The Early Years of the Last Earl Warenne

Arms of the Earls of Warenne and Surrey

John de Warenne, 7th and last Earl of Warenne and Surrey (Earl Warenne), was the only son of William de Warenne, who in turn was the only son of the colourful and rather legendary John de Warenne, 6th Earl Warenne. The 6th earl had been married in 1247 to Alice de Lusignan, half-sister of King Henry III as the second eldest daughter of Isabelle d’Angoulême, Queen of England as the wife of King John, and her second husband, Hugh X de Lusignan, Count of La Marche and Lord of Lusignan and Valence.

Born in around 1224, Alice was seven years older than her 16-year-old husband. The marriage had formed part of King Henry’s much-despised policy of patronising his Lusignan siblings and thus was condemned by Matthew Paris. Rather harshly, Paris claimed that the marriage was ‘beyond the bride’s station.’1 For John’s son and grandson, it would provide them with powerful royal relations in the future; William de Warenne was a first cousin of Edward I and the younger John de Warenne was a second cousin to Edward II.

Alice de Lusignan, Countess of Warenne and Surrey, died on 9 February 1256, just hours or days after William’s birth. She was ‘placed in the earth before the great altar [Lewes priory] in the presence of her brother Adelmar [Aymer], [bishop] elect of Winchester.’2 Despite being one of the wealthiest and most powerful earls in the country, and with only one legitimate son to succeed him, John de Warenne would never remarry, perhaps an indication of the deep affection that he held for his semi-royal wife.

In his late twenties, William de Warenne was married to Joan, daughter of Richard de Vere, Earl of Oxford, sometime in 1284: ‘Also William de Warenne married the daughter of the Earl of Oxford.’3 Through his mother, William was the nephew of Henry III and first cousin to Edward I. Through his father, William was descended from, among others, William Marshal, Geoffrey of Anjou and six Warenne earls of Surrey. However, William was destined never to succeed to the expansive earldom of Surrey. He was killed in a tournament at Croydon in December 1286, just six months after the birth of his only son and heir, John. The Annals of Lewes Priory recorded the events of 1286:

This year, on June 30, was born the first-begotten son of Sir William de Warenn, by his wife, daughter of the Earl of Oxford, whom he had married, as appears above. He was baptised and called by the name of John, on the 7th of November, with immense rejoicing; but alas! As the prophet testifies, ‘our joys are extinguished, but lamentation possesses us;’ for in the same year, on the first Sunday before the feast of Thomas the Apostle, which was on December 15, the father of the aforesaid youth [Sir William, killed in a tournament at Croydon], concerning whom our gladness had been, expired, and, oh sadness! He in whom flourished entire nobility, generosity and honesty, and the beginning of the glory of all knighthood, now lies buried and covered with stones. But there was present at the entombment of this so noble a man, the lord of Canterbury, who buried him before the high altar, on the left side, near his mother, with the greatest devotion of respect, as was fitting, many nobles of the land being present. The earl marshal [Roger Bigod, Earl of Norfolk], the Earl of Oxford and several barons … were anxiously afflicted.4

St Pancras priory, Lewes, the Warenne family mausoleum

Some sources suggest that John was the posthumous son of William, stating that William was killed in January 1286; however, this entry in the Annals of Lewes Priory makes it clear that John was born almost six months before his father was killed. John’s sister, Alice, on the other hand, may well have been born the year after her father’s death, in June 1287. Given the chronicle was written by a monk at Lewes, a priory patronised by the Warenne family, the laments and praise of William may be slightly exaggerated. However, that the archbishop of Canterbury conducted the funeral rites, and the presence of many senior nobles, suggests that William was, indeed, well thought of. This fact may give the lie to the rumours of murder that inevitably accompany a medieval death from unnatural causes. Rumours that William’s enemies had taken the opportunity of the tournament to despatch the young lord appear to be without foundation.

Young John suffered a further bereavement on 1293, when his mother, Joan died. Aged only 7, it seems arrangements had already been made should John still be a minor when his parents died. It had been agreed that the custody of John and his lands should go to Joan’s parents, Robert de Vere and his wife, Alice de Sanford. However, Earl Robert died in 1296 and it is not known where 10-year-old John spent the remainder of his childhood. It seems likely that John was raised by his Warenne grandfather, until the 6th Earl’s death in 1304.

At the age of 18, John succeeded to the earldom of his grandfather as the 7th earl of Warenne, Surrey and Sussex. His vast holdings comprised of lands and manors in numerous counties, including Sussex, Surrey, Lincolnshire, Yorkshire, Wiltshire and Norfolk. John, Earl Warenne, was still a minor and would be for another three years; as a consequence, he was made a royal ward, his lands taken into the custody of the Crown. Although he and his lands were in royal custody, and managed by custodians, John lived on his own estates and in 1305 the king commanded John to provide him with forty dried and salted barrels of deer.5 In the same year, he was sent to attend a tournament at Guildford, part of John’s estates, by Edward I, who provided the young lord with considerable funds for his maintenance.6

On 7 April 1306, in spite of the fact he had not yet performed homage to the king, still only 19 years old, Edward granted John his grandfather’s lands. It may well have been at this time that Edward Balliol was placed in John’s custody. The son of John’s aunt, Isabella, and King John Balliol of Scotland, the younger Balliol had been in the custody of his grandfather, the sixth Earl Warenne, from 1299 until the old earl’s death in 1304.

Seal of Edward Balliol as King of Scots

Given that it is likely his mother was no longer living when John Balliol became king in 1292, and that the couple had been married sometime before 7th February 1281, it seems probable that Edward was born sometime in the 1280s, making him of a similar age to his cousin, John de Warenne. Indeed, the two young men may well have spent their teenage years together in their grandfather’s household, training for knighthood. John was Balliol’s guardian for about 4 years, until it was ordered that he be delivered into royal custody in 1310, by Edward II. Edward Balliol had a strong claim to the Scottish throne, one that he would later be encouraged to pursue by Edward III in the 1330s. In May 1306, John de Warenne attended his first parliament at Westminster, an event which marked his coming of age, although he was not yet 21; in fact, he was still a month shy of his twentieth birthday.

John’s early coming of age appears to have been a part of larger scheme by King Edward, as during the parliamentary session, John was brought before the king and offered Edward’s granddaughter in marriage; the young earl readily agreed to the marriage, even though his bride was only 10 years old. The proposed bride was Joan, or Jeanne of Bar, Edward’s granddaughter by his eldest daughter, Eleanor and her husband Henry, Count of Bar. In the week following the betrothal of John and Joan, and in anticipation of a new expedition against Scotland, on 22 May 1306, Edward I held a magnificent ceremony for the knighting of his eldest son, Edward; the king knighted the prince, who then went on to knight the other candidates, in the glorious setting of Westminster Abbey.

In anticipation of the prince’s knighting, and in order to gather a body of knights who would be loyal to his son, the king proclaimed that all young men of sufficient age and income should travel to Westminster, to be knighted at royal expense alongside their future king, Prince Edward. The ceremony was also to bestow knighthoods on almost 300 men, John de Warenne included: ‘The yong Erle of Warenne with grete nobley was thare / A wif thei him bikenne, the erles douhter of Bare.’7

There were so many young men to be knighted, that it was impossible to find accommodation for all, and apple trees had to be chopped down in the gardens of the New Temple to make room. The prince and his closest companions kept their vigil, the night before the ceremony, watching their arms, in the abbey church at Westminster. Matthew of Westminster records that:

there was such a noise of trumpets and pipes, and such a clamour of voices, that one side of the choir could not hear the other. The others kept their vigil at the New Temple. The King provided them the necessary scarlet cloths, fine linen and belts for their use from his own wardrobe. 8

Arms of the House of Bar

The following morning, the king knighted his son in the palace of Westminster, investing him with his knight’s belt and spurs. The prince then crossed to Westminster Abbey, to invest the others; ‘The crowd was enormous, so great indeed, that two knights were killed. Each candidate was attended by three knights, who saw and assisted him through the ceremony.’9 The prince knighted sixty of the candidates himself, with other knights assisting with the rest. A lavish banquet – which later became known as the Feast of the Swans – followed the proceedings:

when two swans were brought in ornamented with gold network, emblematical of constancy and truth. When they were placed upon the table the King rose and made a vow to God and to the swans, that he would set out for Scotland and avenge the death of Comyn, and punish the treachery of the Scots … It was under these exceptionally interesting circumstances that Warenne received his knighthood.10

The murder of John Comyn, at the hands of Robert the Bruce in the church of the Greyfriars in Dumfries, on 10 February 1306, following an argument, had sent shockwaves through Christendom. Bruce had then raced to Scone where he was crowned King Robert I of Scots. As the celebrations continued a number of weddings also took place, involving several barons and nobles. John’s sister, Alice, married Edmund FitzAlan, 9th Earl of Arundel. Edmund had been a ward of John’s grandfather. The two young men were very close in age and were political allies and friends.

John de Warenne and Joan of Bar were married on 25 May, ‘before an altar spread with glittering cloths-of-gold.’11 Barely 10 years old, Joan was escorted to the palace at Westminster with great pomp and she and John were married in the presence of the ageing king. The Wardrobe Accounts bear witness to the extravagance of the ceremony and celebrations:

‘1306. May 25. In money lent and dispersed in the presence of the King, at the nuptials celebrated in the King’s chapel at Westminster, between John, Earl de Warenne, and the Lady Joanna, daughter of the Count de Barr, xls [40s].’ Other money was paid out ‘for diverse minstrels’, and ‘for letting fly the king’s gyrfalcon.’ More extravagance was expended to Thomas the coachbuilder, ‘advanced on making a chariot for the Earl de Warenne, June 28, lxs [60s],’ and to Walter de Bardeney, ‘advanced on harness being made for the said Earl, on the same day, cs [100s].’ While Walter de Bedewynde was commissioned ‘for a new carriage for the use of the Countess de Warenne, by order of the Treasurer.’12

Conisbrough Castle, South Yorkshire, where John de Warenne, the last Earl of Warenne and Surrey, died in 1347

The marriage would prove to be a disaster, with John spending most of his adult life trying to obtain a divorce from Joan in order to marry his mistress, Maud de Nerford, and thus legitimise his children by her. Although the relationship with Maud eventually broke down, possibly due to the considerable pressure they couple must have been under with the almost-constant court cases, John was still trying to obtain a divorce from Joan to his dying day. In his latter years, in a last desperate attempt to produce a legitimate heir, he hoped to marry his mistress at that time, Isabella Holland, who his described as ‘ma compaigne’ in his will.13

John de Warenne, seventh and last Earl of Warenne, Surrey, Sussex and Strathern died at Conisbrough Castle between 28 and 30 June 1347, possibly even on his sixty-first birthday (30 June). He asked to be buried at St Pancras Priory, Lewes, in an arch near the high altar. His will, dated 24 June 1347, left various gifts to his illegitimate children and to Isabella, to whom he left plate, jewels, cows, horses and other beasts, ‘and after that my debts and devises be made, I give to my said “compaigne” all the residue of all my goods and chattels, and whatsoever things they find.’14 To Joan, his wife of forty years, he left nothing.

