The finalised cover for Defenders of the Norman Crown: Rise and Fall of the Warenne Earls of Surrey, coming out next year.
Huge thanks to designer Paul Wilkinson at Pen & Sword for making my book look sooo good!
Defenders of the Norman Crown: Rise and Fall of the Warenne Earls of Surrey
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.
If you have been following this blog for any length of time, you will have noticed that I have a fondness for the Warennes. The family were earls of Surrey from 1088 until the death of the last Warenne earl in 1347. They possessed lands throughout England, stretching from Lewes in Sussex to Castle Rising in Norfolk and on to Conisbrough and Sandal Castles in Yorkshire.
Growing up close to the Warenne castle at Conisbrough in South Yorkshire, I developed a fascination for the castle’s history, for its connections to royalty, and for the family which built this amazing stronghold – the Warennes. As a student, I worked at the castle as a volunteer tour guide and started researching the story of the family. Many, many years later, when Pen & Sword asked me for some book ideas, I suggested writing a biography of the family, not really expecting them to say ‘yes’ – but they did. Defenders of the Norman Crown: Rise and Fall of the Warenne Earls of Surreyis a book I have always wanted to write, but never expected I would get the chance.
From the time of the Norman Conquest to the death of the seventh and last earl, the Warenne family was at the heart of English politics and the establishment, providing military and administrative support to the Crown. In the years following 1066 William I de Warenne, who became the first Earl of Surrey in 1088, was the fourth richest man in England and the richest not related to the royal family – he ranks at number 18 in MSN.com’s Top 20 Richest People of All Time.
The earls of Surrey were at the centre of the major crises of medieval England, from the Norman Conquest itself to the deposition of Edward II and accession of Edward III. Strategic marriages forged links with the leading noble houses in England and Scotland, from the Marshals, the FitzAlans, the d’Aubignys and Percys to the Scottish and English royal families themselves. Indeed, it is from Ada de Warenne, daughter of the second earl, married to the oldest son of the king of Scots, that all the leading competitors for the Scottish throne, after the death of Margaret, Maid of Norway in 1286, are descended. Queen Elizabeth II, herself, can trace her own lineage back to Ada and, through Ada, to the second earl of Warenne and Surrey.
In the 14th century, one unhappy marriage brought the dynasty to an end, the family’s influence and achievements almost forgotten…
Writing Defenders of the Norman Crown: Rise and Fall of the Warenne Earls of Surrey and researching this incredible family has been an amazing experience – a dream come true – and I will be eternally grateful to Pen & Sword for allowing me to tell their story.
Defenders of the Norman Crown: Rise and Fall of the Warenne Earls of Surrey tells the story of this remarkable dynasty. It is a story of power, ambition, loyalty and – above all – family!
Defenders of the Norman Crown: Rise and Fall of the Warenne Earls of Surrey will be published by Pen & Sword in the spring of 2021.
Mary of Blois was the youngest daughter of Stephen of Blois and his wife, Matilda of Boulogne, herself the granddaughter of St Margaret, queen of Scotland. Mary was born in Blois, France around 1136. She was destined for the cloister from an early age and, while still a young girl, was placed in a convent at Stratford, Middlesex, with some nuns from St Sulpice in Rennes.
Mary’s lineage and the quirks of fate, however, meant that Mary’s peaceful convent life would be violently cut short.
Mary’s father Stephen was the nephew of Henry I, and his closest, legitimate, male relatives. Following the death of his only legitimate son, William Adelin, in the White Ship disaster of 1120, and with his only other legitimate child, Empress Matilda, living in Germany, it seems that Henry looked at Stephen as a possible successor. However, when Matilda’s husband died in 1125 and the empress returned to her father’s court, Stephen’s position was left undetermined. Stephen remained prominent at the English court, always present as a viable alternative to the succession of a woman – Empress Matilda.
In the confusion following Henry’s death in December 1135, it was Stephen who acted quickly and decisively. As he claimed the crown in England and his adherents secured Normandy in Stephen’s name, Empress Matilda was home in Anjou with her husband Geoffrey, Count of Anjou and two young sons, Henry and Geoffrey. She was pregnant with her third and youngest son, William.
What followed was a period known as the Anarchy, almost 20 years of conflict and bloodshed as Stephen and the Empress Matilda battled for supremacy of England and Normandy. Ultimately, Stephen managed to retain control of England but lost Normandy to Count Geoffrey, who passed it on to his and Matilda’s eldest son, Henry FitzEmpress. Henry, was eager to win back his birthright and following several incursions by Henry – whilst still in his teens – he and Stephen came to an agreement.
Stephen and his wife Matilda had five children in total, but only three, including Mary, who survived infancy. Of Stephen and Matilda’s three children, Eustace IV, Count of Boulogne, was the eldest to survive into adulthood, and was groomed as his father’s heir. He was married to Constance of France, daughter of King Louis VI and sister of Louis VII, in 1140 and knighted in 1147. He died in August 1153, after suffering some form of seizure. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle said of him
‘he had little success, and with just cause, because he was an evil man, because wheresoever he came he did more evil than good; he robbed the lands and laid great taxes on them.’
Anglo_Saxon Chronicles, edited by Michael Swanton
The Gesta Stephani, however, paints a picture of
‘a young man of high character … his manners were grave; he excelled in warlike exercises and had great natural courage … he was courteous and affable … and possessed much of his father’s spirit … ever ready to draw close the bands of peace’ but ‘never shrank from presenting a resolute and indomitable front to his enemies.’
