Ladies of Magna Carta: Women of Influence in Thirteenth Century Europe is going on tour – virtually at least. With articles, book reviews and interviews coming over the next 2 weeks, we will be visiting such exotic places as Barnsley, Tennessee, the Yorkshire Dales, Sussex and Michigan – all from the desktop!
Here’s the itinerary!
First stop is 1st July at my amazing publishers, Pen and Sword, who have done a wonderful job of organising the tour. Here’s an article on the inspiration behind the book.
5th July, Joanna Arman, The History Lady, will publishing her thoughts on Ladies of Magna Carta. I’m not nervous – much!
6th July, I will be stopping by for a cuppa with Samantha Wilcoxson to talk about The Marshal Sisters.
7th July, I will be chatting with Susan Higginbotham on History Refreshed about why it is so hard to love Isabelle d’Angoulême.
I would like to thank Rosie at Pen & Sword and all the authors and bloggers involved for taking part in this amazing tour. I am truly humbled and grateful that you have all taken the time to read Ladies of Magna Carta and shared your thoughts and blog space with me.
Signed book plates
If you have a copy of Ladies of Magna Carta and would like a signed book plate to pop in the front, for you or someone else, just drop me a line via the ‘Contact Me‘ page with your address and who you would like the dedication made out to, and I will get one out to you.
Sharon Bennett Connolly has been fascinated by history her whole life. She has studied history academically and just for fun – and even worked as a tour guide at historical sites. For Christmas 2014, her husband gave her a blog as a gift – http://www.historytheinterestingbits.com – and Sharon started researching and writing about the stories that have always fascinated, concentrating on medieval women. Her latest book, Ladies of Magna Carta: Women of Influence in Thirteenth Century England, released in May 2020, is her third non-fiction book. She is also the author of Heroines of the Medieval World and Silk and the Sword: The Women of the Norman Conquest. Sharon regularly gives talks on women’s history; she is a feature writer for All About History magazine and her TV work includes Australian Television’s ‘Who Do You Think You Are?‘
It was an honour and a privilege to be asked to present the David Hey Memorial Lecture for the Doncaster Local Heritage Festival 2020. Due to the current Coronavirus outbreak, the lecture was moved online and broadcast via You Tube.
To keep it relevant with Doncaster and South Yorkshire, I decided to talk about one of my favourite subjects, and my current research project; the Warennes, the earls of Surrey who held Conisbrough from the Norman Conquest until the death of the last earl in 1347.
A family at the centre of English history for almost 300 years. It is a story of strong family loyalties, national and international rivalries, rebellion and civil wars, lost loves and royal connections. It’s also the story of Conisbrough’s iconic castle!
This talk is dedicated to David Hey. In the 1970s he was one of few professional historians to respond in a positive way to the growing interest in family and local history. David was a highly regarded and pioneering figure in this field.He held posts of importance such as being Professor of Local and Family History at the University of Sheffield and President of the British Association of Local History. But he was first and foremost a Yorkshireman at heart and never forgot his roots. He was the Patron of the Doncaster and District Heritage Association and gave a talk at the 2013 Heritage Festival.
So, here it is:
I hope you enjoyed it!
I would like to express my immense gratitude to the Doncaster Local Heritage Festival for inviting me to present such a prestigious lecture. I truly hope I did justice to the memory of David Hey.
I recently shared an article about Joan, Lady of Wales, illegitimate daughter of King John. Now, John had several illegitimate children, and while Joan is probably the most famous, and certainly had the highest profile, as a Welsh princess, she was not the only one who made it into the history books. Whilst researching the Warenne earls of Surrey recently, I had the chance to look deeper into the story of another of John’s illegitimate brood, Richard of Chilham.
