Eight Interesting Discoveries on writing 11th century non-fiction

Ooh, I have just time to sneak in one more post for 2022!

First, though, I would like to take the opportunity to thank all my readers, near and far, for sticking with me and helping me to make History…the Interesting Bits a blog that people want to read.

I would like to wish each and every one of you a Happy and Healthy New Year. May 2023 be kind and generous to you all!

So, on with the article…

Following on from my 10 Facts About Women and Magna Carta, I thought I would revisit the Norman Conquest and started thinking about I found most interesting when writing about 1066 and the years either side. And here’s what I discovered:

1. Not all primary sources are contemporary.

Emma of Normandy

Let me explain. Of course, all sources written in the 11th century are primary sources, but you do find people quoting sources as primary sources – only to discover that they were written 100 or even 200 years after the events.

One such legend, appearing two centuries after the events, suggested that Emma of Normandy’s relationship with her good friend, Bishop Stigand, was far more than that of her advisor and that he was, in fact, her lover – although the legend did get its bishops mixed up and named Ælfwine, rather than Stigand, as Emma’s lover. The story continues that Emma chose to prove her innocence in a trial by ordeal, and that she walked barefoot over white-hot ploughshares. Even though the tale varies depending on the source, the result is the same; when she completed the ordeal unharmed, and thus proven guiltless, she was reconciled with her contrite son, Edward.

However, there is no 11th century source for this event and it seems to have been created to explain Emma’s estrangement from her son, Edward the Confessor.

2. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is the most famous source of 11th century news. 

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle gives wonderful snippets of information about life in Anglo-Saxon England – and the weather! If you have ever wondered where the English get their obsession with the weather, read the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. It is also very dramatic.

For example, the year 1005 starts with; ‘Here in this year there was the great famine throughout the English race, such as no-one ever remembered on so grim before…’

1032 relates; ‘Here in this year appeared that wild-fire such as no man remembered before, and also it did damage everywhere in many places.’

And 1039 opens with ‘Here came the great gale…’

In 1053 we read, ‘Here [1052] was the great wind on the eve of the Feast of St Thomas, and the great wind was also all midwinter…’

And, of course, in 1066 we read about the appearance of Halley’s Comet; ‘Then throughout all England, a sign such as man ever saw before was seen in the heavens. Some me declared that it was the star comet, which some men called the ‘haired’ star; and it appeared first on the eve of the Great Litany, 24 April, and shone thus all the week….’

3. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is a fabulous source of news about church leaders.

Don’t get me wrong, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is invaluable to anyone studying the history of Anglo-Saxon Britain, but you can tell it was written by monks. There are some years where you learn little more than which church leader died, and who replaced him.

For example, the entry for 1023 from the E chronicle; ‘Here Bishop Wulfstan passed away, and Ælfric succeeded…’

And in 1032; ‘In the same year Ælfsige, bishop in Winchester, passed away, and Ælfwine, the king’s priest, succeeded to it.’

The only entry in the E Chronicle in 1033 was; ‘Here in this year Merehwit, bishop in Somerset, passed away, and he is buried in Glastonbury.’

And again in 1034; ‘Here Bishop Æthelric passed away.’

4. Not all inheritance was based on primogeniture.

King Harold II, Waltham Abbey

Primogeniture, where the eldest son inherited from his father, was not unusual in 11th century England; when Earl Godwin of Wessex died, his eldest surviving son, Harold, succeeded him. However, it was not yet established as the definitive rule of inheritance of later centuries. When Siward, Earl of Northumbria, died in 1055 his heir, Waltheof, was still a child and too young to hold such a formidable position on the borders of Scotland. The earldom was given to Tostig Godwinson, the favourite brother of Edward the Confessor’s queen, Edith. Though he didn’t do a great job with it…

And in the opening days of 1066, when Edward the Confessor died, the ætheling, Edgar was only a teenager, and so was passed over as king for the more mature and militarily experienced Harold Godwinson, Earl of Wessex, who became King Harold II.

5. Travel to distant places was not uncommon for the nobility.

At different times in the 11th century, both King Cnut and Tostig Godwinson are known to have travelled to Rome; indeed, during his trip to Rome in 1027, Cnut was present at the coronation of Holy Roman Emperor, Conrad II and arranged for the marriage of his daughter by Emma of Normandy, Gunhilda, to Conrad’s son, the future King Henry III of Germany.

As for Tostig, travelling to Rome was not without its dangers, and shortly after leaving the city, his travelling party was caught up in a local dispute between the papacy and the Tuscan nobility; they were attacked. Tostig was able to escape by the ruse of one of his own thegns, a man named Gospatric, who pretended to be the earl.

Tostig and Harold’s brother, Swegn Godwinson, who had murdered his own cousin, even went on pilgrimage to Jerusalem – barefoot – he died on the journey home.

And when I started writing Silk and the Sword: The Women of the Norman Conquest I discovered that there are several links to the story of 1066 with the Russian principality of Kyiv. The baby sons of England’s short-lived king, Edmund II Ironside, who reigned and died in 1016, were given sanctuary and protection in Kyiv, saving them from the clutches of Edmund’s successor, King Cnut. The first wife of Harald Hardrada, the third contender for the English throne in 1066, Elisiv, was a Kyivan princess. And after the Conquest, Harold II Godwinson’s own daughter by Edith Swanneck, Gytha, would make her life in Kyiv as the wife of Vladimir II Monomakh and as the mother of Mstislav the Great, the last ruler of a united Kievan Rus. Vladimir was the nephew of Harald Hardrada’s first wife, the Kyivan princess, Elisiv.

6. Having 2 wives at the same time was not THAT unusual.

Elisiv of Kyiv

In the story of 1066 there were not one BUT three men who had two wives simultaneously.

Harold Godwinson is known for having been in a relationship with the famous Edith Swanneck for 20 years before becoming King, and then marrying Ealdgyth of Mercia without divorcing Edith. Edith is often referred to as Harold’s concubine, but most historians agree that she was his ‘hand-fast’ wife and had undergone a Danish – rather than Christian – style of wedding with Harold. Edith was no ignorant peasant, she was a wealthy woman in her own right and it is highly doubtful she would have accepted being Harold’s mistress, and raising his children, without some kind of marital protection.

Harald Hardrada also married a second ‘wife’, whilst still being married to Elisiv. Elisiv had given the Norwegian king two daughters, but his second wife, Thora, gave him two sons, Magnus and Olaf, who each succeeded their father as King of Norway.

King Cnut was the first to take two wives; he had two sons by Ælfgifu of Northampton before marrying Emma of Normandy and producing a second family. The chronicles, however, claim that Ælfgifu’s sons were not the children of Cnut, with John (also known as Florence) of Worcester saying, ‘Ælfgiva desired to have a son by the king, but as she could not, she caused the new-born child of a certain priest to be brought to her, and made the king fully believe that she had just borne him a son’. And the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle claimed ‘[King] Harold [I Harefoot] also said that he was the son of king Canute and Ælfgiva of Northampton, although that is far from certain; for some say that he was the son of a cobbler, and that Ælfgiva had acted with regard to him as she had done in the case of Swein: for our part, as there are doubts on the subject, we cannot settle with any certainty the parentage of either.’

7. There were some incredible, strong women in the 11th century.

Lady Godiva

The story of the Norman Conquest invariably revolves around the men involved, Edward the Confessor, Harold II, William the Conqueror, Harald Hardrada, and so on. However, there were some amazing women whose strength and perseverance helped to steer and shape the events of the era.

There were, of course, the queens, Emma of Normandy, Edith of Wessex and Matilda of Flanders, who supported their husbands and helped to shape and – even – preserve history, with Emma and Edith both commissioning books to tell the stories of their times and Matilda being the image of queenship that all future queens of England modelled themselves on.

There was also the notorious Lady Godiva, who was probably a lot less scandalous than the legend, of her riding naked through Coventry, leads us to believe. And the incredible Gytha of Wessex, a woman whose story is entwined with every aspect of the period. From the reign of Cnut to that of William the Conqueror, Gytha and her family were involved in so many aspects of the 11th century, from the rise of her sons, through the Battle of Hastings itself, to the English resistance in the years immediately following the Conquest. Gytha was not one to give up easily, despite the horrendous losses her family suffered (three of her sons died in one single day at Hastings), she encouraged her grandsons to lead the opposition against the Conqueror in the west, but her eventual failure saw her seek shelter in Flanders, where she disappears from the pages of history.

8. There is still so much we don’t know!

Ӕlfgyva, the mysterious woman in the Bayeux Tapestry

What you discover when researching the 11th century and the Norman Conquest is that there are gaps in our knowledge. For instance, we do not know why Harold was travelling to Europe in 1064, when he was shipwrecked and became a guest at the court of William, Duke of Normandy (the future William the Conqueror). The Bayeux Tapestry depicts Harold swearing an oath during his stay there. Was Harold promising to support William’s claim to England when Edward the Confessor died?

The Bayeux Tapestry has another tantalising mystery. That of Ӕlfgyva. Ӕlfgyva is depicted in a doorway with a priest touching her cheek. Whether the touch is in admonishment or blessing is open to interpretation. Above her head, written in Latin, is the incomplete phrase  ‘Here a certain cleric and Ӕlfgyva’. But who was the mysterious Ӕlfgyva? Will we ever know?

Historical Writers Forum hosted a fabulous debate on ‘Ӕlfgyva’: The Mysterious Woman in the Bayeux Tapestry, which is available on YouTube. Hosted by Samantha Wilcoxson, it features myself, Pat Bracewell, Carol McGrath and Paula Lofting.

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I would like to take this opportunity to thank you all for your support and encouragement over the years, and to wish you all a Happy and Healthy New Year.

May 2023 be generous to you.

All my love, Sharon xx

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A version of this article was first published on Carol McGrath’s website in December 2018

Images:

Courtesy of Wikipedia, except King Harold II, which is ©2022 Sharon Bennett Connolly FRHistS.

Sources:

A Historical Document Pierre Bouet and François Neveux, bayeuxmuseum.com/en/un_document_historique_enThe Mystery Lady of the Bayeux Tapestry (article) by Paula Lofting, annabelfrage.qordpress.com; Ӕlfgyva: The Mysterious lady of the Bayeux Tapestry (article) by M.W. Campbell, Annales de NormandieThe Bayeux Tapestry, the Life Story of a Masterpiece by Carola HicksÆthelred II [Ethelred; known as Ethelred the Unready] (c. 966×8-1016) (article) by Simon Keynes, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, oxforddnb.com; Britain’s Royal Families; the Complete Genealogy by Alison Weir; Queen Emma and the Vikings: The Woman Who Shaped the Events of 1066 by Harriet O’BrienThe Anglo-Saxon Chronicle translated by James IngramOn the Spindle Side: the Kinswomen of Earl Godwin of Wessex by Ann Williams; Swein [Sweyn], earl by Ann Williams, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, oxforddnb.com, 23 September 2004; Ӕlfgifu [Ӕlfgifu of Northampton (fl. 1006-1036) (article) by Pauline Stafford, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, oxforddnb.com; The Chronicle of John of Worcester, translated and edited by Thomas Forester, A.M; The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles edited and translated by Michael Swanton.

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My Books:

Signed, dedicated copies of all my books are available, please get in touch by completing the contact me form.

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.

1 family. 8 earls. 300 years of English history!

