The finalised cover for Defenders of the Norman Crown: Rise and Fall of the Warenne Earls of Surrey, coming out next year.
Huge thanks to designer Paul Wilkinson at Pen & Sword for making my book look sooo good!
Defenders of the Norman Crown: Rise and Fall of the Warenne Earls of Surrey
In the reign of Edward I, when asked Quo Warranto? – by what warrant he held his lands – John de Warenne, the 6th earl of Warenne and Surrey, is said to have drawn a rusty sword, claiming ‘My ancestors came with William the Bastard, and conquered their lands with the sword, and I will defend them with the sword against anyone wishing to seize them.’
John’s ancestor, William de Warenne, 1st Earl of Surrey, fought for William the Conqueror at the Battle of Hastings in 1066. He was rewarded with enough land to make him one of the richest men of all time. In his search for a royal bride, the 2nd earl kidnapped the wife of a fellow baron. The 3rd earl died on crusade, fighting for his royal cousin, Louis VII of France…
For three centuries, the Warennes were at the heart of English politics at the highest level, until one unhappy marriage brought an end to the dynasty. The family moved in the most influential circles, married into royalty and were not immune to scandal.
Defenders of the Norman Crown 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.
If you have been following this blog for any length of time, you will have noticed that I have a fondness for the Warennes. The family were earls of Surrey from 1088 until the death of the last Warenne earl in 1347. They possessed lands throughout England, stretching from Lewes in Sussex to Castle Rising in Norfolk and on to Conisbrough and Sandal Castles in Yorkshire.
Growing up close to the Warenne castle at Conisbrough in South Yorkshire, I developed a fascination for the castle’s history, for its connections to royalty, and for the family which built this amazing stronghold – the Warennes. As a student, I worked at the castle as a volunteer tour guide and started researching the story of the family. Many, many years later, when Pen & Sword asked me for some book ideas, I suggested writing a biography of the family, not really expecting them to say ‘yes’ – but they did. Defenders of the Norman Crown: Rise and Fall of the Warenne Earls of Surreyis a book I have always wanted to write, but never expected I would get the chance.
From the time of the Norman Conquest to the death of the seventh and last earl, the Warenne family was at the heart of English politics and the establishment, providing military and administrative support to the Crown. In the years following 1066 William I de Warenne, who became the first Earl of Surrey in 1088, was the fourth richest man in England and the richest not related to the royal family – he ranks at number 18 in MSN.com’s Top 20 Richest People of All Time.
The earls of Surrey were at the centre of the major crises of medieval England, from the Norman Conquest itself to the deposition of Edward II and accession of Edward III. Strategic marriages forged links with the leading noble houses in England and Scotland, from the Marshals, the FitzAlans, the d’Aubignys and Percys to the Scottish and English royal families themselves. Indeed, it is from Ada de Warenne, daughter of the second earl, married to the oldest son of the king of Scots, that all the leading competitors for the Scottish throne, after the death of Margaret, Maid of Norway in 1286, are descended. Queen Elizabeth II, herself, can trace her own lineage back to Ada and, through Ada, to the second earl of Warenne and Surrey.
In the 14th century, one unhappy marriage brought the dynasty to an end, the family’s influence and achievements almost forgotten…
Writing Defenders of the Norman Crown: Rise and Fall of the Warenne Earls of Surrey and researching this incredible family has been an amazing experience – a dream come true – and I will be eternally grateful to Pen & Sword for allowing me to tell their story.
Defenders of the Norman Crown: Rise and Fall of the Warenne Earls of Surrey tells the story of this remarkable dynasty. It is a story of power, ambition, loyalty and – above all – family!
Defenders of the Norman Crown: Rise and Fall of the Warenne Earls of Surrey will be published by Pen & Sword in the spring of 2021.
Mary of Blois was the youngest daughter of Stephen of Blois and his wife, Matilda of Boulogne, herself the granddaughter of St Margaret, queen of Scotland. Mary was born in Blois, France around 1136. She was destined for the cloister from an early age and, while still a young girl, was placed in a convent at Stratford, Middlesex, with some nuns from St Sulpice in Rennes.
Mary’s lineage and the quirks of fate, however, meant that Mary’s peaceful convent life would be violently cut short.
Mary’s father Stephen was the nephew of Henry I, and his closest, legitimate, male relatives. Following the death of his only legitimate son, William Adelin, in the White Ship disaster of 1120, and with his only other legitimate child, Empress Matilda, living in Germany, it seems that Henry looked at Stephen as a possible successor. However, when Matilda’s husband died in 1125 and the empress returned to her father’s court, Stephen’s position was left undetermined. Stephen remained prominent at the English court, always present as a viable alternative to the succession of a woman – Empress Matilda.
In the confusion following Henry’s death in December 1135, it was Stephen who acted quickly and decisively. As he claimed the crown in England and his adherents secured Normandy in Stephen’s name, Empress Matilda was home in Anjou with her husband Geoffrey, Count of Anjou and two young sons, Henry and Geoffrey. She was pregnant with her third and youngest son, William.
What followed was a period known as the Anarchy, almost 20 years of conflict and bloodshed as Stephen and the Empress Matilda battled for supremacy of England and Normandy. Ultimately, Stephen managed to retain control of England but lost Normandy to Count Geoffrey, who passed it on to his and Matilda’s eldest son, Henry FitzEmpress. Henry, was eager to win back his birthright and following several incursions by Henry – whilst still in his teens – he and Stephen came to an agreement.
Stephen and his wife Matilda had five children in total, but only three, including Mary, who survived infancy. Of Stephen and Matilda’s three children, Eustace IV, Count of Boulogne, was the eldest to survive into adulthood, and was groomed as his father’s heir. He was married to Constance of France, daughter of King Louis VI and sister of Louis VII, in 1140 and knighted in 1147. He died in August 1153, after suffering some form of seizure. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle said of him
‘he had little success, and with just cause, because he was an evil man, because wheresoever he came he did more evil than good; he robbed the lands and laid great taxes on them.’
Anglo_Saxon Chronicles, edited by Michael Swanton
The Gesta Stephani, however, paints a picture of
‘a young man of high character … his manners were grave; he excelled in warlike exercises and had great natural courage … he was courteous and affable … and possessed much of his father’s spirit … ever ready to draw close the bands of peace’ but ‘never shrank from presenting a resolute and indomitable front to his enemies.’
Stephen’s youngest son was William, who was born around 1134/5. In 1149 he married Isabel de Warenne, sole heiress to William de Warenne, third earl of Surrey, in order to bring the vast Warenne lands within the influence of the crown. William would succeed to the County of Boulogne in 1153, on the death of Eustace. Shortly after his brother’s death, and with the help of the clergy, William made an agreement with Henry of Anjou, whereby he waived his own rights to the crown in return for assurances explicitly recognising his rights to his lands, as Count of Boulogne and Mortain and Earl of Surrey.
Mary, who had been in the convent in Stratford, Middlesex, was moved around 1150-52 after some discord with the nunnery. Her parents founded a new convent for her at Lillechurch (Higham) in Kent, making it a sister convent with Rennes’ St Sulpice. Mary does not appear to have been given the title of prioress. However, a charter of Henry II, dated around 1155-58, confirmed Lillechurch to Mary and her nuns, suggesting she held some position of authority. Before 1160 Mary had become abbess of the great abbey at Romsey, an older and more prestigious institution than her little foundation at Lillechurch.
Mary’s brother William died without issue in 1159 during the Siege of Toulouse. Though a nun, Mary succeeded him in the County of Boulogne. In 1160 Mary’s life was turned upside down. She was suddenly a great heiress, countess of Boulogne in her own right and too great a marriage prize to be allowed to remain secluded in the cloisters. She was abducted from Romsey Abbey by Matthew of Alsace, second son of the Count of Flanders, and forced to marry him. This may well have been a political move; although there does not appear to be any proof that Henry II sanctioned it, most sources imply that the marriage was forced on her by the king and he certainly benefited from Mary being safely married to a loyal vassal. She was, after all, not only a great heiress but, through her father, she had a strong, rival claim to the throne of England.
