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: The Rise and Fall of the Warenne Earls of Surreywill be released in the UK on 31 May andis now available for pre-order from Pen & Sword Books.
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
Matilda – also known as Mahelt or Maud – was the eldest daughter of the great William Marshal, Earl of Pembroke, known to many as The Greatest Knight! She lived through on of the most tumultuous periods of English history, the reign of King John, Magna Carta, the First Barons’ War and the minority of King Henry III.
Although we do not have a birth date for Matilda Marshal, given that her parents married in 1189 and she had two elder brothers, Matilda was probably born in 1193 or 1194. She was the third child and eldest daughter of William Marshal and his wife Isabel de Clare. The Histoire de Guillaume le Marechale praises Matilda saying she had the gifts of ‘wisdom, generosity, beauty, nobility of heart, graciousness, and I can tell you in truth, all the good qualities which a noble lady should possess.’1 The Histoire goes on to say; ‘Her worthy father who loved her dearly, married her off, during his lifetime to the best and most handsome party he knew, to Sir Hugh Bigot.’2 Of William and Isabel’s five daughters, it is only Matilda who is mentioned in the Histoire as being ‘loved dearly’ by her father.
In 1207 when the Marshal family moved to Ireland, William looked to settle Matilda’s future. Now aged 13 of 14, Matilda was old enough to be married and William approached Roger Bigod, second Earl of Norfolk, to propose a match between Matilda and Roger’s son and heir, Hugh Bigod. Hugh was Roger’s son by his wife Ida de Tosny, former mistress of King Henry II and the mother of the king’s son, William Longespée, Earl of Salisbury. Roger and Ida had married at Christmas in 1181 and so Hugh was probably in his mid-twenties when the marriage with Matilda was suggested.
According to the Histoire William asked Roger Bigod ‘graciously, being the wise man he was, to arrange a handsome marriage between his own daughter and his son Hugh. The boy was worthy, mildmannered, and noblehearted and the young lady was a very young thing and both noble and beautiful. The marriage was a most suitable one and pleased both families involved.’3 The match was a good one. After the marriage, Matilda lived with her husband at the earl of Norfolk’s magnificent thirteen-towered castle at Framlingham. In 1209 she gave birth to a son, Roger, who would succeed his father as 4th Earl of Norfolk. Another son, Hugh, was born in 1212, and a daughter, Isabelle in 1215. A third and final son, Ralph, was probably born in 1216 or 1217.
Matilda’s family was deeply divided by the Magna Carta crisis and subsequent civil war. Her husband and father-in-law had joined the ranks of the baronial rebellion in 1215, as had her brother, William Marshal the Younger, whilst her father remained a staunch supporter of the king, holding the Welsh Marches for the Royalist cause during the civil war.
In 1216 the war touched Matilda personally, with Framlingham Castle being besieged by King John, who demanded the castle’s surrender:
The King to his well-beloved men, William le Enveise, constable of Framlingham, and all the knights presently with him in that castle, greetings. We command that you deliver up to our trusty and well beloved William de Harcourt and Elias de Beauchamp the castle of Framlingham. And in testimony hereof we thereto send you these our letters patent. Witness myself, at Framlingham, the thirteenth day of March, in the seventeenth year of our reign.4
We do not know whether Matilda was in residence at the castle at the time of the siege; her father-in-law was in, or on his way to, London and her husband Hugh’s whereabouts are unknown, but he was not at Framlingham. The king allowed the constable, William le Enveise, to send messengers to the earl and seek advice on what they should do. The earl probably advised the constable to surrender as the castle capitulated to the king without a fight two days later. One of Matilda’s sons, most likely the eldest, Roger, was taken as hostage.
It is not hard to imagine what thoughts and feelings – and fears – must have gone through Matilda’s mind, knowing that her young son, only 6 or 7 years of age, was in the custody of King John. The king’s treatment of Matilda de Braose was common knowledge, and rumours of what had happened to Arthur of Brittany were rife. Her own two older brothers, William and Richard, had also been held for several years as hostages to their father’s good behaviour. It must have been a comfort to Matilda, however, to know that King John depended on the loyalty of her father, and so would treat the boy well, if only to avoid alienating the man whose support he sorely needed.
