The Countess who Chastised a King

The arms of Hugh d’Aubigny, 5th Earl of Arundel

I recently came across the wonderful story of Isabel d’Aubigny, countess of Arundel, a woman who wouldn’t be cheated – even if it was by the king himself.

Isabel was born sometime in the late 1220s, the daughter of William de Warenne, 4th earl of Surrey and Warenne, and Matilda (or Maud) Marshal, daughter and co-heir of the Greatest Knight, William Marshal, earl of Pembroke. Through her grandfather, Hamelin Plantagenet, illegitimate half-brother of King Henry II, Isabel was a cousin of the king, Henry III.

With such impeccable parentage and family connections, it is no surprise that Isabel made a prestigious marriage. At no older than 8 years of age Isabel was married, in 1234, to 20-year-old Hugh d’Aubigny, 5th earl of Arundel. Hugh’s father, William, 3rd Earl of Arundel, had died in 1221, on his way home from the Fifth Crusade. William had been succeeded as 4th Earl by his oldest son and namesake, who died just 3 years after his father, aged just 21, leaving the earldom to his brother Hugh.

On their marriage, Isabel’s father granted the couple a manor at Marham in Norfolk, worth £40 a year in rent. The charter for this grant offers the only details available for the marriage. In 1242 Hugh accompanied the king on his expedition to Aquitaine. However, after just 9 years, on 7 May 1243, Hugh died; leaving Isabel, at 17 years of age, a childless widow, with a rather large dower.

Within weeks of her husband’s death, on 29th May, Isabel’s marriage was granted to Pierre de Genevre, a Savoyard favourite of the king, Henry III. However, the patent rolls show that provision was made for Isabel to remain unmarried should she so wish; although she would have to pay Pierre for the privilege. Given that she never remarried, she must have been more than happy to pay.

The de Warenne coat of arms

The Arundel inhheritance was divided between Hugh’s 4 sisters; Mabel, Isabel, Nicholaa ad Cecily. The earldom itself went to Hugh’s nephew, his sister Isabel’s son, John FitzAlan. Isabel was well provided for, however, with her dower including the hundred and manor of Bourne in Lincolnshire, the manors of Wymondham and Kenninghall in Norfolk, Stansted in Essex and several properties in Norfolk and Buckinghamshire. Suffice to say, she was a very wealthy widow and would continue to be styled Countess of Arundel until her death.

In 1249, the same year as her mother died, Isabel founded the only English convent that was part of the Cistercian order. Established at Marham, 2 Cistercian abbots had inspected it in its first year. Isabel’s brother, John de Warenne, 6th Earl of Surrey, the Bishop of Norwich and Henry III himself all issued charters confirming the abbeys foundation. Along with other endowments, Isabel herself made 11 grants to the abbey in its early years, giving it a strong economic foundation. In 1252 Isabel was granted papal permission to visit the Cistercian house at Waverley to consult with him about her convent; Waverley’s annals record that she granted 4 marks and a cask of wine to the monks there.

Isabel was very protective of her property rights and went on the offensive when they were threatened, even if that meant going against the king. In 1252 Isabel did just that. One of her tenants, Thomas of Ingoldisthorpe, held a ¼ knight’s fee from Isabel at Fring and Snettisham; he also had property in the honour of Haughley, as an escheat from the crown. On his death in 1252 Henry III took all of Thomas’s lands in wardship until Thomas’s heir was of age, including Isabel’s ¼ knight’s fee. In March of 1252 Henry granted the wardship of the lands and marriage of the heir to his former treasurer and keeper of the king’s wardrobe, Peter Chaceporc. Had Thomas held his lands in chief from the king, Henry would have been within his rights to take prerogative wardship, however his land at Haughley was  held from the honour of Haughley, which only in the king’s hands as an escheat and Isabel had therefore been treated unjustly in being denied the wardship of his heirs.

