The Mysterious Knight in the Graveyard

The imposing keep of Conisbrough Castle

Whilst I was researching the Warenne earls of Surrey my cousin, who lives in Conisbrough, passed on to me a story of the accidental discovery of a long-dead knight during road-widening work in the village. Whether he has any relation to the Warenne family is open to conjecture, of course, although it is entirely possible. His identity is a mystery…

The story starts in 1955, with a road widening programme that was carried out along Church Street in Conisbrough. Conisbrough was a tightly packed village, with the road so narrow in places that cars had to mount the pavement if they met oncoming traffic. The ‘pinch’ was outside the parish church of St Peter’s. As a consequence, Conisbrough Urban District Council set to work to widen the road where Church Street meets Church Yard. As this was church property, and graves would have to be disturbed, strict rules were put in place to allow the work to proceed. The then vicar, Rev. G.F. Braithwaite allowed that the boundary wall could be removed and rebuilt a metre further into the churchyard. It was stipulated, however, that no photographs or archaeological examinations could be undertaken during the works. They expected to find twelve lots of human remains in the area to be excavated, and these were to be removed and reinterred speedily, and with reverence and solemn prayer, elsewhere within the churchyard.

When the boundary wall was removed, the stones were carefully stacked for reuse. One stone proved particularly interesting. It was a large stone which had been situated close to the base of the wall, was about a metre long and half a metre wide, with the image of a sword blade carved into the façade; the part of the stone which would have shown the hilt was missing. Work then began on excavating that area of the church yard that was to make way for the widened road. It was expected that twelve graves, dating from Victorian times, would need to be removed. The remains were removed only a short distance and reinterred in an area which is now the memorial garden. As work continued, however, the number of graves had been sorely underestimated, and several dozen graves were uncovered. It was discovered that graves had been stacked, one on top of another, going back through the years.

The Warenne coat of arms

Among the remains found was one who had been buried with a small shield. The shield was about 60cm long and 50cm wide, decorated with a lion rampant (where the lion is stood on his two back legs). It was, therefore, assumed that the remains were that of a knight; although the stipulation that there could be no archaeological investigation, nor photographs taken, means that we know nothing beyond this. We do know that the knight did not belong to the household of the Warenne earls, who had owned Conisbrough and its castle since the time of the Normans; their coat of arms was a shield of blue and gold checks, adopted by the second earl in the first half of the twelfth century.

Although the colour of the lion on the shield was black, this is unlikely to have been the original colour; several hundred years in the ground had erased any indication of the colours of the lion or the background of the shield, thus making it impossible to identify the coat of arms. The remains were reinterred along with the others, according to the conditions imposed for the road widening scheme. The work was then continued, the road widened and a new boundary wall built, with steps into the church yard and a memorial park marking where the disturbed remains had been reburied.

St Peter’s Church, Conisbrough

The incident was then forgotten about with the passage of time. Indeed, when I came to look into it, few had heard of the mysterious knight buried in Conisbrough church yard. Internet searches brought up nothing. The story re-emerged in 1990, when Conisbrough Castle installed new floodlights and hosted a grand ‘switch on’ ceremony for the residents of Conisbrough. An article sent to me by a Conisbrough resident talks of meeting re-enactors at the ceremony, who were dressed as knights of the Earl of Norfolk, with a lion rampant on their shields.

It was then suggested that Earl Hamelin’s daughter Isabel had married Roger Bigod, the first Earl of Norfolk, who died in 1221. Unfortunately, this relationship is not supported by history; Earl Roger was, in fact, the second earl of Norfolk and married to Ida de Tosny, former mistress of Henry II. However, Earl Roger’s son, Hugh, who died in 1225, was married to Matilda Marshal, the eldest daughter of William Marshal, Earl of Pembroke and regent for Henry III. On Hugh’s death, Matilda had married William de Warenne, Earl Hamelin’s son and fifth Earl of Warenne and Surrey. It is entirely possible that Matilda was accompanied by knights of her first husband when she visited Conisbrough, or was visited there by a Norfolk knight who then perished and was buried in the church yard of St Peter’s at Conisbrough. However, the emblem of the earls of Norfolk, in Matilda’s time, was a red cross on a yellow background. The red lion rampant, on a field of gold and green, was only adopted until 1269, when Roger Bigod, fifth earl of Norfolk and Matilda Marshal’s grandson, inherited the title of Marshal of England, which had passed to the family through his grandmother. This also means that it is just as likely, or even more so, that the shield belonged to a Marshal retainer who was visiting Matilda, or in Matilda’s employ.