Despite King John’s death in October 1216, Matilda’s husband and father-in-law remained in rebellion, supporting the claims of Louis of France, the dauphin, who had invaded England early in 1216 and controlled much of the south. The earl of Norfolk only came to terms with the Royalist government when the French prince returned home in September 1217; after which he was finally restored to the earldom of Norfolk and Framlingham Castle was returned to him. It was probably also at this time that his grandson, Roger, was returned to his mother; his last year as a hostage would have been when his own grandfather, William Marshal, was in power as regent. Which must have allowed Matilda to rest easier and allayed her fears for her son.
Matilda spent time with her father while he was dying in April and May 1219. The Histoire says of Matilda at her father’s deathbed:
‘My lady Mahelt [Matilda] la Bigote was so full of grief she almost went out of her mind, so great was her love for him. Often she appealed to God, asking Him why He was taking from her what her heart loved most.’5
It goes on to tell the story of the ailing William Marshal calling for his daughters to sing to him. William asked Matilda to be the first to sing:
‘She had no wish to do so for her life at the time was a bitter cup, but she had no wish to disobey her father’s command. She started to sing since she wished to please her father, and she sang exceedingly well, giving a verse of a song in a sweet, clear voice.’6
Matilda’s husband, Hugh, succeeded to the title of earl of Norfolk when his father died sometime between April and August 1221, probably aged well into his seventies. The new earl, however, only enjoyed his title for four years; he died suddenly in 1225, aged only 43. He was succeeded by their eldest son, Roger, then only 16 years old and therefore still a minor. His wardship was given to William Longespée, Earl of Salisbury, the young earl’s half-uncle, but when Longespée died the following year, the wardship was transferred to Alexander II, King of Scots.
With custody of the young earl of Norfolk, and of all his lands, Alexander II married Roger to his sister, Isabella of Scotland. The only lands not granted to the king of Scots were those which Matilda held in dower as Hugh Bigod’s widow. Matilda was still only 32 when Hugh died, with three of her four children still to care for. As a valuable marriage prize she, or her family, acted quickly to secure her future and safety and within three months of her husband’s death, Matilda was married once more.
Her second husband was William de Warenne, 5th Earl of Surrey, also known as Earl Warenne. William was the only son of Isabel de Warenne, Countess of Surrey in her own right, and her second husband, Hamelin de Warenne, half-brother of King Henry II. Matilda was the earl’s second wife, his first wife, Matilda, daughter of William d’Aubigny, second Earl of Arundel had died childless on 6 February 1215 and was buried at Lewes Priory, Sussex. William de Warenne was a neighbour of the Bigods, having lands centred in Castle Acre in Norfolk, and he had joined the rebellion against King John at about the same time as Roger Bigod, although William was back in the Royalist camp by March 1217 and was a prominent participant in the negotiations which ended the war in August 1217.
Probably born in the late 1260s, William was considerably older than his new wife and the marriage appears to have been one of practicality, rather than affection. The earl had purchased Matilda’s marriage, essentially meaning her dower in Norfolk, before July 1225. Matilda continued to style herself as ‘Matildis la Bigot’ in charters, with ‘Matildis de Warenne’ added only as an afterthought, or not at all. For example, a charter from the early 1240s, following the death of William de Warenne, has the salutation, ‘ego Latilda Bigot comitissa Norf ’ et Warenn.’7 This may be an indication that this second marriage was not of Matilda’s own choosing and may even have preferred to remain a widow, rather than entering into this second marriage. The continuing use of her name from her first marriage possibly being her own mark of rebellion against her new situation.
After the resolution of the crisis of 1216/1217 William de Warenne served the crown faithfully, save for his brief involvement in the confederation against it led by Henry III’s brother Richard of Cornwall, between July and October 1227. He was forced to surrender Tickhill Castle, but his disgrace was only temporary and in 1228 he received the third penny for the county of Surrey for the first time, an honorary payment previously denied to William and his father. In 1230 William de Warenne was appointed keeper of the east-coast ports of England during the king’s expedition to Brittany. In 1236 he was cup bearer at the coronation of Eleanor of Provence and in 1237 he witnessed the reissue of Magna Carta; the ageing earl was one of the few surviving barons who had been witness to the original charter in 1215.
