William Longespée, the King’s Illegitimate Son

For many years, although William Longespée’s father was known, the identity of his mother was very much in question. William Longespée was the son of Henry II, king of England, and it was thought that his mother was a common harlot, called Ikenai. In that case, he would have been a full brother of another of Henry’s illegitimate sons, Geoffrey, Archbishop of York. There were also theories that his mother was Rosamund Clifford, famed in ballads as ‘the Fair Rosamund’. However, it is now considered beyond doubt that his mother was, in fact, Ida de Tosney, wife of Roger Bigod, Earl of Norfolk, from a relationship she had with the king before her marriage.

Coat of arms of William Longespée, 3rd Earl of Salisbury

There are two extant pieces of evidence supporting this. The first is a charter in the cartulary of Bradenstoke Priory, made by William Longespée, in which he refers explicitly to his mother as ‘Countess Ida, my mother’. There is also a prisoner roll from after the Battle of Bouvines, in which a fellow captive, one the sons of Ida and the earl of Norfolk, Ralph Bigod, is listed as ‘Ralph Bigod, brother [halfbrother] of the earl of Salisbury’. Ralph was a younger son of Earl Roger and Ida and had been fighting under Longespée’s command in the battle in which both were taken prisoner.

Ida was probably the daughter of Roger (III) de Tosney, a powerful Anglo-Norman lord, and his wife, also called Ida. She was made a royal ward after her father’s death and became mistress of King Henry II sometime afterwards. She gave the king one son, William Longespée, who was born around 1176, making him ten years younger than the king’s youngest legitimate son, John. Around Christmas 1181, Ida was married to Roger Bigod, Earl of Norfolk and through his mother’s Norfolk family, Longespée had four half-brothers, Hugh, William, Ralph and Roger and two half-sisters, Mary and Margery.

Despite the misunderstandings over his mother, the identity of William Longespée’s father was never in doubt. He was Henry II’s son and acknowledged by his father; as an illegitimate son of Henry II, William Longespée’s fortune and position in society were inextricably linked with the fortunes of his royal half-brothers, King Richard I and King John, both of whom he served. Longespée adopted the coat of arms of his paternal grandfather, Geoffrey Plantagenet, Count of Anjou, of azure, six leoncels rampant or [gold], to emphasise his descent from the Angevin counts.

The moniker of Longespée (also Lungespée or Longsword) harkens back to his Norman forebear and namesake William Longsword, second Duke of Normandy (reigned 928–942), from whom he was descended through his father, the king. Little is known of Longespée’s childhood, upbringing or education, though a letter of 1220 that Longespée sent to Hubert de Burgh reminds the justiciar that they were raised together, probably fostered in a noble household. In 1188, Longespée had been given the manor of Appleby in Lincolnshire by his father, but he did not come into prominence until the reign of his half-brother Richard I.

It was King Richard who arranged Longespée’s marriage to the rich heiress Ela of Salisbury. Ela’s father, William, Earl of Salisbury, had carried the sceptre at Richard I’s coronation, in 1194 he had served as high sheriff of Somerset and Dorset and in 1195 campaigned with King Richard in Normandy. In the same year, he was one of the four earls who supported the canopy of state at Richard’s second coronation, and attended the great council, called by the king, at Nottingham. He died in 1196, leaving his only child, Ela, as his sole heir. Ela became Countess of Salisbury in her own right, and the most prized heiress in England.

On her father’s death, Ela’s wardship passed into the hands of the king himself, Richard I, the Lionheart. The king saw Ela as the opportunity to reward his loyal, but illegitimate, half-brother, William Longespée, by offering him her hand in marriage; the Salisbury lands being seen as a suitable reward for a king’s son, especially one born out of wedlock. They would give Longespée a power base in England. Ela and Longespée were married in the same year her father died, 1196. At the time of his marriage to Ela, Longespée was in his early-to-20s, while his bride was not yet 10 years old, although she would not have been expected to consummate the marriage until she was 14 or 15, and they would not have lived as husband and wife until Ela was at least 12 years old, the church’s legal age of marriage for a girl.

Ela’s new husband was an experienced soldier and statesman and would be able to protect Ela, her lands and interests. William acquired the title Earl of Salisbury by right of his wife and took over the management of the vast Salisbury estates.