Stephen’s youngest son was William, who was born around 1134/5. In 1149 he married Isabel de Warenne, sole heiress to William de Warenne, third earl of Surrey, in order to bring the vast Warenne lands within the influence of the crown. William would succeed to the County of Boulogne in 1153, on the death of Eustace. Shortly after his brother’s death, and with the help of the clergy, William made an agreement with Henry of Anjou, whereby he waived his own rights to the crown in return for assurances explicitly recognising his rights to his lands, as Count of Boulogne and Mortain and Earl of Surrey.
Mary, who had been in the convent in Stratford, Middlesex, was moved around 1150-52 after some discord with the nunnery. Her parents founded a new convent for her at Lillechurch (Higham) in Kent, making it a sister convent with Rennes’ St Sulpice. Mary does not appear to have been given the title of prioress. However, a charter of Henry II, dated around 1155-58, confirmed Lillechurch to Mary and her nuns, suggesting she held some position of authority. Before 1160 Mary had become abbess of the great abbey at Romsey, an older and more prestigious institution than her little foundation at Lillechurch.
Mary’s brother William died without issue in 1159 during the Siege of Toulouse. Though a nun, Mary succeeded him in the County of Boulogne. In 1160 Mary’s life was turned upside down. She was suddenly a great heiress, countess of Boulogne in her own right and too great a marriage prize to be allowed to remain secluded in the cloisters. She was abducted from Romsey Abbey by Matthew of Alsace, second son of the Count of Flanders, and forced to marry him. This may well have been a political move; although there does not appear to be any proof that Henry II sanctioned it, most sources imply that the marriage was forced on her by the king and he certainly benefited from Mary being safely married to a loyal vassal. She was, after all, not only a great heiress but, through her father, she had a strong, rival claim to the throne of England.
There was great outrage among the clergy; marriage with a nun was a breach against canon law and opposed by the leading ecclesiastical figures of the day. One source suggested the pope had granted a dispensation for the marriage. However, given that Pope Alexander III expressed great disapproval in a letter to the archbishop of Rheims, his consent seems highly unlikely. The pope imposed an interdict on Matthew of Alsace and pressed the claims of the wife of Mary’s brother, Eustace, to the Boulogne estates; even though Constance had died some fourteen years before. The furore seems to have died down eventually, and the marriage was allowed to stand.
Unfortunately for Henry II, Matthew turned out to be a not-so-loyal vassal and rebelled at least twice. The first occasion arose when Matthew tried to press his claims to Mortain, land that should have been part of Mary’s inheritance but was now held by Henry II. The king was not too accommodating. An agreement was eventually reached whereby, in return for £1,000, Matthew would renounce all claims to those parts of his wife’s estates that were still in royal hands.
Mary seems to have had little love for Henry II, possibly due to his involvement in her abduction and marriage, or simply because of the fact their respective families had spent many years at war. With so much bad history, you wouldn’t expect them to have an affectionate relationship, but Mary appears to have actively worked against Henry. Following a meeting with the ambassadors of the emperor, Frederick Barbarossa, she wrote to King Louis of France. In the document, she describes Henry II as ‘the fraudulent king’, while informing Louis of Henry’s manoeuvring against him.
Mary and Matthew had two children, daughters Ida and Mathilde; and it was after the birth of Mathilde that the couple were divorced, in 1170. There is some suggestion that Matthew was pressured to agree to the divorce by his dying father and the emperor, Frederick Barbarossa, probably in the hope of having the interdict – placed on Matthew on his marriage to Mary – lifted. After the divorce, Matthew would continue to rule Boulogne and was succeeded by Ida on his death in 1173.
Ida (b. c1160) married three times; her first husband, Gerard III, count of Gueldres, who died in 1183. Her short marriage to her second husband, Berthold IV, Duke of Zehringen, ended in his death in 1186. Ida’s last marriage was to Reginald, or Renaud, de Tree, Count of Dammartin, who was a childhood friend of France’s king, Philip Augustus. It seems Renaud abducted Ida and forced her into marriage. He died in 1227, outliving Ida, who died in 1216, by eleven years. It was Matilda, the daughter of Ida and Renaud, who inherited Boulogne from Ida, and would also become Queen of Portugal through her marriage to Alfonso III of Portugal.
Born in 1170 Ida’s younger sister, Mathilde, married Henry I, duke of Louvain and Brabant, when she was nine-years-old. She would have seven children before her death sometime in 1210 or 1211; she was buried in St Peter’s Church, Leuven.
The interdict, which had been placed on Matthew on his marriage to Mary, was finally lifted when she returned to the convent life, becoming a simple Benedictine nun at St Austrebert, Montreuil. Mary died there in July 1182, aged about forty-six, and was buried in the convent. A woman who obviously believed that her life should be devoted to God, she is remarkable in that she managed to fulfil her dynastic duties in a forced marriage, and yet asserted herself so that she was able to return to the secluded life she so obviously craved.
Donald Matthew, King Stephen; Robert Bartlett, England Under the Norman and Angevin Kings; David Williamson, Brewer’s British Royalty; the History Today Companion to British History; Dan Jones, the Plantagenets; englishmonarchs.co.uk; The Oxford Companion to British History; Mike Ashley, The Mammoth Book of British Kings & Queens; Alison Weir, Britain’s Royal Families, the Complete Genealogy; S.P. Thompson, Oxforddnb.com, Mary [Mary of Blois], suo jure countess of Boulogne (d. 1182), princess and abbess of Romsey; Anglo_Saxon Chronicles, edited by Michael Swanton; Gesta Stephani.