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 in paperback and hardback from Pen & SwordAmazonBookshop.org 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, Bookshop.org 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, Bookshop.org and Book Depository.

Alternate Endings: An anthology of historical fiction short stories including Long Live the King… which is my take what might have happened had King John not died in October 1216. Available in paperback and kindle from Amazon.

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You can be the first to read new articles by clicking the ‘Follow’ button, liking our Facebook page or joining me on Twitter and Instagram.

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©2022 Sharon Bennett Connolly FRHistS.

William and Gundrada de Warenne and the Foundation of a Dynasty

William de Warenne, Holy Trinity Church, Southover

William de Warenne, first earl of Surrey, was a younger son of Rodulf de Warenne and his wife Beatrix. It is possible that Beatrix was a niece of Duchess Gunnor of Normandy, making young William a cousin of William the Bastard, Duke of Normandy. The family name is probably derived from the hamlet of Varenne, part of the Warenne lands in the modern French department of Seine-Inférieure, Normandy. William’s older brother, Rodulf or Ralph, would inherit the greater part of the Warenne family estates in Normandy.

William’s date of birth is unrecorded; a younger son of the minor nobility does not tend to get a mention until he does something remarkable or becomes someone notable. Although still young William was considered a capable and experienced enough soldier to be given joint command of a Norman army, by the mid-1050s. His first recorded military action is in the 1054 campaign against the French. He was one of the commanders who fought against the King of France’s brother, Count Odo, at the Battle of Mortemer.  

De Warenne was rewarded with some of the lands of his kinsman, Roger (I) de Mortemer, who had fought for the French. William managed to retain some of these lands even after Mortemer was restored to favour, including the castles of Mortemer and Bellencombre. Bellencrombe would become the capital of the de Warenne estates in Normandy. De Warenne had also received some of  the confiscated lands of William, count of Arques in 1053. Duke William’s confidence in de Warenne is demonstrated in the fact he was one of the barons consulted during the planning of the invasion of England in 1066.

In fact, William de Warenne is one of only a handful of Norman barons who can be positively identified as having fought at the Battle of Hastings on 14th October, 1066. De Warenne was rewarded with vast swathes of land throughout the country. According to the Domesday survey his lands extended over 13 counties: stretching from Conisbrough in Yorkshire to Lewes in Sussex. His territories were acquired over the course of the reign of William I and elevated him the highest rank of magnates. By 1086 his riches were only surpassed by the king’s half-brothers and his own kinsman, Roger de Montgomery. He still ranks in the Top 20 of the richest people in the world – ever!

Lewes Castle

Throughout his career, William de Warenne acquired lands in numerous counties, sometimes by nefarious means. Much of the property, such as Conisbrough, had formerly belonged to the late king, Harold. In Norfolk he is said to have asserted lordship over freemen not necessarily assigned to him. He had disputes with neighbouring landowners in Conisbrough, over which properties were sokelands and he is said to have stolen lands from the bishop of Durham and the abbot of Ely. Some acquisitions were obtained peacefully, such as the manor of Whitchurch in Shropshire, which was left to him by his kinsman Roger de Montgomery. William was an energetic and attentive landowner and improved the economy of most of his estates; more than tripling his sheep flock at Castle Acre and doubling the value of his Yorkshire estates in just 20 years (at a time when the county was devastated by the Harrying of the North).

In 1067 William de Warenne was one of 4 prominent Normans appointed to govern England during William the Conqueror’s absence in Normandy. Following the Conquest, he continued to support the king and – subsequently – his son, William II Rufus – as a military commander for over 20 years. In 1074 he was with his father at the abbey of Holy Trinity in Rouen, where he was a witness to his father’s last known charter, and in 1083-85 he fought with the king on campaign in Maine, being wounded at the siege of the castle of Sainte-Suzanne.

In 1075, along with Richard de Clare, his fellow justiciar, he was sent to deal with the rebellion of Earl Ralph de Gael of East Anglia. De Gael had failed to respond to their summons to answer for an act of defiance and so the 2 lords faced and defeated the rebels at Fawdon in Cambridgeshire, mutilating their prisoners afterwards. Ralph withdrew to Norwich Castle; besieged for 3 months he managed to escape his attackers by boat, while the castle surrendered and was occupied by de Warenne.

William de Warenne was married to a Flemish noblewoman, Gundrada; her brother Gerbod was sometime earl of Chester and another brother, Frederic, held lands in Norfolk which eventually passed to Gundrada. Frederic, appears to have jointly, with Gundrada, held lands in England even before the Conquest, when two people named Frederic and Gundrada are mentioned as holding four manors in Kent and Sussex. It would indeed be a coincidence if there were two other related people, named Frederic and Gundrada, very distinctive foreign names, in England at that time. Gundrada’s brothers, it seems, were deeply involved in the border politics between 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 lands and duties there, following the death of an older brother, Arnulf II of Oosterzele-Scheldewindeke.

Gundrada de Warenne, Holy Trinity Church, Southover

Frederic was murdered by English freedom fighter, Hereward the Wake; his murder giving rise to a personal feud between Hereward and William de Warenne:

‘Among his other crimes, by trickery [Hereward] killed Frederick, brother of Earl William of Warenne, a man distinguished by lineage and possessions, who one night was surrounded in his own house. On account of his murder, such discord arose between Hereward and the aforesaid William that it could not be settled by any reparation nor in any court.’1

There has been considerable debate among historians over the theory that Gundrada may have been the daughter of William the Conqueror, but the confusion appears to have come from an unreliable charter belonging to Lewes Priory and Gundrada being part of the household of King William’s wife, Matilda. The confirmation charter of the foundation of the priory has King William naming ‘William de Warenne and his wife Gundrada, my daughter.’2 In the same charter, William de Warenne pleads ‘for the health of my mistress Queen Matilda, mother of my wife.’3  However, this is a confirmation of an earlier charter and in the original, while the king and William de Warenne, both, mention Gundrada, neither refer to her as being related to the king or queen.

Historian Elisabeth van Houts argues that Gundrada was most likely a distant relative of Queen Matilda and the counts of Flanders, as asserted in her epitaph as ‘offspring of dukes’ and a ‘noble shoot’. Indeed, had her father been William the Conqueror, her epitaph would surely have referred to her as the offspring of kings. Even if she had been the daughter of Matilda by an earlier marriage, off-spring of kings would have still been appropriate, given that Queen Matilda was the granddaughter of King Robert II of France. Though it does seem likely that Matilda and Gundrada were related in some way, perhaps distant cousins.

The ‘dukes’ referred to in Gundrada’s epitaph, although naturally assumed to be of Normandy, could well refer to a kinship with the house of Luxembourg, to which Queen Matilda’s paternal grandmother, Orgive, belonged. Moreover, Frederic was a familial name within the house of Luxembourg. This kinship via the House of Luxembourg with Queen Matilda would also explain the queen’s gift to Gundrada, of the manor of Carlton, which is usually given as evidence that Gundrada belonged to the queen’s household; an association which would be entirely consistent with kinship.

De Warenne coat of arms, Holy Trinity Church, Southover

Gundrada and William were married sometime around the time of the Conquest, either before or after the expedition to conquer England. They had 3 children together. Their eldest son, William, would succeed his father as Earl of Surrey and Warenne. He married Isabel de Vermandois, widow of Robert de Beaumont, earl of Leicester; with whom he had, according to one chronicler, 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, but changed sides and fought for Henry at the Battle of Tinchebrai in 1106. Duke Robert lost and was captured and imprisoned by Henry. William remained in the king’s favour for the rest of the reign, fighting alongside Henry at the Battle of Bremule in 1119. William, his son and stepsons were at Henry’s deathbed at Lyons-la-Foret when he died in 1135.

William and Gundrada’s second son, Rainald 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 Rainald was 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 Rainald.

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.

Castle Acre, Norfollk, where Gundrada died

Sadly, Gundrada died in childbirth at Castle Acre in Norfolk on 27th May 1085. She was buried in the chapter house of the couple’s own of foundation Lewes Priory.

William’s second wife was a sister of Richard Guet, who was described as ‘frater comitissae Warennae’ when he gave the manor of Cowyck to Bermondsey Abbey in 1098.3 Guet was a landowner in Perche, Normandy, but his sister’s name has not survived the passage of time. All we know of her is that, a few days after her husband’s death, she attempted to gift 100 shillings to Ely Abbey in restitution for damage caused by William de Warenne. The monks refused the donation, hoping that Warenne’s departing soul had been claimed by demons.4

Despite this reputation at Ely, William de Warenne and his wife, Gundrada, had a reputation for piety. At some point in their marriage, probably 1081-3, they went on pilgrimage to Rome. Due of war in Italy they only got as far as the great abbey of Cluny in Burgundy, where they were received into the fellowship of monks. On their return to England, they founded a priory at Lewes, following the Cluniac rule and a prior and 3 monks were sent from Cluny to establish the foundation. It was the first Cluniac foundation in England.

St Pancras priory, Lewes, founded by William and Gundrada

Following the Conqueror’s death, William fought in support of the late king’s second son, William II Rufus against his older brother, Robert Curthose, who had inherited the dukedom of Normandy. He was rewarded in early 1088 with the earldom of Surrey. The new earl fought for William II Rufus during an invasion by Robert’s supporters and was badly wounded at the siege of Pevensey Castle, East Sussex, in the spring of 1088. He was taken to Lewes, where he died of his wounds on 24th June of the same year. Earl Warenne was buried beside his first wife, Gundrada, in the chapter house of Lewes Priory.

Following the dissolution of Lewes Priory in the 16th century, Gundrada’s 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 remains of Gundrada and William, themselves, were discovered in 2 leaden chests in 1845, when the railway line was excavated through the priory grounds. They were laid to rest, for a final time, at the Southover church, in 1847, in a chapel dedicated to Gundrada de Warenne.

William and Gundrada de Warenne had founded a dynasty that would survive for almost 300 years, dying out in the reign of Edward III following the disastrous marriage of John de Warenne, 7th and last Earl of Warenne and Surrey

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Footnotes:

¹ The Warenne (Hyde) Chronicle edited and translated by Elisabeth M.C. van Houts and Rosalind C. Love; 2 My translation from quote in George Floyd Duckett, Observations on the Parentage of Gundreda, the Daughter of William Duke of Normandy, and Wife of William de Warenne; 3 ibid; 4 Early Yorkshire Charters Volume 8: The Honour of Warenne, Edited by William Farrer and Charles Travis Clay; 5 ibid

Images:

All images ©2022 Sharon Bennett Connolly FRHistS

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 BartlettBrewer’s British Royalty by David WilliamsonBritain’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; George Floyd Duckett, Observations on the Parentage of Gundreda, the Daughter of William Duke of Normandy, and Wife of William de Warenne; Elisabeth M.C. Van Houts and Rosalind C. Love (eds and trans), The Warenne (Hyde) Chronicle; C.P. Lewis, ‘Warenne, Gundrada de (d.1085)’, ODNB; Elisabeth Van Houts, ‘The Warenne View of the Past’, in Proceedings of the Battle Conference 2003, edited by John Gillingham

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My Books:

Signed, dedicated copies of all my books are available, please get in touch by completing the contact me form.

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 Books, Amazon in the UK and US, Bookshop.org and Book Depository.

1 family. 8 earls. 300 years of English history!