There was great outrage among the clergy; marriage with a nun was a breach against canon law and opposed by the leading ecclesiastical figures of the day. One source suggested the pope had granted a dispensation for the marriage. However, given that Pope Alexander III expressed great disapproval in a letter to the archbishop of Rheims, his consent seems highly unlikely. The pope imposed an interdict on Matthew of Alsace and pressed the claims of the wife of Mary’s brother, Eustace, to the Boulogne estates; even though Constance had died some fourteen years before. The furore seems to have died down eventually, and the marriage was allowed to stand.
Unfortunately for Henry II, Matthew turned out to be a not-so-loyal vassal and rebelled at least twice. The first occasion arose when Matthew tried to press his claims to Mortain, land that should have been part of Mary’s inheritance but was now held by Henry II. The king was not too accommodating. An agreement was eventually reached whereby, in return for £1,000, Matthew would renounce all claims to those parts of his wife’s estates that were still in royal hands.
Mary seems to have had little love for Henry II, possibly due to his involvement in her abduction and marriage, or simply because of the fact their respective families had spent many years at war. With so much bad history, you wouldn’t expect them to have an affectionate relationship, but Mary appears to have actively worked against Henry. Following a meeting with the ambassadors of the emperor, Frederick Barbarossa, she wrote to King Louis of France. In the document, she describes Henry II as ‘the fraudulent king’, while informing Louis of Henry’s manoeuvring against him.
Mary and Matthew had two children, daughters Ida and Mathilde; and it was after the birth of Mathilde that the couple were divorced, in 1170. There is some suggestion that Matthew was pressured to agree to the divorce by his dying father and the emperor, Frederick Barbarossa, probably in the hope of having the interdict – placed on Matthew on his marriage to Mary – lifted. After the divorce, Matthew would continue to rule Boulogne and was succeeded by Ida on his death in 1173.
Ida (b. c1160) married three times; her first husband, Gerard III, count of Gueldres, who died in 1183. Her short marriage to her second husband, Berthold IV, Duke of Zehringen, ended in his death in 1186. Ida’s last marriage was to Reginald, or Renaud, de Tree, Count of Dammartin, who was a childhood friend of France’s king, Philip Augustus. It seems Renaud abducted Ida and forced her into marriage. He died in 1227, outliving Ida, who died in 1216, by eleven years. It was Matilda, the daughter of Ida and Renaud, who inherited Boulogne from Ida, and would also become Queen of Portugal through her marriage to Alfonso III of Portugal.
Born in 1170 Ida’s younger sister, Mathilde, married Henry I, duke of Louvain and Brabant, when she was nine-years-old. She would have seven children before her death sometime in 1210 or 1211; she was buried in St Peter’s Church, Leuven.
The interdict, which had been placed on Matthew on his marriage to Mary, was finally lifted when she returned to the convent life, becoming a simple Benedictine nun at St Austrebert, Montreuil. Mary died there in July 1182, aged about forty-six, and was buried in the convent. A woman who obviously believed that her life should be devoted to God, she is remarkable in that she managed to fulfil her dynastic duties in a forced marriage, and yet asserted herself so that she was able to return to the secluded life she so obviously craved.
Donald Matthew, King Stephen; Robert Bartlett, England Under the Norman and Angevin Kings; David Williamson, Brewer’s British Royalty; the History Today Companion to British History; Dan Jones, the Plantagenets; englishmonarchs.co.uk; The Oxford Companion to British History; Mike Ashley, The Mammoth Book of British Kings & Queens; Alison Weir, Britain’s Royal Families, the Complete Genealogy; S.P. Thompson, Oxforddnb.com, Mary [Mary of Blois], suo jure countess of Boulogne (d. 1182), princess and abbess of Romsey; Anglo_Saxon Chronicles, edited by Michael Swanton; Gesta Stephani.
Today it is a distinct pleasure to welcome Danna R. Messer to History … the Interesting Bits to talk about her favourite medieval heroine, Joan, Lady of Wales. I recently review Danna’s new, excellent, biography of Joanand now Dannais here to shine some light on Joan.
Joan, Lady of Wales by Danna R. Messer
When Sharon invited me as a guest she happily told me I could write on ‘any subject relating to Joan’. In theory, given such free range to write about one aspect of my long-lived preoccupation with this true ‘heroine of history’ was a blessing and should have been a cinch. In practice, it stumped me. I have just spent almost three years cobbling together my research to write a book about Joan, never mind the seven years spent using her activities and status as a centrepiece for my PhD research on the wives of native Welsh rulers, or the numerous years before and after exploring as many avenues as I could to find out more about her. What more is there to cover, especially on a woman whose presence only peaks through the evidence and events on what sometimes seems the rarest of occasions? Well, it turns out the answer to that is, there’s plenty. And that is what has stumped me.
By nature, my inclination was to either 1) lean further into her role as a ‘Welsh queen’ and try to continue unpack any of those layers that might still be pliable or 2) think more about her role and expectations as a wife. Old habits are hard to break – especially when these two factors combined have already helped in painting a portrait of her. But, I had to really ask myself, what is missing? What are the things that should be given further, serious consideration when it comes to understanding such a complicated woman as Joan – and by complicated I mean the complications of not only her general life circumstances, but the complications also related to lack of sources.
After much pondering and reflection, I have decided that the largest part of the answer to ‘what is missing’ is the most obvious and lies in Joan’s experiences and the human emotions that dictated every moment of her life. The study of emotions and their impact on how we react to our own worlds, the world at large and during ‘historical’ events has grown in importance over the past thirty years. The understanding of human emotions and how they make us tick as sentient beings should not, and does not, simply fall under the sole remit of psychologists or neuroscientists. It is also an understanding that should be embraced, or in the least, accepted by historians when writing about the past. As I have often said students taking my medieval history courses, ‘Nothing happens in a vacuum, right?’
Of course, I am aware of the debates surrounding the study of and emphasis on emotions when it comes to constructing a better understanding of history: the argument that emotions are culturally constructed and carry their own specific meanings in context to period and place and are therefore variable over time versus the more universal argument that people in the past felt the same way we do, about their lives, themselves, their relationships, their situations, simply because they, too, were people, human beings just like us. Whether emotions themselves have a history is a mute discussion here. The point is emotions play a role in every situation – for every one of us, in every waking moment of every day. For Joan and the characters that surrounded her, from Llywelyn to John, to Susanna to Dafydd, to her ladies in waiting and her own priest, this was also the case.
Although I do touch on aspects of Joan’s emotions and those of her loved ones, as a trained historian, that is all I felt I could allow myself to do. The human part of me wanted, and still wants to, throw them into the fray and exclaim, ‘Look! Can’t you see? She was [insert] angry/sad/stressed/annoyed/happy/excited/eager. That’s why she did what she did when she did it’. She was human after all. Perhaps this is why historical fiction is such a popular genre. An astute and attentive author like Sharon Penman can give, and has given, a woman such as Joan real depth, a personality, a visceral humanness that by nature is missing from any biography or history written on any individual whose own voice seldomly speaks from the grave.
Having researched Joan for well over twenty years, I often wonder what she thought, how she reacted, how she felt. I envision her as trepidatious – perhaps scared, excited or both — on her initial journey to Wales. I imaging frustration and annoyance at not being able to understand the language of her new home on arrival. The anxiety of ensuring she fulfilled her roles as Llywelyn’s consort and wife; the pressure she felt to learn and adopt the new customs at an accelerated speed. The desire to be accepted, the shame or anger at being rejected as a foreigner. As a bastard. An incomprehensible fear of looming death in 1211 for husband or her father, or even herself and her children. A sense of determination to do right by both her natal and martial families over her long career. A growth in her self-esteem from her younger years as a ‘political princess’ to a deeper sense of empowerment and prerogative as political diplomat, based on knowledge, experience and wisdom as she aged.