In his early 70s, William de Warenne died in London on 27 or 28 May 1240; he was buried before the high altar at his family’s foundation of Lewes Priory in Sussex. In his memory, the king ordered that a wayside cross be erected on the road between Carshalton and Merton, in Surrey. Matilda bore her second husband two children, a boy and a girl, John and Isabel (later Isabel d’Aubigny). John would succeed his father as earl and attained his majority in 1248, when he succeeded to the vast Warenne estates. He would pursue a martial career and was one of Edward I’s fiercest generals. Matilda did not marry again after William’s death. In 1246, as the last surviving child of William Marshal, and with neither of her five brothers leaving a son, Matilda was granted the Marshal’s rod by King Henry III. She did, at this point, change her name on charters, to ‘Martill marescalla Angliae, comitissa Norfolciae et Warennae.’8
Emphasising her Marshal name as her father’s eldest surviving child, Matilda was, significantly, claiming the title Marshal of England as her right, thus increasing her power and prestige, and taking the authority of the marshal as her own. Matilda appears to have acted independently during her second marriage, purchasing land in the Don Valley in South Yorkshire, close to the Warenne stronghold of Conisbrough Castle and after the queen she was ‘undoubtedly the most powerful and wealthy woman in England from 1242 onwards.’9
Matilda Marshal died in 1248, in her mid-50s. Choosing to be interred with her Marshal family, rather than either of her husbands, Matilda was buried at Tintern Abbey, Monmouthshire. Her three Bigod sons and their Warenne half-brother carried their mother’s bier into the church, where she was laid to rest close to her mother, Isabel, two of her brothers, Walter and Ancel, and her sister, Sybil. It is through Matilda’s marriage to Hugh Bigod, Earl of Norfolk, that the present duke of Norfolk also bears the title of Earl Marshal.
1David Crouch and Anthony Holden, History of William Marshal: Text and Translation; 2 ibid; 3ibid; 4Letter of 13 March 1216, Rich Price, King John’s Letters; 5Crouch and Holden, History of William Marshal: Text and Translation; 6ibid; 7Chadwick, Elizabeth, ‘Clothing the Bones: Finding Mahelt Marshal’, livingthehistoryelizabethchadwick.blogspot.com; 8Vincent, Nicholas, ‘William de Warenne, fifth earl of Surrey [Earl Warenne] (d. 1240)’, Oxforddnb.com; 9David Crouch quoted in Chadwick, ‘Clothing the Bones: Finding Mahelt Marshal’.
Rich Price, King John’s Letters Facebook group; 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; Ralph of Diceto, Images of History; 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; Vincent, Nicholas, ‘William de Warenne, fifth earl of Surrey [Earl Warenne] (d. 1240)’, Oxforddnb.com.
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 and Book Depository.
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.
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.
An epic battle of the Reconquista; a personal struggle to survive; a fight for glory.
War is brewing, and the Pope has summoned a crusade. The nations of Christendom are rallying to fight the Almohad caliphate, but they are a formidable foe.
Meanwhile, behind Moorish lines, a fortress held by Castile is under siege. As the siege falls, a knight is lost. Arnau leaves on a dangerous, near-suicidal quest to save him, a new squire in tow.
In the heat of the sierras though, things are not as they seem. War is coming to Iberia and all will be tested. Arnau’s sword arm will need practice, as will his mind.
A riveting and brutal historical adventure, the latest instalment of S.J.A Turney’s Knights Templar series, perfect for fans of Bernard Cornwell and Conn Iggulden.
The Crescent and the Cross is book number 5 in SJA Turney’s wonderful Knights Templar series and is as good as, if not better than the rest. Unlike the usual Templar novels Turney has chosen to set his stories against the backdrop of the Muslim invasion of Spain, rather than the Holy Land. What may be seen as an intriguing move has proved to be a hit with me. Having studied the Crusades at university, and read up as much as I could find on the foundation of the Templar order, for some reason, I have always associated the Templars with the Holy Land. The reconquest of Spain is unfamiliar territory, and absolutely fascinating.
You could write in just a few words the amount I know about the Reconquista; basically, that Jamie Douglas took Robert the Bruce’s heart to Spain and threw it into the heat of the battle against the Muslim ruler of Grenada. Douglas was killed in the action; his body and King Robert’s heart were both retrieved and returned to Scotland. The story of the Reconquista is also that of El Cid, and of Ferdinand and Isabella, the parents of Henry VIII’s first wife, Katherine of Aragon.
But it is also the story of the Knights Templar, who fought alongside other knightly orders, such as the knights of Calatrava, to recover Spain from the Muslims. SJA Turney therefore has an area of history that has been virtually ignored by novelists before, and it is such a fertile area of untapped and undiscovered stories which keep the reader gripped to the very end.