Ada de Warenne was born around 1120, daughter of William de Warenne 2nd Earl of Surrey and Isabel de Vermandois. Through her mother, she was a great-granddaughter of Henry I of France and half-sister to twins Waleran and Robert de Beaumont, Count of Meulan and 2nd Earl of Leicester, respectively, and Hugh de Beaumont, 1st Earl of Bedford. Her niece, Isabel de Warenne, would marry William of Blois, the younger son of King Stephen and, following his death, Hamelin, half-brother of Henry II of England. Ada’s family connections were of the highest quality in the Anglo-Norman world.
As a consequence, Ada’s future marriage became an international concern. On 9 April 1139, a peace treaty was concluded between King Stephen of England and King David I of Scots. Primarily negotiated by Stephen’s wife, Queen Matilda – King David’s own niece – the terms were extremely favourable to the defeated Scots. All the lands that Prince Henry of Scotland, King David’s son and heir, had held in 1138 were returned to him, save for the castles at Bamburgh and Newcastle, for which he was recompensed with two towns of equal value in the south. Furthermore, Henry was confirmed as earl of Huntingdon and created earl of Northumbria, a title which encompassed Northumberland, Durham, Cumberland, Westmoreland and the parts of Lancashire north of the Ribble.
It was agreed that English law would remain in force in these regions, but that the barons within the earldom were permitted to do homage to Prince Henry, saving only their allegiance to King Stephen. In return, King David and his son promised a permanent peace and provided four hostages. Although the text of the treaty is now lost, it seems likely that the prince’s marriage to Ada de Warenne, sister of the third Earl Warenne and half-sister of the Beaumont twins, was included in the terms of the Treaty of Durham.
Shortly after the treaty was signed, Prince Henry joined King Stephen’s court for a time, accompanying Stephen on campaign, which came with not without a little risk. It was probably during his stay with Stephen’s court that Henry married his bride. Orderic Vitalis claims that the marriage was a love match; however, the timing clearly suggests that the union was a consequence of the 1139 treaty of Durham, perhaps with the intention of drawing Henry into Stephen’s corner by allying him in marriage to his staunchest supporters, the Beaumont twins. On her marriage, which took place sometime between the conclusion of the treaty of Durham and Henry’s return to Scotland, Ada became Countess of Huntingdon and Northumbria and Lady of Haddington and Crail.
Henry was the only surviving son of King David I of Scotland and his queen, Matilda (or Maud), widow of Simon (I) de Senlis, who had died in 1113. Henry’s mother, Matilda, was the daughter of Waltheof, Earl of Northumbria, and Judith, a niece of William the Conqueror. Henry’s older brother, Malcolm, was tragically killed when a toddler; he was reportedly murdered by a Scandinavian monk in his father’s service, who is said to have savagely attacked the child with his artificial iron hand. Needless to say, the murderous monk was executed: David ordered that he be torn apart by wild horses.
On her marriage, Ada became Countess of Huntingdon and Countess of Northumbria. The marriage produced 3 sons and 3 daughters.
Ada never became Queen of Scots as Henry of Scotland died in 1152, a year before the death of David I. On his son’s death, David recognised his grandson and Ada’s eldest son, Malcolm, as his heir. During her son’s reign, Ada became known as The Queen Mother of Scotland. At this time, in her charters, she is most frequently styled ‘Ada comitissa regis Scottorum.’
Born in 1142, Malcolm succeeded to the crown at the age of 11 as Malcolm IV. Also known as Malcolm the Maiden, he died, unmarried, at Jedburgh in December 1165. Ada had been trying to arrange a suitable bride for him when he died.
He was succeeded by Ada’s 2nd son, William I the Lion. William was one of the longest reigning king of Scots in history, ruling for 49 years. He married Ermengarde de Beaumont, a granddaughter of Henry I of England by his illegitimate daughter, Constance. William and Ermengarde had 3 daughters and a son, who succeeded his father as Alexander II in 1214. Their 2 eldest daughters, Margaret and Isabella, are mentioned in Magna Carta. They became hostages of King John following the treaty of Norham in 1209; the English king had promised to marry at least one of them to his son, the future King Henry III, and to find a suitable husband for the other. Both girls married English nobles – eventually. Their brother, Alexander II, married Henry III’s sister, Joan, but the marriage was childless.
Ada and Henry’s 3rd son, David, Earl of Huntingdon, married Matilda of Chester and it is through the daughters of David that Robert the Bruce and John Balliol both based their claims as Competitors to the Scots crown in the 1290s.
Of the 3 daughters, Matilda died young, in 1152. Ada of Huntingdon married Floris III, Count of Holland, in 1161. She had 4 sons and 4 daughters before the count died at Antioch while on the 3rd Crusade, in 1190. Ada’s great-great-grandson, Floris V, Count of Holland, was one of the 13 Competitors for the Scots crown in 1291. Margaret married Conan IV, Duke of Brittany and Earl of Richmond in 1160. She was the mother of Constance, Duchess of Brittany, wife of Henry II’s son Geoffrey and mother of the tragic Arthur of Brittany who was murdered by King John, and Eleanor, the Pearl of Brittany who spent all her adult life in ‘honourable imprisonment’ in England.
Following her husband’s death Ada played little part in the politics of Scotland. She did, however, take great interest in the futures of her children, arranging the marriages of her daughters and seeking a bride for her son, King Malcolm IV. She later retired to her dower lands at Haddington in East Lothian, given to her by David I and possibly the 1st Royal Burgh in Scotland.
