despite being one of the wealthiest and most powerful earls in the country, and with only one legitimate son to succeed him, John de Warenne would never remarry, perhaps an indication of the deep affection that he held for his semi-royal wife.

In his late twenties, William de Warenne was married to Joan, daughter of Richard de Vere, Earl of Oxford, sometime in 1284: ‘Also William de Warenne married the daughter of the Earl of Oxford.’3 Through his mother, William was the nephew of Henry III and first cousin to Edward I. Through his father, William was descended from, among others, William Marshal, Geoffrey of Anjou and six Warenne earls of Surrey. However, William was destined never to succeed to the expansive earldom of Surrey. He was killed in a tournament at Croydon in December 1286, just six months after the birth of his only son and heir, John. The Annals of Lewes Priory recorded the events of 1286:

This year, on June 30, was born the first-begotten son of Sir William de Warenn, by his wife, daughter of the Earl of Oxford, whom he had married, as appears above. He was baptised and called by the name of John, on the 7th of November, with immense rejoicing; but alas! As the prophet testifies, ‘our joys are extinguished, but lamentation possesses us;’ for in the same year, on the first Sunday before the feast of Thomas the Apostle, which was on December 15, the father of the aforesaid youth [Sir William, killed in a tournament at Croydon], concerning whom our gladness had been, expired, and, oh sadness! He in whom flourished entire nobility, generosity and honesty, and the beginning of the glory of all knighthood, now lies buried and covered with stones. But there was present at the entombment of this so noble a man, the lord of Canterbury, who buried him before the high altar, on the left side, near his mother, with the greatest devotion of respect, as was fitting, many nobles of the land being present. The earl marshal [Roger Bigod, Earl of Norfolk], the Earl of Oxford and several barons … were anxiously afflicted.4

St Pancras priory, Lewes, the Warenne family mausoleum

Some sources suggest that John was the posthumous son of William, stating that William was killed in January 1286; however, this entry in the Annals of Lewes Priory makes it clear that John was born almost six months before his father was killed. John’s sister, Alice, on the other hand, may well have been born the year after her father’s death, in June 1287. Given the chronicle was written by a monk at Lewes, a priory patronised by the Warenne family, the laments and praise of William may be slightly exaggerated. However, that the archbishop of Canterbury conducted the funeral rites, and the presence of many senior nobles, suggests that William was, indeed, well thought of. This fact may give the lie to the rumours of murder that inevitably accompany a medieval death from unnatural causes. Rumours that William’s enemies had taken the opportunity of the tournament to despatch the young lord appear to be without foundation.

Young John suffered a further bereavement on 1293, when his mother, Joan died. Aged only 7, it seems arrangements had already been made should John still be a minor when his parents died. It had been agreed that the custody of John and his lands should go to Joan’s parents, Robert de Vere and his wife, Alice de Sanford. However, Earl Robert died in 1296 and it is not known where 10-year-old John spent the remainder of his childhood. It seems likely that John was raised by his Warenne grandfather, until the 6th Earl’s death in 1304.

At the age of 18, John succeeded to the earldom of his grandfather as the 7th earl of Warenne, Surrey and Sussex. His vast holdings comprised of lands and manors in numerous counties, including Sussex, Surrey, Lincolnshire, Yorkshire, Wiltshire and Norfolk. John, Earl Warenne, was still a minor and would be for another three years; as a consequence, he was made a royal ward, his lands taken into the custody of the Crown. Although he and his lands were in royal custody, and managed by custodians, John lived on his own estates and in 1305 the king commanded John to provide him with forty dried and salted barrels of deer.5 In the same year, he was sent to attend a tournament at Guildford, part of John’s estates, by Edward I, who provided the young lord with considerable funds for his maintenance.6

On 7 April 1306, in spite of the fact he had not yet performed homage to the king, still only 19 years old, Edward granted John his grandfather’s lands. It may well have been at this time that Edward Balliol was placed in John’s custody. The son of John’s aunt, Isabella, and King John Balliol of Scotland, the younger Balliol had been in the custody of his grandfather, the sixth Earl Warenne, from 1299 until the old earl’s death in 1304.

