When I first volunteered at Conisbrough Castle, in the early 1990s, it was believed that Gundrada de Warenne the wife of William de Warenne, first Earl of Warenne, was the daughter of William the Conqueror and Matilda of Flanders. Royal connections were very important in the 11th century and still provide a fascination to us today, so it was a fabulous piece of history to be able to impart to visitors. Unfortunately, the truth is never quite what it seems.
Sometime in the years either side of the Conquest, William de Warenne married Gundrada. Gundrada’s parentage has long been a subject of debate among historians. Her story throughout history has been coloured by the belief, now thought to be a mistaken one, that she was the daughter of Queen Matilda. Many historians from the eighteenth to the twentieth centuries accepted this as fact and obviously started their research from this false assumption, without looking deeper into the origins of the story. For many years Gundrada was believed to be the fifth and youngest daughter of William the Conqueror and his wife, Matilda of Flanders. In 1878 Sir George Duckett wrote an article for the Cumberland and Westmorland Archaeological Society arguing that the foundation charter for St Pancras Priory, Lewes ‘expressly states Gundrada to have been the Queen’s Daughter’, the wording within the charter being; ‘pro salute dominæ meæ Matildis Reginæ matrix uxoris mea’ [ ‘for the health of my mistress Queen Matilda, mother of my wife’].1
This statement in the priory’s second founding charter, issued in the reign of King William II Rufus, appeared to contradict the claims by Orderic Vitalis, a near contemporary, that ‘Guillelmo de Guarenna qui Gundredam sororem Gherbodi conjugem habitat, dedit Surregiam.’ [‘William de Warenne, whose wife Gundrada was sister of Gerbod, was given Surrey’.]2 Gundrada’s own tombstone contains enough ambiguity to add to the confusion, rather than clarify the issue:
Gundrada, offspring of dukes, glory of the age, noble shoot,
brought to the churches of the English the balm of her character.
As a Martha …
she was to the wretched; a Mary she was in her piety.
That part of Martha [in her] died; the greater part of Mary survives.
O, pious Pancras, witness of truth and justice,
she makes you her heir; may you in your clemency accept the mother.
The sixth day of the kalends of June, showing itself,
broke the alabaster containing her flesh …3
In 1846 Thomas Stapleton wrote a paper for the Archaeological Journal proposing that Gundrada was Matilda’s daughter from an earlier, undocumented marriage, to Gerbod, advocate of Saint-Bertin, thus explaining her also being a sister to Gerbod, Earl of Chester. In this theory, it was proposed that Gundrada was not a daughter of the king, but his stepdaughter. This notion neatly ties in with Orderic Vitalis identifying Gundrada as ‘Sister of Gherbode, a Fleming, to whom King William the First had given the City and Earldom of Chester.’4 E.A. Freeman, in his six-volume The History of the Norman Conquest of England, published between 1867 and 1879 stated, ‘For a long while, Gundrada was looked on as a daughter of William himself, but there is no doubt that she and her brother Gerbod were the children of Matilda by her first husband.’5
The certainty of Gundrada being the daughter of Matilda of Flanders mean that historians tried to fit the facts to that theory, rather than re-examining the case entirely.
Disputing the suggestion of Matilda’s marriage to Gerbod, historian W.H. Blaauw observed that not one of the Norman chroniclers ‘dropped the smallest hint of any husband or child, or consequently any such divorce on the part of Matilda previous to her marriage with the King.’6 Duckett goes on to say that the Norman chroniclers, indeed, said quite the opposite; each of them attesting that Matilda was a young, unmarried girl at the time of her betrothal to William of Normandy. However, Duckett then draws the conclusion that this can only mean that Gundrada was the daughter of both Matilda and William of Normandy, and that Gerbod of Chester was her foster-brother, rather than actual brother. The claim was also made in a charter in which the king gave to the monks of St Pancras (Lewes) the manor of Walton in Norfolk, on the foundation of the priory. In the charter the king distinctly names ‘Guilelmi de Warenna, et uxoris suæ Gundredæ filiæ meæ’ (‘William de Warenne and his wife Gundrada, my daughter’).7
St Pancras Priory at Lewes was founded as a Cluniac monastery by William and Gundrada and it may be that the monks got carried away with the idea of their foundress having royal blood; royal links could prove financially lucrative when a monastery was looking for benefactors, and would help a monastery stand out among the many vying for patronage. However, it may also be that there was a simple error when copying the charter from the original. For whatever reason, the claims by St Pancras Priory at Lewes have caused controversy throughout the ensuing centuries. Other suggestions have included that Gundrada was an adopted daughter, raised alongside William and Matilda’s own children who were of a similar age. Alternatively, due to her Flemish origins, it has been argued that the confusion arose as she had joined Matilda’s household at an early age; an assertion supported by Matilda’s gift to Gundrada of the manor of Carlton in Cambridge – a manor Gundrada later gave to Lewes Priory. In 1888, writing in the English Historical Review, E.A. Freeman returned to the subject and used the priory’s original charter to conclude that there was no familial relationship between Gundrada and William the Conqueror. In it, while the king and William de Warenne, both, mention Gundrada, neither refer to her as being related to the king or queen. Freeman stated, ‘there is nothing to show that Gundrada was the daughter either of King William or of Queen Matilda; there is a great deal to show that she was not.’8
It now seems more likely that Gundrada was a Flemish noblewoman, the sister of Gerbod who would be, for a brief time, earl of Chester. 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.