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Footnotes:

1. Scott L. Waugh, ‘Warenne, John de, seventh earl of Surrey earl of Surrey and Sussex, Earl Warenne’, ODNB; 2. ‘Annals written by a certain monk of Lewes, from the birth of Christ to the year 1312’ quoted in Blaauw, On the Early History of Lewes Priory; 3. ibid; 4. ibid; 5. Scott L. Waugh, ‘Warenne, John de, seventh earl of Surrey earl of Surrey and Sussex, Earl Warenne’, ODNB; 6. ibid; 7. F. Royston Fairbank, ‘The Last Earl of Warenne and Surrey, and the Distribution of his Possessions’, The Yorkshire Archaeological Journal, vol. XIX; 8. ibid; 9. ibid; 10. ibid; 11. Kelcey Wilson-Lee, Daughters of Chivalry: The Forgotten Children of Edward I; 12. Wardrobe Accounts quoted in F. Royston Fairbank, ‘The Last Earl of Warenne and Surrey, and the Distribution of his Possessions’, The Yorkshire Archaeological Journal, vol. XIX; 13. Katheryn Warner, Philippa of Hainault: Mother of the English Nation; 14. Calendar of Papal Registers, Papal Letters quoted in F. Royston Fairbank, ‘The Last Earl of Warenne and Surrey, and the Distribution of his Possessions’, The Yorkshire Archaeological Journal, vol. XIX

Images:

Courtesy of Wikipedia except Conisbrough Castle and Lewes Priory which are ©2021 Sharon Bennett Connolly

Sources:

The Oxford Companion to British History Edited by John Cannon; The Plantagenets, the Kings who Made England by Dan Jones; History Today Companion to British History Edited by Juliet Gardiner and Neil Wenborn;  Brewer’s British Royalty by David Williamson; Britain’s Royal Families, the Complete Genealogy by Alison Weir; Early Yorkshire Charters Volume 8, Edited by William Farrer and Charles Travis Clay; Conisbrough Castle by Steven Brindle and Agnieszka Sadraei; The Mammoth Book of British Kings and Queens by Mike Ashley; The Plantagenets, the Kings that made Britain by Derek Wilson; oxforddnb.com; royaldescent.net; F. Royston Fairbank, ‘The Last Earl of Warenne and Surrey, and the Distribution of his Possessions’, The Yorkshire Archaeological Journal, vol. XIX; Scott L. Waugh, ‘Warenne, John de, seventh earl of Surrey earl of Surrey and Sussex, Earl Warenne’, ODNB; ‘Annals written by a certain monk of Lewes, from the birth of Christ to the year 1312’ quoted in Blaauw, On the Early History of Lewes Priory; Kelcey Wilson-Lee, Daughters of Chivalry: The Forgotten Children of Edward I; Katheryn Warner, Philippa of Hainault: Mother of the English Nation

My Books

Defenders of the Norman Crown: The Rise and Fall of the Warenne Earls of Surrey tells the fascinating story of the Warenne dynasty, of the successes and failures of one of the most powerful families in England, from its origins in Normandy, through the Conquest, Magna Carta, the wars and marriages that led to its ultimate demise in the reign of Edward III.

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

Defenders of the Norman Crown: Rise and Fall of the Warenne Earls of Surrey is now available from Pen & Sword BooksAmazon in the UK and US and Book Depository.

Also by Sharon Bennett Connolly:

Ladies of Magna Carta: Women of Influence in Thirteenth Century England looks into the relationships of the various noble families of the 13th century, and how they were affected by the Barons’ Wars, Magna Carta and its aftermath; the bonds that were formed and those that were broken. It is now available from Pen & Sword,  Amazon and from Book Depository worldwide.

Heroines of the Medieval World tells the stories of some of the most remarkable women from Medieval history, from Eleanor of Aquitaine to Julian of Norwich. Available now from Amberley Publishing and Amazon and Book Depository.

Silk and the Sword: The Women of the Norman Conquest traces the fortunes of the women who had a significant role to play in the momentous events of 1066.  Available now from Amazon,  Amberley Publishing, Book Depository.

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©2021 Sharon Bennett Connolly

Guest Post: Female Crusaders by Carol McGrath

It is a pleasure to welcome to History…the Interesting Bits, author Carol McGrath. Carol’s latest novel, The Damask Rose, is out this month and tells the story of Eleanor of Castile and her devoted husband, King Edward I. Eleanor of Castile led an adventurous life, to say the least, even accompanying her husband on Crusade to the Holy Land.

Carol McGrath tells us more…

Female Crusaders

Eleanor of Castile (1241-1290) is placed at the centre of my new publication The Damask Rose. She was married to Edward I at only twelve years old when he was fifteen and was his father Henry III’s heir. It is always thought that, throughout her life, Eleanor was devoted to Edward and him to her. They certainly supported each other throughout her life, almost always together. They even journeyed on Crusade together. She was not the first royal spouse to Crusade. Eleanor of Aquitaine and Marguerite of France had crusaded before her.

Sugar Storage Jar

In 1270 they set off on Crusade but they never reached Jerusalem. Acre was the royal couple’s home for more than a year. Edward was an able and courageous leader but the Crusade was militarily unsuccessful. They established their crusading court in Acre after the death of the original Crusade leader, the saintly Louis IX, at Carthage, and Edward became the eighth Crusade’s figure head. A legend says that Eleanor was so dutiful and committed to Edward, her only love, she saved his life in June 1272 when an assassin struck Edward down with a poisoned dagger. Edward apparently wrestled the knife from his assailant and killed him but not before he took injury to his arm.

The story relates that Eleanor sucked out the poison. This is not entirely true. Bartolemo Fiadoni known as the Ptolemy of Lucca is responsible for the popular tradition that Eleanor ‘showed great faithfulness; for with her tongue she licked his open wounds all the day, and sucked out the humour, and thus by her virtue drew out all the poisonous material.’ It is a story from the period’s High Romantic Tradition thus expressing Eleanor’s heroism. Read The Damask Rose to discover what most likely really did happen and how Edward survived the attack.

The story illustrates how the Crusades claimed both ecclesiastical and chivalric ideas linking Church and Court, how at the time, the Crusades became romanticised. Courtly literature was linked to women in Historical Romances, many of which were associated with crusading and the Holy Grail. In fact, many ordinary women went on Crusade as well as queens and noble women. These ordinary women were almost always described in sources in relation to men as daughters, wives, mothers, aunts, sisters and even more distant kin. However, sometimes we find widows or women, well past child bearing age and referred to as ‘in old age’, on Crusade.

Toilets in Acre

Individual female crusaders mentioned in sources were predominantly well to do. Even so, others exist such as the woman who followed a goose on Crusade because she believed it was filled with the Holy Spirit. Women generally were accompanied male relatives but some, like the goose lady, travelled without a guardian. A passenger list surviving from the Saint Viktor, a Crusade ship of 1250 records forty two of the 342 common people travelling to the Holy Land were women. Twenty-two of these women had no male chaperone. Securing a suitable male escort was apparently a huge problem. Large groups of widows might travel together as pilgrims. Pilgrims were not supposed to carry arms and even if women had travelled with pilgrim guards, they were still vulnerable. Women Crusaders were utterly courageous and determined. For example, in her mid-sixties, Ermeongarde, Countess of Brittany, who had taken the veil in Dijon in 1130, visited her half-brother, King Fulke of Jerusalem, and passed some years in the nunnery of St Anne in the Holy City. She safely return to Brittany in 1135 to tell her tale.

 The Dining Hall, Hospitaller Palace, Acre

Piety was the main reason for taking the cross. Women sometimes took the cross in public ceremonies alongside men. Jerusalem was naturally the goal. The two fold nature of armed pilgrimage to rescue the Holy Land by force and to pray at shrines gave women a ‘canonical loophole’ to participate. Also, Crusading affected women’s lives whether they stayed in Europe, took the cross or lived abroad in settler territories. Although women are recorded as present since the First Crusade, it was only during the thirteenth century that they were granted legal status as crucesignatae. Spiritual rewards such as the remittance of sins were indeed as attractive to women as men.

Women fulfilled practical functions during siege warfare on Crusade often undertaking jobs such as clearing rubble and filling ditches. They are recorded as bringing refreshments to the first Crusaders at the Battle of Dorylaeum. They are known to have transported materials to weave the panels in a siege engine in 1099 at the Siege of Jerusalem. This I found fascinating. They washed clothing and picked lice out of body linen. By the fourth Crusade, women were entitled to a share of the booty. They ground corn and maintained markets. They tended to the wounded and the sick.

A Parisian woman called Hosenda tended Louis IX when he was ill from dysentery in 1250. It was dangerous too. If a woman was captured her captivity held a sexual slur which devalued them regarding ransom. A woman was valued at a third the price of a man. Power in the settlements was, however, often transferred through widows and heiresses. Aristocratic marriages were extremely important to Crusader settler society. They cemented political alliances between Latins from the West, the Levant, Greeks, Armenians and Syrians. Some women even became feudal lords thus contributing to the defence of the Holy Land and women who stayed behind acted as regents and organised financing the Crusaders.

