Introducing the Earls of Warenne and Surrey

William de Warenne, 1st Earl of Warenne and Surrey, Trinity Church, Southover

The Warenne earls of Surrey were a fascinating family, right at the heart of English history and politics for almost 300 years, from the time of the Norman Conquest to the reign of Edward III. They held lands throughout England, acted as justiciars, sheriffs and generals – and yet, few people know their story.

But who were they?

William I de Warenne was rewarded for his support of King William II in the 1088 rebellion with the earldom of Surrey. However, the earls thereafter were as often referred to as the earls of Warenne – or the familial Earl Warenne, rather than earls of Surrey. The earldoms of Sussex and Strathearn (Scotland) were later added to these titles. As they appear to have preferred the simple familial title of Earl Warenne, that is how I have chosen to refer to them, except when establishing their titles. The Warenne’s extensive lands were spread over 13 counties and spanned the country from Lewes on the south coast to their castles of Conisbrough and Sandal in Yorkshire, with their family powerbase in East Anglia, where they built a magnificent priory, castle and medieval village at Castle Acre.

Wakefield, including Sandal Castle, appears to have come into the hands of the Warenne family at some point before 1121, during the tenure of the 2nd Earl Warenne. It is possible that they were acquired possibly in an exchange of lands with William Meschin, who had taken control of the Warenne holdings of Kimbolton in Huntingdonshire and Dean in Bedfordshire some time before 1130.

The family mausoleum was at St Pancras Priory in Lewes, founded by the first earl and his wife, Gundrada. It is the burial place of all but two subsequent earls and numerous other family members, as well as several earls of Arundel and their countesses.

For almost 300 years the Warenne earls of Surrey were some of the most influential men in the country, but the family died out rather ingloriously, with the seventh – and last – earl’s marital difficulties. Despite a prestigious marriage to a granddaughter of the king of England, John de Warenne, 7th Earl Warenne, died with no legitimate son to succeed him, though he had numerous acknowledged illegitimate children to whom he had given the family name.

Gundrada de Warenne, wife of the 1st earl

The first Warenne earl, William de Warenne, Earl of Warenne and Surrey, came to England with William the Conqueror’s invasion force and fought at the Battle of Hastings in 1066. As a younger son, he had little hope of an inheritance and had acquired his fortune and reputation fighting for the duke of Normandy, making his name as a young man at the 1054 Battle of Mortemer.

The Warennes were at the heart of English history and politics from the time of the Conquest to the death of John de Warenne, the 7th and last earl in 1347

So who were the Warenne earls?

Briefly,

William de Warenne was a distant cousin of William the Conqueror and fought at the Battle of Hastings. William was a trusted advisor and companion of King William I and was appointed justiciar in England during the king’s absences in Normandy. He pursued a personal feud against English freedom fighter, Hereward the Wake, after Hereward murdered his brother-in-law, Frederic. William was created Earl of Surrey by King William II, just weeks before his death in 1088, having been fatally wounded at the siege of Pevensey. William and his wife, Gundrada, founded the first Cluniac priory in England, St Pancras, at Lewes in Sussex. It would become the family mausoleum. William and Gundrada’s coffins were found in the 19th century, when the railway line was being laid, and are now interred in the Gundrada Chapel of Trinity Church, Southover.

The Warenne coat of arms, adopted by William de Warenne, 2nd Earl of Warenne and Surrey

He was succeeded by his oldest son, William II de Warenne (it was a popular name) who was earl for 50 years. This William had an awkward relationship with Henry I – William was thwarted in love by Henry when they both set their sights on the same woman, Matilda of Scotland. William supported Robert Curthose’s claim for the throne against Henry, but was persuaded to abandon the duke of Normandy in favour of the king of England after the former’s failed attempt to invade England led to Earl Warenne’s lands being confiscated by King Henry. From that moment on Earl Warenne was loyal to Henry and gave a rousing speech in favour of King Henry before the 1119 Battle of Bremule. He married Isabel de Vermandois, granddaughter of King Henry I of France and widow of Robert, Earl of Gloucester. The relationship caused some scandal as one chronicler suggests Isabel and William ran away together, before Isabel’s first husband was dead. William’s royal ambitions would be realised when his daughter, Ada de Warenne, married Prince Henry of Scotland in 1139; William’s grandsons, Malcolm IV and William the Lion, both succeeded to the Scottish throne.