The coat of arms of William Marshal, Earl of Pembroke

There are several other possibilities for a Warenne connection to the knight in the churchyard. The emblem of the lion rampant was not an uncommon feature among medieval heraldry in England and Scotland. The royal arms of Scotland, for example, are of a red lion rampant on a yellow field. Edward Balliol, King of Scotland at various points in the 1330s, was a grandson of John de Warenne, sixth Earl of Warenne and Surrey, through his mother, Isabella de Warenne. Edward did not officially relinquish his claim to the Scottish throne until 1356 and died near Doncaster in around 1367. The mysterious knight may have been one of his household retainers. Another daughter of the sixth earl, Eleanor, married Henry Percy, the son of a cadet branch of the earls of Northumberland. The Percy family arms are a yellow lion rampant on a blue field. Other families associated with the Warennes also used the lion rampant on their shields, not least being the d’Aubigny earls of Arundel, whose arms were a yellow lion rampant on a red field; Isabel, daughter of William, the fifth Earl of Warenne and Surrey, married Hugh d’Aubigny, the fifth Earl of Arundel.

One final possibility is that the knight was a natural son of the last earl. John de Warenne, seventh Earl of Warenne and Surrey, had no legitimate children with his wife Joan of Bar, a granddaughter of Edward I but fathered a number of illegitimate children by his mistress, Maud Nerford. Maud was from a knightly family in Norfolk; their coat of arms was a lion rampant. It is known that at least one of their sons, —–, used the Nerford arms as his own. Further, the arms of John’s last mistress, Isabella Holland, who he called ‘ma compaigne’ in his will, was a white lion rampant of a blue field, surrounded by white fleur de lys.1

As to the stone, mentioned earlier, with the carving of a sword blade upon it, it was suggested that this stone was previously a grave marker for the mysterious knight and was found lying in the church grounds sometime in the early 1800s. There was extensive building going on in Conisbrough between 1800 and 1810 and it is assumed that stone was used to rebuild the boundary wall of the churchyard. The fact that the two were found in the vicinity of each other is no suggestion of a link. As archaeologist James Wright explained to me, such stones were often used to decorate churches, castles and important buildings, then repurposed elsewhere once those buildings fell into disuse. The stone could have come from anywhere, and not necessarily a grave marker at all. The stone in question can still be seen at St Peter’s church, to the side of the church porch.

Scotland’s King John Balliol with the arms of a red lion rampant on his surcoat

Although we have no definitive answers as to the identity of the mysterious knight who rests in the grounds of St Peter’s Church, Conisbrough, there are many possibilities that suggest a familial link with the Warenne family. As we have no archaeological survey or photographs to aid the investigation, definitive identification is impossible. Indeed, we do not even have any useful dates through which we can narrow down the possibilities. Although the last earl of Warenne and Surrey died in 1347, it seems unlikely that the knight is from a later period and had no relationship whatsoever with the Warenne earls. Conisbrough Castle passed into royal hands after the earl’s death and was given to Edward III’s fourth surviving son, Edmund of Langley, Duke of York; although the arms of Edmund and his sons were derived from the royal arms of England, which are three lions passant quartered with the fleur de lys of France.

It seems likely, therefore, that although we do not know the identity of century of the knight, he died sometime during the 300 years that the Warenne family held the castle and honour of Conisbrough; and there are several possible explanations for his association with the family, through their many and varied prestigious marriage alliances. There is also a chance that the knight was a Warenne himself, as the illegitimate son of the seventh and final earl, John de Warenne, and his mistress, Maud de Nerford.

The possibilities may not be endless, but they are numerous; without further information, however, it is impossible to narrow it down.

Footnotes:

1 Warner, Kathryn, Philippa of Hainault: Mother of the English Nation

Images:

Conisbrough Castle and Warenne coat of arms by Sharon Bennett Connolly, St Peter’s Church, Conisbrough by Andrea Mason, John Balliol and Marshal arms courtesy of Wikipedia

Sources:

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); 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; Conisbrough Castle Giudebook by Steven Brindle and Agnieszka Sadraei; 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; Kelcey Wilson-Lee, Daughters of Chivalry: The Forgotten Children of Edward I; Kathryn Warner, Philippa of Hainault: Mother of the English Nation; Vincent, Nicholas, ‘William de Warenne, fifth earl of Surrey [Earl Warenne] (d. 1240)’, Oxforddnb.com; Marc Morris, King John; David Crouch, William Marshal; Crouch and Holden, History of William Marshal; Crouch, David, ‘William Marshal [called the Marshal], fourth earl of Pembroke (c. 1146–1219)’, Oxforddnb.com; Flanagan, M.T., ‘Isabel de Clare, suo jure countess of Pembroke (1171×6–1220)’, Oxforddnb.com; Thomas Asbridge, The Greatest Knight; Chadwick, Elizabeth, ‘Clothing the Bones: Finding Mahelt Marshal’, livingthehistoryelizabethchadwick.blogspot.com; Stacey, Robert C., ‘Roger Bigod, fourth earl of Norfolk (c. 1212-1270)’, Oxforddnb.com; finerollshenry3.org.uk.

