As you may know, in medieval times most noble marriages were arranged by parents. They were usually alliances between families whose interests were aligned, and whose assets and connections could be mutually beneficial to each other. Rarely did an earl have to search for his own wife. However, it did happen.
William de Warenne, the second Earl of Warenne and Surrey, was about 20 when he inherited the earldom – and vast tracts of land stretching from the South Coast to Yorkshire – from his father in 1088. His mother, Gundrada de Warenne, had died in childbirth 3 years previously. And his father had spent his final days helping King William II put down a rebellion. The first earl was grievously wounded at the siege of Pevensey and died a few days later. The earldom itself was still in its infancy, having been conferred on the first earl scant months before his demise. With all this going on, therefore, it is no surprise that arranging his son and heir’s marriage had not made it onto the earl’s pressing agenda.
The second earl would have to make his own arrangements. And he set his sights rather high. William was interested in a royal bride. The young woman in question was Matilda of Scotland (at that time, she was known as Edith), daughter of Malcom III Canmor, King of Scots, and his wife, the saintly Queen Margaret. Edith/Matilda not only had the blood of Scottish kings flowing through her veins, but also the blood of England’s Anglo-Saxon kings; her mother Margaret was the daughter of Edward the Exile, a grandson of King Æthelræd II the Unready, and a descendant of Alfred the Great. Born in the early 1080s, Matilda and her sister Mary had been raised and educated by their aunt, Christine, at the abbey of Romsey, though their father had apparently insisted that they were not destined for the religious life. Matilda and her sister had returned to Scotland in 1093, after their father’s falling-out with King William II Rufus, but were brought back south in 1094, by their uncle Edgar, following Malcolm’s death in battle at Alnwick and Queen Margaret’s own sad demise just days later. Mary would eventually be married to Eustace III, Count of Boulogne, and was the mother of Matilda of Boulogne, wife of King Stephen. At some point after Edith/Matilda’s return to England, William de Warenne sought Matilda’s hand in marriage, although he was not the only one. As Orderic Vitalis says:
‘Alain the Red, Count of Brittany, asked William Rufus for permission to marry Matilda, who was first called Edith, but was refused. Afterwards, William de Warenne, Earl of Surrey, asked for this princess; but reserved for another by God’s permission, she made a more illustrious marriage. Henry, having ascended the English throne, married Matilda’Orderic Vitalis
Following the rebuff from King William, Earl William seems to have rarely appeared at court. A royal bride would have been a major asset for a man with Earl William’s ambition, but a marriage alliance of the powerful Warennes with a descendant of the Scottish and Anglo-Saxon royal houses could have been perceived as a threat to the ruling Normans. Aware that William de Warenne was disappointed with the loss of his royal bride and then seeing her married to the new king, Henry I attempted to make amends and win the earl’s support by offering one of his illegitimate daughters as an alternative bride. Unfortunately, Anselm, Archbishop of Canterbury, opposed the marriage on the grounds of consanguinity – the bride and groom were distant cousins – and Earl William was once again disappointed.
William, it seems, was quite bitter at having been thwarted in his plans to marry the Scottish princess, to the extent that he is credited with making up derogatory nicknames for the king and queen. He ridiculed Henry’s studious approach to hunting by calling him ‘stagfoot’; a reference to Henry’s claim that he could tell the number of tines in a stag’s antlers by examining the beast’s hoofprint, although the nickname could also be applied to Henry’s notorious womanising and the numerous illegitimate offspring that resulted. In a dig at both Henry and Queen Matilda, Earl William is believed to have been behind the Anglo-Saxon nicknames ‘Godric and Goda’, used by some of the Norman nobles as an insult and possibly an allusion to Henry’s inclination towards his English subjects at the expense of his Norman ones.
In all the years of unrest with Normandy, Earl William de Warenne would remain a bachelor. With peace finally achieved, however, it seems that the earl was at last ready to settle down. Unfortunately, the new object of his affections was Isabel de Vermandois. And she was married.
Also sometimes known as Elisabeth, Isabel had the blood of kings flowing through her veins; her father was Hugh Capet, Count of Vermandois by right of his wife, a younger son of King Henry I of France and Anna of Kyiv. Her mother was Adelaide de Vermandois, a descendant of the ancient Carolingian dynasty. Isabel was one of her parents’ nine surviving children, four boys and five 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. From the moment of her birth, as the granddaughter of the King of France, Isabel was a valuable prize on the international marriage market. As a result, her childhood proved to be depressingly short. By 1096 a marriage was mooted between Isabel and Robert de Beaumont, Count of Meulan and Earl of Leicester, he was 46 years old. Isabel was about 10. 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 received the earldom of Leicester in 1107.
The marriage was originally opposed by the church. Not only were the prospective couple related within the prohibited degrees, but also, Isabel was not yet 12, the minimum legal age that a girl could marry. Before leaving on the First Crusade, however, Isabel’s father was able to persuade Pope Urban to issue a dispensation and the marriage went ahead in 1096. The fact their first child was not born until 1102 suggests that, despite her father’s haste in arranging Isabel’s marriage, her husband at least gave the young girl time to mature before taking her to his bed. Isabel gave Robert nine 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. Another daughter, Isabel, was a mistress of Henry I before being married to Gilbert de Clare, first Earl of Pembroke. Through her son Richard de Clare, second Earl of Pembroke, she would be the grandmother of Isabel de Clare, wife of the great knight and regent for Henry III, William Marshal.