Salisbury Cathedral

William (I) Longespée had an impressive military and political career during the reigns of his half-brothers. He first served in Normandy with Richard between 1196 and 1198, attesting several charters for his brother at Château Gaillard, and taking part in the campaigns against King Philip II of France, gaining essential military experience. He took part in John’s coronation on 27 May 1199 and was frequently with John thereafter. The half-brothers appear to have enjoyed a very cordial relationship; the court rolls record them gaming together and John granting Longespée numerous royal favours, from gifts of wine to an annual pension. By 1201 Longespée, along with William Marshal and Geoffrey fitz Peter, Earl of Essex ‘were seen by John at this stage in his reign as the main props to his rule, and lavish gifts followed.’1

Although Longespée’s marriage to Ela of Salisbury gave him rank and prestige, it was not a wealthy earldom. The barony commanded fifty-six knights’ fees and gave the earl custody of the royal fortress of Salisbury, but Longespée had no castle of his own. He was made sheriff of Wiltshire on 3 separate occasions, 1199–1202, 1203–1207 and 1213–1226, but was never granted the position as a hereditary right by the king. As sheriff, it was Longespée’s task to hunt down the famous outlaw Fulk Fitzwarin, whom he besieged in Stanley Abbey in 1202. When Fitzwarin and his band of about 30 men were pardoned in 1203, Longespée was among those who secured the pardon from the king. During his career, William was also entrusted with several important diplomatic missions. In 1202 he negotiated a treaty with Sancho VII of Navarre and in 1204 he and William Marshal escorted the Welsh prince Llywelyn to the king at Worcester. He was also sent to Scotland on a diplomatic mission to King William the Lion in 1205 and was with John at York in November 1206 when the two kings met. The earl was also involved in the election of his nephew, Otto, as German emperor, heading an embassy to the princes of Germany which resulted in Otto’s coronation.

William Longespée’s most prominent role during the reign of King John, however, was as a military leader. He was a commander of considerable ability. In August 1202 he had fought alongside William Marshal and William de Warenne, Earl of Surrey, hounding the retreating forces of King Philip of France. The French king had withdrawn from the siege of Arques following news of John’s victory over his nephew, Arthur, at Mirebeau. Longespée and his lightly-armed fellow earls, however, narrowly escaped capture from a counterattack led by William de Barres. Following the fall of Normandy, Longespée was given command of Gascony in May 1204. In September of the same year he was also given custody of Dover castle and made warden of the Cinque Ports; he retained both offices until May 1206. In 1208 Longespée was appointed warden of the Welsh Marches and in 1210 he joined King John on the Irish expedition which had been prompted by William de Braose fleeing to Ireland to escape John’s persecution. In 1213 he allied with the counts of Holland and Boulogne, led an expeditionary force to the aid of Count Ferrand of Flanders against King Philip II and on 30 May he achieved a significant naval victory when his forces destroyed the French fleet off the Flemish coast near Damme, burning many enemy ships and capturing others. The victory forced King Philip to abandon plans for an invasion of England.

In 1214 William Longespée commanded an army in northern France for the king, while John was campaigning in Poitou. He managed to recover most of the lands lost by the count of Flanders and,, in July of the same year, he commanded the right-wing of the allied army at the Battle of Bouvines, alongside Renaud de Dammartin, Count of Boulogne. William fought bravely but was captured, after being clubbed on the head by Philippe, the bishop of Beauvais. According to the Histoire de Guillaume le Maréchal the battle had been fought against the earl’s advice, and if it were not for Longespée’s own heroic actions, Emperor Otto would have been taken prisoner or, worse, killed. The battle was a military disaster for the English forces in France and ended John’s hopes of recovering his Continental possessions. William Longespée was held prisoner for almost a year. He was eventually ransomed and exchanged in March 1215, for John’s prisoner, Robert, son of the count of Dreux, who had been captured at Nantes in 1214.

William Longespée was back in England by May 1215 and appointed to examine the state of royal castles. However, England was reaching crisis point by this time, with the rebellion of the barons gathering pace. Although unable to prevent rebels from gaining control of London, he was effective against the rebels in Devon, forcing them to abandon Exeter. He was named among those barons who had advised John to grant Magna Carta, though whether he was actually present at Runnymede, when the charter was sealed, is unknown. He was granted lands from the royal demesne in August 1215 in compensation for the loss of Trowbridge, which had been returned to Henry de Bohun, one of the twenty-five barons appointed to the committee to oversee the enforcement of the terms of Magna Carta. Also in 1215, following the fall of Rochester, Longespée was given the task of containing the rebels in London, while John led the rest of his forces north. Alongside Faulkes de Bréauté and Savaric de Mauléon, he led a punitive chevauchée through Essex, Hertfordshire, Middlesex, Cambridgeshire and Huntingdonshire. However, in the early weeks of 1216, when Walter Buc’s Brabançon mercenaries ravaged the Isle of Ely, it was Longespée who protected the women from their worst excesses.