The Hospitaller Palace Acre

As for Eleanor of Castile, nothing quite so amazing. She was a child bearer during her Crusade experience, pregnant for most of the campaign. It is thought she suffered a still birth early on; her daughter, Joan of Acre, was born on Crusade; her son Alfonso was born on the long journey home. It is unlikely Eleanor actually saw much of Acre where prostitution was rife, a city called ‘a sinful city and one filled with all uncleanness’ by Oliver of Poderborn. It is likely that after the excitement of their arrival, Acre soon palled on her accompanying noble women and their ladies. At least, Eleanor, a true blue-stocking, could find escape in her beautiful books and the lovely gardens of the Citadel of the Knights Hospitaller, a substantial building complex of five thousand square miles, three times that of the Tower of London, her home for the duration. To discover more do read my new novel The Damask Rose.

Many thanks to Carol McGrath for her wonderful insight and research into female crusaders.

To buy The Damask Rose: tinyurl.com/dk2att32

Look out for my review of The Damask Rose, which will go live in a few days…

Catch up on Carol’s blog tour so far – and follow the last few stops with the bloggers.

About the author:

Carol McGrath is the author of the acclaimed She-Wolves Trilogy, which began with the hugely successful The Silken Rose and continues with the brand new The Damask Rose. Born in Northern Ireland, she fell in love with historical fiction at a young age, when exploring local castles, such as Carrickfergus, and nearby archaeological digs – and discovering some ancient bones herself. While completing a degree in history, she became fascinated by the strong women who were silenced in record, and was inspired to start exploring their lives. Her first novel, The Handfasted Wife, was shortlisted for the Romantic Novelists’ Association Awards, and Mistress Cromwell was widely praised as a timely feminist retelling of Tudor court life. Her novels are known for their intricacy, depth of research and powerful stories.

For more news, exclusive content and competitions, sign up to Carol’s newsletter at: http://www.carolcmcgrath.co.uk

Follow her on Facebook: /CarolMcGrathAuthor1

And Twitter: @CarolMcGrath

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My books

Coming 31st May:

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 will be released in the UK on 31 May and in the US on 6 August. And it is now available for pre-order from Pen & Sword BooksAmazon in the UK and US and Book Depository.

Also by Sharon Bennett Connolly:

Ladies of Magna Carta: Women of Influence in Thirteenth Century England looks into the relationships of the various noble families of the 13th century, and how they were affected by the Barons’ Wars, Magna Carta and its aftermath; the bonds that were formed and those that were broken. It is now available from Pen & Sword,  Amazon and from Book Depository worldwide.

Heroines of the Medieval World tells the stories of some of the most remarkable women from Medieval history, from Eleanor of Aquitaine to Julian of Norwich. Available now from Amberley Publishing and Amazon and Book Depository.

Silk and the Sword: The Women of the Norman Conquest traces the fortunes of the women who had a significant role to play in the momentous events of 1066.  Available now from Amazon,  Amberley Publishing, Book Depository.

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

©2021 Sharon Bennett Connolly 

Defenders of the Norman Crown

Defenders of the Norman Crown: Rise and Fall of the Warenne Earls of Surrey is now available for pre-order.

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.

As a child, I regularly visited Conisbrough Castle. I have fond memories of summer picnics in the outer bailey, rolling down the hills and sneaking past the man in his little hut to get into the inner bailey without paying (sorry about that).

Conisbrough Castle

In those days the history of the castle mainly focused on the fact it was the inspiration for the Saxon stronghold of the eponymous hero’s father in Sir Walter Scott’s novel, Ivanhoe. Scott is said to have been driving by in a carriage, on his way to Scotland, when he saw the castle and decided it was the perfect setting for a Saxon lord’s home – quite ironic, considering the fact it had been a Norman stronghold since the Conquest, although it had previously belonged to the unfortunate King Harold II, defeated and killed at the Battle of Hastings.

As a tour guide at the castle in the 1990s, I developed a fascination for the family that had once owned Conisbrough Castle and built the magnificent hexagonal keep: the Warenne earls of Surrey. The last Warenne earl died 674 years ago and the castle became a royal castle shortly after. However, for almost 300 years, from the Norman Conquest to 1347, Conisbrough Castle was part of the vast Warenne demesne. The extensive Warenne lands spanned the country from Lewes on the south coast to their castles of Conisbrough and Sandal in Yorkshire, with their family powerbase in East Anglia, where they built a magnificent priory, castle and medieval village at Castle Acre. The family mausoleum was at St Pancras Priory in Lewes, founded by the first earl and his wife, Gundrada, burial place of all but two subsequent earls and numerous other family members.

St Pancras Priory, Lewes

The Warennes were at the heart of English history and politics from the time of the Conquest to their demise. The Warenne story is one of drama, tragedy, glory and ambition that was consigned to history with the death of John II de Warenne, the seventh and last Earl of Warenne, Surrey, Sussex and Strathearn. The dynasty founded by William and Gundrada in the turmoil of the Norman Conquest, would continue to serve the Crown until John’s death in 1347.

To tell the Warenne story has been a personal ambition for a long time; I cannot wait for you to read the story of this incredible family.

Defenders of the Norman Crown: Rise and Fall of the Warenne Earls of Surrey

Defenders of the Norman Crown: Rise and Fall of the Warenne Earls of Surrey will be released in the UK on 31 May and in the US on 6 August. And it is now available for pre-order from Pen & Sword Books, Amazon in the UK and US and Book Depository.

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Also by Sharon Bennett Connolly:

Ladies of Magna Carta: Women of Influence in Thirteenth Century England looks into the relationships of the various noble families of the 13th century, and how they were affected by the Barons’ Wars, Magna Carta and its aftermath; the bonds that were formed and those that were broken. It is now available from Pen & Sword,  Amazon and from Book Depository worldwide.

Heroines of the Medieval World tells the stories of some of the most remarkable women from Medieval history, from Eleanor of Aquitaine to Julian of Norwich. Available now from Amberley Publishing and Amazon and Book Depository.

Silk and the Sword: The Women of the Norman Conquest traces the fortunes of the women who had a significant role to play in the momentous events of 1066.  Available now from Amazon,  Amberley Publishing, Book Depository.

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

©2021 Sharon Bennett Connolly.

Mary of Woodstock, Royal Nun

Mary of Woodstock

To many noble women, the religious life was a career that had been decided for them by their parents when they were still children, as with Mary of Blois. However, for some, this did not necessarily mean they spent their entire lives in the seclusion of the convent. This was the certainly case with Princess Mary, daughter of Edward I and Eleanor of Castile.

Mary of Woodstock was born on 11 or 12 March 1279, the 6th daughter of King Edward and Queen Eleanor. Edward and Eleanor were quite a nomadic couple, travelling among their domains, so their children were raised in the royal nursery, based largely at the royal palaces of Woodstock and Windsor; visits from their parents were quite infrequent and from Edward, their father, even less so.

Eleanor of Castile endured a remarkable number of pregnancies, the first was when she was about 13 or 14, resulting in a child who was stillborn or died shortly after birth. The fact that several children died before they reached adulthood has been suggested as a reason for her keeping her distance from her children when they were young; however, it is just as likely that the simple fact Edward and Eleanor ruled a vast kingdom, including their lands in France, meant their responsibilities necessitated long absences.

Eleanor’s almost-constant pregnancies, resulting in a total of sixteen children, meant there were regular additions to the nursery, which also housed a number of children from noble families, sent to be raised alongside the king’s children. Mary would have had many companions, including her brother Alphonso, who was heir to the throne and 5 years her senior, and her sister Margaret, who was 4 years older than Mary. She would be joined by another sister, Elizabeth of Rhuddlan, 3 years later.

Edward I and Eleanor of Castile, Lincoln Cathedral

In 1285, a year after the death of Prince Alphonso, the king took his family on a progress into Kent. Edward went on pilgrimage to the shrine of St Thomas Becket, at Canterbury, before spending a week at Leeds Castle with his family, followed by some hunting in Hampshire. It was at the end of this family holiday that they arrived at Amesbury priory in Wiltshire, where little Mary, still only 6 years old, was veiled as a nun; much to the delight of her grandmother, Eleanor of Provence, but to the consternation of her mother, the queen. Indeed, the Chronicle of Nicholas Trivet emphasises that Mary’s veiling was done by her father, at the request of her grandmother, but only with the ‘assent’ of her mother.1

It may well be that Eleanor had reservations about her daughter’s vocation being decided at such a young age, or that she feared it was only being done so Mary’s grandmother, Eleanor of Provence, would have a companion in the abbey. After a long and eventful life, and with her health failing, the dowager queen took her own vows at around the same time and retired to Amesbury Priory for her final years, dying there in June 1291. Mary’s veiling had been in the planning for some years; Edward I had been in correspondence with the abbey at Fontevrault, the mother house of Amesbury, since 1282, when the little princess was barely 3 years old.

Eleanor’s reluctance, therefore, was probably more to do with when Mary was to become a nun, rather than the vocation itself; after all, the conventual life was considered a good career for a noble lady. The timing of her veiling may have been advanced not only by the failing health of Eleanor of Provence, but also by the imminent departure of Mary’s parents. Edward and Eleanor were about to embark for the Continent and were expecting to be in France for a considerable time, years rather than months.

The Priory Church, now the parish church, Amesbury

The actual veiling ceremony must have been very moving. It took place at Amesbury Abbey on 15 August 1285, where Mary was one of 14 high-born girls who took their vows together. It may well be that her cousin, Eleanor of Brittany – another granddaughter of Eleanor of Provence – took her vows at the same time; Eleanor would later demonstrate a great dedication to the religious life and, eventually, become Abbess of Fontevrault.

Mary’s life at the abbey was probably a very comfortable existence; in the year she was veiled, Mary was awarded an annual income of £100, rising to £200 a year in 1292, following the death of Eleanor of Provence. As she was still only a child, the nuns at Amesbury would have been responsible not only for Mary’s spiritual life, but also for her education. However, the cloistered life by no means meant that Mary was confined and separated from her family for any length of time. She made frequent visits to court throughout her life, and was present for most family occasions.