The 3rd earl fought on the wrong side (in my opinion) during the Anarchy; he supported King Stephen. Also named William, he and his forces were ignominiously routed at the 1141 Battle of Lincoln, leaving King Stephen to be captured by Earl Robert of Gloucester. Earl Warenne redeemed himself by capturing the same Earl Robert during the Rout of Winchester in the summer of 1141, thus facilitating and exchange of commanders that saw King Stephen’s release from imprisonment at Bristol Castle. Perhaps growing tired of the constant civil war, in 1147 the earl left on the Second Crusade with his half-brother, Waleran de Beaumont, Count of Meulan, led by the brothers’ second cousin, Louis VII, and his wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine. Earl William was killed at the age of 28 at the Battle of Mount Cadmus in January 1148, leaving the earldom to his young daughter, Isabel.

Seal of Isabel de Warenne, 4th Countess of Warenne and Surrey in her own right

The 4th earl. Now this is where the subsequent numbering of earls gets confusing. There were two 4th earls, though some history books count them as the 4th and 5th earls. The earldom actually belonged to Isabel. Isabel de Warenne was 4th Countess of Warenne and Surrey in her own right. Her first husband, William of Blois (the first 4th earl), was the youngest son of King Stephen and her second husband, Hamelin Plantagenet (the second 4th earl), was the illegitimate half-brother of King Henry II; a thoroughly modern Hamelin changed his name from Plantagenet to de Warenne on marrying Isabel. The first marriage produced no children, which was a stroke of luck for Henry II, as William of Blois could have founded a dynasty to rival the mighty Plantagenets. The second marriage proved more fruitful, with three daughters and a son. Hamelin was a loyal supporter of his brother, Henry II, and nephews, Richard I and King John – despite the fact John seduced one of Hamelin’s daughters, fathering an illegitimate child with her. Hamelin also built the magnificent keep at Conisbrough Castle, South Yorkshire.

Their son, William de Warenne, the 5th Earl, was first cousin to both King Richard I and King John. He probably grew up in Normandy, and served with King Richard in France in the 1190s. William played an active role in English politics, negotiating with the rebels on John’s behalf in Spring 1215, attempting to avert civil war. He was a signatory of the Magna Carta in 1215 and again on its reissue in 1225; he was one of the few surviving earls to have witnessed both issues of the charter. He did side with the rebel barons and their French allies, for a time, but returned to the fold following King John’s death in October 1216. He then helped to negotiate the peace, in September 1217, which saw the French Prince Louis give up his claim to England and return home. He married Matilda Marshal, daughter of the great William Marshal, Earl of Pembroke and regent of England for the first few years of Henry III’s reign. The couple had two children; their daughter, Isabel d’Aubigny, Countess of Arundel, became famous for berating King Henry III over the appropriation of a wardship that was rightfully hers.

Seal of John de Warenne, 6th Earl of Warenne and Surrey

John de Warenne, the 6th earl, was the longest serving earl of them all, holding the title for 64 years. His father died when he was 8 years old. Henry III became his brother-in-law when he married the king’s half-sister, Alice de Lusignan, daughter of Queen Isabella of Angouleme and her second husband, Hugh X de Lusignan. The marriage was a happy one and the couple truly loved each other; following Alice’s death in childbirth, John did not take another wife. John de Warenne fought in the Second Barons’ War and was a close associate of the future king, Edward I. He was at the Battle of Lewes in 1264, fighting for King Henry III against Simon de Montfort, but escaped to the continent when the battle was lost. John was probably at Evesham for the defeat and death of Simon de Montfort, though his presence is not recorded; he was certainly with Henry III’s son, Edward, in the days before the battle. His daughter, Isabella, was married to John Balliol, King of Scots, and the mother of Edward Balliol, who pursued his own claim to the Scottish throne in the 1330s. John was guardian of Scotland for a time and lost the Battle of Stirling to William Wallace in 1298. John de Warenne was a brutal man with a sense of humour; he once claimed the rights to all the rabbit warrens in Surrey – because it was his name! His son, William de Warenne, had died during a tournament in 1286, so when John died in 1304, aged 68, he was succeeded by his 18-year-old grandson, John II de Warenne.