Longespée was still supporting John when Louis, the Dauphin, landed on 21 May 1216; however, Louis’ rapid advance through the southern counties, and the fall of Winchester in June 1216, led the earl of Salisbury to submit and ally with Louis. He remained in opposition to his half-brother for the rest of John’s life. Unfounded rumours, recorded by William the Breton, suggested that Longespée’s desertion of John was caused by the king’s seduction of Ela while the earl was a prisoner of war in France. It seems more likely that, like so many others, he saw John’s cause as lost and decided to cut his own losses. With Longespée’s defection, and that of William de Warenne, Earl of Surrey, John’s support was severely diminished and in retaliation, John ordered his brother’s lands seized in August 1216.

Battle of Lincoln 1217, from Matthew Paris

Despite the death of King John in October 1216, Longespée remained with Louis and even called for Hubert de Burgh to surrender Dover to the French. However, when Louis returned to France in March 1217, to gather reinforcements, Longespée submitted to the king, swearing loyalty to his 9-year-old nephew, Henry III. He was also absolved of the sentence of excommunication which had been passed on all those who had defected to Louis. Along with Longespée, William Marshal’s eldest son, William (II), and a hundred other men from Wiltshire and the south-west, returned to the king’s peace. Longespée was now instrumental in driving the French from England and defeating the remaining rebel barons. He was part of William Marshal’s army at the Battle of Lincoln Fair on 20 May 1217, when Lincoln Castle and its formidable castellan, Nicholaa de la Haye, were finally relieved following a three-month siege by the French under the Comte de Perche.

We know nothing of William and Ela’s married life, although it appears to have been a happy one. The couple had at least eight children together, if not more; 4 boys and 4 girls. Of their 3 youngest boys, Richard became a canon at the newly built Salisbury Cathedral, Stephen became seneschal of Gascony and justiciar of Ireland, and their youngest son, Nicholas, was elected bishop of Salisbury in 1291; he was consecrated at Canterbury by Archbishop John Pecham on 16 March 1292. Already in his sixties, Nicholas died on 18 May 1297. In 1216, the oldest son, William II Longespée, fourth Earl of Salisbury, was granted marriage by King John to Idonea, granddaughter and sole heiress of the formidable Nicholaa de la Haye. Both children were very young when the grant was made, with Idonea being, possibly, no older than 8, the youngest age that a betrothal was sanctioned by the church, though she could not be married until the age of 12. John ordered that:

Effigy from William Longespée’s tomb

The sheriffs of Oxford and of Berkshire are commanded that they cause William, Earl of Salisbury, to have the right of marriage of the daughter of Richard de Canville, born of Eustacia, who was the daughter of Gilbert Basset and wife of the said Richard, for William his first-born son by his wife Ela, Countess of Salisbury, with all the inheritance belonging to the said Richard’s daughter from her mother in their Bailiwicks. Witness myself, at Reigate, the twenty second day of April.

Letter from King John, 22 April 1216

This order may be the source of Nicholaa de la Haye’s later wranglings with Salisbury, given that it appears to pass all of Idonea’s inheritance into the custody of Longespée, regardless of the fact Nicholaa was still very much alive at this time. It also suggests that Richard de Canville, Idonea’s father, may have already been deceased, despite most mentions of him have him dying in the first quarter of 1217. Young William and Nicholaa de la Haye would spend several years in legal disputes over the inheritance of Nicholaa’s Lincolnshire holdings. William (II) Longespée went on crusade with Richard, Earl of Cornwall, in 1240–1 and later led the English contingent in the Seventh Crusade led by Louis IX of France. His company formed part of the doomed vanguard, which was overwhelmed at Mansourah in Egypt on 8 February 1250. William’s body was buried in Acre, but his effigy lies atop an empty tomb in Salisbury Cathedral. His mother, Ela, is said to have experienced a vision of her son’s last moments at the time of his death.

Of the William and Ela’s 4 daughters, Petronilla died unmarried, possibly having become a nun. Isabella married William de Vescy, Lord of Alnwick, and had children before her death in 1244. Another daughter, named Ela after her mother, married firstly Thomas de Beaumont, Earl of Warwick and, secondly, Phillip Basset; sadly, she had no children by either husband. A 4th daughter, Ida, married Walter fitzRobert; her second marriage was to William de Beauchamp, Baron Bedford, by whom she had 6 children.