A generous patroness of the Church, Ada de Warenne died in 1178, shortly after founding the nunnery at Haddington She is believed to be buried in the Haddington area, although the exact location of her grave is lost to history. In 1198 her grandson, the future Alexander II, would be born in her old palace at Haddington, after her dower-lands were passed on to her daughter-in-law, Queen Ermengarde.
Images from Wikipedia.
Further Reading: G.W.S. Barrow, David I (c. 1185-1153) (article), Oxforddnb.com; Keith Stringer, Ada [née Ada de Warenne], countess of Northumberland (c. 1123-1178), Oxforddnb.com; Keith Stringer, Henry, earl of Northumberland (c. 1115-1152) (article), Oxforddnb.com; The Chronicle of Henry of Huntingdon; W.W. Scott, Malcolm IV (c. 1141–1165) (article), (article), Oxforddnb.com; Comprising the history of England, from the invasion of Julius Caesar to the accession of Henry II. Also, the Acts of Stephen, King of England and duke of Normandy Translated and edited by Thomas Forester; Early Yorkshire Charters Volume 8: The Honour of Warenne, Edited by William Farrer and Charles Travis Clay; Brewer’s British Royalty by David Williamson; The Mammoth Book of British Kings and Queens by Mike Ashley; The Story of Scotland by Nigel Tranter; Ada, Queen Mother of Scotland (article) by Victoria Chandler; David Ross, Scotland: History of a Nation; Matthew Lewis, Stephen and Matilda’s Civil War: Cousins of Anarchy; Stephen Spinks, Robert the Bruce: Champion of a Nation.
As with so many nobles of the eleventh century, Gundrada and William de Warenne were known for their piety. Either in 1077 or 1081-3 (the dates vary according to the sources) the couple set off on a pilgrimage to Rome. Unfortunately, they never actually made it as far as Italy, due to the outbreak of war between the pope, Hildebrand, and the Holy Roman Emperor. They did, however, reach the magnificent abbey of St Peter and St Paul at Cluny in Burgundy, where Gundrada’s brother, Gerbod, was now a monk and they themselves were received into the fellowship of the monks.
Shortly after the Norman Conquest, Gerbod had been made Earl of Chester, but had resigned this position and returned to Flanders in 1071. Gerbod’s return home had been essential to guarantee the safety of the family’s lands and interests there. The former earl of Chester’s eventual fate is uncertain, however; one report has him killed while another sees him imprisoned. His most likely fate comes from a third account, which claims that Gerbod accidentally killed his lord, Count Arnulf III, the nephew of Queen Matilda, at the Battle of Cassel in 1071. According to this last account, Gerbod travelled to Rome to perform penance for killing his young lord, but was prevented from his self-imposed mutilation by Pope Gregory VII. Instead, the pope sent him to Abbot Hugh at Cluny, who gave Gerbod absolution and admitted him to the order as a monk.1 This would explain William and Gundrada’s visit to Cluny and the Warenne attraction to the Cluniac order, which led to the foundation of the priory of St Pancras at Lewes, the first Cluniac priory founded in England.
Although Abbot Hugh was absent at the time of the de Warenne’s visit, the abbey at Cluny inspired the couple, they ‘were so struck with the high standard of religious life maintained there that they determined to put their proposed foundation under Cluny, and accordingly desired the abbot to send three or four of his monks to begin the monastery. He, however, would not at first consent—fearing that at so great a distance from their mother-house they would become undisciplined’.2
It was only after William and Gundrada managed to gain the backing of the king,, William the Conqueror, that the abbot gave his consent and eventually sent a monk named Lanzo, to act as prior, with three other monks to found the community. William gave them the church of St Pancras at Lewes, which had recently been rebuilt in stone, and the land surrounding it. Their territory was extended by William de Warenne acquiring ‘all the land and the island near Lewes which is called Southye’ for his monks, in return for, every Nativity of St John the Baptist, the delivery of ‘ten arrows, barbed, shafted, and feathered.’3 William and Gundrada were expecting to build a community to house twelve monks. All the churches on the vast Warenne estates were given to the priory, including endowments from the lands of Gundrada’s brother Frederic in Norfolk, recently inherited by Gundrada. The priory was to pay a fixed sum of 50s a year to the abbey at Cluny, but the independence of the Lewes monks was severely restricted, with the right of appointing its prior and admitting new monks being solely the reserve of the abbot of Cluny.4 A second priory, started by William but finished by his son, also William, was built on the family’s lands at Castle Acre in Norfolk.
The Cluniac order were unique in the church in that they had been granted exemption from excommunication by Pope Alexander II in 1061, who declared that anyone attempting to excommunicate the monks of Cluny would be ‘accursed by our Lord and St Peter, and fit to be burnt in eternal fire with the devil and the traitor Judas, and to be cast down with the impious into the abyss and Tartarean chaos.’5 The order had been founded in the year 910 by monks seeking to pursue a more austere lifestyle and a stricter interpretation of the Rule of St Benedict, laid down in the sixth century and the basis for medieval monastic life. Cluniac monks were renowned for the length and rigour of their church worship, the strict rules that governed them and their freedom from lay control and episcopal control, save for the pope. Their stringent rule contrasted with the order’s love of art and decoration, as demonstrated in the magnificent façade of the Cluniac priory of Castle Acre in Norfolk.6
The first Cluniac priory in England, St Pancras was also the acknowledged chief among Cluny’s establishments in England, all of which were founded within 150 years of the Norman Conquest; it became one of the wealthiest monasteries in the country. The family chronicle, the Warenne Chronicle may have originated at St Pancras Priory. Although it is also called the Hyde Chronicle, it is so called because it was discovered at Hyde Abbey in Winchester. It’s origin before that is unknown, so it is entirely possible that the chronicle originated was written at Lewes. This would also explain the chronicler’s extensive knowledge of the Warenne family.