Isabel took her grievances direct to the king, supposedly berating him for trampling on the rights laid out in Magna Carta. She is said to have asked

‘Where are the liberties of England, so often recorded, so often granted, and so often ransomed?’¹

According to Matthew Paris, the chronicler and a personal friend of Isabel’s (though no particular fan of Henry), Henry scorned Isabel’s argument, ‘derisively and curling his nostrils’ and asked if the nobles of the realm had given her permission to speak on their behalf. Isabel argued that the king had given her the right to speak thus, in the articles granted in Magna Carta and accused the king of being a ‘shameless transgressor’ of the liberties laid down in the Great Charter, breaking his sworn oath to uphold its principles. At the end of the audience, Henry refused to be moved, ‘After listening to her [civilly] reproachful speech, the king was silent, and the countess, without obtaining or even asking for permission, returned home.’²

Arundel Castle

Isabel was one of the great nobles of England, the daughter of one earl and wife of another, and was obviously undaunted by an audience with the king. And although the king did not react to her reprimand immediately he did, eventually, admit that he may have been in the wrong, issuing a letter to her on 23 May 1253 saying:

‘Since the king has learnt that Thomas of Ingoldisthorpe, whose son and heir is in the custody of Ptere Chaceporc by concession of the king, did not hold from the crown of the king in chief but from the honour of Haughley, which is in the hand of the king as his escheat, and that the same Thomas held from Hugh de Aubigny, once earl of Arundel, a quarter part of the fee of one knight with appurtenances in Fring and Snettisham and the service of which was assigned to Isabella, countess of Arundel, the widow of the foresaid earl, in dower, he has returned to the same countess custody of the foresaid quarter part of a fee with appurtenances; and the foresaid Peter is ordered to give the countess full seizin of the foresaid custody.’²

However, Isabel’s victory was incomplete, as in late 1253, while the king was overseas in Aquitaine, she instigated legal proceedings against Peter Chaceporc ‘for custody of Ingoldisthorpe’. Whether Chaceporc had not relinquished the land, or she believed she was entitled to more land than was returned to her, Isabel in fact lost the suit and was amerced £20 (30 marks) for a false claim. The writ was witnessed by Henry III’s queen, Eleanor of Provence, and his brother Richard, Earl of Cornwall.

As persistent as ever, and although he was overseas, Isabel appealed directly to the king, who responded with a pardon, although it seems he still smarted from the upbraiding she had given him earlier in the year:

‘3 April. Meilham. Henry, by the grace of God king of England, lord of Ireland, duke of Normandy and Aquitaine and count of Anjou sends greeting to his beloved consort E, by the same grace queen of England, lady of Ireland, duchess of Normandy and Aquitaine and countess of Anjou and to his beloved and faithful brother, R. earl of Cornwall. Know that we have pardoned our beloved and faithful Isabella countess of Arundel the 30m. at which she was amerced before our justices against our beloved and faithful … Peter Chaceporc, our Treasurer, for custody of Ingoldisthorpe. We, therefore, order you to cause the same countess to be quit of the aforesaid 30m. by our seal of England provided she says nothing opprobrious to us as she did when we were at Westminster and as we have signified to her by letter. Witness myself.’

Holy Trinity Church, Marham

Isabel obviously had an eye for business, given that she could so concern herself with a ¼ knight’s fee out of the 60 that she held. A wealthy widow with impressive family connections, she was renowned not only for her religious endowment of the Cistercian convent at Marham, but also as a patron of religious texts, having commissioned at least 2 saints’ lives, including the life of St Richard of Wyche by Ralph Bocking. Isabel could count among her friends Richard Wych himself, the bishop of Chichester who was later canonised, and Matthew Paris. Paris translated  a life of Saint Edmund of Abingdon in to Anglo-Norman verse for Isabel’s personal use.

Isabel died shortly before 23 November 1282 and was laid to rest at her own foundation at Marham; her dower properties passed to her husband’s great-great nephew, Richard FitzAlan, 8th Earl of Arundel. Having spent almost 40 years as a childless widow, Isabel never remarried, her remarkable life dedicated to the patronage of her convent at Markham and religious writers, such as Paris and Bocking. This incredible woman stands out as the countess who reprimanded and humbled her king for his injustices.

 

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Footnotes: ¹quoted by John A. Nichols in Oxforddnb.com; ² quoted by Susanna Annesley in finerollshenry3.org.uk

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Pictures courtesy of Wikipedia

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Sources: John A. Nichols Oxforddnb.com; Susanna Annesley finerollshenry3.org.uk; Robert Bartlett England Under the Norman and Angevin Kings; Dan Jones The Plantagenets;David Williamson Brewer’s British Royalty; british-history.ac.uk; Early Yorkshire Charters Volume 8: The Honour of Warenne, Edited by William Farrer and Charles Travis Clay.