From the late 1180s or early 1190s onwards, Earl Hamelin de Warenne’s relationship with King John was complicated by the fact that John had a brief affair with one of Hamelin’s daughters. Although it has been impossible to determine which of the daughters, the result of the affair was an illegitimate son, named Richard, after John’s older brother. He was known in various guises as Richard of Chilham, Richard of Dover, Richard fitzRoy or even Richard fitz John. He was also known as Richard de Warenne, referring to his maternal line, which is the name that is inscribed on his seal; this seal bears his arms, a derivative of the royal arms, albeit with 2 lions rather than 3, emphasising his Plantagenet descent.
Richard was probably born in the 1190s and was the only one of John’s illegitimate children to gain honorific title, following his marriage to Rose of Dover in 1214, by which he became lord of the castle and honour of Chilham, in Kent. Richard’s lordship held in the region of fifteen knights’ fees, in Kent and Essex. Richard served his father and, subsequently, his royal half-brother, Henry III, as a royalist captain and administrator during the First Barons’ War of 1215-17.
From 1216, just days before his death, John appointed Richard as constable of Wallingford Castle and custodian of the honour of Wallingford; it was a strategically important castle and the honour held some 120 knights’ fees. In May 1218, he was granted the honour at royal pleasure and held it until 1227. Between 1217 and 1221 he was also sheriff of Berkshire, though it appears he had little involvement in the day-to-day duties of the position; Henry Saccario did the accounting for him at the exchequer, with Richard always finding reason to be elsewhere.
Richard distinguished himself at the Battle of Sandwich on 24 August 1217, the sea battle in which the English naval forces intercepted the French bringing equipment and supplies to Prince Louis, the Dauphin of France, who had invaded England in 1216 in an attempt to seize the throne. The dauphin’s French forces and baronial allies had been defeated at the Battle of Lincoln in May but were still causing trouble in other parts of England.
Richard commanded one of the ships in the battle, which he brought alongside the French flagship, the most formidable of the enemy’s vessels, commanded by Eustace the Monk. Richard and his men boarded the ship. Roger of Wendover suggests that it was Richard himself who beheaded Eustace the Monk after his capture; and though other sources disagree with this, none deny that Richard’s actions in the battle were significant. The Battle of Sandwich was an important action in that it forced Prince Louis to come to terms with the regency government of King Henry III. As a consequence, Louis agreed to a settlement of £10,000 as an inducement to go home.
In 1218 Richard left to join the fifth crusade in Egypt. He returned home in 1220 or, more likely, 1221. He is known to have reached the crusader camp at Damietta as he borrowed money whilst there, 20 marks from an Italian cardinal, and was pressured for its repayment in 1128. Henry III eventually repaid the loan on Richard’s behalf. Richard was perhaps as much as seventeen years older than his half-brother, King Henry III, and doesn’t appear to have had a close relationship with him and he never appeared on the king’s witness lists. He did receive some gifts from the king, though nothing extravagant or extraordinary, such as venison or estates. Despite the trust his father had held in him, he played a limited role in England’s affairs after his return from crusade.
He fought against the Welsh in 1223 and in the same year accompanied Alexander II, King of Scots, his second cousin once removed through his Warenne family, on pilgrimage to Canterbury. Though it has to be said that the records are unclear, and the Richard involved in either, or both, of these events could have been Richard of Cornwall, the full brother of Henry III and half-brother of Richard of Chilham. It was certainly Richard of Chilham who was one of the tax collectors for Kent in 1225, when the fifteenth was granted for Henry III’s campaign to Poitou.
Most of the evidence of Richard of Chilham comes from the debts and lawsuits held against him. Indeed, one of the advantages of his joining the fifth crusade was that it resulted in the deferment of a court case he was defending. His debts to the crown started with the scutage of 1217, a tax of 2 marks per fee on the fourteen knights’ fees of his Chilham barony. The debts piled up through the 1220s, with Richard failing to appear when summoned. He was threatened with having his land taken into the king’s custody. The debts he owed to one William Scissor (or the tailor) were to be recovered by distraint of land and chattels, with his land to be returned when he paid his debts.