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 in paperback and hardback from Pen & SwordAmazonBookshop.org 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, Bookshop.org 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, Bookshop.org and Book Depository.

Alternate Endings: An anthology of historical fiction short stories including Long Live the King… which is my take what might have happened had King John not died in October 1216. Available in paperback and kindle from Amazon.

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You can be the first to read new articles by clicking the ‘Follow’ button, liking our Facebook page or joining me on Twitter and Instagram.

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©2022 Sharon Bennett Connolly FRHistS.

Book Corner: Femina by Janina Ramirez

The middle ages are seen as a bloodthirsty time of Vikings, saints and kings: a patriarchal society which oppressed and excluded women. But when we dig a little deeper into the truth, we can see that the ‘dark’ ages were anything but.

Oxford and BBC historian Janina Ramirez has uncovered countless influential women’s names struck out of historical records, with the word FEMINA annotated beside them. As gatekeepers of the past ordered books to be burnt, artworks to be destroyed, and new versions of myths, legends and historical documents to be produced, our view of history has been manipulated.

Only now, through a careful examination of the artefacts, writings and possessions they left behind, are the influential and multifaceted lives of women emerging. Femina goes beyond the official records to uncover the true impact of women like Jadwiga, the only female King in Europe, Margery Kempe, who exploited her image and story to ensure her notoriety, and the Loftus Princess, whose existence gives us clues about the beginnings of Christianity in England. See the medieval world with fresh eyes and discover why these remarkable women were removed from our collective memories.

When I wrote Heroines of the Medieval World five years ago, I said at the time that it was a book that needed to be written – I just wasn’t sure if I was the person to write it. If I had been asked who should write it, one of the top names on my list would have been Janina Ramirez. So I was not surprised when I discovered that Janina had written a book on medieval women, Femina: A New History of the Middle Ages, Through the Women Written Out of It.

I admit I was a little worried that Femina would make my Heroines obsolete or redundant, but I probably shouldn’t have been. After all, every writer has their own style and approach and every book – even if on the same topic – is written differently. And while the two books do overlap in places, we do not always reach the same conclusion and they really would complement each other on a book shelf (hint, hint!).

Femina: A New History of the Middle Ages, Through the Women Written Out of It looks at some of the most remarkable women of the medieval period, including two women you will be familiar with if you have read Heroines of the Medieval World, Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians and Jadwiga, ‘King’ of Poland. And the chapter on Jadwiga is particularly illuminating as Dr Ramirez applies her background in Art History to the symbolism and significance of Jadwiga’s reign, both on a political and spiritual level.

Janina Ramirez also provides great insight in to Emma of Normandy, who I looked at in detail for my own book, Silk and the Sword: the Women of the Norman Conquest. Study is even made of Ӕlfgyva, the mysterious woman in the Bayeux Tapestry, though Janina and I come to very different conclusions – and I would dearly love to have a face-to-face conversation with her to thrash out our theories. That would be fun!

Hild moved from Hartlepool to the site known then as Strenaeshalch and now as Whitby, in AD 657. Here she was granted land to build a double monastery where both men and women could learn the scriptures and dedicate themselves to a monastic life. And engraved stone slab commemorates her successor as abbess, Ælfflæd, and the use of the Latin script and alphabet supports Bede’s suggestion that Whitby was a centre of learning and literacy. But like at Hartlepool, finds from Hild’s abbacy include many luxuries such as decorative hairpins, golden book covers and even a comb with a runic inscription. Runes were the alphabet of the pre-Christian English, but the inscription is clearly Christian: My God. May God Almighty help Cy …’ Again, we find an object which links the Germanic warrior world to the new Christina one. Like Hild herself it straddles ideologies and a time of transition.

Hild was at the top of the tree in terms of influence in seventh-century Northumbria. Bede states that ‘even kings and princes sought and received her counsel’, and she acted as mentor to the daughter of Oswui, King of the Northumbrians from 642-670. What’s more, it was under her rule, in the monastery she founded herself, that the leaders of the English church gathered for the famous Synod of Whitby in AD 664. With Hild in charge of proceedings, the good and the great, representatives of Rome and Ireland, argued which traditions the Northumbrian church should follow. The result went the way of Rome. The variety and uniqueness of Celtic monasteries was lost to the rigour and routine of the Benedictine Rule, and monasticism in the north was transformed forever. For a woman to be involved in such high-level synodal processes is something extraordinary even today. It is also significant that five men who trained under Hild were all made bishops; if there were king-makers in the medieval world, then she was the bishop-maker. Whitby was the training ground for a new, Roman Christian, learned and respected English church. From Hild’s northern headland, educated men and women would stretch out the length and breadth of the country, assuming the very highest positions within churches and monasteries, including the archbishop of York. Hild’s influence would permeate the fabric of Christianity in this part of the world and its effects were felt down the centuries.

Femina: A New History of the Middle Ages, Through the Women Written Out of It is a fabulous study of a number of medieval women – and medieval woman in general. Dr Ramirez manages to combine what it was like to be a woman in medieval times, including their rights and the dangers they faced, such as childbirth, with the histories of particular women – and not always women you would expect to see in history book. The most fascinating chapter is that which is devoted to the Cathars, a religious sect much misunderstood and persecuted to extinction by the church. Janina Ramirez highlights not only their suffering and personal testimonies, but also the strength and respect that women held within the community. It truly is illuminating.

From warrior Viking women, to the successes of Æthelflæd and the excessive crying of Margery Kempe, Janina Ramirez shines a light on the lives and experiences of a huge variety of medieval women. Archaeological discoveries, religious artefacts and medieval artwork are used to describe and illuminate the world in which these women lived and died.

Femina: A New History of the Middle Ages, Through the Women Written Out of It is an engaging, entertaining read, with Janina Ramirez’s unique and wonderful take on medieval history. Introducing her vast knowledge of Art History into the mix adds vibrancy to the individual stories and brings these incredible women to life. Dr Ramirez is fabulous writer and communicator and takes the reader on an incredible journey of discovery through the medieval world. Her enthusiasm and fascination for the topic shines through on every page.

Femina: A New History of the Middle Ages, Through the Women Written Out of It by Janina Ramirez is truly a pleasure to read.

About the author:

Dr Janina Ramirez is a Sunday Times bestselling author, an Oxford lecturer, BBC broadcaster and researcher. She has presented and written over 30 hours of BBC history documentaries and series on TV and radio, and written five books for children and adults.

My books

Signed, dedicated copies of all my books are available, please get in touch by completing the contact me form.

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.

1 family. 8 earls. 300 years of English history!

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 in paperback and hardback from Pen & Sword,  AmazonBookshop.org 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, Bookshop.org 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, Bookshop.org and Book Depository.

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©2022 Sharon Bennett Connolly

Earl Warenne’s Search for a Royal Bride

As you may know, in medieval times most noble marriages were arranged by parents. They were usually alliances between families whose interests were aligned, and whose assets and connections could be mutually beneficial to each other. Rarely did an earl have to search for his own wife. However, it did happen.

William de Warenne, 1st Earl of Warenne and Surrey

William de Warenne, the second Earl of Warenne and Surrey, was about 20 when he inherited the earldom – and vast tracts of land stretching from the South Coast to Yorkshire – from his father in 1088. His mother, Gundrada de Warenne, had died in childbirth 3 years previously. And his father had spent his final days helping King William II put down a rebellion. The first earl was grievously wounded at the siege of Pevensey and died a few days later. The earldom itself was still in its infancy, having been conferred on the first earl scant months before his demise. With all this going on, therefore, it is no surprise that arranging his son and heir’s marriage had not made it onto the earl’s pressing agenda.

The second earl would have to make his own arrangements. And he set his sights rather high. William was interested in a royal bride. The young woman in question was Matilda of Scotland (at that time, she was known as Edith), daughter of Malcom III Canmor, King of Scots, and his wife, the saintly Queen Margaret. Edith/Matilda not only had the blood of Scottish kings flowing through her veins, but also the blood of England’s Anglo-Saxon kings; her mother Margaret was the daughter of Edward the Exile, a grandson of King Æthelræd II the Unready, and a descendant of Alfred the Great. Born in the early 1080s, Matilda and her sister Mary had been raised and educated by their aunt, Christine, at the abbey of Romsey, though their father had apparently insisted that they were not destined for the religious life. Matilda and her sister had returned to Scotland in 1093, after their father’s falling-out with King William II Rufus, but were brought back south in 1094, by their uncle Edgar, following Malcolm’s death in battle at Alnwick and Queen Margaret’s own sad demise just days later. Mary would eventually be married to Eustace III, Count of Boulogne, and was the mother of Matilda of Boulogne, wife of King Stephen. At some point after Edith/Matilda’s return to England, William de Warenne sought Matilda’s hand in marriage, although he was not the only one. As Orderic Vitalis says:

‘Alain the Red, Count of Brittany, asked William Rufus for permission to marry Matilda, who was first called Edith, but was refused. Afterwards, William de Warenne, Earl of Surrey, asked for this princess; but reserved for another by God’s permission, she made a more illustrious marriage. Henry, having ascended the English throne, married Matilda’

Orderic Vitalis
The Warenne coat of arms, adopted by the second earl

Following the rebuff from King William, Earl William seems to have rarely appeared at court. A royal bride would have been a major asset for a man with Earl William’s ambition, but a marriage alliance of the powerful Warennes with a descendant of the Scottish and Anglo-Saxon royal houses could have been perceived as a threat to the ruling Normans. Aware that William de Warenne was disappointed with the loss of his royal bride and then seeing her married to the new king, Henry I attempted to make amends and win the earl’s support by offering one of his illegitimate daughters as an alternative bride. Unfortunately, Anselm, Archbishop of Canterbury, opposed the marriage on the grounds of consanguinity – the bride and groom were distant cousins – and Earl William was once again disappointed.

William, it seems, was quite bitter at having been thwarted in his plans to marry the Scottish princess, to the extent that he is credited with making up derogatory nicknames for the king and queen. He ridiculed Henry’s studious approach to hunting by calling him ‘stagfoot’; a reference to Henry’s claim that he could tell the number of tines in a stag’s antlers by examining the beast’s hoofprint, although the nickname could also be applied to Henry’s notorious womanising and the numerous illegitimate offspring that resulted. In a dig at both Henry and Queen Matilda, Earl William is believed to have been behind the Anglo-Saxon nicknames ‘Godric and Goda’, used by some of the Norman nobles as an insult and possibly an allusion to Henry’s inclination towards his English subjects at the expense of his Norman ones.

Gundrada de Warenne

In all the years of unrest with Normandy, Earl William de Warenne would remain a bachelor. With peace finally achieved, however, it seems that the earl was at last ready to settle down. Unfortunately, the new object of his affections was Isabel de Vermandois. And she was married.

Also sometimes known as Elisabeth, Isabel had the blood of kings flowing through her veins; her father was Hugh Capet, Count of Vermandois by right of his wife, a younger son of King Henry I of France and Anna of Kyiv. Her mother was Adelaide de Vermandois, a descendant of the ancient Carolingian dynasty. Isabel was one of her parents’ nine surviving children, four boys and five girls. As with many medieval women, there are no images of Isabel, not even a description of her appearance. Her life can be pieced together, somewhat, through her marriages and through her children. From the moment of her birth, as the granddaughter of the King of France, Isabel was a valuable prize on the international marriage market. As a result, her childhood proved to be depressingly short. By 1096 a marriage was mooted between Isabel and Robert de Beaumont, Count of Meulan and Earl of Leicester, he was 46 years old. Isabel was about 10. Robert de Beaumont was a seasoned warrior and courtier, with lands in both England and Normandy. He had fought alongside William the Conqueror at the Battle of Hastings and was with William II Rufus when he was killed in a hunting accident in the New Forest. A loyal supporter of Henry I, he would fight for his king at the Battle of Tinchebrai in 1106 and received the earldom of Leicester in 1107.

