Isabel de Warenne was the only surviving child of William de Warenne, 3rd Earl of Warenne and Surrey, and his wife Adela, or Ela, de Talvas, 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 in her own right and one of the most prized heiresses in England and Normandy, with large estates in Yorkshire, Norfolk and Sussex.
Isabel was born during a period of civil war in England, a time known as The Anarchy (c.1135-54), when King Stephen fought against Empress Matilda, the daughter of Henry I, for the right to rule England. Isabel’s father, William, was a staunch supporter of the king and had fought at the Battle of Lincoln in February 1141, though without distinction; his men were routed early on in the battle and William was among a number of earls who fled the field. He later redeemed himself that summer by capturing Empress Matilda’s brother and senior general, Robert Earl of Gloucester, at Winchester.
The earl appears to have tired of the civil war in 1147 and departed on Crusade with his half-brother, Waleran de Beaumont, Count of Meulan, and their cousin, King Louis VII of France. 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, Earl Warenne’s only daughter, Isabel, was married to Stephen’s younger son, William of Blois, who would become Earl by right of his wife, following the 3rd earl’s death on Crusade in 1148; he was killed fighting in the doomed rearguard at the Battle of Mount Cadmus near Laodicea in January 1148.
It has been suggested that William of Blois was some 7 or 8 years younger than his wife, Isabel. However, this seems improbable and it appears more likely that the young couple were of similar ages. Isabel’s father had been born in 1119 and was no older than 29 when he died; his wife, Ela de Talvas, was a few years younger than her husband. This means that, even if the couple married as soon as they reached the ages allowed by the church to marry, 12 for a girl and 14 for a boy, and Ela fell pregnant on her wedding night, Isabel could have been no older 13 in 1147. Given the danger associated with girls giving birth before their teens, it seems plausible that Isabel was not born until the late 1130s and may have been between 10 and 12, or younger when she married William of Blois.
Even before it was known that Earl Warenne had died on crusade, William of Blois was already being referred to as earl in a number of charters relating to Warenne lands, one such charter, dated to c.1148, was issued by the earl’s brother with the proviso ‘that if God should bring back the earl [from the crusade] he would do his best to obtain the earl’s confirmation, or otherwise that of his lord earl William, the king’s son.’1 During the 3rd earl’s absence, and while the new earl and countess were still only children, the vast Warenne lands were administered by the 3rd earl’s youngest brother, Reginald de Warenne, Baron Wormegay, who was a renowned and accomplished administrator and estate manager. We do not know when news reached England of the earl’s death, the tidings may have arrived before the return of the earl’s half-brother, Waleran, later in the year. However, the future of the earldom was already secure with the succession of Isabel and her young husband, carefully watched over by Isabel’s uncle, Reginald.
In 1154 the young couple’s future prospects could have changed drastically when William’s elder brother Eustace, their father’s heir, died. As a consequence, William inherited his mother’s County of Boulogne from his brother, adding to his already substantial domains. He may also have expected to inherit his brother’s position as heir to the throne – or not. It seems that William’s ambitions did not extend to the lofty heights of the throne, or he was not considered suitable for the crown. Either way, the young man was removed from the succession by his own father. Stephen made a deal with Empress Matilda’s son, Henry of Anjou, that the crown would go to him on Stephen’s death, thus returning the crown to the rightful line of succession.
William seems to have accepted this, on the whole. Although there is some suggestion of his involvement in a plot against Henry later in 1154, during which William suffered a broken leg. William served Henry loyally, once he became king, until his own death, returning from the king’s campaign in Toulouse, in 1159.
Now in her mid-20s, and as their marriage had been childless, Isabel was once again a prize heiress. Although she seems to have 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; the archbishop’s objection was not that Isabel and William were too closely related, but that William and Isabel’s first husband had been cousins. William died shortly after the archbishop refused to sanction the marriage – it is said, of a broken heart.
King Henry was not to be thwarted so easily in his plans to bring the Warenne lands into the royal family, and his illegitimate half-brother, Hamelin, was married to Isabel in 1164. The illegitimate son of Geoffrey, Count of Anjou, Hamelin was born sometime around 1130, when Geoffrey was estranged from his wife, Empress Matilda. His mother was, possibly, Adelaide of Angers, though this is by no means certain. Geoffrey had a second illegitimate child, Emma, who was possibly Hamelin’s full sister. Emma married the Welsh prince, Davydd ap Owain of Gwynedd. Geoffrey of Anjou was the second husband to Empress Matilda, daughter of Henry I of England and would be the mother of the future Henry II, Hamelin’s half-brother.