As a couple, William Longespée and Ela were great patrons of the church, laying the 4th and 5th foundation stones for the new Salisbury Cathedral in 1220. William de Warenne, Earl of Surrey and a cousin to Ela – Ela’s father was half-brother to William’s mother, Countess Isabel de Warenne – also laid a foundation stone. In the first half of the 1220s, Longespée played an influential role in the minority government of Henry III and also served in Gascony to secure the last remaining Continental possessions of the English king. In 1225 he was shipwrecked off the coast of Brittany and a rumour spread that he was dead. While he spent months recovering at the island monastery of Ré in France, Hubert de Burgh, first Earl of Kent and widower of Isabella of Gloucester, proposed a marriage between Ela and his nephew, Reimund. Ela, however, would not even consider it, insisting that she knew William was alive and that, even if he were dead, she would never presume to marry below her status. It has been suggested that she used clause 8 of Magna Carta to support her rejection of the offer:

‘No widow is to be distrained to marry while she wishes to live without a husband.’

Clause 8, 1215 Magna Carta
Tomb of William Longespée, Salisbury Cathedral

However, as it turned out, William Longespée was, indeed, still alive and he eventually returned to England and his wife; after landing in Cornwall, he made his way to Salisbury. From Salisbury he went to Marlborough to complain to the king that Reimund had tried to marry Ela whilst he was still alive. According to the Annals and antiquities of Lacock Abbey Reimund was present at Longespée’s audience with the king, confessed his wrongdoing and offered to make reparations, thus restoring peace.

Unfortunately, Longespée never seems to have recovered fully from his injuries and died at the royal castle of Salisbury shortly after his return home, on 7 March 1226, amid rumours of being poisoned by Hubert de Burgh or his nephew. He was buried in a splendid tomb in Salisbury Cathedral.

Although the title earl of Salisbury still belonged to his wife, his son, William (II) Longespée was sometimes called Earl of Salisbury, but never legally bore the title as he died before his mother. Ela did not marry again. On her husband’s death, she was forced to relinquish her custody of the royal castle at Salisbury, although she did eventually buy it back. Importantly, she was allowed to take over her husband’s role as sheriff of Wiltshire, which he had held 3 times in his career and continuously from 1213 until his death in 1226. Ela herself served twice as sheriff of Wiltshire from 1227 until 1228 and again from 1231 to 1237.

Ela of Salisbury outlived both her eldest son and grandson. She was succeeded as Countess of Salisbury by her great-granddaughter, Margaret, who was the daughter of William III Longespée. Just over 10 years after she was widowed, Ela entered her own foundation of Lacock Priory in 1237 and became the first Abbess when it was upgraded to an Abbey in 1239. As Abbess, Ela was able to secure many rights and privileges for the abbey and its village. She obtained a copy of the 1225 issue of Magna Carta, which had been given to her husband for him to distribute around Wiltshire. She remained Abbess for 20 years, resigning in 1259. Ela remained at the abbey, however, and died there on 24th August, 1261.



1David Crouch, William Marshal

Images courtesy of Wikipedia.


finerollshenry3.org.uk; Oxforddnb.com; magnacarta800th.com; Church, Stephen, King John: England, Magna Carta and the Making of a Tyrant; Danziger, Danny and John Gillingham, 1215: The Year of Magna Carta; Crouch, David, William Marshal; Matthew Paris, Robert de Reading and others, Flores Historiarum, volume III; Robert Bartlett England Under the Norman and Angevin Kings 1075-1225; Dan Jones The Plantagenets; the Kings who Made England; Maurice Ashley The Life and Times of King John; Roy Strong The Story of BritainOxford Companion to British History; Mike Ashley British Kings & Queens; David Williamson Brewer’s British Royalty; Rich Price King John’s Letters Facebook page; Elizabeth Hallam, editor, The Plantagenet Chronicles; Donald Matthew, King Stephen; Medieval Lands Project on the Earls of Surrey, Conisbrough Castle; Farrer, William and Charles Travis Clay, editors, Early Yorkshire Charters, Volume 8: The Honour of Warenne; Rev. John Watson, Memoirs of the Ancient Earls of Warren and Surrey and their Descendants to the Present Time; Morris, Marc King John: Treachery, Tyranny and the Road to Magna Carta; doncasterhistory.co.uk.


My books

Coming 31st 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.

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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©2021 Sharon Bennett Connolly.