The marriage was originally opposed by the church. Not only were the prospective couple related within the prohibited degrees, but also, Isabel was not yet 12, the minimum legal age that a girl could marry. Before leaving on the First Crusade, however, Isabel’s father was able to persuade Pope Urban to issue a dispensation and the marriage went ahead in 1096. The fact their first child was not born until 1102 suggests that, despite her father’s haste in arranging Isabel’s marriage, her husband at least gave the young girl time to mature before taking her to his bed. Isabel gave Robert nine children; the first was a daughter, Emma, born in 1102. Twin boys followed in 1104; Waleran and Robert de Beaumont, earls of Worcester and Leicester, respectively. The brothers were active supporters of King Stephen during the conflict with Empress Matilda, popularly known as the Anarchy. Another daughter, Isabel, was a mistress of Henry I before being married to Gilbert de Clare, first Earl of Pembroke. Through her son Richard de Clare, second Earl of Pembroke, she would be the grandmother of Isabel de Clare, wife of the great knight and regent for Henry III, William Marshal.

Waleran de Beaumont

Isabel’s marriage to Robert de Beaumont appears to have ended in scandal and controversy. The chronicler Henry of Huntingdon reported that she was seduced by Earl William de Warenne, saying of Robert that ‘when he was at the height of his fame, it happened that another count stole his wife, by intrigue and violent treachery.’ It is hard to blame a young woman of thirty, in an arranged marriage to a man more than twice her age, for looking elsewhere for love and comfort. Although William de Warenne himself must have been around fifty and still twenty years Isabel’s senior. Huntingdon suggests that Earl William hatched a plot to kidnap Isabel – possibly with her approval – after Robert de Beaumont refused to grant his wife a divorce. It was claimed that the adultery of his wife with the earl had made the end of Robert de Beaumont’s life all-the-more miserable. Beaumont died on 5 June 1118, in England.

Such rumours of adultery, however, may have been little more than gossip, or a later invention, arising from the haste in which Isabel de Vermandois was married to Earl William de Warenne following her husband’s demise. The marriage was arranged, or at least sanctioned, by the king, possibly at the instigation of Earl Warenne, though this is by no means proof of any relationship prior to the marriage. Earl Warenne was badly in need of a wife, having been active on the political stage for thirty years and still with no son to succeed him. Indeed, the death of his brother, Rainald, leaving no heirs, sometime before 1118, may have prompted Earl William to consider the future of the earldom with more of a sense of urgency. It is thought he may have been the father of two illegitimate sons, Rainald blundus and Rainald brunus, who appear as brothers of the third earl in a charter.

Castle Acre Priory, Norfolk, rebuilt on its present site by the second Earl Warenne

Isabel and William appear to have married very soon after Robert de Beaumont’s death, given that their first child, a son also named William, was born in 1119: he would become the third Earl Warenne on his father’s death in 1138. At least four more children followed, including two sons. Ralph de Warenne, does not appear to have married and may have joined his big brother on crusade; nothing is heard of him following his brother’s departure for the Holy Land. A third son, Reginald de Warenne, would marry the heiress to the barony of Wormegay: he was a trusted administrator of the Warenne lands for his brother, the third earl.

William and Isabel also had two daughters. Ada de Warenne fulfilled her father’s royal ambitions when she married Henry of Huntingdon, heir to the Scottish throne. Two of Ada’s sons became kings of Scotland; Malcolm IV and William the Lion. Another daughter, Gundreda, is described as ‘uterine sister’ of Waleran de Beaumont, Isabel de Vermandois’ son by her first marriage. Gundreda is a clear demonstration of how well Countess Isabel’s two families integrated. Gundreda married Roger de Beaumont, a cousin of her Beaumont half-siblings. Roger had become earl of Warwick on his father’s death in 1119 and must have been some years older than his wife, who cannot have been born before 1120. Roger de Beaumont vacillated during the period known as The Anarchy, but finally sided with King Stephen. He was with the royal court when news reached it that his wife, Countess Gundreda, had tricked the garrison of Warwick castle into surrendering to the supporters of Henry of Anjou, the future King Henry II. The earl apparently died from the shock of hearing of his wife’s betrayal on 12 June 1153.

St Pancras Priory, Lewes, where both William and Isabel were laid to rest

On his marriage to Isabel, Earl William adopted the Vermandois coat of arms as his own and the blue and yellow checks became known as the ‘Warenne chequer’, perhaps to highlight his wife’s illustrious ancestry as a member of the French royal family. William and Isabel enjoyed 20 years of married life before the earl died, in his early 70s, and having been one of the leading magnates of England and Normandy for fifty years. William de Warenne, second Earl Warenne died on or around 11 May 1138 and was buried at his father’s feet at St Pancras Priory, Lewes. When he died, he left the earldom with more land than he had inherited and even greater prestige, having married a member of the French royal family. Isabel de Vermandois outlived her husband by almost ten years, dying around 1147 or 1148. She was also buried at Lewes Priory, close to her second husband.

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Images: Gundrada church window, William de Warenne church window and Warenne coat of arms ©Sharon Bennett Connolly, courtesy of Trinity Church, Southover; St Pancras Priory and Castle Acre Priory ©Sharon Bennett Connolly Waleran de Beaumont courtesy of Wikipedia.

SourcesEarly 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 Bartlett; 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; The Warenne (Hyde) Chronicle edited and translated by Elisabeth M.C. van Houts and Rosalind C. Love; The Ecclesiastical History of England and Normandy by Orderic Vitalis oxforddnb.com.

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My Books:

Signed, dedicated copies of all my books are available, please get in touch by completing the contact me form.

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.

1 family. 8 earls. 300 years of English history!

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 in paperback and hardback from Pen & Sword,  AmazonBookshop.org 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, Bookshop.org 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, Bookshop.org and Book Depository.

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You can be the first to read new articles by clicking the ‘Follow’ button, liking our Facebook page or joining me on Twitter and Instagram.

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©2022 Sharon Bennett Connolly.

Ӕlfgyva: The Mysterious Woman in the Bayeux Tapestry

The Bayeux Tapestry is the famous pictorial depiction of the Norman Conquest of 1066, and of the events of the two years leading up to it. Commissioned in the 1070s, probably by Bishop Odo of Bayeux, rather than a woven tapestry, the work is in fact an embroidery. Started within ten years of the Norman Conquest it is a near-contemporary narrative of the events that changed England forever. It is told from the viewpoint of the victorious Normans, but with a sympathetic view of the English, at times. It begins in 1064 with Harold’s journey to Normandy, his meeting with Duke William and campaigning in Brittany, followed by the controversial oath-swearing; it then follows Harold’s return to England and his coronation following the death of Edward the Confessor, before concentrating on William’s preparations for invasion and the Battle of Hastings itself; the missing end panels may have included King William’s coronation.

As a prime example of how women have been given little or no part in the story of the Norman Conquest, out of 626 human figures, there are only three women who appear in the main narrative of the Bayeux Tapestry. One of these is easily identifiable as Edward the Confessor’s queen, Edith of Wessex, attending her husband on his deathbed. Another scene, as the Normans land on the shores of England, shows a woman and her child fleeing from a burning house, set alight by the invaders – possibly King Harold’s first wife, Edith Swanneck. The most intriguing woman in the Bayeux Tapestry, appears in one scene when Harold is in Normandy in 1064. She is identified as ‘Ӕlfgyva’, the name sewn into the tapestry above her head. However, the scene does not appear to be related in any way to the scenes either before or after and has therefore caused much discussion and theorising among historians.

Ӕlfgyva appears to be in a doorway, possibly as a suggestion that she was indoors, with a priest touching her cheek. Whether the touch is in admonishment or blessing is open to interpretation, some take it is a collaboration of some sort between the two. Written in Latin as ‘Ubi unus clericus et Ӕlfgyva’, the inscription simply reads, ‘Here a certain cleric and Ӕlfgyva’. Incomplete, the phrase fails to identify Ӕlfgyva or the priest, nor the context in which the two are together. In the borders, at Ӕlfgyva’s feet, is a naked man, imitating the stance of the cleric, perhaps placed there to indicate some kind of scandal associated with the lady.

As this is the only scene in the entire Bayeux Tapestry in which the woman is the leading character and considering that she is only one of three women depicted in the whole embroidery, the story which is depicted must be of some significance to the story of the Norman Conquest. But who was the mysterious Ӕlfgyva? Unfortunately, we are not without a substantial number of potential candidates who could be identified as Ӕlfgyva; Ӕlfgyva and its variants, Ӕlfgiva, Ӕlfgyfu, Ӕlfgifu and Elgiva, were popular names in England in the eleventh century. Indeed, Emma of Normandy’s name was changed to Ӕlfgifu on her marriage to King Ӕthelred II (often referred to as ‘the Unready’) and, just to make matters more confusing Ӕthelred’s first wife was also called Ӕlfgifu. Many historians have their own favourite theories for the identity of Ӕlfgyva; the numerous possible candidates include Emma herself, a sister of King Harold and the first, handfast wife of King Cnut. Each possibility comes with her own reasons for being the mysterious Ӕlfgyva, and her own claim for inclusion in the tapestry that tells the story of the Norman Conquest.

Several theories can be easily discounted. In the 18th century, it was suggested that ‘Ӕlfgyva’ translated to mean ‘queen’ and the image was therefore of a clerk informing Queen Matilda that King William had promised one of their daughters as a bride for Harold of Wessex. Of course, in 1064, Matilda was not queen, and so ‘Ӕlfgyva’ would have to translate as ‘duchess’.  In the 19th century, it was suggested that the scene depicted the daughter of Matilda and William being informed of her betrothal. This theory ignores the fact that Matilda and William did not have a daughter with the name Ӕlfgyva. A final, easily discounted theory is that the lady is Ealdgyth, Harold’s future queen, receiving the news of Harold’s rescue, either from the shipwreck or from the clutches of Count Guy of Ponthieu, by Duke William. This is meant to demonstrate Harold’s dishonesty in agreeing to marry a daughter of Duke William while he has a betrothed waiting at home. The fact is that there is no evidence that Harold was betrothed to Ealdgyth any earlier than late 1065 or early 1066. In fact, we do not know when Harold and Ealdgyth were betrothed or married, but it is likely to have happened shortly before, or during, his kingship, when he needed the support of the Earls Edwin and Morcar, Ealdgyth’s brothers. 

Ӕthelred II’s second wife is a candidate who does merit closer investigation. Emma of Normandy was the wife of Ӕthelred from the spring of 1002 until his death in 1016. In 1017, however, she married Ӕthelred’s nemesis and eventual successor, Cnut. Emma had three children by her first husband, Alfred, Edward and Goda, or Godgifu. She had three further children by King Cnut; Harthacnut, Gunhilda and an unnamed daughter who died as a child, aged 8. Emma’s name had been changed to Ӕlfgifu on her marriage to Ӕthelred and she was a prominent figure at the English court, having been crowned and anointed queen after the wedding ceremony. Emma gained even more prominence in the reign of King Cnut, who married her soon after he took the crown. Cnut appears to have trusted Emma a great deal and is known to have left his treasury with her, as did her son, Harthacnut.