What about a sense of freedom? Did she have any, either carrying out her role as a ‘queen’, perhaps on circuit, or managing her own English lands? Or did she simply feel trapped deep down, but made the most of her situation? Undeniably, Joan understood her status and position with both her families and within Anglo-Welsh politics. I suspect moments of real pride in herself and her own achievements could be found in attaining legitimacy (including a sense of spiritual security and, I assume relief), and above all, her witnessing her son’s homage at Westminster, where she was there as a mother, but embracing and imbuing the real power of her status as a ‘queen’. From bastard to ‘queen’, not a bad climb up the social ladder. Perhaps all the more empowering with the thought that such an event essentially placed her publicly on par with a number of her female relatives scattered across Britain and the Continent, who themselves were queens.
Above all, I often wonder about love, the joys and sorrows it brought her. How long did it take for her and Llywelyn to build a relationship? Was there real love involved? What about William de Braose? Did Joan really experience the anguish of losing someone she loved because of her love? How difficult was it for her to love her father and face his cruelties? What about the worry and love that define motherhood, or parenthood in general? How did she feel watching her daughters leave, one by one, to pastures generally unknown, facing an uncertain future? What about her son, knowing full well that his position, his life, was forever in a precarious balance being Llywelyn’s chosen successor?
Such musings easily occupy the time, but should not be deemed frivolous. They really are important to take into consideration when thinking about Joan, Lady of Wales and her impact on history, evidence or no. Her emotions impacted her and influenced the decisions, actions and outcomes we write about and talk about when it comes to Britain in the early thirteenth century. In the words of one of my favourite writers, Ralph Waldo Emerson: ‘Life is a tram of moods like a string of beads, and as we pass through them they proved to be many colored lenses which paint the world in their own hue.’
Thank you so much to Danna for a fascinating article. Danna R. Messer’s book Joan, Lady of Wales: Power and Politics of King John’s Daughter is now available in the UK from Pen & Sword and Amazon.
About the Author:
I am a medieval historian by training and trade. My BA history honours thesis, many moons ago, at the University of Denver was, unsurprisingly, about Joan as a ‘political princess’. Researching her at that time, and over the pond, wasn’t terribly easy. I vividly recall asking a librarian for help when searching the (literal) card catalogue, telling her I was researching medieval Wales to which she responded with utter disbelief, ‘The things that live in the sea?!’ That may have unconsciously propelled my move to Britain after graduation. I earned my MA from the University of York, again using Joan as a centre-piece on the role of illegitimate daughters in England’s royal family. Whilst working full time at the Borthwick Institute for Archives at the University of York, I taught classes on medieval and women’s history for the Centre for Life Long Learning and studied for my PhD, via long distance, at Bangor University. My doctoral thesis is on the uxorial agency of the wives of native Welsh rulers, yet again, where Joan features as a case study.
Over of the past few years I have worked in publishing as an editor for medieval history. I am Acquisitions Editor at Arc Humanities Press, the academic publishing arm of the medieval network CARMEN. Part of my role with Arc includes being the Executive Editor for the Encyclopedia of the Global Middle Ages, an online encyclopedia run in partnership with Bloomsbury Academic and their Medieval Studies Digital Resource. I am also the Series Editor for both Medieval History and Women’s Studies, with Pen and Sword Books.
My other publications relating to Joan, Welsh queenship and medieval consorts to date include:
‘Volume 1: Norman to Early Plantagenet Consorts’, English Consorts: Power, Influence, Dynasty, edited by Aidan Norrie, Carolyn Harris, Joanna Laynesmith, Danna Messer and Elena Woodacre, 4 vols. (Palgrave Macmillan, 2022)
‘A Model of Welsh Queenship: Joan of England and the Medieval Court of Gwynedd’, Special Edition on Medieval and Early Modern Queenship, edited by Louise Wilkinson, Women’s History Review (2020)
‘Welsh Queenship in the Twelfth and Thirteenth Centuries’, Encyclopedia of the Global Middle Ages: Core Case Study (Bloomsbury Academic, 2019), Bloomsbury Medieval Studies, Web
Competition is now closed and the draw has been made. The winner is… Lisa Graham. Thank you so much to everyone for taking part – there were over 300 entries! And thank you for the many wonderful birthday wishes. Apparently a ‘big’ birthday doesn’t feel as overwhelming when you have so many wonderful friends. THANK YOU!!!!
It’s my birthday!
Today is my birthday, and its one of those big ones with a ‘0’ on the end. I’m not going to say exactly, but here’s a few clues:
I’m not 40 or 60;
My son keeps telling me that I’m now a part of history;
and he keeps making sly remarks about half centuries.
So, you work it out…
Anyway, seeing as its such a big birthday, I thought it would be nice to celebrate with a giveaway, seeing as I haven’t done one in a while.
The competition is open to everyone, wherever you are in the world. To win a signed and dedicated copy of one of my books, simply leave a comment below or on my Facebook page and I will include you in the prize draw.
The history of women in medieval Wales before the English conquest of 1282 is one largely shrouded in mystery. For the Age of Princes, an era defined by ever-increased threats of foreign hegemony, internal dynastic strife and constant warfare, the comings and goings of women are little noted in sources. This misfortune touches even the most well-known royal woman of the time, Joan of England (d. 1237), the wife of Llywelyn the Great of Gwynedd, illegitimate daughter of King John and half-sister to Henry III. With evidence of her hand in thwarting a full scale English invasion of Wales to a notorious scandal that ended with the public execution of her supposed lover by her husband and her own imprisonment, Joan’s is a known, but little-told or understood story defined by family turmoil, divided loyalties and political intrigue. From the time her hand was promised in marriage as the result of the first Welsh-English alliance in 1201 to the end of her life, Joan’s place in the political wranglings between England and the Welsh kingdom of Gwynedd was a fundamental one. As the first woman to be designated Lady of Wales, her role as one a political diplomat in early thirteenth-century Anglo-Welsh relations was instrumental. This first-ever account of Siwan, as she was known to the Welsh, interweaves the details of her life and relationships with a gendered re-assessment of Anglo-Welsh politics by highlighting her involvement in affairs, discussing events in which she may well have been involved but have gone unrecorded and her overall deployment of royal female agency.
I have got my hands on this much-anticipated book, Joan, Lady of Wales by Danna R. Messer. I have to admit, I devoured every word. Joan has been in need of a biographer for some time, and I am so pleased that Danna took up the challenge and produced this remarkable study of the illegitimate daughter of King John who became Lady of Wales as the wife of Llywelyn ap Iorweth – Llywelyn Fawr.
Ever since I have known this book was being written, I have been itching to get my hands on it!
Anyone who is a fan of Sharon Penman will have heard of Joan, and most likely have a soft spot for this incredible woman. This biography gives you the chance to study the facts, to meet the woman behind the story and read of how deeply involved she was in Anglo-Welsh relations in the first half of the 13th century. Danna R. Messer portrays a politically astute and powerful woman, aware of her duty, importance and capabilities, not only as the daughter and sister of England’s kings, but also as Llywelyns wife and consort – and as the mother of his heir.
Beautifully written, with clear, concise arguments and a passion for her subject, the author has brought Joan to life. This is a book that is impossible to put down. Danna R. Messer does not shy away from areas of controversy, either, examining every aspect of Joan’s relationship with William de Braose, the man who was hanged after being found with Joan in Llywelyn’s chamber. the deconstruction of the event, the aftermath and the repercussions make for fascinating reading – its worth getting the book just to discover how everything unfolded.
As are all life stories, that of Joan of England’s is complicated; the complexities of which are further irritated by a dearth of contemporaneous material related to her. The identity of her mother remains a mystery and is much debated by today’s genealogists, as is who her children were. how many she really had and where some even ended up in their own lives. How many times she travelled as an envoy, how many charters she issued and just how fully she participated in effecting Welsh polity can never be fully known. No matter the daunting aspect of approaching such an ill-documented existence, which is a painstaking project indeed, it is one that yields both exciting and long-overdue results.