Medieval She-Wolves: Part One

Throughout history – and particularly in medieval times – strong, determined women have been labelled ‘she-wolves’. It is a term that has been used as a criticism or insult. It has often been applied to suggest a woman of serious character flaws who would invariably put her own interests ahead of others, who fought for what they wanted, be it a crown, their children or independence. Men who performed similar actions and had similar aims tended to be called strong and determined rulers. However, the term can also be used to show women in a positive light, women who didn’t give up, fought for themselves and their families. So I have chosen 6 women who could have been termed ‘she-wolves’ to show women from both viewpoints, and to demonstrate the strength of the characters and the challenges they faced. And while their actions were not always exemplary, their stories were always remarkable.

Æthelflæd, Lady of Mercia

Æthelflæd, Lady of Mercia

The daughter of King Alfred the Great, Æthelflæd was married to Æthelred, ealdorman of Mercia. Æthelflæd was a strong, brave woman and is often regarded more as a partner to Æthelred than a meek, obedient wife. Although she exercised regal rights in Mercia even before her husband’s death, after Æthelred died in 911, it was left to Æthelflæd to lead the Mercians in the fight against the Danes. Alongside her brother, King Edward of Wessex. It is universally acknowledged that Æthelflæd helped to push back the Viking incursions. Losing four of her greatest captains in the battle to capture Derby in 917, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle reported:

‘With God’s help Ethelfleda, lady of Mercia, captured the fortress known as Derby with all its assets. Four of her favoured ministers were slain inside the gates.’

Anglo-Saxon Chronicles edited by Michael Swanton

In 918, Æthelflæd captured Leicester, ravaging the countryside around the town until the Danes surrendered. The combination of her indefatigable forces and compassion in victory saw the Danes soon suing for peace; in the summer of 918, the noblemen and magnates of York sent emissaries to Æthelflæd, promising that they would surrender to her. She personally led campaigns against the Welsh, the Norse and the Danes – though whether she actually wielded a sword in battle is unknown.

While often magnanimous in victory, Æthelflæd could be ruthless when it was her friends who were attacked; even she was not immune from the desire for revenge. In June 916, on the feast of St Cyriac, Æthelflæd’s good friend, Abbot Egbert, was murdered for no known reason. The Mercian abbot and his retainers were ambushed and killed while travelling in the Welsh mountain kingdom of Brycheiniog. The abbot had been under Æthelflæd’s protection and within three days she was leading an army into the Wales to exact revenge.

Statue of Aethelflaed and Athelstan

Æthelflæd’s army ravaged Brycheiniog, burning the little kingdom and taking many hostages. Although King Tewdr escaped Æthelflæd, his wife did not; Queen Angharad and thirty-three others, many of them relatives of the Welsh king, were taken back to Mercia as hostages. Æthelflæd’s strength and determination was complemented by her quick actions and an impressive ruthless streak. When the Welsh king eventually submitted to Æthelflæd, he promised to serve her faithfully, and to pay compensation for the murder of the abbot and his people.

Æthelflæd died suddenly in June 918. She did not live to see the successful conclusion to the work she and her brother had worked tirelessly to achieve; between 910 and 920 all Danish territories south of Yorkshire had been conquered.

Eleanor of Aquitaine, Queen of France, Queen of England (died 1204)

Tomb effigy of Eleanor of Aquitaine, Fontevraud Abbey, France

Eleanor of Aquitaine is iconic. Probably the most famous woman of the middle ages, she is the only woman to have ever worn the crowns of both England and France. She has even been promoted as the first feminist.

Eleanor’s long life saw her weather the dangers of crusade, scandal, siege, imprisonment and betrayal to emerge as the great matriarch of Europe.

When her first husband, Louis VII, led the Second Crusade, Eleanor went with him, only to find herself mired in scandal.  Eleanor’s uncle Raymond of Toulouse, Prince of Antioch, welcomed Eleanor warmly and lavished such attention on her that rumours soon arose of an affair. Despite a lack of concrete evidence, but accused of adultery and incest, Eleanor spent most of the crusade under close guard on her husband’s orders.

Louis and Eleanor’s marriage had been dealt a fatal blow; they left the Holy Land in 1149 and their divorce was finally proclaimed 21 March 1152. By May 1152 Eleanor was married again, to the man who would become her first husband’s greatest rival. Henry of Anjou would become King of England in 1154 and eventually built an empire that extended 1,000 miles, from the Scottish border in the north to the Pyrenees in the south and incorporating most of western France.