As Cnut’s wife, Emma served to provide a link between Ӕthelred’s ancient dynasty of Wessex, dating back to King Alfred and beyond, and the new Danish dynasty of Cnut. As Cnut’s queen, until his death in 1035, her position appeared unassailable. That changed, however, when Cnut died and was succeeded by his sons as co-regents. With Harthacnut fighting in Denmark, Emma was left isolated and Harold I Harefoot moved against her. Emma was banished from England, and Harold seized control of the whole country. Following Harold’s death in 1040, Emma and her son returned unopposed and Harthacnut finally claimed the crown. Her triumph was short-lived, however, as Harthacnut collapsed and died at a wedding in 1042, and was replaced as king by his older, half-brother, Edward. Edward was also a son of Queen Emma, but his relationship with his mother was far less cordial. Having been exiled in Normandy for twenty-five years, while his mother sat beside Cnut on the English throne for much of that time, Edward held a great deal of resentment for his Emma.

Emma’s lands and property were all taken from her. The Dowager Queen’s close friend and advisor, Stigand, newly consecrated as bishop of East Anglia, shared in Emma’s disgrace and was stripped of office and ‘they took all that he had into their hands for the king, because he was nighest the counsel of his mother; and she acted as he advised, as men supposed’. Taken from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, this shows that Edward thought that Stigand had encouraged Emma in her perceived maltreatment of her only surviving son. It was probably as a result of this incident that various legends arose over Emma’s disgrace.

One story, appearing only two centuries later, suggested that Emma’s relationship with Bishop Stigand was far more than that of a queen and her advisor and that he was, in fact, her lover. The story continues that Emma chose to prove her innocence in a trial by ordeal, and that she walked barefoot over white-hot ploughshares. Even though the tale varies depending on the source, the result is the same; when she completed the ordeal unharmed, and was thus proven guiltless, she was reconciled with her contrite son, Edward. Emma appears to have never recovered fully from the depredations placed on her. Both she and Stigand seem to have been reconciled, to some extent, with Edward’s regime by 1044 but she never again enjoyed the status to which she had become accustomed during the reigns of Cnut and Harthacnut.

If Emma were the Ӕlfgyva/Ӕlfgifu of the Bayeux Tapestry, this story could well explain her inclusion, especially if the touch of the cleric in the Ӕlfgyva scene is that of a tender lover, rather than an admonishing priest. However, there are several reasons for discarding Emma as the candidate. The first instance of the story of Emma and Stigand as lovers appears two or three hundred years after her death, and there is no contemporary evidence of an affair that would have been the scandal of the decade, if not the century. Given that many of the chroniclers of the time were not averse to including such stories, it seems strange that they were all silent on the subject; unless, of course, the whole incident was a 14th century fabrication. Another argument against the theory is that Emma’s affair with Bishop Stigand, even in the unlikely event that it happened, would have had little bearing on the Norman Conquest, and would therefore be unlikely to merit inclusion in the Bayeux Tapestry.

Another leading possibility for the identity of the Ӕlfgyva of the Bayeux Tapestry is Ӕlfgifu of Northampton. Ӕlfgifu was the first wife of King Cnut, whom he had married as a handfast wife, in the Danish fashion rather than in a church. She was born around 990, into a prominent and influential Midlands family. It was possibly as a love-match, but also as part of the policy of Cnut’s father, King Sweyn Forkbeard, to establish himself in the midlands, that Ӕlfgifu was married to Cnut sometime between 1013 and 1016. The couple had two sons, Swein and Harold Harefoot. Swein would later be sent by his father to rule Norway, with his mother as regent, but was driven out by the Norwegians following years of misrule. He died in Denmark and Ӕlfgifu returned to England and her only surviving son, Harold I Harefoot who was crowned as sole king in 1037.

If Ӕlfgifu is the woman in the Bayeux Tapestry, then she is probably there in reference to a scandal that was spoken about even in her lifetime, in that Ӕlfgifu was so desperate to have a son by Cnut that she, with the help of a monk, passed off the new-born son a serving maid as her own child; Swein. Similar was said of Ӕlfgifu’s second son by Cnut, Harold I Harefoot, in the Anglo-Saxon Chonicle, which reported that, ‘some men said of Harold that he was son of King Cnut and Ӕlfgifu, daughter of Ealdorman Ӕlfhelm, but to many men it seemed quite unbelievable’. The scandalous stories arose after Cnut’s death in 1035, when Ӕlfgifu was back in England, working to establish the rule of her son, Harold Harefoot, as king. In another version of the tale, the monk had fathered the children himself. The stories may have been mere propaganda used to discredit Ӕlfgifu and cast doubts on the legitimacy of Harold and, therefore, his right to rule as Cnut’s successor.

The main question arising from the theory that Ӕlfgifu of Northampton is the Ӕlfgyva of the Bayeux Tapestry would be the relevance of a scandal that had arisen more than thirty years earlier. It has been argued that both William and Harold would view the scandal as propaganda, to discredit any claims by the Norwegians, such as Harald Hardrada, to the English throne. The naked men in the margins of the scene, one of whom is swinging an axe, are used as further evidence that it was Ӕlfgifu’s scandalous behavior to which the tapestry is referring. However, the fact that both of Ӕlfgifu’s sons died without heirs and that, therefore, there were no claimants descended from her to contest the throne in 1066, makes Ӕlfgifu’s inclusion – if, indeed it is Ӕlfgifu – rather redundant.  

My own leading candidate for Ӕlfgyva is a woman of a different name, but whose story included a scandal that would have been relevant to Harold of Wessex and his hostages. This lady was Eadgifu, or Eadgyva, who was Abbess of Leominster in 1046. Eadgifu’s story is told in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, when she came under the power of Swein Godwinson, oldest son of Earl Godwin and Countess Gytha. Swein, had been given an earldom made up from lands in Herefordshire, Gloucestershire, Berkshire, Oxfordshire and Somerset in 1043. In 1046 he had been campaigning in south Wales alongside Gruffydd, King of Gwynedd. The military campaign had ended successfully, with Swein receiving hostages for the good faith of the Welsh. On his return homeward, Swein stopped at Leominster, which was owned by the abbey of Leominster and administered by its abbess, Eadgifu. Swein abducted Eadgifu, probably in order to gain control of Leominster’s vast estates in Herefordshire. However, the king refused to give his permission for Swein and Eadgifu to marry; the pious King Edward the Confessor was understandably horrified at the idea of Swein marrying an abbess, a woman who had dedicated her life to God. Thwarted in his plans, Swein released Eadgifu after he had held her for some considerable time, possibly as long as a year.

As a result of his actions, which were considered not only criminal but sacrilegious in the eyes of the church, Swein was forced to flee England. A few months later, Swein returned to England, but was exiled again for the murder of his cousin, Beorn Estrithson. He was eventually forgiven and allowed to return home. When the feud between Earl Godwin’s family and the king arose in 1051, Earl Godwin and Swein were forced to give up hostages to the king, each handing over a son, Wulfnoth for Godwin and Hakon for Swein. Rather than face the witan, Godwin and his family chose to go into exile at the end on 1051 and only returned to England in the spring of 1052. Swein would never return as he had left on barefoot pilgrimage to Jerusalem and died on his homeward journey. The two hostages, however, were not restored to the family and are thought to have been sent to Normandy, possibly as a way to guarantee the future cooperation of the Godwin family.

It is possible that the union between Eadgifu and Swein resulted in a son, Hakon. It is not entirely certain that Hakon was the son of Eadgifu, but it does seem likely, as no other wife or concubine of Swein’s is mentioned in the chronicles. If he was the son of Eadgifu and Swein, the child would have been five or six years old when he was taken as a hostage to Normandy in 1052. If Eadgifu was the mother of Hakon it would not only explain her presence in the Bayeux Tapestry, but also the inclusion of Ӕlfgyva (Eadgifu) and her cleric in that part of the tapestry. Although there is no direct mention of these hostages in the tapestry, the scene immediately before the Ӕlfgyva scene is that of Harold arriving at Duke William’s court; and one of the possible reasons for Harold’s presence at William’s court was the recovery of the hostages, Eadgifu’s son included. Given the disgrace that Eadgifu must have faced, as an abbess having given birth to an illegitimate child, and the fact the child was only five years old when he was taken to Normandy as a hostage, it is not implausible that his mother accompanied him, and therefore is included in the Bayeux Tapestry as Hakon, no longer a valuable hostage given that his father had been dead for over ten years, was allowed to return to England with Earl Harold.

There is one major flaw in this argument, and that is the confusion of names, Eadgifu and Ӕlfgyva are similar but very different names and it is hard to imagine that someone would make such a big mistake on so important an undertaking as the Bayeux Tapestry; although not implausible, given that Harold’s brother, Leofwine, is identified as Lewine on another portion of the tapestry. We do not know, moreover, that Eadgifu ever accompanied her son to Normandy, or visited him there while he was a hostage. However, Eadgifu’s story, the scandal associated with her abduction by Swein and the presence of her son in Normandy, still makes her a contender. The scene with the cleric could well be him giving her a blessing on her return to England, or an admonition on the fact she had a child out of wedlock – and while she was an abbess who had given her life to God. Despite the disparity in names, the fact that she had links to Normandy through her son, and that her story was associated with Harold’s visit to Normandy and the request for the hostages to be freed, gives her a relevance to the tapestry and makes her one of the most plausible candidates for Ӕlfgyva.

Despite the many possibilities and theories surrounding Ӕlfgyva and her cleric, their identities and the reason for their inclusion in the Bayeux Tapestry, one fact remains; no definitive explanation is forthcoming. It is not beyond reason that the Ӕlfgyva of the Bayeux Tapestry is none of the ladies I have suggested, but someone else entirely who, in the passage of nearly a millennium, has been lost in the fogs of time. The story may well have been a familiar one at the time the tapestry was created, and no explanation beyond ‘Here a certain cleric and Ӕlfgyva’ may have been needed to identify the protagonists to viewers in the eleventh century.

Today, however, the story and the identity of the players continues to elude us…

Historical Writers Forum hosted a fabulous debate on ‘Ӕlfgyva’: The Mysterious Woman in the Bayeux Tapestry, which is available on YouTube. Hosted by Samantha Wilcoxson, it features myself, Pat Bracewell, Carol McGrath and Paula Lofting.

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Images:

Courtesy of Flickr and Wikipedia

Sources:

A Historical Document Pierre Bouet and François Neveux, bayeuxmuseum.com/en/un_document_historique_en; The Mystery Lady of the Bayeux Tapestry (article) by Paula Lofting, annabelfrage.qordpress.com; Ӕlfgyva: The Mysterious lady of the Bayeux Tapestry (article) by M.W. Campbell, Annales de Normandie; The Bayeux Tapestry, the Life Story of a Masterpiece by Carola Hicks; Æthelred II [Ethelred; known as Ethelred the Unready] (c. 966×8-1016) (article) by Simon Keynes, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, oxforddnb.com; Britain’s Royal Families; the Complete Genealogy by Alison Weir; Queen Emma and the Vikings: The Woman Who Shaped the Events of 1066 by Harriet O’Brien; The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle translated by James Ingram; On the Spindle Side: the Kinswomen of Earl Godwin of Wessex by Ann Williams; Swein [Sweyn], earl by Ann Williams, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, oxforddnb.com, 23 September 2004; Ӕlfgifu [Ӕlfgifu of Northampton (fl. 1006-1036) (article) by Pauline Stafford, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, oxforddnb.com; The Chronicle of John of Worcester, translated and edited by Thomas Forester, A.M; The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles edited and translated by Michael Swanton.

