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.
Courtesy of Wikipedia except Castle Acre Castle which is ©2019Sharon Bennett Connolly.
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.
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In a time when men fought and women stayed home, Nicholaa de la Haye held Lincoln Castle against all-comers. Not once, but three times, earning herself the ironic praise that she acted ‘manfully’. Nicholaa gained prominence in the First Baron’s War, the civil war that followed the sealing of Magna Carta in 1215.
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Also by Sharon Bennett Connolly:
Defenders of the Norman Crown: The Rise and Fall of the Warenne Earls of Surrey tells the fascinating story of the Warenne dynasty, of the successes and failures of one of the most powerful families in England, from its origins in Normandy, through the Conquest, Magna Carta, the wars and marriages that led to its ultimate demise in the reign of Edward III. Defenders of the Norman Crown: Rise and Fall of the Warenne Earls of Surrey is now available from Pen & Sword Books, Amazon in the UK and US, Bookshop.org and Book Depository.
Ladies of Magna Carta: Women of Influence in Thirteenth Century England looks into the relationships of the various noble families of the 13th century, and how they were affected by the Barons’ Wars, Magna Carta and its aftermath; the bonds that were formed and those that were broken. It is now available in paperback and hardback from Pen & Sword, Amazon, Bookshop.org and from Book Depository worldwide.
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Silk and the Sword: The Women of the Norman Conquest traces the fortunes of the women who had a significant role to play in the momentous events of 1066. Available now from Amazon, Amberley Publishing, Bookshop.org and Book Depository.
Alternate Endings: An anthology of historical fiction short stories including Long Live the King… which is my take what might have happened had King John not died in October 1216. Available in paperback and kindle from Amazon.
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