Later rumours again mired Eleanor in scandal, accusing her of murdering Henry’s lover Rosamund Clifford. In one extravagant version, Rosamund was hidden in her secret bower within a maze but, with the help of a silken thread, a jealous Eleanor still found her and stabbed her while she bathed. In another the discarded queen forced Rosamund to drink from a poison cup. Of course, a closely guarded prisoner in Old Sarum or at Winchester as Eleanor was at the time of Rosamund’s death, it was impossible for her to do any such thing. But who are we to let facts get in the way of a good story?

Eleanor did, however, commit one of the most heinous crimes a woman could in the medieval world. As a she-wolf, protecting her cubs, she rebelled against her husband. In 1173 her eldest son by Henry, also called Henry, rebelled against his father and fled to the French court for support. His father-in-law, King Louis VII welcomed the disgruntled Angevin prince and Eleanor of Aquitaine, having sided with her sons against her husband, sent two of her other sons, fifteen-year-old Richard and fourteen-year-old Geoffrey, to join their older brother at the French court, while she rallied her barons in Poitou to their cause. In 1174, when the rebellion failed, Henry accepted the submission of his sons.

Eleanor, who was captured as she rode towards safety in France, wearing men’s clothing – an act itself highly frowned upon – was not so fortunate. While it was not encouraged for sons to rebel against their father, it could be seen as boys flexing their muscles. For a wife to rebel against her husband was practically unheard of, and went against the natural order of society, and therefore deserved harsher punishment – where would the world be if women refused to behave?

Unforgiven and defeated, Eleanor was sent to perpetual imprisonment in various castles throughout southern England. She was only released after Henry II’s death in 1189, when her favourite son, Richard I, the Lionheart, ascended England’s throne. If she had done everything of which she was accused – murder, incest, adultery and rebellion – Eleanor would be the ultimate she-wolf. As it was, her rebellion, an act unprecedented for a queen, meant she paid the price with her freedom for the next fifteen years.

Isabeau of Bavaria, Queen of France

Isabeau of Bavaria

If all the stories of Isabeau of Bavaria were to be believed, she would be the most ruthless and wicked queen to have ever lived. For centuries Isabeau has been accused of almost every crime imaginable, from adultery and incest to treason and avarice. Variously described as being beautiful and hypnotic or so obese that she was crippled, the chroniclers have not been kind to Isabeau. According to them, her moral corruption led to the neglect of her children and betrayal of her husband and country.

However, they ignored the challenges faced by a queen whose husband was sinking deeper and deeper into the realms of insanity, going so far as killing four of his own knights during one mental breakdown and thinking he was made of glass in another. Married to King Charles VI of France, also known as Charles ‘the Mad’, Isabeau was left to raise her children and navigate the dangers and intrigues of court politics with little assistance from her mentally disturbed husband. Her political alliance with Louis of Orléans, her husband’s brother, led to her imprisonment amid slanderous rumours of adultery and incest – from the opposing political party.

To add to this, France was – not that they knew it at the time – halfway through the conflict with England that would become known as the Hundred Years’ War. The war was going badly for France – Henry V defeated them decisively at Agincourt – and Isabeau was forced to put her signature to the Treaty of Troyes in 1420. In that instant she disinherited her own son, the Dauphin, making Henry V heir to King Charles and handing France over to England. Much of Isabeau’s life and career has been re-examined in the twentieth century and she has been exonerated of many of the accusations against her, but, despite the fact Isabeau was backed into a corner, she still signed away her son’s inheritance in favour of a foreign power…

Although not all their actions were womanly, and some of what they did could be seen as dishonourable and ruthless, what is certain is that these women – and many others from their time – left their mark on history. With each of them, applying the term ‘she-wolf’ highlights their strengths, their determination, and the challenges they faced and overcame. They fought for what they wanted, often against impossible odds, and achieved much. At a time when the perceived main purpose of a wife was to produce and raise children, these women made a remarkable imprint on history that has ensured their stories are still being told today.

Look out for Part Two of Medieval She-Wolves, next week.

Selected 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; The Plantagenet Chronicles Edited by Elizabeth Hallam; The Mammoth Book of British Kings and Queens by Mike Ashley; The Plantagenets, the Kings that made Britain by Derek Wilson; England Under the Norman and Angevin Kings  by Robert Bartlett; http://www.britannica.com; oxforddnb.com; finerollshenry3.org.uk; The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles by Michael Swanton; The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle by James Ingram; Chronicles of the Kings of England, From the Earliest Period to the Reign of King Stephen, c. 1090–1143 by William of Malmesbury; The Chronicle of Henry of Huntingdon by Thomas Forester; Alfred the Great by David Sturdy; Britain’s Royal Families, the Complete Genealogy by Alison Weir; The Wordsworth Dictionary of British History by JP Kenyon; The Anglo-Saxons in 100 Facts by Martin Wall; Kings, Queens, Bones and Bastards by David Hilliam; Mercia; the Rise and Fall of a Kingdom by Annie Whitehead.