Seal of Edward Balliol as King of Scots

Given that it is likely his mother was no longer living when John Balliol became king in 1292, and that the couple had been married sometime before 7th February 1281, it seems probable that Edward was born sometime in the 1280s, making him of a similar age to his cousin, John de Warenne. Indeed, the two young men may well have spent their teenage years together in their grandfather’s household, training for knighthood. John was Balliol’s guardian for about 4 years, until it was ordered that he be delivered into royal custody in 1310, by Edward II. Edward Balliol had a strong claim to the Scottish throne, one that he would later be encouraged to pursue by Edward III in the 1330s. In May 1306, John de Warenne attended his first parliament at Westminster, an event which marked his coming of age, although he was not yet 21; in fact, he was still a month shy of his twentieth birthday.

John’s early coming of age appears to have been a part of larger scheme by King Edward, as during the parliamentary session, John was brought before the king and offered Edward’s granddaughter in marriage; the young earl readily agreed to the marriage, even though his bride was only 10 years old. The proposed bride was Joan, or Jeanne of Bar, Edward’s granddaughter by his eldest daughter, Eleanor and her husband Henry, Count of Bar. In the week following the betrothal of John and Joan, and in anticipation of a new expedition against Scotland, on 22 May 1306, Edward I held a magnificent ceremony for the knighting of his eldest son, Edward; the king knighted the prince, who then went on to knight the other candidates, in the glorious setting of Westminster Abbey.

In anticipation of the prince’s knighting, and in order to gather a body of knights who would be loyal to his son, the king proclaimed that all young men of sufficient age and income should travel to Westminster, to be knighted at royal expense alongside their future king, Prince Edward. The ceremony was also to bestow knighthoods on almost 300 men, John de Warenne included: ‘The yong Erle of Warenne with grete nobley was thare / A wif thei him bikenne, the erles douhter of Bare.’7

There were so many young men to be knighted, that it was impossible to find accommodation for all, and apple trees had to be chopped down in the gardens of the New Temple to make room. The prince and his closest companions kept their vigil, the night before the ceremony, watching their arms, in the abbey church at Westminster. Matthew of Westminster records that:

there was such a noise of trumpets and pipes, and such a clamour of voices, that one side of the choir could not hear the other. The others kept their vigil at the New Temple. The King provided them the necessary scarlet cloths, fine linen and belts for their use from his own wardrobe. 8

Arms of the House of Bar

The following morning, the king knighted his son in the palace of Westminster, investing him with his knight’s belt and spurs. The prince then crossed to Westminster Abbey, to invest the others; ‘The crowd was enormous, so great indeed, that two knights were killed. Each candidate was attended by three knights, who saw and assisted him through the ceremony.’9 The prince knighted sixty of the candidates himself, with other knights assisting with the rest. A lavish banquet – which later became known as the Feast of the Swans – followed the proceedings:

when two swans were brought in ornamented with gold network, emblematical of constancy and truth. When they were placed upon the table the King rose and made a vow to God and to the swans, that he would set out for Scotland and avenge the death of Comyn, and punish the treachery of the Scots … It was under these exceptionally interesting circumstances that Warenne received his knighthood.10

The murder of John Comyn, at the hands of Robert the Bruce in the church of the Greyfriars in Dumfries, on 10 February 1306, following an argument, had sent shockwaves through Christendom. Bruce had then raced to Scone where he was crowned King Robert I of Scots. As the celebrations continued a number of weddings also took place, involving several barons and nobles. John’s sister, Alice, married Edmund FitzAlan, 9th Earl of Arundel. Edmund had been a ward of John’s grandfather. The two young men were very close in age and were political allies and friends.

John de Warenne and Joan of Bar were married on 25 May, ‘before an altar spread with glittering cloths-of-gold.’11 Barely 10 years old, Joan was escorted to the palace at Westminster with great pomp and she and John were married in the presence of the ageing king. The Wardrobe Accounts bear witness to the extravagance of the ceremony and celebrations:

‘1306. May 25. In money lent and dispersed in the presence of the King, at the nuptials celebrated in the King’s chapel at Westminster, between John, Earl de Warenne, and the Lady Joanna, daughter of the Count de Barr, xls [40s].’ Other money was paid out ‘for diverse minstrels’, and ‘for letting fly the king’s gyrfalcon.’ More extravagance was expended to Thomas the coachbuilder, ‘advanced on making a chariot for the Earl de Warenne, June 28, lxs [60s],’ and to Walter de Bardeney, ‘advanced on harness being made for the said Earl, on the same day, cs [100s].’ While Walter de Bedewynde was commissioned ‘for a new carriage for the use of the Countess de Warenne, by order of the Treasurer.’12