At a gesture from the preceptrix, Balthesar closed the door behind them, deepening the gloom further. The three knights walked halfway across the room and then fell into line, standing before the preceptrix like a white-clad parody of the three magi. ‘You sent for us, Mother Superior?’
The silence that filled the room as Balthesar’s words died away was tense, uncomfortable.
‘I did. I am faced with a problem, Brothers, and I fear there is little time in current circumstances to convene a full convent or to send for instructions from the mother house. I need the advice of my knights. This man is Amal.’ Her hand reached out, indicating the Moor. ‘Amal has come to us from within the lands of our great enemy bearing a letter, at great personal risk.
‘A letter, mother Superior?’
‘A personal missive. It would appear that out dear sister Joana’s former suitor, the knight Martin Calderon, is not dead as was believed.’
Arnau frowned. ‘I am unfamiliar with his story, Mother. He was presumed dead?’
The preceptrix nodded, her gaze slipping sideways towards the puffy-eyed Joana. ‘The reason for Joana’s predicament has been somewhat difficult and beyond our moral judgement, despite the damage done to our sister. Sir Calderon heard the calling of the Lord and regretfully parted from our sister, taking his vows with the Order of the knights of Calatrava. While Joana has heard nothing from her former betrothed since the day of their departure, however, I have sufficient contacts in that Order and took it upon myself to remain informed as to Brother Calderon’s activities. Last autumn, he was one of the knights who carried out the heroic defence of Salvatierra against the caliph’s army. While the bulk of the defenders were given safe passage to Aragon upon their surrender, Calderon’s name appears on the roster of the fallen.’
That rather explained the state of poor sister Joana, Arnau realised. His gaze flicked once more to the Moor. Calderon was apparently not dead, though.
Balthesar frowned. ‘Respectfully, Mother Superior, why would you concern yourself woth the an? Quite apart from his treatment of Sister Joana and the gulf now between them, of what interest might such a man be when we have the crusade looming?’
Every writer has his or her own strengths, for SJA Turney, it is that he can write and entire series of books – this is the 5th and there is at least one more to come – where every story in the series is not only a standalone, but is a unique intriguing story that takes the reader – and the protagonist – in a different direction every time. The first book in the series, Daughter of War, told the unlikely – but true – story of a woman in charge of the Templar preceptory at Rourell. Book 2, The Last Emir, took two of the Rourell knights on a quest to Majorca in search of a holy relic, while book 3, City of God saw the series’ hero, Arnau de Vallbona, caught up in the epic siege of Constantinople and book 4, The Winter Knight, was an intriguing murder mystery set in a German castle!
Each story has proved to be unique, edge of the seat action and The Crescent and the Cross is no different. Set in the heart of Spain, Arnau is given the task of recovering a knight held captive by the Almohad caliphate, only to find all is not as it seems. SJA Turney expertly recreates the Iberian landscape; the scorching heat, soaring mountains and vast plains. He builds the Christian army just as the leaders must have done at the time, introducing the alliance of kings, church leaders and knightly orders who have to face their enemies on the Spanish plains.
The Crescent and the Cross is a marvellous story, wonderfully told and gripping to the very end. I can’t wait for the next book! SJA Turney is a first class storyteller who draws the reader in from the very first page, the action frenetic from the first page to the last. The Crescent and the Cross is a truly excellent read, with a wonderful author note at the end, giving the reader a comprehensive background to the fight to reconquer Spain that lasted 9 centuries.
The Crescent and the Cross is available from Amazon UK.
About the author:
Simon lives with his wife, children, rabbits and dog in rural North Yorkshire. Having spent much of his childhood visiting historic sites with his grandfather, a local photographer, Simon fell in love with the Roman heritage of the region, beginning with the world famous Hadrian’s Wall. His fascination with the ancient world snowballed from there with great interest in Egypt, Greece and Byzantium, though his focus has always been Rome. A born and bred Yorkshireman with a love of country, history and architecture, Simon spends most of his rare free time travelling the world visiting historic sites, writing, researching the ancient world and reading voraciously.
