The Mysterious Knight in the Graveyard

The imposing keep of Conisbrough Castle

Whilst I was researching the Warenne earls of Surrey my cousin, who lives in Conisbrough, passed on to me a story of the accidental discovery of a long-dead knight during road-widening work in the village. Whether he has any relation to the Warenne family is open to conjecture, of course, although it is entirely possible. His identity is a mystery…

The story starts in 1955, with a road widening programme that was carried out along Church Street in Conisbrough. Conisbrough was a tightly packed village, with the road so narrow in places that cars had to mount the pavement if they met oncoming traffic. The ‘pinch’ was outside the parish church of St Peter’s. As a consequence, Conisbrough Urban District Council set to work to widen the road where Church Street meets Church Yard. As this was church property, and graves would have to be disturbed, strict rules were put in place to allow the work to proceed. The then vicar, Rev. G.F. Braithwaite allowed that the boundary wall could be removed and rebuilt a metre further into the churchyard. It was stipulated, however, that no photographs or archaeological examinations could be undertaken during the works. They expected to find twelve lots of human remains in the area to be excavated, and these were to be removed and reinterred speedily, and with reverence and solemn prayer, elsewhere within the churchyard.

When the boundary wall was removed, the stones were carefully stacked for reuse. One stone proved particularly interesting. It was a large stone which had been situated close to the base of the wall, was about a metre long and half a metre wide, with the image of a sword blade carved into the façade; the part of the stone which would have shown the hilt was missing. Work then began on excavating that area of the church yard that was to make way for the widened road. It was expected that twelve graves, dating from Victorian times, would need to be removed. The remains were removed only a short distance and reinterred in an area which is now the memorial garden. As work continued, however, the number of graves had been sorely underestimated, and several dozen graves were uncovered. It was discovered that graves had been stacked, one on top of another, going back through the years.

The Warenne coat of arms

Among the remains found was one who had been buried with a small shield. The shield was about 60cm long and 50cm wide, decorated with a lion rampant (where the lion is stood on his two back legs). It was, therefore, assumed that the remains were that of a knight; although the stipulation that there could be no archaeological investigation, nor photographs taken, means that we know nothing beyond this. We do know that the knight did not belong to the household of the Warenne earls, who had owned Conisbrough and its castle since the time of the Normans; their coat of arms was a shield of blue and gold checks, adopted by the second earl in the first half of the twelfth century.

Although the colour of the lion on the shield was black, this is unlikely to have been the original colour; several hundred years in the ground had erased any indication of the colours of the lion or the background of the shield, thus making it impossible to identify the coat of arms. The remains were reinterred along with the others, according to the conditions imposed for the road widening scheme. The work was then continued, the road widened and a new boundary wall built, with steps into the church yard and a memorial park marking where the disturbed remains had been reburied.

St Peter’s Church, Conisbrough

The incident was then forgotten about with the passage of time. Indeed, when I came to look into it, few had heard of the mysterious knight buried in Conisbrough church yard. Internet searches brought up nothing. The story re-emerged in 1990, when Conisbrough Castle installed new floodlights and hosted a grand ‘switch on’ ceremony for the residents of Conisbrough. An article sent to me by a Conisbrough resident talks of meeting re-enactors at the ceremony, who were dressed as knights of the Earl of Norfolk, with a lion rampant on their shields.

It was then suggested that Earl Hamelin’s daughter Isabel had married Roger Bigod, the first Earl of Norfolk, who died in 1221. Unfortunately, this relationship is not supported by history; Earl Roger was, in fact, the second earl of Norfolk and married to Ida de Tosny, former mistress of Henry II. However, Earl Roger’s son, Hugh, who died in 1225, was married to Matilda Marshal, the eldest daughter of William Marshal, Earl of Pembroke and regent for Henry III. On Hugh’s death, Matilda had married William de Warenne, Earl Hamelin’s son and fifth Earl of Warenne and Surrey. It is entirely possible that Matilda was accompanied by knights of her first husband when she visited Conisbrough, or was visited there by a Norfolk knight who then perished and was buried in the church yard of St Peter’s at Conisbrough. However, the emblem of the earls of Norfolk, in Matilda’s time, was a red cross on a yellow background. The red lion rampant, on a field of gold and green, was only adopted until 1269, when Roger Bigod, fifth earl of Norfolk and Matilda Marshal’s grandson, inherited the title of Marshal of England, which had passed to the family through his grandmother. This also means that it is just as likely, or even more so, that the shield belonged to a Marshal retainer who was visiting Matilda, or in Matilda’s employ.

The coat of arms of William Marshal, Earl of Pembroke

There are several other possibilities for a Warenne connection to the knight in the churchyard. The emblem of the lion rampant was not an uncommon feature among medieval heraldry in England and Scotland. The royal arms of Scotland, for example, are of a red lion rampant on a yellow field. Edward Balliol, King of Scotland at various points in the 1330s, was a grandson of John de Warenne, sixth Earl of Warenne and Surrey, through his mother, Isabella de Warenne. Edward did not officially relinquish his claim to the Scottish throne until 1356 and died near Doncaster in around 1367. The mysterious knight may have been one of his household retainers. Another daughter of the sixth earl, Eleanor, married Henry Percy, the son of a cadet branch of the earls of Northumberland. The Percy family arms are a yellow lion rampant on a blue field. Other families associated with the Warennes also used the lion rampant on their shields, not least being the d’Aubigny earls of Arundel, whose arms were a yellow lion rampant on a red field; Isabel, daughter of William, the fifth Earl of Warenne and Surrey, married Hugh d’Aubigny, the fifth Earl of Arundel.