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My Books

Signed, dedicated copies of all my books are available, please get in touch by completing the contact me form.

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 BooksAmazon in the UK and US, Bookshop.org and Book Depository.

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

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,  AmazonBookshop.org 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, Bookshop.org 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, Bookshop.org and Book Depository.

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©2022 Sharon Bennett Connolly

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:

Signed, dedicated copies of all my books are available, please get in touch by completing the contact me form.

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 BooksAmazon in the UK and US and Book Depository.

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

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 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.

©2021 Sharon Bennett Connolly

The Early Years of the Last Earl Warenne

Arms of the Earls of Warenne and Surrey

John de Warenne, 7th and last Earl of Warenne and Surrey (Earl Warenne), was the only son of William de Warenne, who in turn was the only son of the colourful and rather legendary John de Warenne, 6th Earl Warenne. The 6th earl had been married in 1247 to Alice de Lusignan, half-sister of King Henry III as the second eldest daughter of Isabelle d’Angoulême, Queen of England as the wife of King John, and her second husband, Hugh X de Lusignan, Count of La Marche and Lord of Lusignan and Valence.

Born in around 1224, Alice was seven years older than her 16-year-old husband. The marriage had formed part of King Henry’s much-despised policy of patronising his Lusignan siblings and thus was condemned by Matthew Paris. Rather harshly, Paris claimed that the marriage was ‘beyond the bride’s station.’1 For John’s son and grandson, it would provide them with powerful royal relations in the future; William de Warenne was a first cousin of Edward I and the younger John de Warenne was a second cousin to Edward II.

Alice de Lusignan, Countess of Warenne and Surrey, died on 9 February 1256, just hours or days after William’s birth. She was ‘placed in the earth before the great altar [Lewes priory] in the presence of her brother Adelmar [Aymer], [bishop] elect of Winchester.’2 Despite being one of the wealthiest and most powerful earls in the country, and with only one legitimate son to succeed him, John de Warenne would never remarry, perhaps an indication of the deep affection that he held for his semi-royal wife.

In his late twenties, William de Warenne was married to Joan, daughter of Richard de Vere, Earl of Oxford, sometime in 1284: ‘Also William de Warenne married the daughter of the Earl of Oxford.’3 Through his mother, William was the nephew of Henry III and first cousin to Edward I. Through his father, William was descended from, among others, William Marshal, Geoffrey of Anjou and six Warenne earls of Surrey. However, William was destined never to succeed to the expansive earldom of Surrey. He was killed in a tournament at Croydon in December 1286, just six months after the birth of his only son and heir, John. The Annals of Lewes Priory recorded the events of 1286:

This year, on June 30, was born the first-begotten son of Sir William de Warenn, by his wife, daughter of the Earl of Oxford, whom he had married, as appears above. He was baptised and called by the name of John, on the 7th of November, with immense rejoicing; but alas! As the prophet testifies, ‘our joys are extinguished, but lamentation possesses us;’ for in the same year, on the first Sunday before the feast of Thomas the Apostle, which was on December 15, the father of the aforesaid youth [Sir William, killed in a tournament at Croydon], concerning whom our gladness had been, expired, and, oh sadness! He in whom flourished entire nobility, generosity and honesty, and the beginning of the glory of all knighthood, now lies buried and covered with stones. But there was present at the entombment of this so noble a man, the lord of Canterbury, who buried him before the high altar, on the left side, near his mother, with the greatest devotion of respect, as was fitting, many nobles of the land being present. The earl marshal [Roger Bigod, Earl of Norfolk], the Earl of Oxford and several barons … were anxiously afflicted.4

St Pancras priory, Lewes, the Warenne family mausoleum

Some sources suggest that John was the posthumous son of William, stating that William was killed in January 1286; however, this entry in the Annals of Lewes Priory makes it clear that John was born almost six months before his father was killed. John’s sister, Alice, on the other hand, may well have been born the year after her father’s death, in June 1287. Given the chronicle was written by a monk at Lewes, a priory patronised by the Warenne family, the laments and praise of William may be slightly exaggerated. However, that the archbishop of Canterbury conducted the funeral rites, and the presence of many senior nobles, suggests that William was, indeed, well thought of. This fact may give the lie to the rumours of murder that inevitably accompany a medieval death from unnatural causes. Rumours that William’s enemies had taken the opportunity of the tournament to despatch the young lord appear to be without foundation.