This study of Joan of England seeks to revise the master narrative of native medieval Wales in the early-thirteenth century – to generate a better ad more inclusively nuanced understanding of the history of this fascinating and wild region of Britain and its relationship with England by placing this particularly interesting and fascinating woman at the forefront in the sequence of events…
Although Siwan’s role in Anglo-Welsh history has received recognition by historians, she has been still largely relegated to the sidelines; an indication that her role was not entirely critical to the stability and growth of Welsh polity, or peace with England overall. On the flip side, it is sometimes difficult not to naturally overplay our hand and emphatically conclude that Joan was, indeed, a heroine and that if it were not for her, the very fabric of native Wales would have been fundamentally altered by the time Llywelyn died in 1240. On balance, however, it is vitally important to understand that the aggregate of Joan’s interventions in the early-thirteenth century ensured that she really was a crucial player in the political wranglings between the ruler of Gwynedd and the rulers of England. The famous early-twentieth-century Welsh historian J.E. Lloyd concluded that Llywelyn ap Iorweth ‘had one emissary whose diplomatic services far outran those of the seneschal and who helped him in this capacity for the greater part of his reign. To the assistance of his wife Joan, both as advocate and counsellor, there can be no doubt he was much indebted.’ To the assistance of Joan, Lady of Wales, there can be no doubt that the history of native medieval Wales is also much indebted.
Joan, Lady of Wales by Danna R. Messer not only examines every aspect of Joan’s life, but places that life in the wider context of English and Welsh events, of Anglo-Welsh relations and of the place of women in Welsh society and history in general. This in-depth study provides an overview analysis of the status of women in Welsh history, the laws surrounding marriage and adultery, legitimate and illegitimate children and demonstrates how Joan’s own confirmation of legitimacy in the 1220s added prestige and legitimacy to her husband’s position within Wales and the wider sphere of Anglo-Welsh relations.
Danna R. Messer also explores the use of title and authority for women in the 13th century, depicting Joan as a queen, both in her actions and relationship with others. Although she was not crowned and anointed in the same manner as an English queen would be, she held the same level of authority and respect, both in the public and the private sphere of the Welsh court.
A collection of a bout 20 black and white photos help to illustrate Joan’s story, Joan, Lady of Wales is a stunning, comprehensive study of the unique character and position that Joan occupies in both English and Welsh history.
Despite a woeful lack of sources mentioning Joan, Danna has managed to tease out every piece of information she could find on Joan and her position and duties, not only in Wales as the wife and consort of Llywelyn, but also in England as the daughter and, later, sister of the king. Joan’s status as the primary diplomat in Anglo-Welsh relations comes through clearly in the way Joan was treated by her husband and the rewards she was given by the English crown.
In brief, in Joan, Lady of Wales, Danna R. Messer recreates the life and times of this incredible woman, giving us a more complete portrait than has ever been achieved since her own lifetime. We are given a full and complete analysis – as far as the sources and distance of time will allow – of Joan’s political and personal life, the good and the bad, including the scandal, the ambition and Joan’s own legacy and what it meant for those who followed her.
Joan, Lady of Wales has long needed her own biography, to bring her out from the shadows of the lives of her father, brother, husband and son – and this book does not disappoint. It is, quite simply, a beautifully-executed, fascinating and addictive read.
Dr Danna R. Messer has published on various aspects of the wives of the native Welsh rulers before 1282, providing a gendered perspective of medieval Welsh politics. As an editor and historian, she is widely involved in medieval history and queenship studies generally, including her roles as Series Editor for Medieval History for Pen and Sword, editor for the Royal Studies Journal and editor for Normans to Early Plantagenet Consorts, the first volume of the forthcoming four-book series, English Consorts: Power, Influence, Dynasty (Palgrave). She is also Acquisitions Editor for Arc Humanities Press and the Executive Editor for the Encyclopedia of the Global Middle Ages, a partnership project with Bloomsbury Academic and Arc Humanities Press.
Ada de Warenne was born around 1120, daughter of William de Warenne 2nd Earl of Surrey and Isabel de Vermandois. Through her mother, she was a great-granddaughter of Henry I of France and half-sister to twins Waleran and Robert de Beaumont, Count of Meulan and 2nd Earl of Leicester, respectively, and Hugh de Beaumont, 1st Earl of Bedford. Her niece, Isabel de Warenne, would marry William of Blois, the younger son of King Stephen and, following his death, Hamelin, half-brother of Henry II of England. Ada’s family connections were of the highest quality in the Anglo-Norman world.
As a consequence, Ada’s future marriage became an international concern. On 9 April 1139, a peace treaty was concluded between King Stephen of England and King David I of Scots. Primarily negotiated by Stephen’s wife, Queen Matilda – King David’s own niece – the terms were extremely favourable to the defeated Scots. All the lands that Prince Henry of Scotland, King David’s son and heir, had held in 1138 were returned to him, save for the castles at Bamburgh and Newcastle, for which he was recompensed with two towns of equal value in the south. Furthermore, Henry was confirmed as earl of Huntingdon and created earl of Northumbria, a title which encompassed Northumberland, Durham, Cumberland, Westmoreland and the parts of Lancashire north of the Ribble.
It was agreed that English law would remain in force in these regions, but that the barons within the earldom were permitted to do homage to Prince Henry, saving only their allegiance to King Stephen. In return, King David and his son promised a permanent peace and provided four hostages. Although the text of the treaty is now lost, it seems likely that the prince’s marriage to Ada de Warenne, sister of the third Earl Warenne and half-sister of the Beaumont twins, was included in the terms of the Treaty of Durham.
Shortly after the treaty was signed, Prince Henry joined King Stephen’s court for a time, accompanying Stephen on campaign, which came with not without a little risk. It was probably during his stay with Stephen’s court that Henry married his bride. Orderic Vitalis claims that the marriage was a love match; however, the timing clearly suggests that the union was a consequence of the 1139 treaty of Durham, perhaps with the intention of drawing Henry into Stephen’s corner by allying him in marriage to his staunchest supporters, the Beaumont twins. On her marriage, which took place sometime between the conclusion of the treaty of Durham and Henry’s return to Scotland, Ada became Countess of Huntingdon and Northumbria and Lady of Haddington and Crail.
Henry was the only surviving son of King David I of Scotland and his queen, Matilda (or Maud), widow of Simon (I) de Senlis, who had died in 1113. Henry’s mother, Matilda, was the daughter of Waltheof, Earl of Northumbria, and Judith, a niece of William the Conqueror. Henry’s older brother, Malcolm, was tragically killed when a toddler; he was reportedly murdered by a Scandinavian monk in his father’s service, who is said to have savagely attacked the child with his artificial iron hand. Needless to say, the murderous monk was executed: David ordered that he be torn apart by wild horses.
On her marriage, Ada became Countess of Huntingdon and Countess of Northumbria. The marriage produced 3 sons and 3 daughters.
Ada never became Queen of Scots as Henry of Scotland died in 1152, a year before the death of David I. On his son’s death, David recognised his grandson and Ada’s eldest son, Malcolm, as his heir. During her son’s reign, Ada became known as The Queen Mother of Scotland. At this time, in her charters, she is most frequently styled ‘Ada comitissa regis Scottorum.’
Born in 1142, Malcolm succeeded to the crown at the age of 11 as Malcolm IV. Also known as Malcolm the Maiden, he died, unmarried, at Jedburgh in December 1165. Ada had been trying to arrange a suitable bride for him when he died.
He was succeeded by Ada’s 2nd son, William I the Lion. William was one of the longest reigning king of Scots in history, ruling for 49 years. He married Ermengarde de Beaumont, a granddaughter of Henry I of England by his illegitimate daughter, Constance. William and Ermengarde had 3 daughters and a son, who succeeded his father as Alexander II in 1214. Their 2 eldest daughters, Margaret and Isabella, are mentioned in Magna Carta. They became hostages of King John following the treaty of Norham in 1209; the English king had promised to marry at least one of them to his son, the future King Henry III, and to find a suitable husband for the other. Both girls married English nobles – eventually. Their brother, Alexander II, married Henry III’s sister, Joan, but the marriage was childless.