Having taken the veil in August 1285, Mary returned to be with her family in the autumn, to see the unveiling of the newly created Winchester Round Table and the creation of 44 new knights by her father, the king. She visited her family again in March and May of 1286, each visit lasting about a month. These visits also meant Mary had the chance to bid farewell to her parents, who departed for an extended stay in France in 1286. On 13 August
1289, Mary, her 4 sisters and little brother Edward were at Dover to welcome their parents home, after a 3-year absence.

King Edward I

Mary visited court again in 1290 and stayed for the wedding of her older sister, Joan of Acre, to Gilbert de Clare, Earl of Gloucester and Hertford; Joan and Gilbert were married in a private ceremony at Westminster on 30 April. It is likely that she was back at court later in the year for another wedding, this one at Westminster Abbey in July when her sister, Margaret, married John, the future Duke of Brabant.

Mary would have seen quite a lot of her parents in the spring of 1290 as her father chose Amesbury as the location for a special meeting, convened to settle the arrangements for the English succession. Edward may have chosen the abbey so that his ailing mother could be present for the discussions. The Archbishop of Canterbury and 5 other bishops, in addition to Edward, Eleanor of Castile and Eleanor of Provence, were all present to formalise the settling of the succession on Edward’s only surviving son, 6-year-old Edward of Caernarvon. Should Edward of Caernarvon die without heirs, it was decided that the succession would then pass to Edward I’s eldest daughter, the newly married Countess of Gloucester and Hereford, Joan of Acre.

Eleanor of Castile was a distant mother when her children were young, but she seems to have developed closer relationships as they grew older, so it is not hard to imagine her taking the opportunity to spend time with 12-year-old Mary while they were staying at the abbey. It was probably one of the last times that Mary spent any real time with her mother, who died at Harby, near Lincoln, on 28 November 1290.

The viscera tomb of Eleanor of Castile, Lincoln cathedral

Indeed, it may well have been one of the last times they saw each other; Eleanor was at the king’s palace of Clipstone in Nottinghamshire when it was realised that her illness was probably fatal. Some of her children, Joan, Edward and Elizabeth, were summoned to the queen’s bedside; although Mary is not mentioned, it does not mean that she did not visit her mother one last time.2 Mary’s deep affection for her mother was demonstrated in 1297 when she and her younger sister, Elizabeth, jointly paid for a special Mass in their mother’s honour.

Mary’s career in the Church was far from spectacular; although her high birth gave her some influence, she never made high office and was never given a priory or abbey of her own. However, she was given custody of several aristocratic nuns at Amesbury, trusted to oversee their education and spiritual training. Convent life seems to have held few restrictions for her. Mary was regularly away from the cloister. She was frequently at court, or with various members of her family. In 1293 Mary spent time with her brother, Edward, and in 1297 she spent 5 weeks at court, taking the opportunity to spend some time with her sister, Elizabeth, who had been recently married to John, Count of Holland, and was preparing to join him there. In the event, news of John’s death arrived before her departure and Elizabeth never left England.

Nicholas Trivet

Mary had many cultural interests and was a patron of Nicholas Trivet, who dedicated his chronicle, Annales Sex Regum Angliae, to her. Mary was probably Trivet’s source for many of the details of Edward I’s family and the inclusion of several anecdotes that demonstrated Edward’s luck, such as the story of the king’s miraculous escape from a falling stone while sitting and playing chess. He had stood up to stretch his legs when the stone from the vaulted ceiling landed on the chair he had just vacated.3 The stories that Mary passed on to Trivet also serve to demonstrate that she was at court on a regular basis. The financial provisions settled on her by Edward I meant that Mary did not have to suffer from her vows of poverty.

In addition to the £200 a year she received from 1292, Mary was also granted 40 cocks a year from the royal forests and 20 tuns of wine from Southampton. In 1302, the provision was changed and she was given a number of manors and the borough of Wilton in lieu of the £200, but only for as long as she remained in England. Given that a proposed move to Fontevrault had been dropped shortly after the death of Eleanor of Provence, the likelihood of Mary leaving England seems to have been only a remote possibility.

Mary had a penchant for high living; she travelled to court with an entourage big enough to require 24 horses. By 1305, despite her income, she was substantially in debt, with the escheator south of the Trent being ordered to provide her with £200 in order to satisfy her creditors. Mary also had a taste for gambling, mainly at dice, and her father is known to have paid off at least one gambling debt.4 Following her father’s death in 1307, her younger brother, now King Edward II, continued to support Mary financially and she continued to make regular visits to court.

Mary died sometime around 1322 and was buried where she had lived, at Amesbury Priory. She was a princess whose future was decided for her at a very young age. She doesn’t seem to have excelled at the religious life, in that she never achieved significant office, but she did make the most of the life chosen for her, making frequent pilgrimages and taking charge of the young, aristocratic ladies who joined the convent. Despite her dedication to the Church, she found her own path within it and seems to have achieved a healthy (for her) balance between the cloister and the court.

The Warenne coat of arms

There was, however, one moment of scandal; although it did not arise until more than 20 years after Mary’s death. In 1345, in a final, desperate attempt to escape an unhappy marriage John de Warenne, Earl of Surrey, claimed that he had had an affair with Mary and that, therefore, his marriage to her niece, Joan of Bar, was invalid due to the close blood relationship of the 2 women. Although it is highly unlikely that the claim was anything more than Surrey’s desperate attempt to find a way out of his marriage, it cannot be ignored that Mary was frequently at court and such an opportunity may have arisen; Mary was only a few years older than John de Warenne. The ecclesiastical court, however, refused to believe the earl’s claims and Mary’s reputation remains – largely – intact.

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Footnotes:

1 Eleanor of Castile: The Shadow Queen by Sara Cockerill; 2 A Palace for Our Kings by James Wright; 3 Annales Sex Regum Angliae by Nicholas Trivet; 4 Eleanor of Castile: The Shadow Queen by Sara Cockerill

Images

Courtesy of Wikipedia except the statues of Edward I and Eleanor of Castile and Eleanor’s viscera tomb at Lincoln Cathedral, which are ©2020 Sharon Bennett Connolly.

Sources:

Edward I A Great and Terrible King by Marc Morris; Brewer’s British Royalty by David Williamson; Britain’s Royal Families by Alison Weir; The Mammoth Book of British Kings & Queens by Mike Ashley; The Plantagenets, The Kings Who Made England by Dan Jones; OxfordDNB.com; findagrave.com; susanhigginbotham.com; womenshistory.about.com; Daughters of Chivalry by Kelcey Wilson-Lee; Nobility and Kingship in Medieval England by Andrew M. Spencer; Memoirs of the Ancient Earls of Warren and Surrey, and Their Descendants to the Present Time, Volumes I and II by Rev. John Watson; Eleanor of Castile: The Shadow Queen by Sara Cockerill; A Palace for Our Kings: The History and Archaeology of a Medieval Royal Palace in the Heart of Sherwood Forest by James Wright

My Books

Coming 31st May:

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 will be released in the UK on 31 May and in the US on 6 August. And it is now available for pre-order from Pen & Sword BooksAmazon in the UK and US and Book Depository.

Also by Sharon Bennett Connolly:

Ladies of Magna Carta: Women of Influence in Thirteenth Century England  looks into the relationships of the various noble families of the 13th century, and how they were affected by the Barons’ Wars, Magna Carta and its aftermath; the bonds that were formed and those that were broken. It is now available from Pen & SwordAmazon and from Book Depository worldwide.

Silk and the Sword: The Women of the Norman Conquest traces the fortunes of the women who had a significant role to play in the momentous events of 1066.  Available now from Amazon,  Amberley Publishing, Book Depository.

Heroines of the Medieval World tells the stories of some of the most remarkable women from Medieval history, from Eleanor of Aquitaine to Julian of Norwich. Available now from Amberley Publishing and Amazon and Book Depository.

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

©2020 Sharon Bennett Connolly 

Book Corner: The Errant Hours by Kate Innes

A headlong journey through the physical and spiritual dangers of Plantagenet Britain, in all its savage pageantry. Welsh Marches, July 1284 – the uprising in Wales is over, the leader gruesomely executed, the dead are buried. But for Illesa Arrowsmith, the war’s aftermath is just as brutal. When her brother is thrown into the Forester’s prison on false charges, she is left impoverished and alone. All Illesa has left is the secret manuscript entrusted to her – a book so powerful it can save lives, a book so valuable that its discovery could lead to her death. When the bailiff’s daughter finds it, Illesa decides to run, and break her brother out of jail by whatever means. But the powerful Forester tracks them down, and Illesa must put herself and the book at the mercy of an unscrupulous knight who threatens to reveal all their secrets, one by one. Inspired by the seductive art of illuminated manuscripts, The Errant Hours draws from the deep well of medieval legend to weave a story of survival and courage, trickery and love.

Every now and again you come across a book that draws you in and makes you lose entire days to reading. For me, The Errant Hours by Kate Innes was one of those books: I lost the whole of last weekend to reading the final 200 pages because I HAD to get to the end. Of course, I now wish I’d taken a little longer over it, but this was a book I needed to devour. With just short of 400 pages of beautiful prose, a unique storyline and the perfect combination of intrigue, betrayal and love, The Errant Hours is a perfect book for lockdown or those long, dark, winter nights.

A brother-sister relationship most of us can relate to, family secrets and mysteries and a beautiful, valuable book all come together to create The Errant Hours by Kate Innes. Illesa Arrowsmith losing her home to her creditors and helping her reckless brother escape the Forester’s prison is only the start of her adventures; adventures that will lead her to the heart of the court of Edward I and into the political turmoil of the English conquest of Wales. While the national political climate contrasts perfectly with the turmoil in Illesa’s own life as she attempts to uncover her own origins and her feelings for Sir Richard Burnel, the knight who could be both protector and her accuser.

‘Illesa!’

She ignored the angry whisper and went back towards the torchlight. The guard’s head had changed position. She stood still, watching him. A thin stream of saliva came from the corner of his open mouth. His jerkin was unbuttoned. The iron chain was wound around his belt and the end hung down behind the bench.