In an unusual step, Hamelin took his wife’s surname and bore the titles Earl of Warenne and Surrey in her right. Hamelin was incredibly loyal to Henry and his marriage to an heiress was reward for his support, whilst at the same time giving him position and influence within England. Hamelin and Isabel married in April 1164, Hamelin even taking the de Warenne surname after the marriage; Isabel’s trousseau cost an impressive £41 10s 8d. Hamelin became Earl of Surrey by right of his wife, though was more habitually called Earl Warenne. In some references, he is named as the 5th Earl of Surrey and in others the 4th: this confusion arises from the fact that the earldom belonged to Isabel, and her two husbands both held the earldom, sometimes being numbered the 4th and 5th earls to avoid confusion. They were, in fact, both, the 4th Earl of Surrey.
Hamelin supported his brother the king in the contest of wills that Henry was engaged in with his archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Becket. When Henry called for the archbishop to appear at a great council at Northampton Castle on 12 October 1164, to answer to the charges laid against him, Hamelin was at the trial and spoke in support of his brother. Indeed, the new earl and the archbishop appear to have started a war of words; Hamelin defended Henry’s dignity and called Becket a traitor. The archbishop’s retort was ‘Were I a knight instead of a priest, my fist would prove you a liar!’ Ironically, it is thought that Hamelin’s denunciation of Becket was motivated by the injury caused to the royal family in Becket’s refusal to allow Henry’s brother, William – Hamelin’s half-brother – to marry Isabel de Warenne; who was now Hamelin’s wife.
Hamelin’s animosity to Becket was not to survive the archbishop’s martyrdom and he actively participated in the cult that grew up around Thomas Becket after his violent death. In later life, the earl claimed that the cloth covering Becket’s tomb had cured his blindness, caused by a cataract, in one eye.
Hamelin was an influential and active member of the English barony. He supported Henry during his sons’ rebellion in 1173 and formed part of the entourage which escorted Princess Joanna (daughter of Henry and Eleanor of Aquitaine) to Sicily for her marriage to King William. Joanna’s escort was ordered not to return home until they had seen ‘the King of Sicily and Joanna crowned in wedlock’. Hamelin remained close to the crown even after Henry’s death, supporting his nephew, Richard I. Hamelin was among the earls present at Richard’s first coronation in September 1189; and carried one of the three swords at his second coronation in April 1194.
During Richard’s absence on Crusade, Hamelin sided with the Regent, William Longchamp, against the intrigues of Richard’s brother John. Hamelin held great store in the rule of law, attested by the legend on his seal, ‘pro lege, per lege’. This adherence to the law explains Hamelin’s support for Longchamp against that of his own nephew, John, and even as the justiciar’s overzealous actions alienated others. Hamelin was one of only two magnates entrusted with the collection and storage of the king’s ransom, when he was held captive by Duke Leopold of Austria, appointed by Eleanor of Aquitaine; the other was William d’Aubigny, Earl of Arundel. Hamelin’s involvement with the court continued into the reign of King John; he was present at John’s coronation and at Lincoln when William, King of Scots, Isabel’s cousin, gave his oath of homage in November 1200.
Away from court, Hamelin appears to have been an avid builder; he built a cylindrical keep at his manor of Mortemer in Normandy. He then constructed a larger and improved version, using all the latest techniques of castle design, at his manor of Conisbrough, South Yorkshire. He may also have been the one to build Peel Castle at Thorne, a hunting lodge which had a 3-sided donjon that was of smaller, but similar, design to Conisbrough. Hamelin spent a lot of time and money on Conisbrough Castle, which took almost 10 years to complete, and it appears to have been a favourite family residence. King John visited there in 1201, and two of Hamelin’s daughters married landowners from the nearby manors of Tickhill and Sprotborough. His son, William de Warenne, the 5th earl, would complete the castle, rebuilding the curtain wall in stone.
Hamelin was also involved in a famous dispute with Hugh, abbot of Cluny, over the appointment of a new prior to St Pancras Priory, Lewes. Abbot Hugh was known as a man of great piety and honour; he had been prior of Lewes but was elected as abbot of Reading in 1186 and became abbot of Cluny in 1199. In 1200, Abbot Hugh appointed one Alexander to the vacant position of prior of Lewes, but Hamelin refused to accept the nomination. In establishing the priory at Lewes, the abbots of Cluny had apparently reserved the right to appoint the prior, and to admit all monks seeking entry into the order; however, Hamelin claimed that the patronage of the priory belonged to him, and it was his right to appoint the prior.