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My Books

Signed, dedicated copies of all my books are available, please get in touch by completing the contact me form.

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.

1 family. 8 earls. 300 years of English history!

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 in paperback and hardback from Pen & Sword,  AmazonBookshop.org 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, Bookshop.org 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, Bookshop.org and Book Depository.

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You can be the first to read new articles by clicking the ‘Follow’ button, liking our Facebook page or joining me on Twitter and Instagram.

©2022 Sharon Bennett Connolly

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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My Books

Signed, dedicated copies of all my books are available, please get in touch by completing the contact me form.

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.

1 family. 8 earls. 300 years of English history!

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 in paperback and hardback from Pen & Sword,  AmazonBookshop.org 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, Bookshop.org 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, Bookshop.org and Book Depository.

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You can be the first to read new articles by clicking the ‘Follow’ button, liking our Facebook page or joining me on Twitter and Instagram.

©2022 Sharon Bennett Connolly

A Little Update

Hi all! I hope your 2022 is going well? Or as well as it can be, anyway. I though I would give you a little update on what I’ve been up to – and will be up to in the near future.

Historical Writers Forum Zoom talks programme

As you may know, I am admin for a writers’ group on Facebook, Historical Writers Forum, and last year we launched a series of history-related talks featuring both fiction and non-fiction historical authors. So far, there are 4 talks in the series and we opened with an amazing discussion between myself, Elizabeth Chadwick, Carol McGrath and Samantha Wilcoxson, entitled Writing History in Fiction: Getting the Balance Right. This was followed by A Good Fight: Writing Battles in Historical Fiction, featuring authors SJA Turney, Derek Birks, Lynn Bryant and Paula Lofting. And then we hosted a book launch for Historical Writers’ Forums new anthology of short stories, Hauntings: an Anthology, which includes works from SJA Turney, Samantha Wilcoxson, Paula Lofting, Kate Jewell, KS Barton, Lynn Bryant, Jennifer C. Wilson and introducing Danielle Apple. There’s also a foreword by myself. The Hauntings Book Launch brought all the authors face to face for the first time, if virtually, and gave them the opportunity to discuss the inspirations behind their stories. If you haven’t read the book yet, I recommend you do – it is replete with thoughtful, intelligent historical fiction stories that stretch out the suspense.

Kicking off our 2022 Zoom Talks series was Aelfgyva: the Mysterious Woman in the Bayeux Tapestry. Hosted by Samantha Wilcoxson, authors Patricia Bracewell, myself, Paula Lofting and Carol McGrath will debated the various candidates for the identity of Aelfgyva: Was she the ravaged nun? The sister of a Norman duke? Daughter of a powerful English earl? Concubine of King Cnut? Or the twice-crowned English queen? And what fun it was! A fabulous, energetic discussion about the possibilities – please do take a look.

Historical Writers Forum continues its programme of talks this year, with one for Women’s History Month on 26 February 2022 at 7pm (UK time). Hosted by Paula Lofting, authors Tony Riches, Sharon Bennett Connolly, Samantha Wilcoxson and Anna Belfrage will discuss Women in History: a lively discussion, followed by an audience Q & A, on researching and writing about Women in History. Tickets are free and available through Eventbrite, so do come along if you can! If you can’t make it on the evening, don’t worry, the discussion will be uploaded to our YouTube Channel by 28 February (I hope!).

Podcasts

In 2021 I also made my first forays into podcasts, talking to Khaki Malarkey about the Ladies of Magna Carta: Women of Influence in Thirteenth Century England in March and in December I spoke to the Tudors Dynasty podcast about the life of Katherine Willoughby, Duchess of Suffolk, the Tudor heiress who was the fourth and last wife of Henry VIII’s best friend, Charles Brandon. In January, I giggled my way through a chat with Zack White and Alexandra Churchill from History Hack about the Ladies of Magna Carta. We somehow managed to compare King John to Napoleon – or Napoleon to King John – and decided Ela of Salisbury was awesome! Listen here!

My latest podcast has gone live today, with me chatting with Matthew Lewis over at Gone Medieval, discussing my favourite medieval family – the Warenne Earls of Surrey. We talk about my fascination for the Warennes, the events they were involved in, their remarkable strength as a family and how one disastrous marriage caused their demise. Listen here!

Women’s History Month Talks

To celebrate Women’s History Month this March, I will be presenting two online talks for Heritage Lincolnshire via Zoom.

I can tell you about the 2 online talks I will be doing for Heritage Lincolnshire in March, to celebrate Women’s History Month. The first, Lincolnshire’s Medieval Heroines, will include the legendary Lady Godiva, the indomitable Nicholaa de la Haye, heiress Alice de Lacy and Katherine Swynford, the mistress who became a royal duchess. It will be a Zoom talk on 10 March at 7pm.

The second talk is, as you may have guessed, on my favourite subject, Nicholaa de la Haye, the Heroine of Lincoln Castle and will by via Zoom on 17 March at 7pm. The remarkable Nicholaa de la Haye held Lincoln Castle in no less than 3 sieges during the reigns of Richard I and King John – the last was a 6-week siege, ended by the 1217 Battle of Lincoln when Nicholaa was in her 60s. She was the first woman to be appointed sheriff in her own right.

Tickets for both are available now and are £6 for members and £8 for non-members.

Unfortunately, these talk will not be recorded for later viewing, so please do come along on the night if you can. It would be great to see you! To reserve a place, book here!

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My Books

Signed, dedicated copies of all my books are available, please get in touch by completing the contact me form.

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.

1 family. 8 earls. 300 years of English history!

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 in paperback and hardback from Pen & Sword,  AmazonBookshop.org 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, Bookshop.org 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, Bookshop.org and Book Depository.

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You can be the first to read new articles by clicking the ‘Follow’ button, liking our Facebook page or joining me on Twitter and Instagram.

©2022 Sharon Bennett Connolly

Book Corner: Powers and Thrones by Dan Jones

Dan Jones’s epic new history tells nothing less than the story of how the world we know today came to be built. It is a thousand-year adventure that moves from the ruins of the once-mighty city of Rome, sacked by barbarians in AD 410, to the first contacts between the old and new worlds in the sixteenth century. It shows how, from a state of crisis and collapse, the West was rebuilt and came to dominate the entire globe. The book identifies three key themes that underpinned the success of the West: commerce, conquest and Christianity.

Across 16 chapters, blending Dan Jones’s trademark gripping narrative style with authoritative analysis, Powers and Thrones shows how, at each stage in this story, successive western powers thrived by attracting – or stealing – the most valuable resources, ideas and people from the rest of the world. It casts new light on iconic locations – Rome, Paris, Venice, Constantinople – and it features some of history’s most famous and notorious men and women.

This is a book written about – and for – an age of profound change, and it asks the biggest questions about the West both then and now. Where did we come from? What made us? Where do we go from here?

Well, isn’t this an epic undertaking. The history of the Middle Ages, across Europe and into the four corners of the world (except Australia because it still hadn’t been discovered) – in 16 chapters, 633 pages and about 25 hours of reading. And it is awesome!

I couldn’t read this book at a leisurely pace because I was actually scheduled to interview Dan Jones on 29 September, for Lindum Books in Lincoln and I desperately wanted to make sure I had read the whole thing beforehand. So, I had 10 days to read it and I am quite proud of myself that I managed it. I put all other books aside and concentrated on this, hoping it would keep my attention. I was a little worried. It is a long book and covers such a wide historical arena. Could it keep my interest? Well, the simple answer is YES!

Powers and Thrones by Dan Jones is a thoroughly enthralling read encompassing over a thousand years of history, from the Sack of Rome in 410AD to the sack of Rome in 1527. Writing the story of the entire medieval era was a massive undertaking that Dan said he wanted to do, both as his 10th book and to mark his 40th birthday. And it is, indeed, a magnum opus to be proud of. Powers and Thrones is a perfectly balanced book, giving just enough attention to each area of interest and geographical location, going from Rome, to Byzantium and on to the rise of Islam, Dan Jones manages to cover the significant events and influences that drove change and development through the entire Middle Ages.

Powers and Thrones demonstrates how climate change, disease, technology and ideology were often the forces behind change. For example, the Guttenberg Press was revolutionary in every way, allowing the mass production of books, pamphlets and the dissemination of knowledge to a far-wider audience. It was the medieval equivalent to our social media, both in its reach and influence, and Dan Jones highlights how significant it was in Europe’s emergence from the medieval era, with its impact on learning, communication and – perhaps above all – religion.

For those alert to signs hidden in the fabric of the world, the Roman Empire’s collapse in the west was announced by a series of omens. In Antioch, dogs howled like wolves, night-birds let out hideous shrieks and people muttered that the emperor should be burned alive. In Thrace, a dead man lay in the road and fixed passers-by with a unnerving, lifelike glare, until after a few days the corpse suddenly disappeared. And in the city of Rome itself, citizens persisted in going to the theatre: an egregious and insanely sinful pastime, which, according to one Christian writer, practically invited the wrath of the Almighty. Human beings have been superstitious in all ages and we are especially good at adducing portents when we have the benefit of hindsight. Hence the opinion of the historian Ammianus Marcellinus, who looked back on the end of the fourth century into which he was born and reflected that this was a time when fortune’s wheel, ‘which is perpetually alternating prosperity and adversity’, was turning fast.

In the 370s, when Rome’s fatal malady set in, the Roman state – monarchy, republic and empire – had existed for more than a millennium. Yet within little more than one hundred years, by the end of the fifth century AD, every province west of the Balkans had slipped from Roman control. In the ancient heartlands of empire, Roman institutions, tax systems and trade networks were falling apart. The physical signs of Roma elite culture – palatial villas, cheap imported consumer goods, hot running water – were fading from everyday life. The Eternal City had been sacked several times, the western crown had passed between a succession of dimwits, usurpers, tyrants and children, until eventually it had been abolished; and territory that formerly comprised the core of a powerful mega-state had been parcelled among peoples whom the proud-hearted citizens of Rome’s imperial heyday had previously scorned as savages and subhumans. These were the ‘barbarians’: a derogatory word which encompassed a huge range of people from itinerant nomadic tribes quite new to the west and ignorant or dismissive of Roman mores, through to longstanding near-neighbours, whose lives were heavily influenced by Roman-ness, but who had not been able to share in the fruits of citizenship.

With Dan Jones at The Collection, Lincoln

What makes this book special is the way Dan Jones manages to make Powers and Thrones relevant to today. Writing it in the midst of a pandemic certainly must have helped to give Dan a sense of history all around him and he alludes to this in the book. When interviewing him, Dan told me that living through Covid gave him a better understanding of the plague years of 14th century Europe, of the fear and panic that must have consumed people. And by referring to modern-day equivalents, such as world leaders, the pandemic and the rise of social media, Dan is able to draw the reader in and make medieval history relevant in the modern age.