Not only did the priory receive gifts and grants from each successive earl of Warenne, but also from other quarters, including those who wished to be buried there and those wanting to become monks. Among the grants issued to the priory over the years were allowances of venison for sick monks, fishing rights, the monopoly of eels from the Warenne’s Yorkshire properties and the right of taking wood three days a week from Pentecost (fifty days after Easter Sunday) to St Peter’s day (29 June).7 Of the Warenne earls of Surrey, all were buried at the priory at Lewes, except the third earl, who died on crusade in the Holy Land, and William of Blois, the first husband of Isabel de Warenne, who was buried in France. In addition to the family members, Lewes Priory was the chosen final resting place for the rich and noble, including earls and countesses of Arundel, and members of the prominent Nevill, Maltravers and Bohun families.
Gundrada died in childbirth at Castle Acre in Norfolk on 27 May 1085. It seems the misunderstanding over Gundrada’s parentage, and the claim that she was the daughter of William the Conqueror and his queen, Matilda of Flanders, arose with the monks at Lewes Priory, when a copy of an earlier charter claimed she was the daughter of Matilda of Flanders. Whether this was accidental or a deliberate misdirection is open to conjecture; the impression of royal links could give houses an advantage over other monasteries when seeking patronage.
Gundrada died before her husband received his earldom, and so never bore the title of countess. She was buried in the chapter house of St Pancras Priory at Lewes; her husband would be buried beside her three years later. Around 1145, when new monastic buildings were consecrated at St Pancras, Gundrada’s bones were placed in a leaden chest and interred under a tombstone of black Tournai marble, ‘richly carved in the Romanesque style, with foliage and lions’ heads’.8 The sculptor was trained at Cluny and would later work for Henry I’s nephew, Henry of Blois, Bishop of Winchester and brother of King Stephen. The inscription on the tombstone, which runs along all four sides and down the middle, reads:
‘Gundrada, offspring of dukes, glory of the age, noble shoot,
brought to the churches of the English the balm of her character.
As a Martha …
That part of Martha [in her] died; the greater part of Mary survives.
she was to the wretched; a Mary she was in her piety.
O, pious Pancras, witness of truth and justice,
she makes you her heir; may you in your clemency accept the mother.
The sixth day of the kalends of June, showing itself,
broke the alabaster containing her flesh …’
Elisabeth M.C. Van Houts and Rosalind C. Love (eds and trans), The Warenne (Hyde) Chronicle
William de Warenne was awarded the earldom of Surrey in the spring of 1088. He did not live long enough to enjoy his new title, however, dying within months, or possibly weeks, of attaining the honour, in June 1088. It is conceivable that William’s epitaph was written by Orderic Vitalis himself, who recreates it in volume iv of his Ecclesiastical History.  It reads:
‘Earl William, in this place your fame is kindled.
You built this house and were its generous friend:
This (place) honours your body, because pleasing was the gift
you gave so willingly to the poor of Christ.
The saint himself, Pancras, your heir, who guards your ashes,
Will raise you to the mansions of the blessed in the stars.
Saint Pancras give, we pray, a seat in heaven
To him who for your glory gave this house.’
Elisabeth M.C. Van Houts and Rosalind C. Love (eds and trans), The Warenne (Hyde) Chronicle
Following the dissolution of St Pancras Priory at Lewes in the sixteenth century, the tombstone was first moved to Isfield Church; it was moved again in 1775 to the parish church of St John the Baptist at Southover in Lewes. The church is situated close to the grounds of the ruined priory and may once have been within the priory’s precincts. The remains of Gundrada and William were discovered in the ruined priory in two leaden chests in 1845 and finally laid to rest in the Gundrada chapel at the Southover church in 1847. 9
The priory founded by William and Gundrada would continue its association with the Warenne family until the death of John, the seventh and final Warenne Earl of Surrey, who was buried there in 1347. The relationship was not always amicable, however; Earl Hamelin, the 4th Earl Warenne and second husband of Countess Isabel, had a long-running disagreement with the founding house at Cluny.
1Elisabeth Van Houts, Hereward and Flanders (article), Anglo-Saxon England vol. 28; 2A History of the County of Sussex: Volume 2 edited by William Page; 3 Lewes Chartulary quoted in W.H. Blaauw, On the Early History of Lewes Priory, and its Seals, with extracts from a MS. Chronicle, Sussex Archaeological Collections; 4W.H. Blaauw, On the Early History of Lewes Priory, and its Seals, with extracts from a MS. Chronicle, Sussex Archaeological Collections; 5Bullarum. Rom. Pontiff. Collectio, t.l. Roma, 1739-62 quoted in ibid; 6Edward Impey, Castle Acre Priory and Castle, English Heritage; 7Blaauw; 8Warenne, Gundrada de (d.1085) (article) by C.P. Lewis, Oxforddnb.com, oxforddnb.com; 9Elisabeth M.C. Van Houts and Rosalind C. Love (eds and trans), The Warenne (Hyde) Chronicle
Elisabeth Van Houts, Hereward and Flanders (article), Anglo-Saxon England vol. 28; 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; Edward Impey, Castle Acre Priory and Castle, English Heritage; Warenne, Gundrada de (d.1085) (article) by C.P. Lewis, Oxforddnb.com, oxforddnb.com; Elisabeth M.C. Van Houts and Rosalind C. Love (eds and trans), The Warenne (Hyde) Chronicle; Jeffrey James, The Bastard’s Sons: Robert, William and Henry of Normandy; Early Yorkshire Charters Volume 8 Edited by William Farrer and Charles Travis Clay; Rev. John Watson, Memoirs of the Ancient Earls of Warren and Surrey, and Their Descendants to the Present Time, Volume I; Alfred S. Ellis, Biographical Notes on the Yorkshire Tenants Named in Domesday Book (article); C.P. Lewis, Warenne, William de, first Earl of Surrey [Earl Warenne] (d. 1088) (article), Oxforddnb.com
As part of The Tudor Tracker‘s Alternative August programme of talks, I had a nice long chat with Catherine Brooks about the history behind Magna Carta, King John and some of the remarkable women I wrote of in Ladies of Magna Carta.