Lewes Castle, Sussex, seat of the earls of Warenne and Surrey

John II de Warenne, the 7th and last earl of Warenne and Surrey, spent most of his adult life trying to divorce his wife, Jeanne de Bar (Joan of Bar), a granddaughter of King Edward I, in order to marry his mistress. He made various claims to try and effect a divorce, including that he had had an affair with his wife’s aunt, Mary of Woodstock, who had been a nun from the age of 7. John was embroiled in a private – but very public – feud with Thomas of Lancaster, Edward II’s most powerful vassal, and even went so far as kidnapping Lancaster’s wife, Alice de Lacey. In retaliation, Lancaster seized the Warenne castles of Conisbrough and Sandal, both being close to his own castle of Pontefract. The castles were only restored to John after Lancaster’s execution following his defeat at the Battle of Boroughbridge, in 1322. John was involved in many of the events that shaped the reign of Edward II, though he did not fight in the 1314 English defeat by the Scots at the Battle of Bannockburn. He supported Edward II to the end – almost, only adding his to support to Isabella of France and the future Edward III, when he saw that the king’s cause was hopeless. He died in 1347 at Conisbrough, still married to Jeanne de Bar and with no legitimate heir to succeed him. The earldom passed to his nephew, Richard FitzAlan, Earl of Arundel, but the Yorkshire lands, including Conisbrough and Sandal castles, passed to the crown and were given to Edward III’s fourth surviving son, Edmund of Langley, 1st Duke of York.

Castle Acre Priory, Norfolk, one of the Cluniac monasteries founded by the Warenne earls

And that is just a – very – brief summary of the earls.

The Warenne family has a fascinating history, right at the heart of English politics for the better part of 3 centuries. They had family bond that is not always found amongst the aristocracy, with brothers and sisters helping and supporting each other and working for the benefit of their family. Strategic marriages forged links with the greatest families in England, Scotland and France; their family connections spanned the greatest noble houses, from the Marshals, the FitzAlans, the Lusignans, the d’Aubignys and Percys to the Scottish, French and English royal families.

One family, over 8 generations, the Warennes were at the centre of 300 years of English history.

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Selected Sources:

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

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My Books

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

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

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

Also by Sharon Bennett Connolly:

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

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

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

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©2021 Sharon Bennett Connolly

Gundrada, Daughter of Debate

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Gundrada de Warenne, Church of St John the Baptist, Southover

In 1066 William de Warenne joined his namesake the Duke of Normandy on his expedition to conquer England.  De Warenne is one of the few named knights involved in the Battle of Hastings, and one of William of Normandy’s most trusted captains.

Sometime in the years either side of the Conquest, William had married Gundrada.

Gundrada’s parentage has long been a subject of debate among historians. For many years she was believed to be the daughter of William the Conqueror and his wife, Matilda of Flanders. It seems the misunderstanding arose with the monks at Lewes Priory, when a copy of an earlier charter claimed she was the daughter of Matilda of Flanders. Lewes was founded as a Cluniac monastery by William and Gundrada and it may be that the monks got carried away with the idea of their foundress having royal blood, or that there was an error when copying the charter from the original.

For whatever reason, the claims by Lewes Priory have caused controversy throughout the ensuing centuries. In the sixteenth century Leland believed that she was the Conqueror’s daughter, while Orderic Vitalis had stated that she was ‘Sister of Gherbode, a Fleming, to whom King William the First had given the City and Earldom of Chester’¹ By the 1800s it was thought that Gundrada was not a daughter of the King, but of the queen, Matilda, by an earlier, forgotten marriage to a Flemish nobleman called Gerbod.