One final possibility is that the knight was a natural son of the last earl. John de Warenne, seventh Earl of Warenne and Surrey, had no legitimate children with his wife Joan of Bar, a granddaughter of Edward I but fathered a number of illegitimate children by his mistress, Maud Nerford. Maud was from a knightly family in Norfolk; their coat of arms was a lion rampant. It is known that at least one of their sons, —–, used the Nerford arms as his own. Further, the arms of John’s last mistress, Isabella Holland, who he called ‘ma compaigne’ in his will, was a white lion rampant of a blue field, surrounded by white fleur de lys.1

As to the stone, mentioned earlier, with the carving of a sword blade upon it, it was suggested that this stone was previously a grave marker for the mysterious knight and was found lying in the church grounds sometime in the early 1800s. There was extensive building going on in Conisbrough between 1800 and 1810 and it is assumed that stone was used to rebuild the boundary wall of the churchyard. The fact that the two were found in the vicinity of each other is no suggestion of a link. As archaeologist James Wright explained to me, such stones were often used to decorate churches, castles and important buildings, then repurposed elsewhere once those buildings fell into disuse. The stone could have come from anywhere, and not necessarily a grave marker at all. The stone in question can still be seen at St Peter’s church, to the side of the church porch.

Scotland’s King John Balliol with the arms of a red lion rampant on his surcoat

Although we have no definitive answers as to the identity of the mysterious knight who rests in the grounds of St Peter’s Church, Conisbrough, there are many possibilities that suggest a familial link with the Warenne family. As we have no archaeological survey or photographs to aid the investigation, definitive identification is impossible. Indeed, we do not even have any useful dates through which we can narrow down the possibilities. Although the last earl of Warenne and Surrey died in 1347, it seems unlikely that the knight is from a later period and had no relationship whatsoever with the Warenne earls. Conisbrough Castle passed into royal hands after the earl’s death and was given to Edward III’s fourth surviving son, Edmund of Langley, Duke of York; although the arms of Edmund and his sons were derived from the royal arms of England, which are three lions passant quartered with the fleur de lys of France.

It seems likely, therefore, that although we do not know the identity of century of the knight, he died sometime during the 300 years that the Warenne family held the castle and honour of Conisbrough; and there are several possible explanations for his association with the family, through their many and varied prestigious marriage alliances. There is also a chance that the knight was a Warenne himself, as the illegitimate son of the seventh and final earl, John de Warenne, and his mistress, Maud de Nerford.

The possibilities may not be endless, but they are numerous; without further information, however, it is impossible to narrow it down.

Footnotes:

1 Warner, Kathryn, Philippa of Hainault: Mother of the English Nation

Images:

Conisbrough Castle and Warenne coat of arms by Sharon Bennett Connolly, St Peter’s Church, Conisbrough by Andrea Mason, John Balliol and Marshal arms courtesy of Wikipedia

Sources:

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); 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; Conisbrough Castle Giudebook by Steven Brindle and Agnieszka Sadraei; 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; Kelcey Wilson-Lee, Daughters of Chivalry: The Forgotten Children of Edward I; Kathryn Warner, Philippa of Hainault: Mother of the English Nation; Vincent, Nicholas, ‘William de Warenne, fifth earl of Surrey [Earl Warenne] (d. 1240)’, Oxforddnb.com; Marc Morris, King John; David Crouch, William Marshal; Crouch and Holden, History of William Marshal; Crouch, David, ‘William Marshal [called the Marshal], fourth earl of Pembroke (c. 1146–1219)’, Oxforddnb.com; Flanagan, M.T., ‘Isabel de Clare, suo jure countess of Pembroke (1171×6–1220)’, Oxforddnb.com; Thomas Asbridge, The Greatest Knight; Chadwick, Elizabeth, ‘Clothing the Bones: Finding Mahelt Marshal’, livingthehistoryelizabethchadwick.blogspot.com; Stacey, Robert C., ‘Roger Bigod, fourth earl of Norfolk (c. 1212-1270)’, Oxforddnb.com; finerollshenry3.org.uk.

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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. 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, Bookshop.org and Book Depository.

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14 thoughts on “The Mysterious Knight in the Graveyard

  1. Brian Nolan 26/02/2022 / 13:51

    My word,but you have worked extremely hard in your research, i for one am very grateful for this information.thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. foodinbooks 26/02/2022 / 16:13

    What a fascinating historical mystery! . If I recall correctly, didn’t coats of arms for natural- born sons have some sort of a line across them, designating them as natural sons as opposed to sons born in wedlock? I don’t know my history as well as you so forgive the question if it’s a silly one. Regardless, this was extremely fascinating! Thank you for sharing.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Sharon Bennett Connolly 26/02/2022 / 16:19

      Thank you! Yes, there was usually something to denote illegitimacy. But this was a Warenne illegitimate son who used his mother’s arms, rather than his father’s, so i don’t know if that would still be the case. I would love to know who the knight was!

      Like

  3. Sandra Deckinger 26/02/2022 / 19:55

    Excellent detective work!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Krista 28/02/2022 / 04:02

    So interesting, thank you for giving us this glimpse into history! I have a question; the last image, King John Balliol – is that a broken scepter in his hand? If not, what is it I’m not perceiving, and if so, what’s the significance? Thanks in advance for tolerating my inquisitiveness.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Sharon Bennett Connolly 28/02/2022 / 10:43

      Thank you Krista – and well spotted. I hadn’t noticed the broken sceptre and crown when I used to image. It was probably to denote the fact John was stripped of his kingship by Edward I of England. It’s quite a touching depiction.

      Like

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