Ada and Henry’s 3rd son, David, Earl of Huntingdon, married Matilda of Chester and it is through the daughters of David that Robert the Bruce and John Balliol both based their claims as Competitors to the Scots crown in the 1290s.
Of the 3 daughters, Matilda died young, in 1152. Ada of Huntingdon married Floris III, Count of Holland, in 1161. She had 4 sons and 4 daughters before the count died at Antioch while on the 3rd Crusade, in 1190. Ada’s great-great-grandson, Floris V, Count of Holland, was one of the 13 Competitors for the Scots crown in 1291. Margaret married Conan IV, Duke of Brittany and Earl of Richmond in 1160. She was the mother of Constance, Duchess of Brittany, wife of Henry II’s son Geoffrey and mother of the tragic Arthur of Brittany who was murdered by King John, and Eleanor, the Pearl of Brittany who spent all her adult life in ‘honourable imprisonment’ in England.
Following her husband’s death Ada played little part in the politics of Scotland. She did, however, take great interest in the futures of her children, arranging the marriages of her daughters and seeking a bride for her son, King Malcolm IV. She later retired to her dower lands at Haddington in East Lothian, given to her by David I and possibly the 1st Royal Burgh in Scotland.
A generous patroness of the Church, Ada de Warenne died in 1178, shortly after founding the nunnery at Haddington She is believed to be buried in the Haddington area, although the exact location of her grave is lost to history. In 1198 her grandson, the future Alexander II, would be born in her old palace at Haddington, after her dower-lands were passed on to her daughter-in-law, Queen Ermengarde.
Images from Wikipedia.
Further Reading: G.W.S. Barrow, David I (c. 1185-1153) (article), Oxforddnb.com; Keith Stringer, Ada [née Ada de Warenne], countess of Northumberland (c. 1123-1178), Oxforddnb.com; Keith Stringer, Henry, earl of Northumberland (c. 1115-1152) (article), Oxforddnb.com; The Chronicle of Henry of Huntingdon; W.W. Scott, Malcolm IV (c. 1141–1165) (article), (article), Oxforddnb.com; Comprising the history of England, from the invasion of Julius Caesar to the accession of Henry II. Also, the Acts of Stephen, King of England and duke of Normandy Translated and edited by Thomas Forester; Early Yorkshire Charters Volume 8: The Honour of Warenne, Edited by William Farrer and Charles Travis Clay; Brewer’s British Royalty by David Williamson; The Mammoth Book of British Kings and Queens by Mike Ashley; The Story of Scotland by Nigel Tranter; Ada, Queen Mother of Scotland (article) by Victoria Chandler; David Ross, Scotland: History of a Nation; Matthew Lewis, Stephen and Matilda’s Civil War: Cousins of Anarchy; Stephen Spinks, Robert the Bruce: Champion of a Nation.
As part of The Tudor Tracker‘s Alternative August programme of talks, I had a nice long chat with Catherine Brooks about the history behind Magna Carta, King John and some of the remarkable women I wrote of in Ladies of Magna Carta.
One of the most intriguing relationships of the Magna Carta story is that between Isabella of Gloucester and Isabelle d’Angoulême, the two wives of King John.
Isabella of Gloucester is a unique individual in the story of Magna Carta. She is, in many ways, a shadow in the pages of history, and yet she held one of the greatest earldoms in England. There are no pictures of her, not even a description of her personality or appearance. At one time, no one even seemed certain of her name; she has been called Isabel, Isabella, Hawise, Avice – but Isabella is how she appears in the Close Rolls.1
Isabella was the youngest daughter and co-heiress of William, second Earl of Gloucester, who was himself the son of Robert of Gloucester, an illegitimate son of King Henry I and Empress Matilda’s half-brother and stalwart supporter during her war against King Stephen. Earl William’s wife was Hawise, the daughter of Robert de Beaumont, third Earl of Leicester. Isabella’s only brother Robert had died in 1166, making Isabella and her two sisters co-heiresses to the earldom of Gloucester. Although her date of birth has been lost to history, it seems likely she was born in the early 1160s.
We know very little of Isabella’s childhood, although, considering her social status, as the daughter of one of England’s wealthiest earls, it is likely that she was given the education expected of a high-ranking noblewoman and taught to run a large household, as well as the social graces of singing, dancing and needlework. Her parents’ marriage appears to have been a successful one. Isabella’s mother, Countess Hawise, was a regular witness to her husband’s charters and was mentioned in several of them, especially in the pro amina clauses of grants made to religious houses that sought spiritual benefits for those named.
Isabella’s father, although a first cousin of Henry II, had a complicated relationship with the king, especially after Henry had taken Bristol Castle from the earl; the castle had been held by William’s father before him. Despite remaining loyal to Henry II during the rebellion of the king’s sons in 1173–74 and agreeing to the marriage of his youngest daughter to Prince John, Earl William’s loyalty remained suspect and he was arrested and imprisoned in 1183. The unfortunate earl died whilst still a captive, on 23 November 1183.
Isabella was betrothed, in 1176, to Prince John, the youngest son of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine. John was 9 years old at the time of the betrothal, while Isabella was probably a few years older. Under the terms of the marriage agreement, Earl William recognised John as heir to the earldom of Gloucester, effectively disinheriting Isabella’s two elder sisters. The marriage was to be a way for Henry II to provide for his youngest son. After the Earl of Gloucester’s death in 1183, his entire estate was passed to Isabella, who had been made a ward of the king.
Isabella’s older sisters were both already married; Mabel was the wife of Amaury of Évreux and Amicia was married to the earl of Hertford. On their father’s death they had both been explicitly excluded from the estate to prevent the division of the comital inheritance and they received annuities of £100 each in compensation. Taking Isabella into wardship, Henry II therefore seized all the Gloucester lands and made the income from them available for John’s use, as Isabella’s future husband. The king, however, appears to have kept his options open and had not finalised John’s marriage to Isabella by the time of his death; in case a more suitable alliance came along.
King Richard I, on the other hand, thought it expedient to get his brother safely married, on his own accession to the throne in 1189. The wedding took place at Marlborough Castle in Wiltshire on 29 August 1189; John was 21 and Isabella may have been approaching 30. Baldwin, the archbishop of Canterbury at the time, opposed the marriage as the couple were related within the third degree of consanguinity; they were second cousins, both being great-grandchildren of Henry I. John had to promise to seek a papal dispensation and, even then, the couple were ordered, by the archbishop, not to sleep together.
Although Isabella and John were married for ten years, their marriage was neither happy nor successful. They spent some time together in the first years of their marriage as they issued charters together during a visit to Normandy around 1190–91.2 However, they appear to have spent less and less time together as the years went on. They never had any children and it is during this time in his life that John’s illegitimate children, including Richard of Chilham and Joan Lady of Wales, were born; a further suggestion that the couple were not close. In 1193, as part of his plotting with Philip Augustus, John promised to marry the French king’s half-sister, Alice, who had previously been betrothed to John’s own brother, Richard. Nothing eventually came of the marriage proposal, but it was an implicit rejection of Isabella as his wife.
John succeeded to the throne on the death of his older brother, Richard the Lionheart, on 6 April 1199. He was crowned, alone, on 27 May 1199; the fact that Isabella was not crowned with him suggests that John was already looking for a way out of the marriage. Poor Isabella would never be styled ‘queen’ and it was possibly as early as August 1199, but certainly by early 1200, that John obtained a divorce on the grounds of consanguinity, the very objection for which he was supposed to have obtained a dispensation when he married Isabella in 1189. The bishops of Lisieux, Bayeux and Avranches, sitting in Normandy, provided the required judgement. One chronicler said of John that ‘seized by hope of a more elevated marriage, he acted on wicked counsel and rejected his wife.’3
Keen to keep his hold on the substantial Gloucester lands, John took Isabella into wardship, again, holding her in ‘honourable confinement’ for the next fourteen years. Little is known of her day-to-day life, although she does appear to have remained on civil terms with King John. John met the expenses of Isabella’s household and staff and sent her numerous gifts, including wine and cloth. Things may well have been a little awkward at times, especially after John found himself another wife.