I have always been fascinated by the story of The Anarchy, that period of civil war in 11th century England. Empress Matilda fought her cousin, King Stephen, for the crown of England and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle famously reported:
… they said openly that Christ and His saints slept. Such things, and more than we know how to tell, we suffered 19 years for our sins.
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, edited and translated by Michael Swanton, p.265
King Stephen of England and his wife, Matilda of Boulogne, had 3 children who survived infancy, and yet – on his death – Stephen disinherited his surviving son, William, to leave his throne to Henry, Count of Anjou and Duke of Normandy. Henry was the son of Stephen’s bitter enemy, Empress Matilda.
Matilda of Boulogne, herself, was a cousin of Empress Matilda through her mother, Mary of Scotland, sister to the empress’s mother, Matilda of Scotland. Matilda of Boulogne and Empress Matilda were both granddaughters of Malcolm III of Scotland and his saintly wife, Margaret of Wessex; they were nieces of King David I of Scotland.
The Empress was was the only surviving legitimate child of Henry I (reigned 1100-1135), and his designated heir – but she was a woman and England’s nobles were reluctant to be ruled by a woman. Their reluctance to allow Matilda to take the throne was heightened by their dislike and distrust of Matilda’s husband, Geoffrey, Count of Anjou. Stephen of Blois was Henry I’s nephew and the son of Henry’s sister, Adela of Normandy. He was one of the old king’s closest male relatives and in the confusion following Henry’s death it was Stephen who took the initiative, acting quickly and decisively, and taking the kingdom of England and duchy of Normandy for himself.
What followed was a period known as the Anarchy, almost 20 years of conflict and bloodshed as Stephen and Matilda battled for supremacy. Ultimately, Stephen managed to retain control of England but Matilda’s eldest son, Henry, was eager to win back his birthright.
Following several incursions by Henry – whilst still in his teens – he and Stephen came to an agreement: Stephen would hold the throne until his death, but Henry would succeed him.
So, what happened to Stephen’s children?
Stephen and Matilda had 2 children, Baldwin and Matilda, who did not survive to adulthood. Matilda was married in 1136, as an infant, to Waleran de Beaumont, eldest twin son of Robert de Beaumont, 1st Earl of Leicester, and Isabel de Vermandois. The poor little girl died the following year, aged only 4.
Eustace IV, Count of Boulogne
The eldest surviving son of Stephen and Matilda was Eustace IV, Count of Boulogne. Eustace was an unpleasant character, by most accounts. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle called him ‘an evil man’ who ‘robbed the lands and laid heavy taxes upon them’. Henry of Huntingdon’s appraisal of Eustace was almost as damning:
… he was a man proven in military skill, but obdurate against the things of God, very harsh towards the incumbents of churches, very loyal towards those who persecute the Church.
The History of the English People 1000-1154 by Henry of Huntingdon
Eustace was married in Paris, in 1140, to Constance, the only daughter of Louis VI of France and his 2nd wife, Adelaide of Savoy. She was the sister of King Louis VII, the first husband of Eleanor of Aquitaine. Constance ‘was a good woman but enjoyed little happiness with him’. According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle:
1140. Then Eustace the king’s son travelled to France and took to wife the sister of the king of France and thought to get Normandy through that, but he had little success, and with jut cause, because he was an evil man, because wheresoever he came he did more evil than good; he robbed the lands and laid great taxes on them. He brought his wife to England and put her in the castle at Canterbury. She was a good woman but she had little happiness with him, and Christ did not wish that he should rule long, and he  and his mother  both died.
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, edited and translated by Michael Swanton, p.267
Stephen made attempts to have Eustace crowned, in his own lifetime, as heir-designate, in order to guarantee his succession. This was blocked by the Papacy; though they supported Stephen as king, over Matilda, they were keen to see the throne return to the senior legitimate line of Henry I through Matilda’s son, Henry.
The young prince had retired from court after Stephen came to terms with Henry. He was;
‘greatly vexed and angry because the war, in his opinion, had reached no proper conclusion’.
Although Eustace had been recognised, as Stephen’s heir, by the secular baronage, I can’t help thinking that it was a real stroke of luck for England when Eustace died of a seizure or ‘in a fit of madness’ in August 1153. He had recently laid waste to the lands of the abbey of Bury St Edmunds and so some said the revered saint had exacted his revenge. Another theory was that he choked to death and, of course, rumours of poisoning are not surprising; Eustace’s death paved the way for an ‘understanding’, over the succession, between Stephen and Henry of Anjou.
William, Earl of Surrey
Stephen’s youngest son was William, who was born sometime in the mid-1130s. It is thought William was born following Stephen’s accession to the English throne in 1135, as he was named after his great-grandfather, William the Conqueror, King of England and Duke of Normandy, rather than with a name associated with the County of Boulogne, as had his older brothers, Eustace and Baldwin.