Young John suffered a further bereavement on 1293, when his mother, Joan died. Aged only 7, it seems arrangements had already been made should John still be a minor when his parents died. It had been agreed that the custody of John and his lands should go to Joan’s parents, Robert de Vere and his wife, Alice de Sanford. However, Earl Robert died in 1296 and it is not known where 10-year-old John spent the remainder of his childhood. It seems likely that John was raised by his Warenne grandfather, until the 6th Earl’s death in 1304.

At the age of 18, John succeeded to the earldom of his grandfather as the 7th earl of Warenne, Surrey and Sussex. His vast holdings comprised of lands and manors in numerous counties, including Sussex, Surrey, Lincolnshire, Yorkshire, Wiltshire and Norfolk. John, Earl Warenne, was still a minor and would be for another three years; as a consequence, he was made a royal ward, his lands taken into the custody of the Crown. Although he and his lands were in royal custody, and managed by custodians, John lived on his own estates and in 1305 the king commanded John to provide him with forty dried and salted barrels of deer.5 In the same year, he was sent to attend a tournament at Guildford, part of John’s estates, by Edward I, who provided the young lord with considerable funds for his maintenance.6

On 7 April 1306, in spite of the fact he had not yet performed homage to the king, still only 19 years old, Edward granted John his grandfather’s lands. It may well have been at this time that Edward Balliol was placed in John’s custody. The son of John’s aunt, Isabella, and King John Balliol of Scotland, the younger Balliol had been in the custody of his grandfather, the sixth Earl Warenne, from 1299 until the old earl’s death in 1304.

Seal of Edward Balliol as King of Scots

Given that it is likely his mother was no longer living when John Balliol became king in 1292, and that the couple had been married sometime before 7th February 1281, it seems probable that Edward was born sometime in the 1280s, making him of a similar age to his cousin, John de Warenne. Indeed, the two young men may well have spent their teenage years together in their grandfather’s household, training for knighthood. John was Balliol’s guardian for about 4 years, until it was ordered that he be delivered into royal custody in 1310, by Edward II. Edward Balliol had a strong claim to the Scottish throne, one that he would later be encouraged to pursue by Edward III in the 1330s. In May 1306, John de Warenne attended his first parliament at Westminster, an event which marked his coming of age, although he was not yet 21; in fact, he was still a month shy of his twentieth birthday.

John’s early coming of age appears to have been a part of larger scheme by King Edward, as during the parliamentary session, John was brought before the king and offered Edward’s granddaughter in marriage; the young earl readily agreed to the marriage, even though his bride was only 10 years old. The proposed bride was Joan, or Jeanne of Bar, Edward’s granddaughter by his eldest daughter, Eleanor and her husband Henry, Count of Bar. In the week following the betrothal of John and Joan, and in anticipation of a new expedition against Scotland, on 22 May 1306, Edward I held a magnificent ceremony for the knighting of his eldest son, Edward; the king knighted the prince, who then went on to knight the other candidates, in the glorious setting of Westminster Abbey.

In anticipation of the prince’s knighting, and in order to gather a body of knights who would be loyal to his son, the king proclaimed that all young men of sufficient age and income should travel to Westminster, to be knighted at royal expense alongside their future king, Prince Edward. The ceremony was also to bestow knighthoods on almost 300 men, John de Warenne included: ‘The yong Erle of Warenne with grete nobley was thare / A wif thei him bikenne, the erles douhter of Bare.’7

There were so many young men to be knighted, that it was impossible to find accommodation for all, and apple trees had to be chopped down in the gardens of the New Temple to make room. The prince and his closest companions kept their vigil, the night before the ceremony, watching their arms, in the abbey church at Westminster. Matthew of Westminster records that:

there was such a noise of trumpets and pipes, and such a clamour of voices, that one side of the choir could not hear the other. The others kept their vigil at the New Temple. The King provided them the necessary scarlet cloths, fine linen and belts for their use from his own wardrobe. 8

Arms of the House of Bar

The following morning, the king knighted his son in the palace of Westminster, investing him with his knight’s belt and spurs. The prince then crossed to Westminster Abbey, to invest the others; ‘The crowd was enormous, so great indeed, that two knights were killed. Each candidate was attended by three knights, who saw and assisted him through the ceremony.’9 The prince knighted sixty of the candidates himself, with other knights assisting with the rest. A lavish banquet – which later became known as the Feast of the Swans – followed the proceedings:

when two swans were brought in ornamented with gold network, emblematical of constancy and truth. When they were placed upon the table the King rose and made a vow to God and to the swans, that he would set out for Scotland and avenge the death of Comyn, and punish the treachery of the Scots … It was under these exceptionally interesting circumstances that Warenne received his knighthood.10