The dispute dragged on, and it was only after intervention from King John that agreement was eventually reached whereby, should the position of prior become vacant, the earl and the monks should send representatives to the abbot, who would nominate two candidates, of whom the earl’s proctors should choose one to be appointed prior.
The marriage of Hamelin and Isabel appears to have been highly successful. They had four surviving children. Their son and heir, William, would become the 5th Earl of Surrey and married Maud Marshal, daughter of the great William Marshal, Earl of Pembroke and regent for King Henry III. Ela married twice, firstly to a Robert de Newburn, of whom nothing else is known, and secondly to William Fitzwilliam of Sprotborough, a village just a few miles from Conisbrough. Isabel was married, firstly, to Robert de Lascy, who died in 1193, and secondly, no later than the spring of 1196, to Gilbert de Laigle, Lord of Pevensey.
Matilda, or Maud, married Henry, Count of Eu, who died around 1190; by Henry, she was the mother of Alice de Lusignan, who struggled to maintain her inheritance during the reign of King John. Matilda then married Henry d’Estouteville, a Norman lord. It was once thought that Matilda was the daughter of Hamelin by an earlier relationship, due to the supposed death date of Matilda’s husband, Henry, Count of Eu. There was a mistaken belief that Henry had died in 1172, which would mean that Matilda could not have been a daughter of the marriage of Isabel and Hamelin, who were married in 1164, as she would have been too young to have married and borne children with Henry. The Chronicle of the Counts of Eu records Henry’s death as 1183, which also appears to be an error as Henry was assessed for scutage for Wales at Michaelmas 1190; with this later death date it was entirely possible, and indeed likely, that Matilda was the legitimate daughter of both Hamelin and Countess Isabel.
One of the daughters – although it is not clear which – bore an illegitimate son, Richard Fitzroy, Baron Chilham, who was born, possibly, around 1190, by her cousin, John (the future King John). This must have caused considerable family tensions!
Hamelin died on 7th May 1202, in his early 70s and was buried in the chapter house at Lewes Priory, in Sussex. Isabel died in her mid-60s, in 1203, and was buried at Lewes Priory, alongside Hamelin. In 1202, Countess Isabel had granted ‘for the soul of her husband earl Hamelin, to the priory of St Katherine, Lincoln, of similar easements for 60 beasts, namely for 40 as of his gift and 20 as of hers.2 Together, Hamelin and Isabel had played important roles in English politics for almost 40 years, whilst raising a family and, literally, building a home at Conisbrough Castle.
1 Farrer, William and Charles Travis Clay, editors, Early Yorkshire Charters, Volume 8: The Honour of Warenne; 2 ibid
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; Farrer, William and Charles Travis Clay, editors, Early Yorkshire Charters, Volume 8: The Honour of Warenne; 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; doncasterhistory.co.uk; A History of the County of Sussex: Volume 2 edited by William Page; W.H. Blaauw, On the Early History of Lewes Priory, and its Seals, with extracts from a MS. Chronicle, Sussex Archaeological Collections; Rev. John Watson, Memoirs of the Ancient Earls of Warren and Surrey, and Their Descendants to the Present Time, Volume I; Odo of Deuil, De Profectione Ludovici VII in Orientem; magnacharta.com; Cokayne, G.E., The Complete Peerage, Vol. XII; Henry of Huntingdon, The Chronicle of Henry of Huntingdon.
All images ©Sharon Bennett Connolly except Henry II and the illustration of Becket’s murder which is courtesy of Wikipedia.
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Defenders of the Norman Crown: The Rise and Fall of the Warenne Earls of Surrey tells the fascinating story of the Warenne dynasty, of the successes and failures of one of the most powerful families in England, from its origins in Normandy, through the Conquest, Magna Carta, the wars and marriages that led to its ultimate demise in the reign of Edward III. Defenders of the Norman Crown: Rise and Fall of the Warenne Earls of Surrey is now available from Pen & Sword Books, Amazon in the UK and US, Bookshop.org and Book Depository.
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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 in paperback and hardback from Pen & Sword, Amazon, Bookshop.org and from Book Depository worldwide.
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Silk and the Sword: The Women of the Norman Conquest traces the fortunes of the women who had a significant role to play in the momentous events of 1066. Available now from Amazon, Amberley Publishing, Bookshop.org and Book Depository.
Alternate Endings: An anthology of historical fiction short stories including Long Live the King… which is my take what might have happened had King John not died in October 1216. Available in paperback and kindle from Amazon.
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