Illesa slowly undid the buckle and loosened the chain, pulling it, link by link, off the leather belt. Gathering the chain in her hand, she pulled it up. There was a dull clang. The guard grunted and shifted on the bench, but his eyes remained closed. The ring holding the keys was caught between the wall and the bench. Illesa held the chain in her left hand and knelt down. She reached under the bench, her arms stretched around the guard, straining not to touch him. Her fingers brushed against the keys, and she let them rest on her palm. Illesa let the chain slip slowly out of her left hand until she held it, and the keys, in her right hand. She got shakily to her feet and ran to the cell door.

‘Where is the lock?’ she whispered.

‘Here, follow my hand.’Illesa saw the vague whiteness of Kit’s fingers; she put her own on top of them, feeling for the keyhole with her thumb.

‘Got it,’ she said, fumbling with the larger key.

It slid easily into the hole, but as she turned it there was a terrible screeching sound of metal against metal. Something hit the floor with a loud thump and a gasp of pain.

Kit pushed the door, nearly knocking Illesa over as he ran out of the cell.

‘Follow me!’

Kate Innes must have done a remarkable amount of research to produce such a historically accurate work of historical fiction. Although her leading characters are fictional, the supporting characters are very much historical fact, with Edward I, Eleanor of Castile, young Prince Alphonso and John, 6th Earl Warenne all making an appearance. I didn’t know one of the Warennes would be making an appearance in the story – it was such a lovely surprise!

I particularly liked Kate Innes’ portrayal of Earl Warenne as a brutal, brash lord who spares little thought for the niceties – he certainly comes across as that in my research for my own forthcoming book on the Warennes, Defenders of the Norman Crown: Rise and Fall of the Warenne Earls of Surrey. In fact, I think Kate Innes was a little more generous with Warenne’s personality than some chroniclers were!

The fictional characters, Illesa, her brother Kit and the knight, Richard Burnel, are the central actors in the story. Their personalities, appearance and relationships are wonderfully ‘fleshed’ out. Illesa is a strong female character, but one that is not out of place in 13th century England. A young woman with determination and capability, she is also all-too-aware of the limitations forced on her by her sex.

A beautifully crafted tome, The Errant Hours by Kate Innes is a unique insight into 13th century England. The narrative flows freely and Illesa’s story will keep the reader entranced from the first page to the last. I cannot recommend it highly enough and have already put book 2, All the Winding World, on my Christmas list.

The Errant Hours by Kate Innes is available from Amazon.

About the author:

Kate Innes was born in London and lived and worked in America and Zimbabwe. She is now based in Shropshire, and it is the history and natural beauty of this area that provides inspiration for both her fiction and poetry.

She originally trained as an archaeologist and a teacher, and then worked as a Museum Education Officer around the Midlands, writing poetry in her spare time. After the arrival of her children, Kate began work on her medieval novel ‘The Errant Hours’ which was published in 2015.

The Historical Novel Society selected ‘The Errant Hours’ as an ‘Editor’s Choice’, and it was added to the reading list of the Medieval Studies Department at Bangor University. It is one of Book Riot’s ‘One Hundred Must Read Medieval Novels’.

Her second novel, ‘All the Winding World’ is a sequel to ‘The Errant Hours’, set ten years later. It is due to be published on the 22 June 2018.

Kate has been writing and performing poetry for many years, usually with a particular focus on animals, art and the natural world. Her poem ‘Flocks of Words’ won first prize in the ‘Imagined Worlds’ Competition held by the Friends of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Her first collection, also called ‘Flocks of Words’, was published in Spring 2017 and many of these poems form part of a performance with the acoustic music group ‘Whalebone’.

Kate runs writing workshops, gives illustrated talks, works collaboratively with communities and undertakes commissions and residencies.

http://www.kateinneswriter.com

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My Books

Ladies of Magna Carta: Women of Influence in Thirteenth Century England  looks into the relationships of the various noble families of the 13th century, and how they were affected by the Barons’ Wars, Magna Carta and its aftermath; the bonds that were formed and those that were broken. It is now available from Pen & SwordAmazon and from Book Depository worldwide.

Also by Sharon Bennett Connolly:

Silk and the Sword: The Women of the Norman Conquest traces the fortunes of the women who had a significant role to play in the momentous events of 1066.  Available now from Amazon,  Amberley Publishing, Book Depository.

Heroines of the Medieval World tells the stories of some of the most remarkable women from Medieval history, from Eleanor of Aquitaine to Julian of Norwich. Available now from Amberley Publishing and Amazon and Book Depository.

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

©2020 Sharon Bennett Connolly 

Matilda Marshal: A Favourite Historical Figure

It is my turn on the Historical Writers Forum Blog Hop today. The theme this time is Favourite Historical Figures. Now, usually, I would automatically go for Nicholaa de la Haye – and she is still my favourite. But today I thought I would have a change and introduce a lady I met whilst writing Ladies of Magna Carta: Women of History in Thirteenth Century Europe.

Matilda Marshal, Countess of Norfolk, Warenne and Surrey.

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.

Effigy identified as William Marshal, Temple Church, London

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.

Coat of arms of Matilda’s 1st husband Hugh Bigod, 3rd Earl of Norfolk

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.

Framlingham Castle, Norfolk

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.

Arms of William de Warenne

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.

The Warenne stronghold of Castle Acre Castle, Norfolk

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

Tintern Abbey Monmouthshire

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.

To follow the rest of the blog hop:

Images:

Courtesy of Wikipedia except Castle Acre Castle which is ©2019Sharon Bennett Connolly.

Footnotes:

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’.

Sources:

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 EnglandThe Plantagenet Chronicle Edited by Elizabeth Hallam; Maurice Ashley The Life and Times of King John; Roy Strong The Story of BritainOxford 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.

My Books

Ladies of Magna Carta: Women of Influence in Thirteenth Century England  looks into the relationships of the various noble families of the 13th century, and how they were affected by the Barons’ Wars, Magna Carta and its aftermath; the bonds that were formed and those that were broken. It is now available from Pen & SwordAmazon and from Book Depository worldwide.

Also by Sharon Bennett Connolly:

Silk and the Sword: The Women of the Norman Conquest traces the fortunes of the women who had a significant role to play in the momentous events of 1066.  Available now from Amazon,  Amberley Publishing, Book Depository.

Heroines of the Medieval World tells the stories of some of the most remarkable women from Medieval history, from Eleanor of Aquitaine to Julian of Norwich. Available now from Amberley Publishing and Amazon and Book Depository.

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

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©2015 Sharon Bennett Connolly

Book Corner: Robert the Bruce; Champion of a Nation by Stephen Spinks

Robert the Bruce is a man of both history and legend. In his lifetime he secured Scottish independence in the face of English imperial aggression under the successive leadership of Edward I and Edward II. He was the victor of Bannockburn, a self-made king against all odds, and is celebrated as a champion of the Scottish nation. Yet Robert s colourful life is far from straightforward. Stephen Spinks seeks to examine this most enigmatic of kings beyond the myths to reveal him in the context of his time, his people and in his actions.

Stephen shows that Robert was a complex man, confronted by hardships and difficult and often dangerous decisions. He was not born to rule. As the murderer of John Comyn, a rival for the Scottish crown, Bruce sent shockwaves across Europe and was condemned by kings and popes. In war he suffered terrible personal loss, including the deaths of all four of his brothers and the imprisonment of his wife, daughter and two sisters, all at the hands of the English. He was at times a desperate yet focussed and highly determined man. Robert was also astute, breaking the rules of chivalry to even the odds, systematically fighting a guerrilla war against the English which he ultimately won. Yet he also cultivated the symbols of kingship, was pious, careful with his patronage and fought to uphold his fiercely held beliefs.

King Robert unified his deeply divided kingdom and secured its independence from England. His dramatic life as the victorious underdog forged a significant legacy that has survived for 700 years.

I may have mentioned before that I have a soft spot for Robert the Bruce and his family. I have already written of his daughter Marjorie, wife Elizabeth de Burgh and 2 of his sisters, Christian and Mary, women who suffered under the heavy hand of Edward I due to their relationship with Robert the Bruce and his ambition for an independent Scotland. King Robert I (the Bruce) is an enigmatic figure, whose conflicted loyalties saw him change sides on a number of occasions during the early years of his career.

So, of course I have been eagerly awaiting Robert the Bruce: Champion of a Nation ever since I first heard that Stephen Spinks was writing it. And it does not disappoint. Beautifully written and presented, Stephen Spinks tells the incredible story of Robert the Bruce and the fight for Scottish independence with great passion and enthusiasm. This is a wonderful book for any fan of Robert the Bruce – and Scottish history in general.

Since his surreptitious meeting with Lamberton, Robert may well have been building discreet coalitions to shore up a foundation on which to launch a bid for the Scottish throne. Yet, however successful he may have been at this juncture, there remained a significant contingent of men who would probably not support him, in particular the Balliols and Comyns and their adherents, who still held out for the return of King John or the accession of his heir, Edward Balliol, the latter still in English captivity. Just because Bruce wanted to champion his right did not mean Scotland would unite behind his cause. His greatest challenge now rested with John ‘the Red’ Comyn, lord of Badenoch, who had assumed the leadership of the Comyn family. He was nephew to King John, cousin to the Comyn Earl of Buchan, and brother-in-law to the English Aymer de Valence, soon to be Earl of Pembroke. If Bruce was to secure the crown, he needed to reconcile Comyn to his cause one way or another. What happened next tested the limits of Bruce’s personal ambition, and has gone down in the annals of history.

What is certain is that, on a cold night on 10 February 1306, Robert and John Comyn met at the Church of the Greyfriars in Dumfries. Comyn had been resident at his nearby castle at Dalswinton, not far from Bruce’s family home of Lochmaben. The two men, who had a history of bitter rivalry and had clashed violently at Peebles during the summer gathering near Selkirk Forest in 1299, could guarantee a safe, violence-free meeting constrained by their choice of location. Spilling blood in a church was sacrilegious and warranted excommunication, the gravest of punishements.