Having discarded Isabella, John began to look elsewhere for a new wife; he sent ambassadors to the Iberian peninsula to investigate the possibilities of a match with the daughter of the king of Portugal. However, any such plans were hastily abandoned when John set his sights on Isabelle d’Angoulême.
Isabelle was the only child of Audemar, Count of Angoulême and Alice de Courtenay. Alice was the daughter Peter de Courtenay, lord of Montargis and Chateaurenard, and a cousin of king Philip II Augustus of France. Through her Courtenay family connections, Isabelle was also related to the royal houses of Jerusalem, Hungary, Aragon and Castile. There was one tiny problem, however, Isabelle was already betrothed to Hugh IX de Lusignan. The marriage was intended to end the bitter rivalry of the two families but would also be a threat to Angevin power in the region, effectively splitting Aquitaine in two, with the Lusignans controlling the centre.
John therefore suggested to Count Audemar that he marry Isabelle himself. The count jumped at the chance of seeing his daughter become queen of England. Isabelle and John were married on 24 August 1200; Isabelle was no more than 12 and may have been as young as 10, John was 33 or 34.
When John remarried in 1200 to Isabelle d’Angoulême, he housed his new wife with his ex-wife, which could have been rather awkward for both women. Queen Isabelle was still very young, probably no more than 12 years old on her marriage. Despite the chroniclers claiming Isabelle was a temptress and kept John in bed when he should have been ruling the kingdom, in the early years of their marriage, the king appears to have treated her more like a child than a wife; which she, of course, was. Her independence was severely limited by John keeping personal control of her finances.
When she was not at court with the king, Isabelle spent time at Marlborough or in the household of John’s first wife, Isabella of Gloucester, at Winchester. Isabella’s allowance was raised from £50 to £80 a year, to pay for the extra expenses incurred by housing the queen.4 The young queen remained in Isabella of Gloucester’s household until the birth of her first child, Henry, in 1207; in that year Isabella of Gloucester was moved to Sherborne before the queen gave birth. And now that she no longer had the care of the queen, Isabella’s allowance was reduced back down to £50 a year.
One may imagine this was quite awkward for Isabella of Gloucester, the discarded wife being forced to host her former husband’s young bride. On closer reflection, however, it may also have been a comfort to her. The teenage queen would probably have been lively company for the 40-something countess who had never been blessed with children. She may have felt protective and motherly to the girl, especially knowing John as well as she must have done.
Following the birth of her first son, Henry, Isabelle gave John four more children; another son, Richard, born in 1209 and daughters, Joan, born in 1210, Isabella, born in 1214 and Eleanor, who was born in either 1215 or 1216, and married the famed Simon de Montfort, Earl of Leicester, as her second husband. Following John’s death in 1216, Isabelle returned to France, to her county of Angoulême, where, in 1220, she married Hugh X de Lusignan, the son of her former betrothed.
Isabella of Gloucester was finally allowed to remarry in 1214; a letters patent issued by John on 28 January 1214 informed all the knights and tenants of the honour of Gloucester that ‘we have given Isabella, countess of Gloucester, our kinswoman’ in marriage to Geoffrey de Mandeville, Earl of Essex.5 Mandeville had to pay the massive sum of 20,000 marks for the privilege of marrying the king’s first wife; an amount he could never hope to repay. He was one of the barons who rose in rebellion during the Magna Carta crisis of 1215.
1 Rich Price, King John’s Letters Facebook group; 2 Louise Wilkinson, Isabel of Gloucester, wife of King John, magnacarta800th.com; 3 Ralph of Diceto, Images of History; 4 Lisa Hilton, Queen’s Consort: England’s Medieval Queens; 5 Louise Wilkinson, Isabel of Gloucester, wife of King John, magnacarta800th.com
Rich Price, King John’s Letters Facebook group; Louise Wilkinson, Isabel of Gloucester, wife of King John, magnacarta800th.com; Robert Bartlett England Under the Norman and Angevin Kings 1075-1225; Dan Jones The Plantagenets; the Kings who Made England; The Plantagenet Chronicle Edited by Elizabeth Hallam; Maurice Ashley The Life and Times of King John; Roy Strong The Story of Britain; Oxford Companion to British History; Mike Ashley British Kings & Queens; David Williamson Brewer’s British Royalty; Robert B. Patterson, Isabella, suo jure Countess of Gloucester (c. 1160-1217), Oxforddnb.com; Ralph of Diceto, Images of History; Lisa Hilton, Queen’s Consort: England’s Medieval Queens; Marc Morris, King John; Elizabeth Norton, She-Wolves: The Notorious Queens of England; Louise Wilkinson, Isabella of Angoulême, wife of King John, magnacarta800th.com
The story of Eleanor of Brittany is one that highlights how women in the Middle Ages could feel truly powerless, if the men around them wanted it so. Her story also highlights the limitations of the Great Charter, or Magna Carta as it is better known, in protecting and supporting the rights of women – even princesses. Eleanor was born around 1184; she was the daughter of Geoffrey Plantagenet, Duke of Brittany by right of his wife, and Constance of Brittany. Described as beautiful, over the years she has been called the Pearl, the Fair Maid and the Beauty of Brittany.
A granddaughter of the medieval power couple, Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine, she was the eldest of her parents’ three children; Matilda, born the following year, died young and Arthur, who was killed by – or at least on the orders of – King John in 1203.
Initially, Eleanor’s life seemed destined to follow the same path as many royal princesses; marriage. Richard I, her legal guardian after the death of her father in 1186, offered Eleanor as a bride to Saladin’s brother, Al-Adil. Eleanor’s aunt, Joanna, King Richard’s sister had adamantly refused to consider such a marriage and so Eleanor had been offered as an alternative. This was part of an attempt at a political settlement to the 3rd Crusade that never came to fruition.
At the age of 9, Eleanor was betrothed to Friedrich, the son of Duke Leopold VI of Austria. Duke Leopold had made the betrothal a part of the ransom for Richard I’s release from imprisonment. Young Eleanor travelled to Germany with her grandmother, Eleanor of Aquitaine, and the rest of the ransom and hostages. She was allowed to return to England, unmarried, when Duke Leopold died suddenly, and his son had ‘no great inclination’ for the proposed marriage. Further marriage plans were mooted in 1195 and 1198, to Philip II of France’s son, Louis, and Odo Duke of Burgundy, respectively; though neither came to fruition.
Eleanor’s fortunes changed drastically when Arthur rebelled against Richard’s successor, King John, in the early 1200s. As the son of John’s older brother, Geoffrey, Arthur had a strong claim to the English crown, but had been sidelined in favour of his more mature and experienced uncle. Arthur was captured while besieging his grandmother, Eleanor of Aquitaine, at Mirebeau on 1st August 1202. Eleanor was captured at the same time, or shortly after. And while her brother was imprisoned at Falaise, she was sent to England, to what would be a life-long imprisonment.
If the laws of primogeniture had been strictly followed at the time, Eleanor would have been sovereign of England after her brother’s death. John and his successor, Henry III could never forget this. However, primogeniture was far from being the established rule of succession that it is today. Further, the experiences of Empress Matilda and her fight with King Stephen over her own rights to the crown – and the near-20 years of civil war between 1135 and 1154, had reinforced the attitude that a woman could not rule.
Not only was Eleanor her brother Arthur’s heir, but with King John still having no legitimate children of his own, she was also the heir to England and would be until the birth of John’s eldest son, Henry, in October 1207. If the laws of inheritance had been strictly followed, Eleanor would have been sovereign of England after her brother’s death: John and his successor, Henry III, could never forget this. In 1203 she was moved to England and would be held a prisoner of successive English kings to her dying day. Although her confinement has been described as ‘honourable’ and ‘comfortable’, Eleanor’s greater right to the throne meant she would never be freed or allowed to marry and have children, despite repeated attempts over the years by King Philip and the Bretons to negotiate her release.