Dan Jones does not shy away from the harsh questions, either, examining the development and morals of slavery, the reasoning behind the crusades and the rise of Protestantism. What may surprise readers is the facts this book is essentially Euro-centric – it made me realise how Anglo-centric my study of history has been over the years. By focusing on change and development in mainland Europe, whilst encompassing England and the British Isles in various guises where appropriate, it gives the reader a whole new outlook on the medieval era, whilst also demonstrates how events in Europe – even back then – could influence events in England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland. Powers and Thrones highlights the driving forces of change, whether it was people, ideas or technology, and demonstrates how such change effected Europe in general and individuals in particular, whether it was the empire of Charlemagne, the rise of monasticism, or even the development of the humble stirrup that led to the emergence of the knightly class.

In Powers and Thrones, Dan Jones combines a narrative of international events with case studies that focus on individual people, organisations and movements. By highlighting such diverse subjects as Empress Theodora, the rise of Islam, El Cid and the magnificent Lincoln Cathedral, the author manages to personalise what might otherwise have been a wide, sweeping narrative. The Warennes also get a mention in the involvement of William de Warenne, the 1st Earl, and his wife, Gundrada, in founding the first Cluniac priory in England, St Pancras Priory in Lewes, Sussex. From my personal point of view, it is fabulous that Dan Jones chose to include Empress Theodora so prominently – a woman who rose from extremely humble roots to become Empress of Byzantium and a woman who was influential in holding that empire together, especially in adroitly soothing religious dissension. It is impossible to get everything from 1,000 years of history in one book, but by showing the big picture, whilst highlighting particular events, ideas, buildings or people, Dan Jones manages to provide a fascinating narrative that is fast-paced and engaging without being overwhelming.

Powers and Thrones is, quite simply, an amazing book. It is chock full of little snippets of information that you may never have known, it relates medieval events to our modern day equivalents, such as the Black Death to Covid. Such references to the modern era could easily have backfired, but they serve to make the book more accessible and entertaining and not a little amusing. The moments of light-heartedness often provide an extra depth to the reading experience and make the book accessible to every reader.

Powers and Thrones was certainly an ambitious project, but in the hour-long interview I had with Dan Jones, he spoke about every aspect of it with passion and enthusiasm an that same passion and enthusiasm comes across throughout the book. The book is a pleasure to read and would be a welcome addition to any bookshelf.

Powers and Thrones by Dan Jones is available from Amazon and Bookshop.org.

My Books

Signed, dedicated copies of all my books are available, please get in touch by completing the contact me form.

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 and Book Depository.

1 family. 8 earls. 300 years of English history!

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 in paperback and hardback 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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©2021 Sharon Bennett Connolly

Guest Post: Six Misunderstandings About the Vikings by Grace Tierney

Today it is a pleasure to welcome author Grace Tierney to the blog, with a fascinating article on what we know – and what we get wrong – about the Vikings. Over to Grace:

Horned helmet

The Vikings were the people of Norway, Denmark, and Sweden and from 750-1100 they changed everywhere they landed in their longships. They settled from America to Russia and travelled from the Arctic to Africa, not bad for a bunch of lawless raiders. By 1000 A.D. Old Norse (or the Danish tongue as it was called) was the most widely spoken language in Europe and modern English retains many of their words – several of which you use in almost every sentence. We have Vikings to thank for them, they, thing, get, take, time and sky, for example.

1. Vikings Word Horned Helmets, or Did They?

Every Viking you’ve ever seen in a cartoon had horns on his helmet but this stereotype is simply not true. Also, many of those warriors were female.

No horned helmets have been discovered in Viking digs. They wore simple skullcap helmets. How did this misconception arise?

In 1874, Richard Wagner composed “The Ring Cycle”. It’s a group of four operas which he loosely based on the Norse sagas and they’re still popular. The costume designer for the original production, Carl Emil Doepler, designed horned helmets for the Viking characters. His designs have influenced artists, filmmakers, and cartoonists ever since.

Vikings loved horns though. They were astute traders who sold spiral narwhal tusks as unicorn horns. Traders from the rest of Europe hadn’t seen the horned whale themselves as only the Vikings had reached the Arctic at that point. Medieval Europeans believed such a horn had magical properties, especially against poisons and melancholy. “Unicorn horns” were literally worth their weight in gold and the Vikings, who originally bought them from the Inuit and later hunted for them, were happy to bolster the stories.

In the 1500s, Queen Elizabeth I of England received a carved and jewel-encrusted narwhal tusk as a gift which would be worth about £5 million sterling today. It was claimed as being from a sea unicorn and was named the Horn of Windsor.

2. Columbus Discovered North America in 1492

Recent discoveries show the Vikings got there first.

The Viking Sagas tell us that a famous Viking explorer called Leif Erickson sailed to a land west of Greenland (settled by the Vikings) and created a colony called Vinland around the year 1000, almost five centuries before Columbus reached the New World. Historians believe Vinland was in modern-day Canada in the Newfoundland, Gulf of St. Lawrence, and New Brunswick areas. It wasn’t a single location, but a series of settlements along the same coast, many of which had wild grapevines, hence the name.

In 1960 this idea moved from historical theory to reality with the excavation of L’Anse aux Meadows on the northern tip of Newfoundland. The area didn’t have vines, but definitely showed the idea of a Vinland Viking colony was feasible and gave us clear proof that Vikings landed in North America.

The site was explored during the 1960s and 1970s and carbon-dating of timbers confirmed the date (990-1050) of what appears to be a Norse base probably used for timber gathering (wood was in very short supply in Greenland despite the name) and ship repair. Some items founds in the camp came from other areas of North America and show the Vikings had landed there too. Significant levels of Viking artefacts have also been found on Baffin Island and Labrador, Canada.

3. Vikings Traded on the Silk Roads

Vikings were skilled traders. Their trade network, including centres at Hedeby, Birka, and Kiev, helped the European economy recover after the demise of the Roman Empire. They traded Arab coins, Chinese silks, and Indian gems. They used silver, and sometimes gold, as a weighed trading currency. Viking coins, for example, are a common find in digs in Dublin and elsewhere. At a time when trade via bartering was common, the Vikings introduced the idea of coins for use as payment to Northern Europe.

The Viking settlements around the Baltic Sea used that waterway for trade but they also traded along the Rivers Volga and Dnieper in Russia to connect with Constantinople, Jerusalem, Baghdad, and the Caspian Sea. Even the name Russia comes from Old Norse. The waterways linked them to the Silk Roads (a selection of trade routes connecting Europe to Asian silk supplies, only named silk roads quite recently).

4. Vikings Didn’t Leave a Lasting Legacy

This one can be disputed on many levels but I dare you to mention it to a Dane. King Gorm the Old was a Viking who ruled Denmark from 936 to his death in 958. Before King Gorm’s reign, according to the sagas, the land was ruled by the Norse Gods and semi-legendary figures like Ragnar Lothbrok and Ivarr the Boneless (whose stories are told in the TV series “Vikings”). Ragnar did exist, but the sagas about him may refer to more than one person.

Gorm is perhaps best known for fathering three sons – Toke, Knut, and Harald. His son Harald, who ruled after him as King Harald Bluetooth, moved Vikings toward Christianity.

Harald Bluetooth Gormsson was King of Denmark and parts of Norway from 958 until 987 when he was murdered on the orders of his son. He is most famous for bringing together various Danish tribes into a united nation with Norwegian neighbours. It was this ability to bring people together that inspired the naming of bluetooth technology in his honour when it was developed by the Swedish company Ericsson in 1994. The bluetooth symbol is a monogram of the two runes of King Harald’s initials.

Historians are not certain how King Harald got his nickname but most guess he had a prominent blackened tooth. The word used in the old texts to describe his tooth as blue has over-tones of black as well as blue.

King Gorm is officially claimed as an ancestor to the current Danish royal family. The Danish monarchy is one of the oldest in the world and the current queen can trace her line back more than a thousand years, so technically Denmark is still ruled by Vikings.

5. Romans Ruled Britain, the Vikings Just Raided

The Scottish will point at Hadrian’s Wall and proudly explain the Romans never subdued them. The Irish (part of Britain in Roman times) will explain the Romans didn’t bother to invade. It’s more accurate to say the Romans conquered part of Britain (England and Wales) and ruled there for nearly four centuries from 43 to 410 A.D.

Viking ship prow, Wexford

The Vikings settled larger swathes of the British Isles (during the Dane Law years) than the Romans, as they also settled Ireland and Scotland. They didn’t create roads and villas, but as discussed in my book “Words the Vikings Gave Us” they helped form the English language.

Perhaps the most startling example of prolonged Viking rule in the British Isles comes from the Scottish islands of Orkney and Shetland.

The Orkney islands, held a central position in the Viking world for centuries. 60% of modern Orkney islanders are genetically linked to Norway but that’s not surprising as Vikings ruled Orkney and Shetland for nearly 700 years – three centuries longer than Roman Britain.

Vikings settled Orkney in the late 700s as a base to raid into Scotland, England, and Ireland. The islands were finally returned to Scotland in 1468 when they formed part of the dowry of the daughter of King Christian I of Denmark upon her marriage to King James III of Scotland.

The first written accounts of the Shetlands are in the Norse sagas. They were conquered by the Vikings around 800. Again being traded away for a princess’s dowry many centuries later. On Norwegian National Day the island is draped in Norwegian flags despite being an oil-rich part of Great Britain. If you visit on the last Tuesday of January to celebrate Up Helly Aa, watch them burn a longship in costume, led by a Jarl, and wonder if the Vikings ever left Britain.

6. Vikings were Lawless

Despite having a reputation for being lawless raiders, Vikings gave the English language words like bylaw, ombudsman, and law. In fact they also gave us parliaments. Iceland’s national assembly is called the Althing. Its the oldest parliament in the world, having been founded in 930, and it originally met in the Thing Fields outside Reykjavik. This is where the English language gets the word thing. The first English representative parliament was established in 1265, in case you’re wondering.

Give the Vikings a second look, they might surprise you. Just don’t wear a horned helmet.

Many thanks to Grace for such a wonderful post. Words the Vikings Gave Us is available now in ebook and paperback.

About the author:

Grace Tierney is a columnist, author, and blogger writing on Ireland’s coast. Since 2009, she explores unusual English words every Monday at http://wordfoolery.wordpress.com, and on Irish radio. Her latest book, “Words the Vikings Gave Us”, launches this month and is a light-hearted look at the horde of words the English dictionary stole from the Vikings. From akimbo to yule Old Norse merged with Anglo-Saxon to form the start of the English language. The book unearths the history of words like kiss, ombudsman, bluetooth, frisbee, thing, and hustings. More than 300 words and phrases are featured – drawn from ship life, Viking food, farming, Norse romance, myths, politics, modern Vikings, anatomy, place names, daily life, and of course how to fight like a Viking.

Her earlier books about words include “How To Get Your Name In The Dictionary” (the extraordinary lives of those who gave their names as eponyms to English) and “Words The Sea Gave Us” (nautical nouns and phrases from fishermen, pirates, and explorers).

Her favourite Viking words are hug (so unexpected from a gang of plunderers) and attercop because it’s from her favourite childhood book.