The king stepped in at this point, though for the sake of his sister-in-law, Rose, rather than his brother. Henry III ordered the sheriff of Kent to prevent Richard from wasting, selling or damaging the manor of Northwood, which was assigned to Rose for her maintenance. Richard and Rose were also locked in a long-running dispute with Robert fitz Walter and Richard de Montfichet over Rose’s rights to the manor of Lesnes, which arose out of Rose’s rights to the inheritance of Richard de Lucy, Henry II’s justiciar. The eyre in Kent in 1227 decided that the dispute should be settled by a duel, with each side nominating champions. In all honesty, it was little more than a brawl, which Richard and Rose won. After the duel, Robert fitz Walter recognised Rose’s right to Lesnes and quitclaimed to Richard, Rose and their heirs, for which Richard and Rose paid him 40 marks, which they had to borrow for the purpose.
Their debts thus increased further, in 1229, sheriffs were ordered to take possession of all the manors of Richard and Rose, save Lesnes, which Rose was to keep for her maintenance. Richard joined Henry III’s forces sailing for Brittany, which put two pending court cases against him into abeyance and he was granted respite from his debts. Later in the 1230s, sheriffs were ordered to prevent the sale of lands and woods by Richard, lands which were a part of Rose’s inheritance. By 1242 Richard was back in the king’s favour and was advanced 20 marks to buy equipment and supplies for an expedition to Lundy, although it is possible that this was Richard’s son, also Richard, who would join the king’s expedition to Gascony that same year, receiving an annual fee of 50 marks.
Richard of Chilham and William Bardrolf led the seaborne operations against the notorious outlaw and pirate, William de Marisco. In 1238 the would-be assassin of Henry III, whose attack was foiled by the king spending the night with the queen instead of his own bed, claimed that Marisco was behind the plot. Marisco had based himself on the island of Lundy in the Bristol Channel, from where he attacked shipping, taking ransoms and plunder. Richard successfully captured Marisco and his accomplices, after scaling the island’s cliff to reach them, most of the gang were later executed in London.
In 1243 Richard was granted a pardon for £100 for a debt to the moneylender Benedict Crispin. This seems to have come about, not by Richard’s actions, but by the affection the king held for Richard’s son, King Henry’s nephew, Richard, who is referred to in the fine roll, alongside the paynment of his fee for the Easter term, as ‘our beloved and faithful Richard of Dover.’
Richard of Chilham died in 1246, leaving his wife, Rose of Dover, still burdened by her husband’s debts, his son Richard and a daughter, Isabel, who eventually inherited the honour of Chilham. One argument for the identity of Richard’s mother is in the naming of his daughter. It has been suggested that Richard named his daughter after his mother, Isabel, but this is hardly incontrovertible proof; he could have just as easily named her after his grandmother, Countess Isabel. It could just as easily have been Ela, whose marriages were that bit less prestigious than her sisters’, being to men we known little-to-nothing of besides their names, perhaps suggesting a scandalous past.
Unfortunately, a strange entry in the Annales Cestriensis only adds to the confusion. In 1200, it records that ‘W. de Waren meunch fil Regis‘ was killed, suggesting that Richard’s mother was killed in 1200. Earl Hamelin and Countess Isabel did not have a daughter with the initial ‘W’, however, and neither did any of their children died in 1200. In the Chronicle of Robert of Gloucester, Richard’s mother is merely identified as ‘the erles daughter of Wareine’. With such little information to go on, we can only speculate.