It seems Eleanor did spend some time with the king and court, particularly in 1214 when she accompanied John to La Rochelle to pursue his war with the French. John planned to use Eleanor to gain Breton support and maybe set her up as his puppet duchess of Brittany, replacing her younger half-sister Alice. Alice was the daughter of Eleanor’s mother, Constance, by her third marriage to Guy of Thouars. She was married to Peter of Dreux, a cousin of King Philip of France and duke of Brittany by right of Alice. Using the carrot and stick approach, John offered Peter the earldom of Richmond to draw him to his side, while at the same time dangling the threat of restoring Eleanor to the dukedom, just by having her with him. Peter, however, refused to be threatened or persuaded and chose to face John in the field at Nantes. John’s victory and capture of Peter’s brother in the fighting persuaded Peter to agree to a truce, and John was content to leave Brittany alone, thereafter, instead advancing on Angers. His plans to restore Eleanor abandoned and forgotten.
As John’s prisoner, Eleanor’s movements were restricted, and she was closely guarded. Her guards were changed regularly to enhance security, but her captivity was not onerous. She was provided with ‘robes’, two ladies-in-waiting in 1230, and given money for alms and linen for her ‘work’.1 One order provided her with cloth; however, it was to be ‘not of the king’s finest.’2 Eleanor was well-treated and fed an aristocratic diet, as her weekly shopping list attests: ‘Saturday: bread, ale, sole, almonds, butter, eggs. Sunday: mutton, pork, chicken and eggs. Monday: beef, pork, honey, vinegar. Tuesday: pork, eggs, egret. Wednesday: herring, conger, sole, eels, almonds and eggs. Thursday: pork, eggs, pepper, honey. Friday: conger, sole, eels, herring and almonds.’3
Eleanor was granted the manor of Swaffham and a supply of venison from the royal forests. The royal family sent her gifts and she spent some time with the queen and the daughters of the king of Scotland, who were also hostages in the king’s custody after July 1209. King John gave her the title of Countess of Richmond on 27 May 1208, but Henry III’s regents would take it from her in 1219 and bestow the title elsewhere. From 1219 onwards she was styled the ‘king’s kinswoman’ and ‘our cousin’. In her sole surviving letter, written in 1208 with John’s consent, she is styled ‘Duchess of Brittany and Countess of Richmond.’4 Throughout her captivity she is said to have remained ‘defiant’.5
It is difficult to pinpoint exactly where Eleanor was imprisoned at any one time. Over the years, she was held in various strongholds, including the castles of Corfe (Dorset), Burgh (Westmorland), and Bowes (Yorkshire). Corfe Castle is mentioned at various times, and it seems she was moved away from the is fortress on the south coast in 1221, after a possible rescue plot was uncovered. She was also held at Marlborough for a time, and was definitely at Gloucester castle in 1236. By 1241 Eleanor was confined in Bristol castle, where she was visited regularly by bailiffs and leading citizens to ensure her continued welfare. Eleanor was also allowed her chaplain and serving ladies to ensure her comfort.
Eleanor of Brittany died at Bristol Castle, on 10 August 1241, at the age of about 57, after thirty-nine years of imprisonment, achieving in death, the freedom that had eluded her in life. She was initially buried at St James’s Priory church in Bristol but her remains were later removed to the abbey at Amesbury, as instructed in her will; a convent with a long association with the crown.
The freedoms and rights enshrined in Magna Carta in 1215, and reissued in 1216 and 1225 under Henry III, unfortunately held no relevance or respite for Eleanor. Every other subject of the king was afforded the right to judgement of his peers before imprisonment thanks to clause 39:
“No man shall be taken, imprisoned, outlawed, banished or in any way destroyed, nor will we proceed against or prosecute him, except by the lawful judgement of his peers or by the law of the land.”
Magna Carta 1215
And clause 40:
“To no one will we sell, to no one will we deny or delay right or justice.”
Magna Carta 1215
Eleanor’s royal blood and claim to the throne meant that she was awarded no such privilege; justice and freedom were perpetually denied her. Of all the royal family and noblewomen of the time, it is Eleanor who proves that Magna Carta was not always observed and implemented, especially where women were involved, and particularly where the royal family – and the interests of the succession – were concerned.
1David Williamson, ‘Eleanor, Princess (1184–1241)’, Brewer’s British Royalty.
2Rotuli litterarum clausarum quoted in Michael Jones, ‘Eleanor suo jure duchess of Brittany (1182×4–1241)’, Oxforddnb.com.
3Danziger, Danny and John Gillingham, 1215: The Year of Magna Carta
4 Rotuli litterarum clausarum quoted in Michael Jones, ‘Eleanor suo jure duchess of Brittany (1182×4–1241)’, Oxforddnb.com.
5 Danziger, Danny and John Gillingham, 1215: The Year of Magna Carta
Douglas Boyd, Eleanor, April Queen of Aquitaine; Dan Jones, The Plantagenets: the Kings who made England; Robert Bartlett, England Under the Norman and Angevin Kings 1075-1225; Alison Weir, Eleanor of Aquitaine and Britain’s Royal Families; Oxford Companion to British History; The History Today Companion to British History; Robert Lacey, Great Tales from English History; Mike Ashley, A Brief History of British Kings and Queens and The Mammoth Book of British Kings and Queens; findagrave.com; spokeo.com; Danziger, Danny and John Gillingham, 1215: The Year of Magna Carta; Michael Jones, ‘Eleanor suo jure duchess of Brittany (1182×4–1241)’, Oxforddnb.com
Growing up near Conisbrough Castle, South Yorkshire, I did not know much about its history. It was rather underrated. We always thought it was just a bland old place – it was great for exploring and rolling down the hills and playing hide and seek in the inner bailey. However, being so far from London, the centre of power, it didn’t seem to have much history or national importance. The most famous thing about it was that it was used as the Saxon castle in Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe.
The castle’s early history
English Heritage have spent a lot of money on it in recent years. When I worked there in the early 1990s there was no roof, it was open to the elements, with green moss on the walls and erosion caused by acid rain. And there was just a very narrow walkway around the inside of the keep. It was just a shell. Now it has a roof, floors on every level, sensitive lighting, information videos on each floor and a fantastic little visitor centre with a small museum. It looks so much better (although I still wouldn’t want to stand on the battlements on a windy day like today).
When I joined the castle team as a volunteer tour guide, I started looking into the actual history of the Castle, seeing it more for what it has been, than for the visitor attraction it is now. Instead of being a forgotten, unimportant little castle in the middle of nowhere, Conisbrough Castle comes to life through the history it has been a part of, and the people who have called it home.
According to Geoffrey of Monmouth, in his Historia Regum Britanniae (History of the Kings of Britain), Conisbrough was founded as ‘Conan’s Burg’ by a British leader called Conan. It was said to have later belonged to Ambrosius Aurelianus, a candidate for the legendary King Arthur. As Geoffrey of Monmouth says, Ambrosius captured the Saxon leader Hengist, once a mercenary for Vortigern, at the battle of ‘Maisbeli.’ And brought him to his stronghold at Conisbrough. Hengist was then beheaded on Ambrosius’ orders and buried at the entrance to the castle of ‘Cunengeburg’, that is Conisbrough. A small hill, locally called Hengist’s Mound, is in the grounds of the outer bailey.
What we know, for certain, is that by 1066 the Honour of Conisbrough belonged to Harold Godwinson, Earl of Wessex and later King Harold II of England, though there is no evidence that he ever visited. On a prominent, steep hill, the castle guards the main road between Sheffield and Doncaster to the east, and the navigable River Don to the north.