Social Media Links

Blog: http://wordfoolery.wordpress.com
Twitter: https://twitter.com/Wordfoolery
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Buy Links

Paperback and ebook editions are available on Amazon, Kindle, Kobo with signed copies available directly. All the links are at https://wordfoolery.wordpress.com/my-books/

“Words The Sea Gave Us” and “How To Get Your Name In the Dictionary” out now on AmazonKindleApple BooksKobo and signed copies

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My Books

Signed, dedicated copies of all my books are available, please get in touch by completing the contact me form.

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 and Book Depository.

1 family. 8 earls. 300 years of English history!

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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You can be the first to read new articles by clicking the ‘Follow’ button, liking our Facebook page or joining me on Twitter and Instagram.

©2021 Sharon Bennett Connolly and Grace Tierney

Introducing the Earls of Warenne and Surrey

William de Warenne, 1st Earl of Warenne and Surrey, Trinity Church, Southover

The Warenne earls of Surrey were a fascinating family, right at the heart of English history and politics for almost 300 years, from the time of the Norman Conquest to the reign of Edward III. They held lands throughout England, acted as justiciars, sheriffs and generals – and yet, few people know their story.

But who were they?

William I de Warenne was rewarded for his support of King William II in the 1088 rebellion with the earldom of Surrey. However, the earls thereafter were as often referred to as the earls of Warenne – or the familial Earl Warenne, rather than earls of Surrey. The earldoms of Sussex and Strathearn (Scotland) were later added to these titles. As they appear to have preferred the simple familial title of Earl Warenne, that is how I have chosen to refer to them, except when establishing their titles. The Warenne’s extensive lands were spread over 13 counties and spanned the country from Lewes on the south coast to their castles of Conisbrough and Sandal in Yorkshire, with their family powerbase in East Anglia, where they built a magnificent priory, castle and medieval village at Castle Acre.

Wakefield, including Sandal Castle, appears to have come into the hands of the Warenne family at some point before 1121, during the tenure of the 2nd Earl Warenne. It is possible that they were acquired possibly in an exchange of lands with William Meschin, who had taken control of the Warenne holdings of Kimbolton in Huntingdonshire and Dean in Bedfordshire some time before 1130.

The family mausoleum was at St Pancras Priory in Lewes, founded by the first earl and his wife, Gundrada. It is the burial place of all but two subsequent earls and numerous other family members, as well as several earls of Arundel and their countesses.

For almost 300 years the Warenne earls of Surrey were some of the most influential men in the country, but the family died out rather ingloriously, with the seventh – and last – earl’s marital difficulties. Despite a prestigious marriage to a granddaughter of the king of England, John de Warenne, 7th Earl Warenne, died with no legitimate son to succeed him, though he had numerous acknowledged illegitimate children to whom he had given the family name.

Gundrada de Warenne, wife of the 1st earl

The first Warenne earl, William de Warenne, Earl of Warenne and Surrey, came to England with William the Conqueror’s invasion force and fought at the Battle of Hastings in 1066. As a younger son, he had little hope of an inheritance and had acquired his fortune and reputation fighting for the duke of Normandy, making his name as a young man at the 1054 Battle of Mortemer.

The Warennes were at the heart of English history and politics from the time of the Conquest to the death of John de Warenne, the 7th and last earl in 1347

So who were the Warenne earls?

Briefly,

William de Warenne was a distant cousin of William the Conqueror and fought at the Battle of Hastings. William was a trusted advisor and companion of King William I and was appointed justiciar in England during the king’s absences in Normandy. He pursued a personal feud against English freedom fighter, Hereward the Wake, after Hereward murdered his brother-in-law, Frederic. William was created Earl of Surrey by King William II, just weeks before his death in 1088, having been fatally wounded at the siege of Pevensey. William and his wife, Gundrada, founded the first Cluniac priory in England, St Pancras, at Lewes in Sussex. It would become the family mausoleum. William and Gundrada’s coffins were found in the 19th century, when the railway line was being laid, and are now interred in the Gundrada Chapel of Trinity Church, Southover.

The Warenne coat of arms, adopted by William de Warenne, 2nd Earl of Warenne and Surrey

He was succeeded by his oldest son, William II de Warenne (it was a popular name) who was earl for 50 years. This William had an awkward relationship with Henry I – William was thwarted in love by Henry when they both set their sights on the same woman, Matilda of Scotland. William supported Robert Curthose’s claim for the throne against Henry, but was persuaded to abandon the duke of Normandy in favour of the king of England after the former’s failed attempt to invade England led to Earl Warenne’s lands being confiscated by King Henry. From that moment on Earl Warenne was loyal to Henry and gave a rousing speech in favour of King Henry before the 1119 Battle of Bremule. He married Isabel de Vermandois, granddaughter of King Henry I of France and widow of Robert, Earl of Gloucester. The relationship caused some scandal as one chronicler suggests Isabel and William ran away together, before Isabel’s first husband was dead. William’s royal ambitions would be realised when his daughter, Ada de Warenne, married Prince Henry of Scotland in 1139; William’s grandsons, Malcolm IV and William the Lion, both succeeded to the Scottish throne.

The 3rd earl fought on the wrong side (in my opinion) during the Anarchy; he supported King Stephen. Also named William, he and his forces were ignominiously routed at the 1141 Battle of Lincoln, leaving King Stephen to be captured by Earl Robert of Gloucester. Earl Warenne redeemed himself by capturing the same Earl Robert during the Rout of Winchester in the summer of 1141, thus facilitating and exchange of commanders that saw King Stephen’s release from imprisonment at Bristol Castle. Perhaps growing tired of the constant civil war, in 1147 the earl left on the Second Crusade with his half-brother, Waleran de Beaumont, Count of Meulan, led by the brothers’ second cousin, Louis VII, and his wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine. Earl William was killed at the age of 28 at the Battle of Mount Cadmus in January 1148, leaving the earldom to his young daughter, Isabel.

Seal of Isabel de Warenne, 4th Countess of Warenne and Surrey in her own right

The 4th earl. Now this is where the subsequent numbering of earls gets confusing. There were two 4th earls, though some history books count them as the 4th and 5th earls. The earldom actually belonged to Isabel. Isabel de Warenne was 4th Countess of Warenne and Surrey in her own right. Her first husband, William of Blois (the first 4th earl), was the youngest son of King Stephen and her second husband, Hamelin Plantagenet (the second 4th earl), was the illegitimate half-brother of King Henry II; a thoroughly modern Hamelin changed his name from Plantagenet to de Warenne on marrying Isabel. The first marriage produced no children, which was a stroke of luck for Henry II, as William of Blois could have founded a dynasty to rival the mighty Plantagenets. The second marriage proved more fruitful, with three daughters and a son. Hamelin was a loyal supporter of his brother, Henry II, and nephews, Richard I and King John – despite the fact John seduced one of Hamelin’s daughters, fathering an illegitimate child with her. Hamelin also built the magnificent keep at Conisbrough Castle, South Yorkshire.

Their son, William de Warenne, the 5th Earl, was first cousin to both King Richard I and King John. He probably grew up in Normandy, and served with King Richard in France in the 1190s. William played an active role in English politics, negotiating with the rebels on John’s behalf in Spring 1215, attempting to avert civil war. He was a signatory of the Magna Carta in 1215 and again on its reissue in 1225; he was one of the few surviving earls to have witnessed both issues of the charter. He did side with the rebel barons and their French allies, for a time, but returned to the fold following King John’s death in October 1216. He then helped to negotiate the peace, in September 1217, which saw the French Prince Louis give up his claim to England and return home. He married Matilda Marshal, daughter of the great William Marshal, Earl of Pembroke and regent of England for the first few years of Henry III’s reign. The couple had two children; their daughter, Isabel d’Aubigny, Countess of Arundel, became famous for berating King Henry III over the appropriation of a wardship that was rightfully hers.

Seal of John de Warenne, 6th Earl of Warenne and Surrey

John de Warenne, the 6th earl, was the longest serving earl of them all, holding the title for 64 years. His father died when he was 8 years old. Henry III became his brother-in-law when he married the king’s half-sister, Alice de Lusignan, daughter of Queen Isabella of Angouleme and her second husband, Hugh X de Lusignan. The marriage was a happy one and the couple truly loved each other; following Alice’s death in childbirth, John did not take another wife. John de Warenne fought in the Second Barons’ War and was a close associate of the future king, Edward I. He was at the Battle of Lewes in 1264, fighting for King Henry III against Simon de Montfort, but escaped to the continent when the battle was lost. John was probably at Evesham for the defeat and death of Simon de Montfort, though his presence is not recorded; he was certainly with Henry III’s son, Edward, in the days before the battle. His daughter, Isabella, was married to John Balliol, King of Scots, and the mother of Edward Balliol, who pursued his own claim to the Scottish throne in the 1330s. John was guardian of Scotland for a time and lost the Battle of Stirling to William Wallace in 1298. John de Warenne was a brutal man with a sense of humour; he once claimed the rights to all the rabbit warrens in Surrey – because it was his name! His son, William de Warenne, had died during a tournament in 1286, so when John died in 1304, aged 72, he was succeeded by his 18-year-old grandson, John II de Warenne.

Lewes Castle, Sussex, seat of the earls of Warenne and Surrey

John II de Warenne, the 7th and last earl of Warenne and Surrey, spent most of his adult life trying to divorce his wife, Jeanne de Bar (Joan of Bar), a granddaughter of King Edward I, in order to marry his mistress. He made various claims to try and effect a divorce, including that he had had an affair with his wife’s aunt, Mary of Woodstock, who had been a nun from the age of 7. John was embroiled in a private – but very public – feud with Thomas of Lancaster, Edward II’s most powerful vassal, and even went so far as kidnapping Lancaster’s wife, Alice de Lacey. In retaliation, Lancaster seized the Warenne castles of Conisbrough and Sandal, both being close to his own castle of Pontefract. The castles were only restored to John after Lancaster’s execution following his defeat at the Battle of Boroughbridge, in 1322. John was involved in many of the events that shaped the reign of Edward II, though he did not fight in the 1314 English defeat by the Scots at the Battle of Bannockburn. He supported Edward II to the end – almost, only adding his to support to Isabella of France and the future Edward III, when he saw that the king’s cause was hopeless. He died in 1347 at Conisbrough, still married to Jeanne de Bar and with no legitimate heir to succeed him. The earldom passed to his nephew, Richard FitzAlan, Earl of Arundel, but the Yorkshire lands, including Conisbrough and Sandal castles, passed to the crown and were given to Edward III’s fourth surviving son, Edmund of Langley, 1st Duke of York.

Castle Acre Priory, Norfolk, one of the Cluniac monasteries founded by the Warenne earls

And that is just a – very – brief summary of the earls.

The Warenne family has a fascinating history, right at the heart of English politics for the better part of 3 centuries. They had family bond that is not always found amongst the aristocracy, with brothers and sisters helping and supporting each other and working for the benefit of their family. Strategic marriages forged links with the greatest families in England, Scotland and France; their family connections spanned the greatest noble houses, from the Marshals, the FitzAlans, the Lusignans, the d’Aubignys and Percys to the Scottish, French and English royal families.

One family, over 8 generations, the Warennes were at the centre of 300 years of English history.

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Selected 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; 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; 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; Conisbrough Castle Giudebook 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; 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

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My Books:

Signed, dedicated copies of all my books are available, please get in touch by completing the contact me form.

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 and Book Depository.

1 family. 8 earls. 300 years of English history!

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 in paperback and hardback 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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