In 1148 he was married to Isabel de Warenne, sole heiress to William de Warenne, 3rd Earl of Surrey, in order to bring the vast Warenne lands within the influence of the crown. Isabel’s father had departed on the Second Crusade in 1147 and would not return, being killed at the Battle of Mount Cadmus, in Laodicea, in January 1148. William was being addressed as an earl even before his father-in-law’s death.1 He would succeed to the County of Boulogne in 1153, on the death of Eustace and the county of Mortain on the death of his father in 1154.
Shortly after his brother’s death, and with the help of the clergy, William made an agreement with Henry of Anjou, whereby he waived his own rights to the crown in return for assurances explicitly recognising his rights to his lands, as Count of Boulogne and Earl of Surrey. Although, it is not known whether he did this willingly, or was persuaded by others, the agreement was an essential tool for the peaceful accession of Henry.
In spite of this agreement, William was implicated in a plot against Henry in early 1154 – or he at least knew about it – in which some Flemish mercenaries planned, but failed, to ambush Henry on the road near Canterbury. There may have been a tit-for-tat retaliation as William’s leg was broken in an ‘accident’ at about the same time.
However, when King Stephen died, William made no attempt to oppose Henry’s accession. In the early years of his reign, Henry acted to curb some of the power and influence William may have wielded by confiscating some of the lands and castles from his patrimony of Mortain, but allowing him to retain the earldom of Surrey, for the most part. William was even knighted by Henry II, after he joined the new king on his campaign against Toulouse.
William died in France, without issue, in 1159, after falling ill at the Siege of Toulouse and was buried in the Hospital of Montmorillon in Poitou, France. He was in his early 20s and left his young wife, Isabel, about the same age, a widow.
Mary of Boulogne
William was succeeded in the County of Boulogne by his sister, Mary, the 3rd surviving child of Stephen and Matilda. Mary was born around 1136 and placed in a convent at an early age, first at the Priory of Lillechurch, Kent, and then at Romsey Abbey, where she was elected Abbess sometime before 1155.
Five years later – shortly after William’s death – Mary was abducted by Matthew of Alsace, 2nd son of the Count of Flanders, and forced to marry him. There was outrage among the clergy – the incident was even discussed by the Pope – but the marriage was allowed to stand, at least until Mary produced and heir to the county of Boulogne. Mary and Matthew had 2 children – Ida and Mathilde – and it was after the birth of Mathilde that the couple were divorced, in 1170.
Matthew would continue to rule Boulogne and be succeeded by Ida, his eldest daughter by Mary, on his death in 1173. Mary was allolwed to return to the convent life, becoming a Benedictine nun at St Austrebert, Montreuil. She died there in July 1182, aged about 46.
The abduction and forced marriage of Mary may well have been a political move. Although there does not appear to be any proof that Henry II sanctioned it, he certainly benefited from Mary being safely married to a loyal vassal. She was, after all a great heiress and – through her father – a rival claimant to the throne of England.
It is, perhaps, a sad legacy for King Stephen that, after almost 20 years of warfare in order to hold onto his throne, the king was not able to pass it on to any of his children. His sons dying without issue meant that his bloodline continued only through his daughter, Mary, and the County of Boulogne, which Stephen had inherited through his marriage to Matilda.
Footnotes: 1 Farrer, William and Charles Travis Clay, editors, Early Yorkshire Charters, Volume 8: The Honour of Warenne.
Donald Matthew, King Stephen; Robert Bartlett, England Under the Norman and Angevin Kings; David Williamson, Brewer’s British Royalty; the History Today Companion to British History; Dan Jones, the Plantagenets; englishmonarchs.co.uk; The Oxford Companion to British History; Mike Ashley, The Mammoth Book of British kings & Queens; Alison Weir, Britain’s Royal Families, the Complete Genealogy; Farrer, William and Charles Travis Clay, editors, Early Yorkshire Charters, Volume 8: The Honour of Warenne; Gesta Stephani; Henry of Huntingdon, The History of the English People 1000-1154; J. Sharpe (trans.), The History of the Kings of England and of his Own Times by William Malmesbury; Catherine Hanley, Matilda: Empress, Queen, Warrior; Orderici Vitalis, Historiae ecclesiasticae libri tredecem, translated by Auguste Le Prévost; Chronicles of the Reigns of Stephen, Henry II and Richard I; Edmund King, King Stephen; Donald Matthew, King Stephen; Teresa Cole, the Anarchy: The Darkest Days of Medieval England; Matthew Lewis, Stephen and Matilda’s Civil War: Cousins of Anarchy.
Growing up near Conisbrough Castle, South Yorkshire, I did not know much about its history. It was rather underrated. We always thought it was just a bland old place – it was great for exploring and rolling down the hills and playing hide and seek in the inner bailey. However, being so far from London, the centre of power, it didn’t seem to have much history or national importance. The most famous thing about it was that it was used as the Saxon castle in Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe.
The castle’s early history
English Heritage have spent a lot of money on it in recent years. When I worked there in the early 1990s there was no roof, it was open to the elements, with green moss on the walls and erosion caused by acid rain. And there was just a very narrow walkway around the inside of the keep. It was just a shell. Now it has a roof, floors on every level, sensitive lighting, information videos on each floor and a fantastic little visitor centre with a small museum. 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 the castle team as a volunteer 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, in his Historia Regum Britanniae (History of the Kings of Britain), Conisbrough was founded as ‘Conan’s Burg’ by a British leader called Conan. It was said to have later belonged to Ambrosius Aurelianus, a candidate for the legendary King Arthur. As Geoffrey of Monmouth says, Ambrosius captured the Saxon leader Hengist, once a mercenary for Vortigern, at the battle of ‘Maisbeli.’ And brought him to his stronghold at Conisbrough. Hengist was then beheaded on Ambrosius’ orders and buried at the entrance to the castle of ‘Cunengeburg’, that is Conisbrough. A small hill, locally called Hengist’s Mound, is in the grounds of the outer bailey.