Other suggestions have included that she was an adopted daughter, raised alongside William and Matilda’s own children who were of a similar age. Alternatively, due to her Flemish origins, it has been argued that the confusion arose as she had joined Matilda’s household at an early age; an assertion supported by Matilda’s gift to Gundrada of the manor of Carlton in Cambridge – a manor Gundrada later gave to Lewes Priory.

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William de Warenne, 1st earl of Warenne and Surrey, Church of St John the Baptist, Southover

In 1888 in the English Historical Review, Freeman used the priory’s original charter to conclude that there was no familial relationship between Gundrada and William the Conqueror. In it, while the king and William de Warenne, both, mention Gundrada, neither refer to her as being related to the king or queen. Freeman stated ‘there is nothing to show that Gundrada was the daughter either of King William or of Queen Matilda; there is a great deal to show that she was not.’²

It now seems more likely that Gundrada was a Flemish noblewoman, the sister of Gerbod who would be, for a brief time, Earl of Chester. Her father may also have been called Gerbod, and was the hereditary advocate of the monastery of St Bertin; a title which later will pass down through the de Warenne family. Another brother, Frederic, had land in Sussex and Kent, even before the Conquest. The brothers, it seems, were deeply involved in the politics of Flanders and Normandy; indeed, it is thought that Gerbod resigned his responsibilities in Chester in order to return to the continent to oversee the family’s land and duties there. Frederic, along with the count of Flanders, was witness to Count Guy of Ponthieu’s  charter to the abbey of St Riquier in 1067.

William de Warenne was well rewarded for his part in the Norman Conquest, receiving lands in 13 counties, including the Honour of Consibrough in South Yorkshire, previously owned by the last Saxon king, Harold II Godwinson. De Warenne’s brothers-in-law had also joined the expedition, and Frederic was rewarded with the lands of a man named Toki; in Norfolk, Suffolk and Cambridgeshire, worth over £100.

However, Frederic was unable to enjoy his good fortune for long, as he was killed in the rebellion of Hereward the Wake in 1070. His lands, still known as ‘Frederic’s Fief’ in 1086, were inherited by his sister, who retained control of them throughout her lifetime. One manor was given to the abbey of St Riquier, possibly by Gundrada in memory of her brother.

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Lewes Priory, Sussex

Gundrada’s other brother, Gerbod resigned his position in Chester in 1070 and returned to Flanders which was in the midst of civil war, following the death of its count. Gerbod’s return was essential to guarantee the safety of the family’s lands and interests. the former earl’s fate is uncertain; one report has him killed while another sees him imprisoned, and a 3rd claims Gerbod accidentally killed his lord, Count Arnulf, at the Battle of Kassel in 1071. According to this last account, Gerbod travelled to Rome to perform penance and eventually became a monk at Cluny.

It seems that neither brother raised a family, as Gerbod’s lands in Flanders were also inherited by Gundrada; the family interest in the abbey of St Bertin would eventually be passed on to Gundrada and William’s 2nd son, Reynold.

As with so many nobles of the 11th century, Gundrada and William were known for their piety. In 1077 the couple made a pilgrimage to Rome; en route, they visited the magnificent abbey of Cluny in Burgundy. They must have been impressed with the abbey, as it inspired them to found their own Cluniac priory at Lewes in Sussex. In 1078 the abbot of Cluny sent over the 1st monks as William and Gundrada were supervising the new monastery’s construction; it would be the 1st Cluniac house in England. All the churches on the de Warenne’s vast estates were given to the priory, including endowments from her brother Frederic’s lands in Norfolk.

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Castle Acre, Norfolk

Gundrada and William had 3 children together. Their eldest son, William, would succeed his father as Earl of Surrey and de Warenne. He married Isabel de Vermandois, widow of Robert de Beaumont, earl of Leicester; with whom he had, apparently, been having an affair even before the earl’s death. Young William had a chequered career, he supported the claims of Robert Curthose, duke of Normandy, to the English throne against the duke’s younger brother, Henry I. However, duke Robert lost and was captured and imprisoned by Henry. Henry eventually forgave William, who fought for the king at the Battle of Bremule and was with Henry he died in 1135.