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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.

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©2017 Sharon Bennett Connolly

Conisbrough Castle – it’s Life and History

ConisbroughCastleGrowing up near Conisbrough Castle, South Yorkshire, we always thought it was just a bland old place – it was great for exploring and rolling down the hills, but being so far from London, the centre of power,  it didn’t seem to have much history. The most famous thing about it was that it was used as the Saxon castle in Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe.

English Heritage have spent a lot of money on it in recent years. When I worked there in the early 1990s it was open to the elements and there was just a very narrow walkway around the inside of the keep. Now it has a roof, floors on every level, sensitive lighting and a fantastic little visitor centre. It looks so much better (although I still wouldn’t want to stand on the battlements on a windy day like today).

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Conisbrough’s hexagonal keep

When I joined as a tour guide, I started looking into the actual history of the Castle, seeing it more for what it has been, than for the visitor attraction it is now. Instead of being a forgotten, unimportant little castle in the middle of nowhere, Conisbrough Castle comes to life through the history it has been a part of, and the people who have called it home.

According to Geoffrey of Monmouth, Conisbrough – then known as Conigsburgh, or Kynsburgh – belonged to the great British warrior Ambrosius Aurelianus. Geoffrey of Monmouth wasn’t known for his historical accuracy, of course, but it is fascinating to think that this little town may once have belonged to a candidate for the legendary King Arthur.

What we know, for certain, is that by 1066 the Honour of Conisbrough belonged to Harold Godwinson, Earl of Wessex and King Harold II of England. On a prominent, steep hill, it guards the main road between Sheffield and Doncaster to the east, and the navigable River Don to the north.

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The kitchen range in the inner bailey

Following Harold’s defeat and death at the Battle of Hastings, it was given to one of William the Conqueror’s greatest supporters, William de Warenne. Warenne was a cousin of Duke William of Normandy and fought alongside him at the Battle of Hastings. He was given land in various counties, including Lewes in Sussex and Conisbrough in Yorkshire; and although he developed his property at Castle Acre in Norfolk, little was done at Conisbrough. In those days the castle itself was little more than a wooden motte and bailey construction, surrounded by wooden palisades and earthworks.

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A thoroughly modern Castle

It was not until the reign of Henry II that the Castle began to take on the majestic appearance we know today. Conisbrough came into the hands of Hamelin Plantagenet, illegitimate half-brother of King Henry II; Hamelin had married the de Warenne heiress, Isabel, Countess of Warenne and Surrey, and became 5th Earl of Warenne and Surrey by right of his wife.

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Fireplace in the bedchamber in the keep

It was Hamelin who built the spectacular hexagonal keep. The stairs to the keep were originally accessed across a drawbridge, which could be raised in times of attack. The ground floor was used for storage, with a basement storeroom below, housing the keep’s well,  and accessed by ladder.

The first floor holds the great chamber, or solar, with a magnificent fireplace and seating in the glass-less window. This is where the Lord would have conducted business, or entertained important guests. Henry II, King John and King Edward II are known to have visited Conisbrough: King John even issued a charter from Conisbrough Castle in March 1201.

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The chapel’s vaulted ceiling

The second floor would have been sleeping quarters for the lord and lady. Both the solar and the bedchamber have impressive fireplaces, garderobes and a stone basin, which would have had running water delivered from a rainwater cistern on the roof.

On this floor, also, built into one of the keep’s buttresses is the family’s private chapel. This may well have been the chapel endowed by Hamelin and Isabel in 1189-90, and dedicated to St Philip and St James (although there was a, now lost, second chapel in the inner bailey to which the endowment could refer). The chapel is well-decorated, with quatrefoil windows, elaborate carving on the columns and a wonderful vaulted ceiling.

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Chapel carvings

There is a small sacristy for the priest, just to the left of the door, with another basin for the priest’s personal use, and cavities for storing the vestments and altar vessels.

The winding stairs, built within the keep’s thick walls, give access to each successive level and, eventually, to the battlements, with a panoramic view of the surrounding area.