What we know, for certain, is that by 1066 the Honour of Conisbrough belonged to Harold Godwinson, Earl of Wessex and later King Harold II of England, though there is no evidence that he ever visited. On a prominent, steep hill, the castle 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, and shortly after the Harrying of the North of 1068 Conisbrough 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, 4th Countess of Warenne and Surrey, and became 4th Earl of Warenne and Surrey by right of his wife.
It was Hamelin who built the spectacular hexagonal keep that we can see today. 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 foundations 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 Warenne Earls of Surrey were close to the crown, and the centre of government, for the best part 3 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 Lion.
Hamelin’s son and heir, William, 5th Earl of Warenne and Surrey, married Maud Marshal, daughter of the Greatest knight, William Marshal, Earl of Pembroke and Regent during Henry III’s infancy. A cousin of King John, William was deeply involved in the Magna Carta crisis, though not always in support of his cousin. Their son John, the 6th Earl, was Edward I’s lieutenant in Scotland and beat the Scots at the Battle of Dunbar in 1296, though he had been defeated by William Wallace at Stirling Bridge the following year. John’s daughter, Isabella, married John Balliol, King of Scots, and was mother to Edward Balliol, another Scottish king. John’s sister, Isabel, married Hugh d’Aubigny, 5th Earl of Arundel, and is remembered as the countess who stood up to Henry III, invoking Magna Carta, when he appropriated land that was rightfully hers.
The 7th – and last – Warenne earl, John, was a colourful character who lived through some of the most dramatic events of English history; the reign of Edweard II. John was the grandson of the 6th earl; his father, William de Warenne, had diedbeen killed in a tournament at Croydon, in December 1286, when John was just 6 months old. Although he was married to Joan of Bar, a granddaughter of Edward I, John lived openly with his mistress and made several unsuccessful attempts to obtain a divorce from his wife. A private feud with Thomas Earl of Lancaster saw John arrange the kidnapping of Earl Tomas’ wife, Alice de Lacey, possibly in retaliation for Lancaster standing in the way of Surrey’s longed-for divorce. The result was the 1st – and only – siege of Conisbrough Castle.
Lancaster sent forces to seize the Warenne castles at Sandal and Conisbrough. His men found the gates of Conisbrough closed to them. The castle was defended by only six men, including the town miller and three brothers, Thomas, Henry and William Greathead, who were men-at-arms. The siege lasted less than two hours and the defenders appear to have relinquished the castle after apparently putting up a token resistance; the three brothers were fined for drawing blood. The chapel in the castle’s inner bailey may have been damaged in the brief altercation, as the following year, Lancaster sent orders to his castellan at Conisbrough, John de Lassell, to ‘repailler la couverture de la chapele de Conynggesburgh.’1
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 (also known as Richard of Conisbrough) at Conisbrough, possibly in the lavish bedchamber within the keep itself. Cambridge had the dubious reputation of being England’s poorest Earl and was executed following his involvement in the Southampton plot against Henry V; 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, known to Yorkists as 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 Lancastrian’s defeat of the Yorksists at the Battle of Wakefield on 30 December 1460. Maud died at the castle in August 1446 and is buried in Roche Abbey, about 10 miles from her home.
The castle underwent repairs during the reigns of Edward IV and Richard III, 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.
1 Hunter’s South Yorkshire ii; Deanery of Doncaster ii quoted in F. Royston Fairbank, The Last Earl of Warenne and Surrey, and the Distribution of His Possessions, Yorkshire Archaeological Journal, p. 213
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; F. Royston Fairbank, The Last Earl of Warenne and Surrey, and the Distribution of His Possessions, Yorkshire Archaeological Journal.
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 and one of the most prized heiresses in England and Normandy, with large estates in Yorkshire.
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 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 to the crown by his own father, when 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, he 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. Hamelin was the son of Herny’s father, Geoffrey, Count of Anjou, and an unknown woman, born around 1130, in the time when Geoffrey and Empress Matilda were estranged. In an unusual step, Hamelin took his wife’s surname and bore the titles Earl of Warenne and 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 Marshal, daughter of the great William Marshal, Earl of Pembroke and regent for King Henry III. There were also three daughters, Ela, Isabel and Matilda, however it has been suggested that Matilda was Hamelin’s daughter by a previous relationship, but this theory is based on an erroneous death date for her husband. 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 in her mid-60s, in 1203, and was buried at Lewes Priory, alongside Hamelin, who had died the previous year. 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
Footnotes: 1 Farrer, William and Charles Travis Clay, editors, Early Yorkshire Charters, Volume 8: The Honour of Warenne; 2 ibid
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; 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
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 will be making 2 stops on 8th July, visiting Simon Turney’s S.J.A. Turney’s Books and More, with an article on the many Family Ties of the women of the Magna Carta a story, plus Simon has written a wonderful review of Ladies of Magna Carta. And then it’s a quick hop over to visit Carol McGrath for her review of Ladies of Magna Carta and a chat about history, research and writing in general.
9th July I’ll be visiting the inimitable author, Tony Riches, with an article on Matilda de Braose.
I would like to thank Rosie and Rebecca 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.