Isabel’s marriage to Robert de Beaumont appears to have ended in scandal and controversy. The chronicler Henry of Huntingdon reported that she was seduced by Earl William de Warenne, saying of Robert that ‘when he was at the height of his fame, it happened that another count stole his wife, by intrigue and violent treachery.’ It is hard to blame a young woman of thirty, in an arranged marriage to a man more than twice her age, for looking elsewhere for love and comfort. Although William de Warenne himself must have been around fifty and still twenty years Isabel’s senior. Huntingdon suggests that Earl William hatched a plot to kidnap Isabel – possibly with her approval – after Robert de Beaumont refused to grant his wife a divorce. It was claimed that the adultery of his wife with the earl had made the end of Robert de Beaumont’s life all-the-more miserable. Beaumont died on 5 June 1118, in England.
Such rumours of adultery, however, may have been little more than gossip, or a later invention, arising from the haste in which Isabel de Vermandois was married to Earl William de Warenne following her husband’s demise. The marriage was arranged, or at least sanctioned, by the king, possibly at the instigation of Earl Warenne, though this is by no means proof of any relationship prior to the marriage. Earl Warenne was badly in need of a wife, having been active on the political stage for thirty years and still with no son to succeed him. Indeed, the death of his brother, Rainald, leaving no heirs, sometime before 1118, may have prompted Earl William to consider the future of the earldom with more of a sense of urgency. It is thought he may have been the father of two illegitimate sons, Rainald blundus and Rainald brunus, who appear as brothers of the third earl in a charter.
Isabel and William appear to have married very soon after Robert de Beaumont’s death, given that their first child, a son also named William, was born in 1119: he would become the third Earl Warenne on his father’s death in 1138. At least four more children followed, including two sons. Ralph de Warenne, does not appear to have married and may have joined his big brother on crusade; nothing is heard of him following his brother’s departure for the Holy Land. A third son, Reginald de Warenne, would marry the heiress to the barony of Wormegay: he was a trusted administrator of the Warenne lands for his brother, the third earl.
William and Isabel also had two daughters. Ada de Warenne fulfilled her father’s royal ambitions when she married Henry of Huntingdon, heir to the Scottish throne. Two of Ada’s sons became kings of Scotland; Malcolm IV and William the Lion. Another daughter, Gundreda, is described as ‘uterine sister’ of Waleran de Beaumont, Isabel de Vermandois’ son by her first marriage. Gundreda is a clear demonstration of how well Countess Isabel’s two families integrated. Gundreda married Roger de Beaumont, a cousin of her Beaumont half-siblings. Roger had become earl of Warwick on his father’s death in 1119 and must have been some years older than his wife, who cannot have been born before 1120. Roger de Beaumont vacillated during the period known as The Anarchy, but finally sided with King Stephen. He was with the royal court when news reached it that his wife, Countess Gundreda, had tricked the garrison of Warwick castle into surrendering to the supporters of Henry of Anjou, the future King Henry II. The earl apparently died from the shock of hearing of his wife’s betrayal on 12 June 1153.
On his marriage to Isabel, Earl William adopted the Vermandois coat of arms as his own and the blue and yellow checks became known as the ‘Warenne chequer’, perhaps to highlight his wife’s illustrious ancestry as a member of the French royal family. William and Isabel enjoyed 20 years of married life before the earl died, in his early 70s, and having been one of the leading magnates of England and Normandy for fifty years. William de Warenne, second Earl Warenne died on or around 11 May 1138 and was buried at his father’s feet at St Pancras Priory, Lewes. When he died, he left the earldom with more land than he had inherited and even greater prestige, having married a member of the French royal family. Isabel de Vermandois outlived her husband by almost ten years, dying around 1147 or 1148. She was also buried at Lewes Priory, close to her second husband.
Images: Gundrada church window, William de Warenne church window and Warenne coat of arms ©Sharon Bennett Connolly, courtesy of Trinity Church, Southover; St Pancras Priory and Castle Acre Priory ©Sharon Bennett Connolly Waleran de Beaumont courtesy of Wikipedia.
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 Bartlett; 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; The Warenne (Hyde) Chronicle edited and translated by Elisabeth M.C. van Houts and Rosalind C. Love; The Ecclesiastical History of England and Normandy by Orderic Vitalis oxforddnb.com.
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Defenders of the Norman Crown: The Rise and Fall of the Warenne Earls of Surrey tells the fascinating story of the Warenne dynasty, of the successes and failures of one of the most powerful families in England, from its origins in Normandy, through the Conquest, Magna Carta, the wars and marriages that led to its ultimate demise in the reign of Edward III. Defenders of the Norman Crown: Rise and Fall of the Warenne Earls of Surrey is now available from Pen & Sword Books, Amazon in the UK and US, Bookshop.org and Book Depository.
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Also by Sharon Bennett Connolly:
Ladies of Magna Carta: Women of Influence in Thirteenth Century England looks into the relationships of the various noble families of the 13th century, and how they were affected by the Barons’ Wars, Magna Carta and its aftermath; the bonds that were formed and those that were broken. It is now available in paperback and hardback from Pen & Sword, Amazon, Bookshop.org and from Book Depository worldwide.
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Silk and the Sword: The Women of the Norman Conquest traces the fortunes of the women who had a significant role to play in the momentous events of 1066. Available now from Amazon, Amberley Publishing, Bookshop.org and Book Depository.
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