These battlements also had cisterns to hold rainwater, a bread oven and weapons storage; and wooden hoardings stretching out over the bailey to aid in defence. The keep and curtain walls – which were built slightly later – were of a state-of-the art design in their day. The barbican, leading into the inner bailey, had 2 gatehouses and  a steep passageway guarded by high walls on both sides; an attacking force would have been defenceless against missiles from above, with nowhere to run in the cramped corridor.

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View from the battlements

Although the encircling moat is dry (the keep is built high on a hill), all the detritus from the toilets and kitchens drained into it; another little aid to defence – imagine having to attack through that kind of waste?

None of the buildings in the inner bailey have survived, although you can see their stone outlines in the ground. Along one wall there were kitchens and service rooms leading into a great hall, with a raised dais at the far end, and a solar and living quarters above.

Another range of buildings attached to the western wall also held living quarters, possibly for the garrison and any guests. There’s even a small jail cell just to the side of the barbican.

Although Conisbrough is not a large castle, the extensive range of buildings, the magnificent decorations of the fireplaces and chapel, suggest it would have been impressive in its day; and reflects the importance of the castle’s owners and occupants.

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The Castle’s Residents

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The inner bailey

The de Warenne Earls of Surrey were close to the crown, and the centre of government, for centuries. The daughter of the 2nd Earl, Ada, had married the heir to the Scots throne and was mother to 2 Scottish kings; Malcolm the Maiden and William the Lyon.

Hamelin’s son and heir, William, married Maud Marshal, daughter of the Greatest knight, William Marshal, Earl of Pembroke and Regent during Henry III’s  infancy. Their son John, the 7th Earl, was Edward I’s lieutenant in Scotland and beat the Scots at the Battle of Dunbar in 1296. His daughter, Isabella, married John Balliol, King of Scots, and was mother to Edward Balliol, another Scottish king.

The 8th – and last – de Warenne earl was a colourful character; John. Although he was married to Joan of Bar, a granddaughter of Edward I, he lived with his mistress and even kidnapped Alice de Lacey, wife of Thomas Earl of Lancaster, possibly in retaliation for Lancaster’s prevention of Surrey’s longed-for divorce. The result was the 1st – and only – siege of Conisbrough Castle; the Earl of Lancaster assaulted the castle, but was opposed by a garrison of only 6 men, who soon capitulated.

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The bedchamber in the keep, with wash basin and stairway leading to the garderobe and battlements

The last Earl of Surrey died without heirs in 1347 and Conisbrough passed to John de Warenne’s godson, Edmund of Langley, fourth son of Edward III. Edmund’s wife Isabella of Castile gave birth to her 3rd child, Richard Earl of Cambridge, at Conisbrough, most likely in the lavish bedchamber within the keep itself. Cambridge had the dubious reputation of being England’s poorest Earl; however, he is remembered to history as the grandfather of the Yorkist kings, Edward IV and Richard III.

Following Cambridge’s execution for treason in 1415 his 2nd wife, Maud Clifford, made Conisbrough her principal residence until her death in 1446. Maud entertained her Clifford family here and her great-nephew and godson John Clifford, the Butcher of Skipton was born there in 1435. In a strange twist of fate, John Clifford is the one accused of murdering the Earl of Cambridge’s 17-year-old grandson Edmund, Earl of Rutland, following the Battle of Wakefield in December 1460.

The castle underwent repairs during the reign of Edward IV, in 1482-3, but by 1538 a survey revealed the it had fallen into neglect and decay, with parts of the curtain wall having slipped down the embankment.

From then on, although it has had successive owners until it came under the protection of English Heritage, Conisbrough Castle has been a picturesque ruin, a wonderful venue for picnics and exploring its many hidden treasures.

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Conisbrough Castle from the outer bailey

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All photographs are copyright to Sharon Bennett Connolly, 2015.

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Further reading: East Yorkshire Charters Volume 8: The Honour of Warenne, edited by William Farrer & Charles Travis Clay; English Heritage Guidebook for Conisbrough Castle by Steven Brindle and Agnieszka Sadrei; English Tourist Board’s English Castles Almanac; http://www.kristiedean.com/butcher-skipton; On the Trail of the Yorks by Kristie Dean

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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.

©2015 Sharon Bennett Connolly