Gundrada’s father may also have been called Gerbod, or Gherbode. It is highly likely that this was the same Gerbod who was the hereditary advocate of the monastery of St Bertin; a title which in later generations will pass down through the Warenne family. Another brother, 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’s brother, Frederic, along with the count of Flanders, was a witness to Count Guy of Ponthieu’s charter to the Abbey of St Riquier in 1067.9 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.
Marriage between William de Warenne and Gundrada was a good match on both sides. Although William was a second son, he had acquired lands and reputation through his military skills. Warenne’s lands in Normandy lay close to the border with Flanders, while Gundrada, with her politically astute brothers and links to England even before the Conquest, would have been an attractive proposition as a bride. Both Frederic and Gerbod appear to have joined the Norman expedition to England, with Frederic receiving, as reward, lands in Norfolk, Suffolk and Cambridgeshire, valued at over £100 a year; lands which had previously belonged to a rich Englishman named Toki. Gerbod, in turn, was given the earldom of Chester, which he held until relinquishing it to return to Flanders in 1071.
Gundrada’s parentage may not be as illustrious as was once thought and her origins are now obscured by time, but the dynasty that she and William founded would be at the heart of the Anglo-Norman political elite for the next three centuries. In the twelfth century, her great grandsons, Malcolm IV and William the Lion, would sit on the Scottish throne and her descendants would, eventually, become the rulers of the United Kingdom, even down to the present incumbent, Queen Elizabeth II.
1 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; 2 ibid; 3 Elisabeth M.C. Van Houts and Rosalind C. Love (eds and trans), The Warenne (Hyde) Chronicle; 4 Early Yorkshire Charters Volume 8: The Honour of Warenne, Edited by William Farrer and Charles Travis Clay; 5 ibid; 6 W.H. Blaauw quoted in Duckett, Observations on the Parentage of Gundreda; 7 Duckett, Observations on the Parentage of Gundreda; 8 Farrer and Clay, Early Yorkshire Charters; 9 C.P. Lewis, ‘Warenne, Gundrada de (d.1085)’, ODNB.
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 Batlett; 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; 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
©2021 Sharon Bennett Connolly. Published with the kind permission of the rector of Trinity Church, Southover
Defenders of the Norman Crown: The Rise and Fall of the Warenne Earls of Surrey tells the fascinating story of the Warenne dynasty, of the successes and failures of one of the most powerful families in England, from its origins in Normandy, through the Conquest, Magna Carta, the wars and marriages that led to its ultimate demise in the reign of Edward III.
1 family. 8 earls. 300 years of English history!
Defenders of the Norman Crown: Rise and Fall of the Warenne Earls of Surrey will be released in the UK on 31 May and in the US on 6 August. And it is now available for pre-order from Pen & Sword Books, Amazon in the UK and US and Book Depository.
Also by Sharon Bennett Connolly:
Ladies of Magna Carta: Women of Influence in Thirteenth Century England looks into the relationships of the various noble families of the 13th century, and how they were affected by the Barons’ Wars, Magna Carta and its aftermath; the bonds that were formed and those that were broken. It is now available from Pen & Sword, Amazon and from Book Depository worldwide.
Heroines of the Medieval World tells the stories of some of the most remarkable women from Medieval history, from Eleanor of Aquitaine to Julian of Norwich. Available now from Amberley Publishing and Amazon and Book Depository.
Silk and the Sword: The Women of the Norman Conquest traces the fortunes of the women who had a significant role to play in the momentous events of 1066. Available now from Amazon, Amberley Publishing, Book Depository.
©2021 Sharon Bennett Connolly.