The murder of John Comyn, at the hands of Robert the Bruce in the church of the Greyfriars in Dumfries, on 10 February 1306, following an argument, had sent shockwaves through Christendom. Bruce had then raced to Scone where he was crowned King Robert I of Scots. As the celebrations continued a number of weddings also took place, involving several barons and nobles. John’s sister, Alice, married Edmund FitzAlan, 9th Earl of Arundel. Edmund had been a ward of John’s grandfather. The two young men were very close in age and were political allies and friends.

John de Warenne and Joan of Bar were married on 25 May, ‘before an altar spread with glittering cloths-of-gold.’11 Barely 10 years old, Joan was escorted to the palace at Westminster with great pomp and she and John were married in the presence of the ageing king. The Wardrobe Accounts bear witness to the extravagance of the ceremony and celebrations:

‘1306. May 25. In money lent and dispersed in the presence of the King, at the nuptials celebrated in the King’s chapel at Westminster, between John, Earl de Warenne, and the Lady Joanna, daughter of the Count de Barr, xls [40s].’ Other money was paid out ‘for diverse minstrels’, and ‘for letting fly the king’s gyrfalcon.’ More extravagance was expended to Thomas the coachbuilder, ‘advanced on making a chariot for the Earl de Warenne, June 28, lxs [60s],’ and to Walter de Bardeney, ‘advanced on harness being made for the said Earl, on the same day, cs [100s].’ While Walter de Bedewynde was commissioned ‘for a new carriage for the use of the Countess de Warenne, by order of the Treasurer.’12

Conisbrough Castle, South Yorkshire, where John de Warenne, the last Earl of Warenne and Surrey, died in 1347

The marriage would prove to be a disaster, with John spending most of his adult life trying to obtain a divorce from Joan in order to marry his mistress, Maud de Nerford, and thus legitimise his children by her. Although the relationship with Maud eventually broke down, possibly due to the considerable pressure they couple must have been under with the almost-constant court cases, John was still trying to obtain a divorce from Joan to his dying day. In his latter years, in a last desperate attempt to produce a legitimate heir, he hoped to marry his mistress at that time, Isabella Holland, who his described as ‘ma compaigne’ in his will.13

John de Warenne, seventh and last Earl of Warenne, Surrey, Sussex and Strathern died at Conisbrough Castle between 28 and 30 June 1347, possibly even on his sixty-first birthday (30 June). He asked to be buried at St Pancras Priory, Lewes, in an arch near the high altar. His will, dated 24 June 1347, left various gifts to his illegitimate children and to Isabella, to whom he left plate, jewels, cows, horses and other beasts, ‘and after that my debts and devises be made, I give to my said “compaigne” all the residue of all my goods and chattels, and whatsoever things they find.’14 To Joan, his wife of forty years, he left nothing.

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Footnotes:

1. Scott L. Waugh, ‘Warenne, John de, seventh earl of Surrey earl of Surrey and Sussex, Earl Warenne’, ODNB; 2. ‘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; 3. ibid; 4. ibid; 5. Scott L. Waugh, ‘Warenne, John de, seventh earl of Surrey earl of Surrey and Sussex, Earl Warenne’, ODNB; 6. ibid; 7. F. Royston Fairbank, ‘The Last Earl of Warenne and Surrey, and the Distribution of his Possessions’, The Yorkshire Archaeological Journal, vol. XIX; 8. ibid; 9. ibid; 10. ibid; 11. Kelcey Wilson-Lee, Daughters of Chivalry: The Forgotten Children of Edward I; 12. Wardrobe Accounts quoted in F. Royston Fairbank, ‘The Last Earl of Warenne and Surrey, and the Distribution of his Possessions’, The Yorkshire Archaeological Journal, vol. XIX; 13. Katheryn Warner, Philippa of Hainault: Mother of the English Nation; 14. Calendar of Papal Registers, Papal Letters quoted in F. Royston Fairbank, ‘The Last Earl of Warenne and Surrey, and the Distribution of his Possessions’, The Yorkshire Archaeological Journal, vol. XIX

Images:

Courtesy of Wikipedia except Conisbrough Castle and Lewes Priory which are ©2021 Sharon Bennett Connolly

Sources:

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; Early Yorkshire Charters Volume 8, Edited by William Farrer and Charles Travis Clay; Conisbrough Castle 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; oxforddnb.com; 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

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