Simon’s early career meandered along an arcane and eclectic path of everything from the Ministry of Agriculture to computer network management before finally settling back into the ancient world. During those varied years, Simon returned to university study to complete an honours degree in classical history through the Open University. With what spare time he had available and a rekindled love of all things Roman, he set off on an epic journey to turn Caesar’s Gallic War diaries into a novel accessible to all. The first volume of Marius’ Mules was completed in 2003 and has garnered international success, bestseller status and rave reviews, spawning numerous sequels. Marius’ Mules is still one of Simon’s core series and although Roman fiction features highly he now has Byzantine, Fantasy and Medieval series, too, as well as several collaborations and short stories in other genres.
Now with in excess of 30 novels available and, Simon is a prolific writer, spanning genres and eras and releasing novels both independently and through renowned publishers including Canelo and Orion. Simon writes full time and is represented by MMB Creative literary agents.
Look out for Roman military novels featuring Caesar’s Gallic Wars in the form of the bestselling Marius’ Mules series, Roman thrillers in the Praetorian series, set during the troubled reign of Commodus, epics of the Knights Templar, adventures around the 15th century Mediterranean world in the Ottoman Cycle, and a series of Historical Fantasy novels with a Roman flavour called the Tales of the Empire.
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
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 and Book Depository.
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.
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.
The ‘Montfortian’ civil wars in England lasted from 1259-67, though the death of Simon de Montfort and so many of his followers at the battle of Evesham in 1265 ought to have ended the conflict. In the aftermath of the battle, Henry III’s decision to disinherit all the surviving Montfortians served to prolong the war for another two years. Hundreds of landless men took up arms again to defend their land and property: the redistribution of estates in the wake of Evesham occurred on a massive scale, as lands were either granted away by the king or simply taken by his supporters. The Disinherited, as they were known, defied the might of the Crown longer than anyone could have reasonably expected. They were scattered, outnumbered and out-resourced, with no real unifying figure after the death of Earl Simon, and suffered a number of heavy defeats. Despite all their problems and setbacks, they succeeded in forcing the king into a compromise. The Dictum of Kenilworth, published in 1266, acknowledged that Henry could not hope to defeat the Disinherited via military force alone. The purely military aspects of the revolt, including effective use of guerilla-type warfare and major actions such as the battle of Chesterfield, the siege of Kenilworth and the capture of London, will all be featured. Charismatic rebel leaders such as Robert de Ferrers, the ‘wild and flighty’ Earl of Derby, Sir John de Eyvill, ‘the bold D’Eyvill’ and others such as Sir Adam de Gurdon, David of Uffington and Baldwin Wake all receive a proper appraisal.
Rebellion Against Henry III: The Disinherited Montfortians 1265-1274 by David Pilling covers an often overlooked period of history. It follows the mixed fortunes, of those who had supported Simon de Montfort during the Second Barons’ War, following Simon’s defeat and death at the Battle of Evesham. It is a book I never realised needed to be written, until I read it!
Over the years, reams and reams of paper have been dedicated to the conflict between King Henry III and Simon de Montfort, but this is the first book that looks at the aftermath, at what happened to those who survived the war and the dreadful, final Battle of Evesham, but found themselves on the losing side. Rebellion Against Henry III: The Disinherited Montfortians 1265-1274 is an engaging study of these noblemen, minor barons and knights, known collectively as the Disinherited.
I have touched on many events in Rebellion Against Henry III: The Disinherited Montfortians 1265-1274 for my own books, the recently published Ladies of Magna Carta and my next book about the Warenne Earls of Surrey. As a consequence, I was familiar with much of the main story, but was surprised at the level of continuing resistance that occurred after the defeat at Evesham. Interestingly, the hotspots of resistance had not changed since past rebellions; many of the Disinherited retreated to the wilds of the Isles of Axholme in Lincolnshire and Ely in Cambridgeshire; the former was associated with rebellion against King John, while the latter was the focus of resistance against William the Conqueror. Indeed, many of the names are familiar to students of the First Barons’ War that followed John’s rejection of Magna Carta.
The traumatic news of Evesham ripped the heart out of the baronial resistance in England. Earl Simon’s death or capture of most of the leading Montfortians in one fell swoop, demoralised rebel garrisons up and down the country. In the weeks after the battle one castle after another surrendered to the triumphant royalists. Wallingford and Berkhampstead submitted on 7 August, just three days after the slaughter, while Edward’s first move was to race north to secure his earldom of Chester. In the south, Windsor and the Tower quickly fell to the king, and Odiham and Rochester were in royal hands by the 14th. The castle of the Peak in Derbyshire held out a while longer, but submitted before January 1266.