Images courtesy of Wikipedia

A version of this article first appeared in the 2019 edition of All About History magazine.

My Books

Coming soon! 

Ladies of Magna Carta: Women of Influence in Thirteenth Century England will be released in the UK on 30 May 2020 and is now available for pre-order from Amazon UK and from Book Depository worldwide. It will be released in the US on 2 September and is available for pre-order from Amazon US.

Also by Sharon Bennett Connolly:

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 UK,  Amberley Publishing, Book Depository and Amazon US.

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 UK, Amazon US and Book Depository.


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©2019 Sharon Bennett Connolly 

‘Fair Rosamund’

Fair Rosamund by John William Waterhouse

The story of Rosamund de Clifford is shrouded in more legends than most medieval lives. After Eleanor of Aquitaine, she is the woman most associated with Henry II, king of England. In historical fiction, she is the woman who claimed his heart and stole him away from his queen. But who was she? How much of her story is real, how much is fantasy?

Rosamund de Clifford was probably born around 1140. She was the daughter of Walter de Clifford, a lord on the Welsh Marches, and his wife Margaret de Tosny. We know nothing of her childhood, she may have been educated at Godstow Abbey, but it is not certain; nor is when she actually met the king. The rest of her life is made of rumour and gossip.

Rosamund’s father served Henry II on campaign in Wales in the 1160s. It is possible that the king first met the young woman on a visit to de Clifford’s residence of Bredelais during the campaign. Some theories have Henry’s affair with Rosamund starting around 1165, the first Christmas that Henry spent apart from his queen, Eleanor of Aquitaine. Eleanor held her Christmas court at Angers while Henry was at Oxford. Henry had a tendency to be constantly on the move and it was unusual for him to be so immobile, which has led to suspicions that this was when his love affair with Rosamund began. However, there is evidence that Henry may also have been nursing some sort of injury, which would also curtail his movements.

Henry and Eleanor were to have one more child, John, born at Christmas 1166, which suggests the Christmas 1165 separation was more due to the logistics of ruling large domains than it was to Henry finding love elsewhere. However, there is a later story of Eleanor intending to have her lying in at the royal palace of Woodstock, only to find Rosamund in residence on her arrival and quickly relocating to Oxford to give birth.

Henry and Eleanor holding court

Henry was never a faithful husband and was known to have several illegitimate children, including William Longspée and Geoffrey, Archbishop of York. He numbered among his conquests Rohese, a daughter of the prominent de Clare family and Ida de Tosny, who later married Hugh Bigod, earl of Norfolk, and was mother of Longspée. If Henry and Rosamund did begin their relationship in the mid-1160s, they did a marvellous job of keeping the affair secret, as it was not made public until 1174.

Henry’s relationship with his queen soured considerably in the early 1170s with Eleanor taking the side of their sons and joining them in open rebellion in 1172-73. Henry managed to crush the rebellion and forgave his sons, but he was not so lenient with Eleanor. In 1174 he escorted her to England and installed her in Old Sarum, condemning her to what would be 15 years of imprisonment; she would only be released when her favourite son, Richard I, ascended the throne in 1189.

In the same year as Eleanor’s imprisonment, Henry’s relationship with Rosamund became common knowledge. She resided at the royal palace of Woodstock in Oxfordshire, which was extensively refurbished in the early 1170s. It was said that ‘King Henry had made for her a house of wonderful workmanship, a labyrinth of Daedelian design.’¹ There was said to be a labyrinth, a secret bower where Henry and Rosamund met and a well where Rosamund bathed. Rosamund’s Well can still be seen today in the grounds of Blenheim Palace, which now stands where Woodstock once stood.

Although it has come down through legend as a great love story, nothing is known of Rosamund’s feelings towards Henry, nor whether she any any say in her position as the king’s mistress. The chroniclers of the time, of course, painted her as the fallen woman, a seductress and adulteress. They created puns derived from her name; Rosamund, or rosa mundi meaning the rose of the world became rosa immunda – the unclean rose – and rosa immundi – the unchaste rose.