Images courtesy of Wikipedia
Further reading: Cassidy, Richard, Rose of Dover (d.1261), Richard of Chilham and an Inheritance in Kent; Turner, Ralph V., Two Illegitimate Sons of King John: A Comparison of Their Careers; Farrer, William and Charles Travis Clay, editors, Early Yorkshire Charters, Volume 8: The Honour of Warenne; Lloyd, Simon, Chilham, Sir Richard of (d. 1246) (article); Morris, Marc King John: Treachery, Tyranny and the Road to Magna Carta; Church, Stephen, King John: England, Magna Carta and the Making of a Tyrant; Danziger, Danny and John Gillingham, 1215: The Year of Magna Carta; Crouch, David, William Marshal; fmg.ac
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, 5th 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 Arundel inhheritance was divided between Hugh’s 4 sisters; Mabel, Isabel, Nicholaa and 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
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.’³
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.
Footnotes: ¹quoted by John A. Nichols in Oxforddnb.com; ² quoted by Susanna Annesley in finerollshenry3.org.uk; ³ ibid.
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.
Pictures courtesy of Wikipedia: d’Aubigny arms by Sodocan; Warenne arms by Madboy74; Arundel Castle by Chensiyuan; Holy Trinity Church by John Billinger.
Born around 1085, Isabel de Vermandois had the blood of kings flowing through her veins. Her father was Hugh Capet, younger son of King Henry I of France. Her mother was Adelaide de Vermandois, a descendant of the ancient Carolingian dynasty. She was 1 of her parents’ 9 surviving children; 4 boys and 5 girls.
As with many medieval women, there are no images of Isabel; not even a description of her appearance. Her life can be pieced together, somewhat, through her marriages and through her children. When researching her, her name also frequently appears as Elizabeth – Isabel being the French version of her name.
From her birth, as the granddaughter of the King of France, Isabel was a valuable prize. Her childhood proved to be depressingly short. By 1096 a marriage was mooted between Isabel and Robert de Beaumont, Count of Meulan, who was 35 years her senior.
Robert de Beaumont was a seasoned warrior and courtier, with lands in both England and Normandy. He had fought alongside William the conqueror at the Battle of Hastings and was with William II Rufus when he was killed in a hunting accident in the New Forest. A loyal supporter of Henry I, he would fight for his king at the Battle of Tinchebrai in 1106, and receive the earldom of Leicester in 1107.
The marriage was originally opposed by the church; the prospective couple were related within the prohibited degrees and Isabel was not yet at the minimum legal age to marry – 12. Before leaving on Crusade, however, Isabel’s father was able to persuade Pope Urban to issue a dispensation and the marriage went ahead in 1096.
Isabel was around 11 years old, Robert de Beaumont was about 46.
Isabel gave Robert 9 children; the first was a daughter, Emma, born in 1102. Twin boys followed in 1104; Waleran and Robert de Beaumont, earls of Worcester and Leicester, respectively. The brothers were active supporters of King Stephen during the conflict with Empress Matilda, popularly known as the Anarchy, but while Robert would come to terms with Matilda’s son, the future Henry II, in 1153, Waleran was distrusted due to his support of Louis VII of France.
Another daughter, Isabel, was a mistress of Henry I before being married to Gilbert de Clare, 1st Earl of Pembroke. Through her son Richard de Clare, 2nd Earl of Pembroke, she would be the grandmother of Isabel de Clare, wife of the great knight and Regent for Henry III, William Marshal.
Isabel’s marriage to Robert de Beaumont seems to have ended in scandal and controversy. The chronicler Henry of Huntingdon reported that she was seduced by William de Warenne, 2nd Earl of Surrey, suggesting they had a love affair, which lasted for several years. It’s hard to blame a young woman of 30, in an arranged marriage to a man more than twice her age, for looking elsewhere for love and comfort.
William de Warenne had failed, in 1093, to obtain a royal bride for himself in a match with Matilda of Scotland (she went on to marry Henry I), and so looked elsewhere for a bride. It seems that de Warenne hatched a plot to kidnap Isabel – possibly with her approval – after de Beaumont refused to grant his wife a divorce. Huntingdon has the aged warrior dying of shame following his wife’s betrayal:
But when he was at the height of his fame, it happened that another count stole his wife, by intrigue and violent treachery. Because of this, in his old age his mind was troubled, and, darkened by anguish, he passed into the shadows of grief, and never again experienced happiness or cheerfulness. After days given over to sorrow he fell into an illness that heralded his death …
Henry of Huntingdon, The History of the English People 1000-1154
However… Henry of Huntingdon’s accusations may well be a misinterpretation of the facts; and be based on rumours arising from Isabel and William marrying within only a few months of her first husband’s death.