This mass surrender left just two bastions of resistance in England. One was the mighty fortress of Kenilworth in Warwickshire, where Simon the Younger had retreated to grieve after his father’s death. The other was Dover Castle and the Cinque Ports in southeast England. Countess Eleanor, Simon’s widow, was holed up at Dover, and pirates from the rebel-held Cinque Ports still harassed shipping in the Channel.
At first there were hopes of a peaceful settlement to the war. While at Chester, Edward ordered letters to be drafted inviting the garrison at Kenilworth to surrender, on pain of disinheritance and loss of life. Simon the Younger, for his part, resisted the temptation to avenge himself on Richard of Almaine, Edward’s uncle, who was held prisoner at Kenilworth. Instead he released Almaine on 6 September, who in turn promised he would mediate with King Henry on Simon’s behalf.
Later that month, at Winchester, Edward ordered the chancellor Walter Giffard to make out letters of protection for four rebel knights. The persons and goods of these men – Richard de Havering, John de Havering, Simon de Stoke and William de Turevil – were not to be molested in any way, and they would be allowed to continue to hold their lands freely. They had sought Edward’s ‘goodwill’ on 7 August, the same day as the fall of Wallingford and Berkhampsted. and were responsible for restoring those castle to royal custody. In return Edward promised they would be safe from disinheritance and asked Giffard to provide some surety for his promise. Richard de Havering had served as the late Earl Simon’s estates steward, while John was his son and would later serve Edward as deputy justiciar of Noth Wales and seneschal of Gascony. Edward’s willingness to protect these men may have been driven by his desire to reconcile the Montfort clan after the butchery of Evesham.
Such efforts at rapprochement were shattered at Winchester parliament, which opened on 11 September….
Written in more than 20 short, punchy, chapters, the book looks at the leading figures among the Disinherited, the most notable Robert de Ferrers, Earl of Derby, John D’Eyville and many others. There is a fascinating case study at the back that almost – almost – convinces me that the legendary Robin Hood was among ranks of the Disinherited. David Pilling provides a pretty convincing argument, but I guess we’ll never know.
The author looks at the events from all sides, telling the story of the fight both from the point of view of the rebels and the royalists. Neither are the royalists always seen in a good light. David Pilling does highlight when such as John de Warenne, 6th Earl of Warenne and Surrey, and one of the more brutal men of the time, took advantage of the disorder in order to further their own ends. He also highlights the future Edward I’s impressive carrot-and-stick approach to dealing with the rebels, offering pardons where it was beneficial to the crown. The crown also were keen to ensure sentences of disinheritance were enforced if it meant the confiscated lands fell into the hands of royalists or their supporters.
Rebellion Against Henry III: The Disinherited Montfortians 1265-1274 is engagingly written and well referenced with an impressive bibliography. The only negative I can say about the book is that it lacks an index, which will cause problems for anyone wanting to use this book for research. And it would be a wonderful research tool, if it had an index. I’m hoping this omission will be rectified for the paperback version.
Despite that, Rebellion Against Henry III: The Disinherited Montfortians 1265-1274 by David Pilling was a thoroughly absorbing book. A very interesting read that highlights a 10-year period that is often overlooked after the momentous events of the previous decade. I have no hesitation in recommending it.
Rebellion Against Henry III: The Disinherited Montfortians 1265-1274 is available now in hardback and ebook from Amazon UK and Pen & Sword Books.
From the author:
I’m a writer and researcher, addicted to history for as long as I can remember. The medieval era has always held a fascination for me, perhaps because I spent much of my childhood exploring the misted ruins of castles in Wales. I also have an interest in the Byzantine Empire, the post-Roman period in Britain and the British & Irish Civil Wars.
I am a prolific author and have written and published a number of series and stand-alone tales. These include my first published novel, Folville’s Law, which chronicled the adventures of Sir John Swale in the last days of the reign of Edward II of England. This was followed by The White Hawk series, set during the Wars of the Roses, a six-part Arthurian series, and many more. I have also co-written two high fantasy novels with my good friend, Martin Bolton.
I am currently working on a book about the Montfortian civil wars in England in the late 13th century, and hope to produce more nonfiction works in the future, as well as continuing to work on fiction.
Most of my books are available as ebooks and paperbacks, and many are in the process of being converted to audio.