The ruins of Godstow Abbey

That poor Rosamund was blamed for Henry’s infidelity was a sign of the times; women were the daughters of Eve, temptation for honourable men who had no power to resist them. Rosamund’s early death was seen as a just punishment for her lascivious lifestyle. Rosamund ended her relationship with Henry in 1175/6 and withdrew to Godstow Abbey. It seems likely that she was already ill when she entered the priory and she died in 1176. Henry paid for a lavish tomb within the convent church, at which the nuns left floral tributes on a daily basis. In the years following Rosamund’s death, Henry endowed the convent with 2 churches at Wycombe and Bloxham, new buildings and substantial amounts of building materials. Rosamund’s father, Walter, granted the abbey mills and a meadow, for the souls of his wife and daughter.

Unfortunately, however, Rosamund was not allowed to rest in peace. In 1190 when  the saintly Bishop Hugh of Lincoln visited Godstow he was horrified that Rosamund’s tomb had a place of honour within the church and ordered her remains to be removed. The tomb was resited in the nun’s chapter house, with an accompanying inscription admonishing her lifestyle:

This tomb doth here enclose the world’s most beauteous Rose,

Rose passing sweet erewhile, now nought but odour vile.²

Eleanor prepares to poison Rosamund by Evelyn De Morgan

Rosamund’s early death – she was still only in her 30s – inspired legends of revenge; Eleanor has been variously accused of stabbing her in her bath and poisoning her. In one extravagant version, Rosamund was hidden in her secret bower within a maze but, with the help of a silken thread, a jealous Eleanor still found her and stabbed her while she bathed. In another the discarded queen forced Rosamund to drink from a poison cup. Of course, a closely guarded prisoner in Old Sarum or at Winchester as she was, it was impossible for Eleanor to do any such thing. But it makes for a good story!

Rosamund’s relationship with Henry probably lasted no more than 10 years and possibly as little as 3 years. She may have seen little of Henry in that time, as he was a constantly on the move and only spent a little over 3 of those 10 years in England in total. It is possible that Rosamund sometimes travelled with him, discreetly, although this seems unlikely given that no one knew of her until after Eleanor’s rebellion and imprisonment. There are some theories that suggest Henry had lost interest in Rosamund even before her death, and that was the reason for her retirement to Godstow. Although his lavish endowment of the Abbey may argue otherwise, Henry is said to have turned his attentions to his son Richard’s fiancée, Princess Alys, sister of Philip II of France.

Perhaps the truth of Rosamund’s story matters less than the legend and romance that has grown up around it. Maybe the story of unrequited love, secret trysts and hidden bowers are just as important to history than the sordid truth a woman seduced by a king with little say in the direction of her own life, denied husband, children and a future.

Maybe the romance is what makes the story more palatable.

The Ballad of Fair Rosamund

The Flower of the World

When as king Henry ruled this land,

The second of that name,

Besides the queene, he dearly loved

A faire and comely dame

Most peerless was her beautye founde,

Her favour, and her face;

A sweeter creature in this worlde

Could never prince embrace.

Her crisped lockes like threads of golds

Appeared to each man’s sight;

Her sparkling eyes, like Orient pearles,

Did cast a heavenlye light.

The blood within her crystal cheeks

Did such a colour drive,

As though the lillye and the rose

For mastership did strive.

Yea Rossamonde, fair Rosamonde,

Her name was called so,

To whom our queene, dame Ellinor,

Was known a deadly foe.

The king therefore, for her defence

Against the furious queene,

At Woodstocke builded such a bower,

The like was never seene.

Most curiously that bower was built

Of stone and timber strong,

An hundred and fifty doors

Did to this bower belong.

And they so cunningly contriv’d,

With turnings round about,

That none but with a clue of thread

Could enter in and out.³


Footnotes: ¹Polychronicon quoted in Oxforddnb.com; ² Speed quoted in Oxforddnb.com; ³Anonymous quoted in Eleanor, April Queen of Aquitaine by Douglas Boyd

Pictures courtesy of Wikipedia

Sources: Oxforddnb.com by T.A. Archer, rev by Elizabeth Hallam; Wordsworth Dictionary of British History by J.P. Kenyon; kings, Queens, Bones and Bastards by David Hilliam; England Under the Norman and Angevin Kings 1075-1225 by Robert Bartlett; King John by Marc Morris; The Devil’s Brood by Desmond Seward; The Greatest Knight by Thomas Asbridge; Eleanor, April Queen of Aquitaine by Douglas Boyd; Eleanor of Aquitaine by Alison Weir; The Plantagenet Chronicles Edited by Elizabeth Hallam.


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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 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.


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.


©2017 Sharon Bennett Connolly