Whether the story is true, or not, is highly questionable, but great for the novelists. However, Robert de Beaumont died soon after, on 5th June 1118, and William and Isabel married as soon as they could; William was approaching 50, had been Earl of Surrey for 30 years and, as yet, had no heir to succeed him.
William de Warenne, 2nd Earl of Surrey, had a chequered career. He had succeeded his father in 1088, but was disinherited by Henry I for his support of Henry’s brother Robert Curthose, Duke of Normandy, in his attempt on the English throne. De Warenne was restored to favour in 1103 and thereafter remained loyal. He would be one of the earls present at Henry I’s death on 1st December 1135 at Lyons-la-Foret.
On his marriage to Isabel, William assumed the Vermandois coat of arms as his own and the blue and yellow checks became known as the ‘Warenne chequer’.
Isabel and William had several children; their son and heir, William, the future 3rd earl was born in 1119. He would die on Crusade in January 1148 in the Battle of Mount Cadmus, at Laodicea in Turkey, whilst fighting in the elite royal guard of his cousin, King Louis VII of France. His only child, a daughter, Isabel, became the greatest heiress in England.
Another 2 sons followed, Ralph and Rainald, and 2 daughters. Gundreda married Roger de Beaumont, Earl of Warwick and Ada married Prince Henry of Scotland, Earl of Huntingdon, son and heir of David I of Scotland. Two of Ada’s sons became kings of Scotland; Malcolm IV and William the Lion.
Isabel’s 2 families seem to have got on quite well. Not only did Gundreda de Warenne marry a cousin of her Beaumont siblings, but William de Warenne also had both his son and step sons with him when he attended Henry I on his deathbed. The Beaumont and Warenne half-brothers looked after each other, and their interests, during the period known as the Anarchy, when King Stephen and Empress Matilda were vying for the crown. Young William de Warenne, the 3rd Earl, was only 18 or 19 when his father died, and was guided and advised by his half-brothers Waleran and Robert, 15 years his senior.
Although her life was tinged with scandal, Isabel of Vermandois has had a great influence on the history of England and Scotland. From her are descended the greatest families of England and all subsequent Scottish monarchs.
William de Warenne died in 1138, having held the earldom of Surrey for 50 years; he was buried at his father’s feet at Lewes Priory. Isabel survived him by almost 10 years, dying around 1147/8. She was also buried at Lewes Priory, close to her husband.
Sources: Early Yorkshire Charters Volume 8: The Honour of Warenne, Edited by William Farrer and Charles Travis Clay; England Under the Norman and Angevin Kings by Robert Batlett; Brewer’s British Royalty by David Williamson; The History of the English People 1000-1154 by Henry of Huntingdon; Britain’s Royal Families, the Complete Genealogy by Alison Weir; british-history.ac.uk; kristiedean.com; knight-france.com.
Growing 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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
The second floor would have been sleeping quarters for the lord and lady. Both the solar and the bedchamber have impressive fireplaces, garderobes and a stone basin, which would have had running water delivered from a rainwater cistern on the roof.
On this floor, also, built into one of the keep’s buttresses is the family’s private chapel. This may well have been the chapel endowed by Hamelin and Isabel in 1189-90, and dedicated to St Philip and St James (although there was a, now lost, second chapel in the inner bailey to which the endowment could refer). The chapel is well-decorated, with quatrefoil windows, elaborate carving on the columns and a wonderful vaulted ceiling.