Robert the Bruce: Champion of a Nation doesn’t sugar coat Robert the Bruce’s actions, it examines the good and the bad in detail, from his support for Edward I in his early years, to the fateful murder of John Comyn that set him on the road to his coronation, a race against time to become king before the inevitable sentence of excommunication could be passed.

The author uses the primary sources of both England and Scotland, to present the story of Bruce’s fight to gain – and hold on to – the Scottish throne. Analytical and highlighting source bias, Stephen Spinks presents Robert the Bruce as a flawed hero, like all kings, whose personal and political ambition is balanced by opposition within a deeply divided Scotland, and a personal cost to him and his family that few of us could bare.

Robert the Bruce: Champion of a Nation is a wonderful, entertaining and informative read from beginning to end. Insightful and analytical, it puts every known aspect of Robert the Bruce’s life under the microscope, from his family, ambitions and military capabilities, to his health and leadership. Author Stephen Spinks examines Bruce’s actions and motivations in great detail, painting a fascinating portrait of the man and king.

Robert the Bruce: Champion of a Nation by Stephen Spinks is a must-read for anyone interested in Scottish history, and one of the best non-fiction books I have read in recent years. It is thoroughly enjoyable, totally engaging and impossible to put down.

Robert the Bruce: Champion of a Nation is now available from Amazon in the UK. It will be released in the US on 1 April 2020 and is available for pre-order on Amazon US.

About the Author:

Stephen Spinks wrote his dissertation on Edward II while studying at King’s College, London. He works for the National Trust and manages three Medieval heritage sites with 900 volunteers and 150 staff. He is a columnist for ‘Midlands Zone’ magazine, in which he writes a very well received exploration of life as a gay man today, partly political, partly personal. He has given many interviews on radio and in his capacity at the National Trust, to ‘BBC’s Escape to the Country’ and the ‘Antiques Road Show’. He has been studying the primary sources (and locations) for this book over the past 15 years.

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My Books

Coming soon! 

Ladies of Magna Carta: Women of Influence in Thirteenth Century England will be released in the UK on 30 May 2020 and is now available for pre-order from Amazon UK and from Book Depository worldwide. It will be released in the US on 2 September and is available for pre-order from Amazon US.

Also by Sharon Bennett Connolly:

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 UK,  Amberley Publishing, Book Depository and Amazon US.

Heroines of the Medieval World tells the stories of some of the most remarkable women from Medieval history, from Eleanor of Aquitaine to Julian of Norwich. Available now from Amberley Publishing and Amazon UK, Amazon US and Book Depository.

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

©2020 Sharon Bennett Connolly 

Little Princess Gwenllian

Gwenllian was the only child of Llywelyn ab Gruffuddd, also known as Llywelyn the Last, Prince of Wales. Her mother was Eleanor de Montfort, who was the daughter of Eleanor of England, sister of Henry III, and Simon de Montfort, Earl of Leicester. Llywelyn and Eleanor had married in Worcester Cathedral in October 1278, in a lavish ceremony attended by Edward I, King of England, and Alexander III, King of Scots.

Memorial to Gwenllian, Sempringham, Lincolnshire

Gwenllian, a descendant of both Welsh and English royalty, was born in June 1282 at the palace of Garth Celyn, Abergwyngregyn, near Bangor; her mother died giving birth to her. Shortly after her birth, Edward I concluded his conquest of Wales. Gwenllian’s father, Llywelyn, was killed in an ambush on 11 December 1282 – and just six months after her birth, Gwenllian was an orphan. Her uncle Dafydd, Llywelyn’s younger brother, became the little princess’s legal guardian. After his brother’s death, Dafydd continued the fight for Welsh independence but was betrayed to the English, in June 1283.

Dafydd, his wife, children and little Gwenllian were captured at Bera Mountain in Snowdonia, where they had been in hiding. At just one year old, Gwenllian was taken, by sea, probably to thwart any attempt at rescue, from Wales, the land of her birth. She would never see her homeland again. The baby girl was placed behind the high walls of the Gilbertine priory of Sempringham, in Lincolnshire, just south of the great city of Lincoln. Her female cousins, the seven daughters of Dafydd, were also placed in various nunneries, so it is possible some of her cousins were with her. Dafydd’s legitimate daughter, Gwladus, who was a similar age to Gwenllian, was placed in Sixhills, another Gilbertine priory, in the Lincolnshire Wolds.

Statue of Gwenllian’s father, Llywelyn the Last at Cardiff City Hall

Dafydd’s two sons, Llywelyn and Owain, were imprisoned in Bristol Castle; the eldest, Llywelyn, died there in 1287, just four years after his capture. Owain was still living in 1325, every night securely incarcerated in a specially constructed timber cage within Bristol Castle. Dafydd himself suffered the horrendous ‘traitor’s death’; he was hung, drawn and quartered at Shrewsbury.

The Gilbertines were the only wholly-English monastic community. Their founder, St Gilbert, had some form of physical deformity, which prevented him from pursuing a career as a knight. He trained as a clerk in France, studying under Master Anselm at Laon. He eventually entered the household of the Bishop of Lincoln and, in 1129, was appointed Vicar of Sempringham and West Torrington. He established the first priory there in 1131, with seven local women vowing to live a life of chastity, poverty and obedience. Sempringham Priory was a double-house, housing both men and women in segregated quarters.

At its height, the priory housed 200 nuns and forty canons. The order followed strict rules, based on those of the Augustinian and Premonstratensian monasteries. By the time of Gilbert’s death in 1189 there were thirteen priories in England; this number had risen to twenty-five at the time of the Reformation.1

Gwenllian was a prisoner at the Gilbertine Priory of St Mary, at Sempringham, for the rest of her life. A prisoner of three English kings, Edward I, Edward II and Edward III, she was a rallying figure for the subjugated Welsh and too valuable to ever be freed. Edward I wrote to the Prior and Prioress of Sempringham of his decision to place Gwenllian in their custody, on 11 November 1283: ‘… Having the Lord before our eyes, pitying also her sex and her age, that the innocent may not seem to atone for the iniquity and ill-doing of the wicked and contemplating especially the life in your Order’.2

Memorial plaque to Gwenllian on the memorial at Sempringham

Although Edward wanted Gwenllian to be forgotten, he could not afford to forget about her himself, and four years after she was placed in the convent, Edward ordered Thomas Normanvill to ‘go to the places where the daughters of Llewellyn and of David his brother, who have taken the veil in the Order of Sempringham, are dwelling, and to report upon their state and custody by next Parliament’.3 The extent of Gwenllian’s knowledge of her own history and homeland is far from certain. Having been taken from Wales at six months old, she is said not to have spoken a word of Welsh and may not have even known how to spell her name; she is referred to as ‘Wencillian’, in a document sent to Edward III at the time of her death, although spelling was far from uniform in the 14th century.

Gwenllian was probably well-cared for. Edward III endowed her with a pension of £20 a year, which was paid to the priory for her food and clothing. Whether Gwenllian was treated according to her rank at the priory is unknown. However, she was aware of her importance and her family connections; as David Pilling points out and she does in fact call herself Princess of Wales, daughter of Llywelyn ap Gruffudd in a petition of 1327 to Edward II:

Wentliane, daughter of Lewelyn [Llywelyn], formerly Prince of Wales, prays the King of his grace to remember her and aid her, since the King, his father, promised her when she was put in the house of Sempringham, £100 of land and rent; whereof he told Walter de Langeton, then Treasurer, that he had given her £20 from the Exchequer yearly; and with this she has been provided.4

She is said to have received gifts from her cousin the king, and may have spent time in Edward III’s company, when he visited the priory at Easter-time in 1328; the young king issued a charter from Sempringham on 2 April of that year.5

St Andrew’s Church, Sempringham stands close to the site of the Gilbertine priory of Sempringham

Gwenllian may also have spent time in the company of Joan Mortimer, the daughter of Roger Mortimer, supposed lover of Isabelle of France, Edward III’s mother, and ruler of England after the deposition of her huusband, Edward II. Joan was held at Sempringham following her father’s downfall in 1330. She was only eighteen at the time, however, so may have had little in common, beyond their joint status as prisoners of the crown, with Gwenllian, who was a woman now in her late forties who had spent her entire life in conventual seclusion. The profound difference between Joan and Gwenllian, of course, is that Joan was released after a short time.

Gwenllian only found release in death. The on 7 June 1337, the same month as her fifty-fifth birthday. She was buried at the priory where she had spent all but eighteen months of her life. Her grave was lost at the time of the dissolution of the monasteries, in the 16th century. However, a memorial plaque was placed near St Andrew’s Church in Sempringham in 1993, stating:

In memory of Gwenllian, daughter of the last Prince of Wales. Born at Abergwyngregyn 12.06.1282. Died at Sempringham 7.6.1337. Having been held prisoner for 54 years.6

Although she left very few marks on the world, a child whose very future was stolen by Edward I, Gwenllian’s remarkable story has not been forgotten. In 2009 a mountain in Snowdonia in Wales, formerly known as Carnedd Uchaf, was renamed Carnedd Gwenllian in the lost princess’s honour.

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Gwenllian’s story, and that of her mother and grandmother, is told in my latest book, Ladies of Magna Carta: Women of Influence in Thirteenth Century England.

Footnotes: [1] David Ross, editor, Sempringham Priory, Church and Holy Well, britainexpress.com; [2] englishmonarchs.co.uk; [3] ibid; [4] William Rees, Calendar of Ancient Petitions Relating to Wales [5] Calendar of the Charter Rolls. 1-14, Edward III; [6] The Princess Gwenllian Society, Princessgwenllian.co.uk

Sources: castlewales.com; snowdoniaheritage.info; William Rees, Calendar of Ancient Petitions Relating to Wales; Marc Morris A Great and Terrible King;David Williamson Brewer’s British royalty; Mike Ashley The Mammoth Book of British kings & Queens; Alison Weir Britain’s Royal Families; Roy Strong The Story of Britain; Dan Jones The Plantagenets; the Kings who Made England; Chronicles of the Age of Chivalry Edited by Elizabeth Hallam; The Oxford Companion to British History; The History Today Companion to British History; Derek Wilson The Plantagenets; britainexpress.com; englishmonarchs.co.uk; princessgwenllian.co.uk; Calendar of the Charter Rolls; David Pilling.