Following Harold’s defeat and death at the Battle of Hastings, and shortly after the Harrying of the North of 1068 Conisbrough was given to one of William the Conqueror’s greatest supporters, William de Warenne. Warenne was a cousin of Duke William of Normandy and fought alongside him at the Battle of Hastings. He was given land in various counties, including Lewes in Sussex and Conisbrough in Yorkshire; and although he developed his property at Castle Acre in Norfolk, little was done at Conisbrough. In those days the castle itself was little more than a wooden motte and bailey construction, surrounded by wooden palisades and earthworks.
A thoroughly modern Castle
It was not until the reign of Henry II that the Castle began to take on the majestic appearance we know today. Conisbrough came into the hands of Hamelin Plantagenet, illegitimate half-brother of King Henry II; Hamelin had married the de Warenne heiress, Isabel, 4th Countess of Warenne and Surrey, and became 4th Earl of Warenne and Surrey by right of his wife.
It was Hamelin who built the spectacular hexagonal keep that we can see today. The stairs to the keep were originally accessed across a drawbridge, which could be raised in times of attack. The ground floor was used for storage, with a basement storeroom below, housing the keep’s well, and accessed by ladder.
The first floor holds the great chamber, or solar, with a magnificent fireplace and seating in the glass-less window. This is where the Lord would have conducted business, or entertained important guests. Henry II, King John and King Edward II are known to have visited Conisbrough: King John even issued a charter from Conisbrough Castle in March 1201.
The second floor would have been sleeping quarters for the lord and lady. Both the solar and the bedchamber have impressive fireplaces, garderobes and a stone basin, which would have had running water delivered from a rainwater cistern on the roof.
On this floor, also, built into one of the keep’s buttresses is the family’s private chapel. This may well have been the chapel endowed by Hamelin and Isabel in 1189-90, and dedicated to St Philip and St James (although there was a, now lost, second chapel in the inner bailey to which the endowment could refer). The chapel is well-decorated, with quatrefoil windows, elaborate carving on the columns and a wonderful vaulted ceiling.
There is a small sacristy for the priest, just to the left of the door, with another basin for the priest’s personal use, and cavities for storing the vestments and altar vessels.
The winding stairs, built within the keep’s thick walls, give access to each successive level and, eventually, to the battlements, with a panoramic view of the surrounding area.
These battlements also had cisterns to hold rainwater, a bread oven and weapons storage; and wooden hoardings stretching out over the bailey to aid in defence. The keep and curtain walls – which were built slightly later – were of a state-of-the art design in their day. The barbican, leading into the inner bailey, had 2 gatehouses and a steep passageway guarded by high walls on both sides; an attacking force would have been defenceless against missiles from above, with nowhere to run in the cramped corridor.
Although the encircling moat is dry (the keep is built high on a hill), all the detritus from the toilets and kitchens drained into it; another little aid to defence – imagine having to attack through that kind of waste?
None of the buildings in the inner bailey have survived, although you can see their stone foundations in the ground. Along one wall there were kitchens and service rooms leading into a great hall, with a raised dais at the far end, and a solar and living quarters above. Another range of buildings attached to the western wall also held living quarters, possibly for the garrison and any guests. There’s even a small jail cell just to the side of the barbican.
Although Conisbrough is not a large castle, the extensive range of buildings, the magnificent decorations of the fireplaces and chapel, suggest it would have been impressive in its day; and reflects the importance of the castle’s owners and occupants.
The Castle’s Residents
The Warenne Earls of Surrey were close to the crown, and the centre of government, for the best part 3 centuries. The daughter of the 2nd Earl, Ada, had married the heir to the Scots throne and was mother to 2 Scottish kings; Malcolm the Maiden and William the Lion.
Hamelin’s son and heir, William, 5th Earl of Warenne and Surrey, married Maud Marshal, daughter of the Greatest knight, William Marshal, Earl of Pembroke and Regent during Henry III’s infancy. A cousin of King John, William was deeply involved in the Magna Carta crisis, though not always in support of his cousin. Their son John, the 6th Earl, was Edward I’s lieutenant in Scotland and beat the Scots at the Battle of Dunbar in 1296, though he had been defeated by William Wallace at Stirling Bridge the following year. John’s daughter, Isabella, married John Balliol, King of Scots, and was mother to Edward Balliol, another Scottish king. John’s sister, Isabel, married Hugh d’Aubigny, 5th Earl of Arundel, and is remembered as the countess who stood up to Henry III, invoking Magna Carta, when he appropriated land that was rightfully hers.
The 7th – and last – Warenne earl, John, was a colourful character who lived through some of the most dramatic events of English history; the reign of Edweard II. John was the grandson of the 6th earl; his father, William de Warenne, had diedbeen killed in a tournament at Croydon, in December 1286, when John was just 6 months old. Although he was married to Joan of Bar, a granddaughter of Edward I, John lived openly with his mistress and made several unsuccessful attempts to obtain a divorce from his wife. A private feud with Thomas Earl of Lancaster saw John arrange the kidnapping of Earl Tomas’ wife, Alice de Lacey, possibly in retaliation for Lancaster standing in the way of Surrey’s longed-for divorce. The result was the 1st – and only – siege of Conisbrough Castle.
Lancaster sent forces to seize the Warenne castles at Sandal and Conisbrough. His men found the gates of Conisbrough closed to them. The castle was defended by only six men, including the town miller and three brothers, Thomas, Henry and William Greathead, who were men-at-arms. The siege lasted less than two hours and the defenders appear to have relinquished the castle after apparently putting up a token resistance; the three brothers were fined for drawing blood. The chapel in the castle’s inner bailey may have been damaged in the brief altercation, as the following year, Lancaster sent orders to his castellan at Conisbrough, John de Lassell, to ‘repailler la couverture de la chapele de Conynggesburgh.’1
The last Earl of Surrey died without heirs in 1347 and Conisbrough passed to John de Warenne’s godson, Edmund of Langley, fourth son of Edward III. Edmund’s wife Isabella of Castile gave birth to her 3rd child, Richard Earl of Cambridge (also known as Richard of Conisbrough) at Conisbrough, possibly in the lavish bedchamber within the keep itself. Cambridge had the dubious reputation of being England’s poorest Earl and was executed following his involvement in the Southampton plot against Henry V; however, he is remembered to history as the grandfather of the Yorkist kings, Edward IV and Richard III.
Following Cambridge’s execution for treason in 1415 his 2nd wife, Maud Clifford, made Conisbrough her principal residence until her death in 1446. Maud entertained her Clifford family here and her great-nephew and godson John Clifford, known to Yorkists as the Butcher of Skipton was born there in 1435. In a strange twist of fate, John Clifford is the one accused of murdering the Earl of Cambridge’s 17-year-old grandson Edmund, Earl of Rutland, following the Lancastrian’s defeat of the Yorksists at the Battle of Wakefield on 30 December 1460. Maud died at the castle in August 1446 and is buried in Roche Abbey, about 10 miles from her home.
The castle underwent repairs during the reigns of Edward IV and Richard III, in 1482-3, but by 1538 a survey revealed the it had fallen into neglect and decay, with parts of the curtain wall having slipped down the embankment.
From then on, although it has had successive owners until it came under the protection of English Heritage, Conisbrough Castle has been a picturesque ruin, a wonderful venue for picnics and exploring its many hidden treasures.
All photographs are copyright to Sharon Bennett Connolly, 2015.
1 Hunter’s South Yorkshire ii; Deanery of Doncaster ii quoted in F. Royston Fairbank, The Last Earl of Warenne and Surrey, and the Distribution of His Possessions, Yorkshire Archaeological Journal, p. 213
Further reading: East Yorkshire Charters Volume 8: The Honour of Warenne, edited by William Farrer & Charles Travis Clay; English Heritage Guidebook for Conisbrough Castle by Steven Brindle and Agnieszka Sadrei; English Tourist Board’s English Castles Almanac; http://www.kristiedean.com/butcher-skipton; On the Trail of the Yorks by Kristie Dean; F. Royston Fairbank, The Last Earl of Warenne and Surrey, and the Distribution of His Possessions, Yorkshire Archaeological Journal.