There is a small sacristy for the priest, just to the left of the door, with another basin for the priest’s personal use, and cavities for storing the vestments and altar vessels.
The winding stairs, built within the keep’s thick walls, give access to each successive level and, eventually, to the battlements, with a panoramic view of the surrounding area.
These battlements also had cisterns to hold rainwater, a bread oven and weapons storage; and wooden hoardings stretching out over the bailey to aid in defence. The keep and curtain walls – which were built slightly later – were of a state-of-the art design in their day. The barbican, leading into the inner bailey, had 2 gatehouses and a steep passageway guarded by high walls on both sides; an attacking force would have been defenceless against missiles from above, with nowhere to run in the cramped corridor.
Although the encircling moat is dry (the keep is built high on a hill), all the detritus from the toilets and kitchens drained into it; another little aid to defence – imagine having to attack through that kind of waste?
None of the buildings in the inner bailey have survived, although you can see their stone 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.
The Castle’s Residents
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.
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.
All photographs are copyright to Sharon Bennett Connolly, 2015.
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Isabel de Warenne was the only surviving child of William de Warenne, 3rd Earl of Surrey, and his wife Adela, daughter of William III of Ponthieu. When her father died on the Second Crusade to the Holy Land, in around 1148, Isabel became 4th Countess of Surrey and one of the most prized heiresses in England and Normandy, with large estates in Yorkshire.
In the same year, as part of King Stephen’s attempts to control the vast de Warenne lands during a crucial time in the Anarchy – Stephen’s battles with his cousin Matilda to control England – Isabel was married to Stephen’s younger son, William of Blois, who became Earl by right of his wife. William, it seems, was about 7 years younger than his wife, being born in 1137.
William was removed from the succession to the crown by his own father, when Stephen made a deal with Matilda’s son, Henry of Anjou, that the crown would go to him on Stephen’s death. William seems to have accepted this, and served Henry II loyally until his own death in 1159.
As their marriage had been childless, Isabel was once again a prize heiress. Although she seems to have a had a little respite from the marriage market, by 1162 Henry II’s youngest brother, William X, Count of Poitou, was seeking a dispensation to marry her. The dispensation was refused by Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, on the grounds of consanguinity. William died shortly after – it is said, of a broken heart.
Henry was not to be thwarted on bringing the de Warenne lands into the royal family, and his illegitimate half-brother, Hamelin, was married to Isabel in 1164. Hamelin, in an unusual step, took his wife’s surname and bore the title Earl of Surrey in her right.
The marriage appears to have been highly successful. Hamelin was loyal to his brother and his nephew, Richard I, and played a prominent part in English politics whilst Richard was absent on the 3rd Crusade. He also built the highly innovative keep at Conisbrough in the 1170s and 1180s.
Isabel and Hamelin had four surviving children. Their son and heir, William, would become the 5th Earl of Surrey and married Maud, daughter of the great William Marshal. There were also three daughters, Ela, Isabel and Matilda, however it is possible Matilda was Hamelin’s daughter by a previous relationship. One of the daughters – although it is not clear which – bore an illegitimate son, Richard Fitzroy, by her cousin, John (the future King John).
Isabel died at the grand age of 73, in 1203, and was buried at Lewes Priory, alongside Hamelin, who had died the previous year.
Sources: Robert Batlett, England Under the Norman and Angevin Kings; Dan Jones, The Plantagenets; Donald Matthew, King Stephen; Medieval Lands Project on the Earls of Surrey, Conisbrough Castle; doncasterhistory.co.uk
From Emma of Normandy, wife of both King Cnut and Æthelred II to Saint Margaret, a descendant of Alfred the Great himself, 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.
Telling the stories of some of the most remarkable women from Medieval history, from Eleanor of Aquitaine to Julian of Norwich, Heroines of the Medieval World, is available now on kindle and in paperback in the UK from from both Amberley Publishing and Amazon, in the US from Amazon and worldwide from Book Depository.
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