Images: Photos of Sempringham Church and memorial copyright Sharon Bennett Connolly. Llywelyn the Last courtesy of Wikipedia.

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My Books

Defenders of the Norman Crown: The Rise and Fall of the Warenne Earls of Surrey tells the fascinating story of the Warenne dynasty, of the successes and failures of one of the most powerful families in England, from its origins in Normandy, through the Conquest, Magna Carta, the wars and marriages that led to its ultimate demise in the reign of Edward III.

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

Defenders of the Norman Crown: Rise and Fall of the Warenne Earls of Surrey will be released in the UK on 31 May and in the US on 6 August. And it is now available for pre-order from Pen & Sword BooksAmazon in the UK and US and Book Depository.

Also by Sharon Bennett Connolly:

Ladies of Magna Carta: Women of Influence in Thirteenth Century England looks into the relationships of the various noble families of the 13th century, and how they were affected by the Barons’ Wars, Magna Carta and its aftermath; the bonds that were formed and those that were broken. It is now available from Pen & Sword,  Amazon and from Book Depository worldwide.

Heroines of the Medieval World tells the stories of some of the most remarkable women from Medieval history, from Eleanor of Aquitaine to Julian of Norwich. Available now from Amberley Publishing and Amazon and Book Depository.

Silk and the Sword: The Women of the Norman Conquest traces the fortunes of the women who had a significant role to play in the momentous events of 1066.  Available now from Amazon,  Amberley Publishing, Book Depository.

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

©2019 Sharon Bennett Connolly

Mary and Isabella – the Women in Cages

Isabella Buchan crowning Robert the Bruce at Scone

When watching Outlaw King a couple of weeks ago, I was disappointed to see that they had omitted the stories of Robert the Bruce’s sister, Mary, and the woman who crowned him, Isabella MacDuff, Countess of Buchan. And yet, they managed to keep the punishment Edward I meted out to them, but inflicted it on Robert the Bruce’s wife, Elizabeth de Burgh, instead. In a great example of dramatic licence, they also insisted on retelling the age-old fallacy that the cage was hung from the castle walls, exposing the poor woman to ridicule and the elements.

While it is necessary to change stories, and limit the number of protagonists in a movie, in order to avoid confusion, produce a fabulous story and, probably, keep down costs, I thought it a shame that the remarkable stories of Mary and Isabella were ignored, or rather circumvented for the dramatic benefit of the movie.

We know very little of Mary Bruce. She was a younger sister of King Robert, probably born around 1282. A younger daughter of Robert de Brus, 6th Earl of Annandale, and Marjorie, Countess of Carrick in her own right. It may be that she took care of her brother’s daughter, Marjorie, after Robert’s first wife, Isabella of Mar, died giving birth to the baby girl.

Her story has long been intertwined with that of her brother.

From that fateful moment  in Greyfriars Church in Dumfries when Robert the Bruce stabbed to death John Comyn, his rival to the Scottish throne, it was a race against time for Robert to establish himself as king. Whether Comyn’s death was accidental or murder, we’ll probably never know. Almost immediately, Robert made the dash for Scone, hoping to achieve his coronation before the Christian world erupted in uproar over his sacrilege. An excommunicate could not be crowned. His sisters Christian and Mary accompanied him to Scone Abbey, as did his wife Elizabeth and daughter Marjorie. The Stone of Scone was the traditional coronation seat of the kings of Scotland and, although the stone had been stolen by the English and spirited away to London, holding the coronation at the Abbey sent a message of defiance to the English king, Edward I.

The killing of Comyn, by Felix Philippoteaux

On 25 March 1306 Mary, Christian, Elizabeth and little Marjorie were all present when Robert the Bruce was crowned King Robert I by Isabella MacDuff, Countess of Buchan, who claimed her family’s hereditary right to crown Scotland’s kings (despite her being married to a Comyn). The ceremony was repeated on 27 March, following the late arrival of William Lamberton, Bishop of St Andrews. Robert’s coronation was the start of the most desperate period of his life – and that of his supporters. Edward I of England was never one to acquiesce when his will was flouted; he sent his army into Scotland to hunt down the new king and his adherents. After Robert’s defeat by the English at Methven in 1306, he went into hiding in the Highlands.

Robert sent his wife and daughter north to what he hoped would be safety. Mary, her sister Christan and Isabella, Countess of Buchan accompanied them, escorted by the Earl of Atholl and Mary and Christian’s brother, Sir Neil Bruce. It is thought that the Bruce women were heading north to Orkney to take a boat to Norway, where Robert’s sister, Isabel, widow of King Erik II, was still living. Unfortunately, they would never make it. The English caught up with them at Kildrummy Castle and laid siege to it. The defenders were betrayed by someone in their garrison, a blacksmith who set fire to the barns, making the castle indefensible.

The women managed to escape with the Earl of Atholl, but Neil Bruce remained with the garrison to mount a desperate defence, to give the queen, his niece and sisters enough time to escape. Following their capitulation, the entire garrison was executed. Sir Neil Bruce was subjected to a traitor’s death; he was hung, drawn and quartered at Berwick in September 1306 (not in front of the women he had protected, as portrayed in the film). Mary and her companions did not escape for long; they made for Tain, in Easter Ross, probably in the hope of finding a boat to take them onwards. They were hiding in the sanctuary of St Duthac when they were captured by the Earl of Ross (a former adherent of the deposed king John Balliol), who handed them over to the English. They were sent south, to Edward I at Lanercost Priory in Cumbria.

Edward I’s admirer, Sir Maurice Powicke, said Edward treated his captives with a ‘peculiar ferocity’.¹ Mary was treated particularly harshly by Edward I. The English king had a special cage built for her, although within the castle and not, as previously believed, hung from the walls of the keep at Roxburgh Castle, exposed to the elements and the derision of the English garrison and populace. In contrast, her sister Christian was sent into captivity to a Gilbertine convent at Sixhills, an isolated location, deep in the Lincolnshire Wolds. Christian languished at Sixhills for eight years, until shortly after her brother’s remarkable victory over the English at Bannockburn, in 1314. Despite Edward II escaping the carnage, King Robert the Bruce had managed to capture several notable English prisoners, including Humphrey de Bohun, 4th Earl of Hereford and Essex. Suddenly in a strong bargaining position, the Scots king was able to exchange his English captives for his family, held prisoners in England for the last 8 years.

The remains of Berwick Castle

Isabella MacDuff, Countess of Buchan, also suffered the harshly under Edward I’s not inconsiderable wrath. Isabella was probably born around 1270; she was the daughter of Colban, Earl of Fife, and his wife, Anna. Isabella was married to John Comyn, Earl of Buchan, and was first mentioned in 1297, when she was in England, managing her husband’s estates while he was in Scotland. Captured after the Scottish defeat at Dunbar in 1296, the Earl of Buchan had been sent north by Edward I, ordered to take action against Andrew Murray; however, he only took cursory action against the loyal Scot and soon changed sides, possibly fighting for the Scots at Falkirk in 1298. The Comyn family were cousins of Scotland’s former king, John Balliol, and constantly fought for his return to the throne, putting them in direct opposition to Robert the Bruce.

Isabella’s story remained unremarkable throughout Scotland’s struggles in the early years of the 1300s; until Robert the Bruce made his move for the throne in 1306. By birth, Isabella was a MacDuff, her father had been Earl of Fife and, in 1306, the current earl was her nephew, Duncan, a teenager who was a loyal devotee of Edward I. The Earls of Fife had, for centuries, claimed the hereditary right to crown Scotland’s kings. Although Duncan had no interest in being involved in the coronation of Robert the Bruce, Isabella was determined to fulfil her family’s role. It cannot have been an easy decision for her. Isabella’s participation was an act of bravery and defiance. She went against not only Edward I but her own husband, the Earl of Buchan. Isabella’s husband and the murdered John Comyn, Lord of Badenoch, were not only cousins but had a close relationship. It seems likely that Isabella’s husband was in England at the time of Bruce’s coronation, and she did not have to face him personally; but she would have known that her actions would mean there was no going back. Supporting Robert the Bruce, the man who stood accused of John Comyn’s murder, meant she turned against her husband and his entire family, people she had lived among for her entire married life.

Isabella reached Scone by 25 March 1306, in time to claim her family’s hereditary right to crown the new king, with Isabella placing the crown on the new Robert’s head. There are some rumours of a more intimate relationship between Isabella and Bruce, but these seem to be without foundation and are only to be expected, given that Isabel acted so decisively – and publicly – against her husband.

There was no going back for Isabella – crowning Robert the Bruce meant she was on her own; she couldn’t go back to her family, so she stayed with the royal party, travelling with Elizabeth de Burgh, the new queen, when Bruce sent her, his daughter and sisters, north for their safety. Isabella was with them when they escaped Kildrummy Castle by the skin of their teeth, and when they reached the shrine of St Duthac at Tain and were captured by William, Earl of Ross, in September 1306. As the party were sent south, Isabella must have faced the future with trepidation. Her placing the crown on Robert the Bruce’s head was the clearest challenge to Edward I and guaranteed that she would receive no sympathy from England’s king.