Conisbrough Castle, South Yorkshire, where John de Warenne, the last Earl of Warenne and Surrey, died in 1347

The marriage would prove to be a disaster, with John spending most of his adult life trying to obtain a divorce from Joan in order to marry his mistress, Maud de Nerford, and thus legitimise his children by her. Although the relationship with Maud eventually broke down, possibly due to the considerable pressure they couple must have been under with the almost-constant court cases, John was still trying to obtain a divorce from Joan to his dying day. In his latter years, in a last desperate attempt to produce a legitimate heir, he hoped to marry his mistress at that time, Isabella Holland, who his described as ‘ma compaigne’ in his will.13

John de Warenne, seventh and last Earl of Warenne, Surrey, Sussex and Strathern died at Conisbrough Castle between 28 and 30 June 1347, possibly even on his sixty-first birthday (30 June). He asked to be buried at St Pancras Priory, Lewes, in an arch near the high altar. His will, dated 24 June 1347, left various gifts to his illegitimate children and to Isabella, to whom he left plate, jewels, cows, horses and other beasts, ‘and after that my debts and devises be made, I give to my said “compaigne” all the residue of all my goods and chattels, and whatsoever things they find.’14 To Joan, his wife of forty years, he left nothing.

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Footnotes:

1. Scott L. Waugh, ‘Warenne, John de, seventh earl of Surrey earl of Surrey and Sussex, Earl Warenne’, ODNB; 2. ‘Annals written by a certain monk of Lewes, from the birth of Christ to the year 1312’ quoted in Blaauw, On the Early History of Lewes Priory; 3. ibid; 4. ibid; 5. Scott L. Waugh, ‘Warenne, John de, seventh earl of Surrey earl of Surrey and Sussex, Earl Warenne’, ODNB; 6. ibid; 7. F. Royston Fairbank, ‘The Last Earl of Warenne and Surrey, and the Distribution of his Possessions’, The Yorkshire Archaeological Journal, vol. XIX; 8. ibid; 9. ibid; 10. ibid; 11. Kelcey Wilson-Lee, Daughters of Chivalry: The Forgotten Children of Edward I; 12. Wardrobe Accounts quoted in F. Royston Fairbank, ‘The Last Earl of Warenne and Surrey, and the Distribution of his Possessions’, The Yorkshire Archaeological Journal, vol. XIX; 13. Katheryn Warner, Philippa of Hainault: Mother of the English Nation; 14. Calendar of Papal Registers, Papal Letters quoted in F. Royston Fairbank, ‘The Last Earl of Warenne and Surrey, and the Distribution of his Possessions’, The Yorkshire Archaeological Journal, vol. XIX

Images:

Courtesy of Wikipedia except Conisbrough Castle and Lewes Priory which are ©2021 Sharon Bennett Connolly

Sources:

The Oxford Companion to British History Edited by John Cannon; The Plantagenets, the Kings who Made England by Dan Jones; History Today Companion to British History Edited by Juliet Gardiner and Neil Wenborn;  Brewer’s British Royalty by David Williamson; Britain’s Royal Families, the Complete Genealogy by Alison Weir; Early Yorkshire Charters Volume 8, Edited by William Farrer and Charles Travis Clay; Conisbrough Castle by Steven Brindle and Agnieszka Sadraei; The Mammoth Book of British Kings and Queens by Mike Ashley; The Plantagenets, the Kings that made Britain by Derek Wilson; oxforddnb.com; royaldescent.net; F. Royston Fairbank, ‘The Last Earl of Warenne and Surrey, and the Distribution of his Possessions’, The Yorkshire Archaeological Journal, vol. XIX; Scott L. Waugh, ‘Warenne, John de, seventh earl of Surrey earl of Surrey and Sussex, Earl Warenne’, ODNB; ‘Annals written by a certain monk of Lewes, from the birth of Christ to the year 1312’ quoted in Blaauw, On the Early History of Lewes Priory; Kelcey Wilson-Lee, Daughters of Chivalry: The Forgotten Children of Edward I; Katheryn Warner, Philippa of Hainault: Mother of the English Nation

My Books

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 is now available from Pen & Sword BooksAmazon 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.

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