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Gundrada’s tombstone, St John’s Church, Southover

A 2nd son, Reynold de Warenne, led the assault on Rouen in 1090, for William II Rufus, in the conflict between the English king and his older brother, Duke Robert. However, by 1105 Reynold was now fighting for the duke against the youngest of the Conqueror’s sons, Henry I, defending the castle of Saint-Pierre-sur-Dives for the duke. He was captured by Henry the following year, but had been freed by September 1106. It is possible he died shortly after, but was certainly dead by 1118 when his brother issued a charter, in which he gave 6 churches to Lewes Priory, for the soul of deceased family members, including Reynold.

Gundrada and William also had a daughter, Edith, who married Gerard de Gournay, son of the lord of Gournay-en-Bray. Gerard also supported William II Rufus against Duke Robert and took part in the Crusade of 1096. Edith later accompanied him on pilgrimage back to Jerusalem, sometime after 1104, where he died. Gerard was succeeded by their son, Hugh de Gournay, whose daughter Gundreda would be the mother of Roger de Mowbray. Edith then married Drew de Monchy, with whom she had a son, Drew the Younger.

William de Warenne was created earl of Surrey shortly before his death in 1088; after he had helped William II to suppress a revolt led by Bishop Odo of Bayeux. De Warenne was wounded during the fighting and died a short time later.

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Tombs of Gundrada and William de Warenne

However, poor Gundrada had died in childbirth at Castle Acre in Norfolk on 27th May 1085, therefore never receiving the title of countess. She was buried in the chapter house of Lewes Priory; her husband would be buried beside her 3 years later. Around 1145 new monastic buildings were consecrated at Lewes Priory, 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’³. 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.

Following the dissolution of Lewes Priory in the 16th century, the tombstone was 1st moved to Isfield Church; it was moved again in 1775 to the parish church of St John at Southover in Lewes. The remains of Gundrada and William were discovered in 2 leaden chests in 1845 and finally laid to rest at the Southover church in 1847.

The dynasty founded by William and Gundrada would continue until the death of John, the 7th and final de Warenne Earl of Surrey, in 1347.

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The story of William and Gundrada de Warenne appears in my book, Silk and the Sword: the Women of the Norman Conquest. It will be told in much greater detail in Warenne: The Earls of Surrey from the Conquest to 1347, due out in 2021.

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Footnotes: ¹Early Yorkshire Charters Volume 8 Edited by William Farrer and Charles Travis Clay; ²ibid; ³C.P.Lewis, Oxforddnb.com

Images: Gundrada and William de Warenne church windows ©lewespriory.org.uk; Castle Acre and Lewes Priory courtesy of Wikipedia; Gundrada’s tombstone and the tombs of Gundrada and William courtesy of findagrave.com.

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; Britain’s Royal Families, the Complete Genealogy by Alison Weir; british-history.ac.uk; kristiedean.com; English Heritage Guidebook for Conisbrough Castle by Steven Brindle and Agnieszka Sadrei; oxforddnb.com.

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My books

Coming 31 May!

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

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

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

Also by Sharon Bennett Connolly:

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

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

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

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

©2016 Sharon Bennett Connolly.

Love, Adultery and a Fake Kidnapping? The story of Isabel de Vermandois

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Adelaide de Vermandois, mother of Isabel

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.

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Hugh I, Count of Vermandois

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.

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Arms of Isabel de Vermandois assumed by William de Warenne following their marriage.

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.

Castle Acre, residence of the Earls of Surrey

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.

500px-LewesPriory
Lewes Priory, final resting place of Isabel de Vermandois, Countess of Leicester and Surrey

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.

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Pictures taken from Wikipedia, except Castle Acre, which is ©2019, Sharon Bennett Connolly

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.

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My Books:

Coming 31 May 2021:

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

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

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

Also by Sharon Bennett Connolly:

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

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

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

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©2015 Sharon Bennett Connolly