Statue of Robert the Bruce at Bannockburn

Even knowing that she would receive harsh treatment, it is doubtful that she, or indeed anyone, could have foreseen the punishment that Edward I would mete out. He ordered the construction of wooden cages, for Isabella and Bruce’s sister Mary; the two women were to be imprisoned in these cages close to the Scottish border, Isabella at Berwick Castle and Mary at Roxburgh Castle. Tradition has these cages were suspended from the walls of the castles’ keeps, open to the elements and the harsh Borders weather, the only shelter and privacy being afforded by a small privy. According to the Flores Historiarum, written at the Abbey of St Albans, Edward I said of Isabel’s punishment:

“[o]ne who doesn’t strike with the sword shall not perish by the sword. But because of that illicit coronation which she made, in a little enclosure made of iron and stone in the form of a crown, solidly constructed, let her be suspended at Berwick under the open heavens, so as to provide, in life and after death, a spectacle for passers-by and eternal shame.”²

It is doubtful, however, that the St Albans annalist was present when the order was given. The original royal writ still survives, written in French and reads a little differently;

“It is decreed and ordered by letters under the privy seal sent to the Chamberlain of Scotland, or his Lieutenant at Berwick-uponTweed, that, in one of the turrets within the castle at the same place, in the position which he sees to be most suitable for the purpose, he cause to be made a cage of stout lattice work of timber, barred and strengthened with iron, in which he is to put the Countess of Buchan.”³

This type of cage, within a room in the keep, was also used by Edward I to hold Owain, the son of Daffydd ab Gruffuddd; he had been held at Bristol Castle since 1283 and had been secured in a cage, overnight, since 1305. The construction of the cages was intended to humiliate their occupants and, at the same time, Scotland’s new king. They were also a taunt; placing Isabella and Mary in these cages, in castles on the border with Scotland, it is possible they were intended as a challenge to Robert the Bruce, showing him that he was not powerful enough to protect his women, but also teasing him, hoping he would be drawn into a rescue attempt that would, almost certainly, lead to the destruction of his limited forces.

Despite Edward I’s death in 1307, Isabella, Countess of Buchan was held in her little cage in Berwick Castle for four years in total. Attempts to secure her release were made by Sir Robert Keith and Sir John Mowbray, by appealing to Duncan, Earl of Fife, but the appeals came to nought. It was only in 1310 that Mary and Isabella were released from their cages; Isabella was moved to the more comfortable surroundings of the Carmelite friary at Berwick. In 1313 she was put into the custody of Sir Henry de Beaumont, who was married to Alice, niece and co-heir of Isabella’s husband, John Comyn, Earl of Buchan. This is the last we hear of Isabella, Countess of Buchan, as she slips from the pages of history. It seems likely that Isabella died within the next year, probably due to her health being destroyed by the years of deprivation; she was not among the hostages who were returned to Scotland following the Scots’ victory at Bannockburn.

The ruins of Roxburgh Castle

Mary, on the other hand, survived her ordeal and was returned to Scotland with the prisoner exchange that followed her brother’s victory at Bannockburn. She would be married twice after her release. Mary’s first husband was Sir Neil Campbell, a staunch supporter of her brother; the marriage being Neil’s reward for a lifetime of service to his king. The couple was to have one son, Iain (also John), and received the confiscated lands of David Strathbogie from the king; lands which passed to Iain on Neil’s death in 1316.  In 1320 Iain was created Earl of Atholl as a consequence of his possession of the Strathbogie lands, and despite the rival claims of Strathbogie’s son. After Neil’s death Mary married a second time, to Alexander Fraser of Touchfraser and Cowie, by whom she had 2 sons, John of Touchfraser and William of Cowie and Durris.

Mary died in 1323, she had survived four years imprisoned in a cage at Roxburgh Castle before being transferred to a more comfortable imprisonment in 1310. It wouldn’t be surprising if this inhumane incarceration had contributed to Mary’s death in her early forties, as it had shortened the life of poor Countess Isabella.

The strength and bravery of these  two women should never be underestimated, nor ignored. To survive 4 years imprisoned in a cage within a castle is remarkable. Even though they were not exposed to the elements, their movements, ability to exercise and exposure to fresh air were severely limited. Their courage and tenacity deserves to be remembered and celebrated. Their story deserves to be told.

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Footnotes: ¹Marc Morris, A Great and Terrible King: Edward I and the Forging of Britain; ²Interim annalist, Flores Historiarum, Volume III; ³Pilling, David, Ladies in Cages (article)

Pictures courtesy of Wikipedia

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Sources: The Story of Scotland by Nigel Tranter; Brewer’s British Royalty by David Williamson; Ladies in Cages (article) by David Pilling; Kings & Queens of Britain by Joyce Marlow; educationscotland.gov.uk/scotlandhistory Mammoth Book of British Kings & Queens by Mike Ashley; Oxford Companion to British History Edited by John Cannon; Edward I A Great and Terrible King by Marc Morris; Britain’s Royal Families by Alison Weir; A Great and Terrible King: Edward I and the Forging of Britain by Marc Morris; Buchan, Isabel, Countess of Buchan (b. c.1270, d. after 1313) by Fiona Watson, oxforddnb.com thefreelancehistorywriter.comenglishmonarchs.co.uk.

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Out Now!

Tracing the fortunes of the women who had a significant role to play in the momentous events of 1066, Silk and the Sword: the Women of the Norman Conquest is available from Amazon UK,  Amberley Publishing, Book Depository and Amazon US.

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Also by Sharon Bennett Connolly:

Telling the stories of some of the most incredible women from Medieval history, Heroines of the Medieval World,  is now available in hardback in the UK from Amazon UK, and in the US from Amazon US. It is available now in paperback in the UK from from both Amberley Publishing and Amazon and worldwide from Book Depository.

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©2018 Sharon Bennett Connolly

Book Corner: A Palace for Our Kings by James Wright

book_front_cover_hi_resIn the heart of Sherwood Forest lies the picturesque, yet unassuming, village of King’s Clipstone. Between the twelfth and fifteenth centuries one of the very largest royal palaces ever to have graced the Mediaeval landscape stood there.

The palace was visited by eight kings who held parliament, Christmas feasts and tournaments; were visited by the king of Scotland, a papal envoy and traitorous barons; built a fortification, great hall and a stable for two hundred horses; went hunting, drank wine and conceived a prince; listened to storytellers, poets and singers.

This is the history of one of the great lost buildings of Britain and of the individuals that built, worked and lived there. Above all this is story of the people whose lives have been shaped for centuries by an extraordinary structure standing in a remarkable landscape.

A Palace For Our Kings: The history and archaeology of a Mediaeval royal palace in the heart of Sherwood Forest by archaeologist James Wright is a wonderful study of a little known piece of English history. It tells the story of a palace located in the heart of Sherwood Forest. James Wright is an archaeologist who has been involved with King’s Clipstone for many years and his love and enthusiasm for the project shine through on every page of this marvellous book.

The King’s Houses at Clipstone in Nottinghamshire has an incredibly unique and fascinating story to tell. The book traces the history of the village of King’s Clipstone – and it’s palace – from Roman times to the 21st century. It tells not only the archaeological story, but also the life and history of the palace and its people.

James Wright has used the medieval chronicles to explain and support his archaeological discoveries and theories. They also serve to illustrate the varying uses of the palace throughout the years, and demonstrate how national and international events influenced the history of the King’s Houses. The chronicles are drawn on to explain building practices and alterations;

The king’s chamber was whitewashed, quite a job as the space was big enough to warrant two chimneys with a window between them. This window was subsequently blocked up and the remaining windows in Henry’s chamber were installed with protective iron bars, a legacy of the attempt on his life at Woodstock thirteen years previously.

The palace’s story is amply illustrated with the help of photographic evidence, floor plans and maps throughout this highly detailed and fascinating study. The author has also drawn from the memoirs and accounts of antiquarians throughout the generations in order to tell the comprehensive story of the King’s Houses st Clipstone The book contains so much detail that it is impossible not to find something of interest. I have lived half an hour from Sherwood Forest for most of my life, but this book has given me a whole new perspective on the Forest and the people who lived within and around it; giving the Forest and its palace a whole new significance – to me and to history in particular.

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The King’s Houses, Clipstone

James Wright has managed to write an archaeological study which is riveting to the historian or general reader alike. He explains everything clearly, with the minimum of technical language.  The archaeological discoveries are discussed in the context of architectural, royal and social history, explaining how the palace developed over the years, as royal requirements and – even – the appearance of royal dignity changed through the centuries.

Pottery was often preferred for serving up victuals as, unlike silver or pewter, it did not taint the taste of food; although in the later Mediaeval period communal serving platters were used less as private dining became preferable. In this was food and dining became yet another method of social exclusion through the refinement of the palate.

A Palace For Our Kings: The history and archaeology of a Mediaeval royal palace in the heart of Sherwood Forest also places Clipstone and the King’s Houses in a regional context; discussing its purpose as a hunting lodge, as a stopover point between London and the North, and as a royal residence. The influences of the larger region – such as York, Nottingham and Lincoln – are considered, not only on the people but also the architecture of the palace.

The author draws on more famous locations, such as Clarendon and Woodstock, to explain and compare the development of king’s Clipstone and the demonstrate how improvements to other royal residences influenced the development of the King’s Houses through the centuries.

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The Major Oak, Sherwood Forest

Moreover, the book provides a fascinating insight into how the palace affected the lives of the common people in the area. From the scales of justice to the enclosure of local pastureland; the palace was intrinsically intertwined with the lives of the local populace. The book highlights how the actions of the kings who used the palace played a part not only in the livelihoods of the local community but also in their standard of living and, indeed, life itself.

From the stories of kings, through witchcraft, war and religion to the individual lives of the families who lived and worked there, this book tells the remarkable history of the palace and its people; and of its rediscovery and significance to the history of England. This book is a marvel to read; it is a fabulous story of how 1,500 years of history have affected one small area of England – and how that little village played its part in English history.

I cannot recommend it highly enough, it is written in a wonderful, conversational manner which makes it accessible to all, and tells a truly fascinating story which made it a pleasure, and a privilege, to read.

A Palace For Our Kings: The history and archaeology of a Mediaeval royal palace in the heart of Sherwood Forest by James Wright is out now as a limited edition paperback and e-book via Triskele Publishing. More information on the book and the King’s Houses at Clipstone can be found on social media: Facebook  and Twitter.

©2016 Sharon Bennett Connolly.

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My book, Heroines of the Medieval World,  is now available in hardback in the UK from both Amberley Publishing and Amazon UK and worldwide from Book Depository. It is also available on Kindle in both the UK and USA and will be available in Hardback from Amazon US from 1 May 2018.

Be the first to read new articles by clicking the ‘Follow’ button, liking our Facebook page or joining me on Twitter.

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‘The Major Oak’ taken from Wikipedia. ‘The King’s Houses’ photo ©James Wright.