The Warennes and the First Cluniac Priory in England

Lewes Priory Sussex

As with so many nobles of the eleventh century, Gundrada and William de Warenne were known for their piety. Either in 1077 or 1081-3 (the dates vary according to the sources) the couple set off on a pilgrimage to Rome. Unfortunately, they never actually made it as far as Italy, due to the outbreak of war between the pope, Hildebrand, and the Holy Roman Emperor. They did, however, reach the magnificent abbey of St Peter and St Paul at Cluny in Burgundy, where Gundrada’s brother, Gerbod, was now a monk and they themselves were received into the fellowship of the monks.

Shortly after the Norman Conquest, Gerbod had been made Earl of Chester, but had resigned this position and returned to Flanders in 1071. Gerbod’s return home had been essential to guarantee the safety of the family’s lands and interests there. The former earl of Chester’s eventual fate is uncertain, however; one report has him killed while another sees him imprisoned. His most likely fate comes from a third account, which claims that Gerbod accidentally killed his lord, Count Arnulf III, the nephew of Queen Matilda, at the Battle of Cassel in 1071. According to this last account, Gerbod travelled to Rome to perform penance for killing his young lord, but was prevented from his self-imposed mutilation by Pope Gregory VII. Instead, the pope sent him to Abbot Hugh at Cluny, who gave Gerbod absolution and admitted him to the order as a monk.1 This would explain William and Gundrada’s visit to Cluny and the Warenne attraction to the Cluniac order, which led to the foundation of the priory of St Pancras at Lewes, the first Cluniac priory founded in England.

The memorial to the 1264 Battle of Lewes, in the grounds of Lewes Priory

Although Abbot Hugh was absent at the time of the de Warenne’s visit, the abbey at Cluny inspired the couple, they ‘were so struck with the high standard of religious life maintained there that they determined to put their proposed foundation under Cluny, and accordingly desired the abbot to send three or four of his monks to begin the monastery. He, however, would not at first consent—fearing that at so great a distance from their mother-house they would become undisciplined’.2

It was only after William and Gundrada managed to gain the backing of the king,, William the Conqueror, that the abbot gave his consent and eventually sent a monk named Lanzo, to act as prior, with three other monks to found the community. William gave them the church of St Pancras at Lewes, which had recently been rebuilt in stone, and the land surrounding it. Their territory was extended by William de Warenne acquiring ‘all the land and the island near Lewes which is called Southye’ for his monks, in return for, every Nativity of St John the Baptist, the delivery of ‘ten arrows, barbed, shafted, and feathered.’3 William and Gundrada were expecting to build a community to house twelve monks. All the churches on the vast Warenne estates were given to the priory, including endowments from the lands of Gundrada’s brother Frederic in Norfolk, recently inherited by Gundrada. The priory was to pay a fixed sum of 50s a year to the abbey at Cluny, but the independence of the Lewes monks was severely restricted, with the right of appointing its prior and admitting new monks being solely the reserve of the abbot of Cluny.4 A second priory, started by William but finished by his son, also William, was built on the family’s lands at Castle Acre in Norfolk.

The Cluniac order were unique in the church in that they had been granted exemption from excommunication by Pope Alexander II in 1061, who declared that anyone attempting to excommunicate the monks of Cluny would be ‘accursed by our Lord and St Peter, and fit to be burnt in eternal fire with the devil and the traitor Judas, and to be cast down with the impious into the abyss and Tartarean chaos.’5 The order had been founded in the year 910 by monks seeking to pursue a more austere lifestyle and a stricter interpretation of the Rule of St Benedict, laid down in the sixth century and the basis for medieval monastic life. Cluniac monks were renowned for the length and rigour of their church worship, the strict rules that governed them and their freedom from lay control and episcopal control, save for the pope. Their stringent rule contrasted with the order’s love of art and decoration, as demonstrated in the magnificent façade of the Cluniac priory of Castle Acre in Norfolk.6

Castle Acre Priory, Norfolk

The first Cluniac priory in England, St Pancras was also the acknowledged chief among Cluny’s establishments in England, all of which were founded within 150 years of the Norman Conquest; it became one of the wealthiest monasteries in the country. The family chronicle, the Warenne Chronicle may have originated at St Pancras Priory. Although it is also called the Hyde Chronicle, it is so called because it was discovered at Hyde Abbey in Winchester. It’s origin before that is unknown, so it is entirely possible that the chronicle originated was written at Lewes. This would also explain the chronicler’s extensive knowledge of the Warenne family.

Not only did the priory receive gifts and grants from each successive earl of Warenne, but also from other quarters, including those who wished to be buried there and those wanting to become monks. Among the grants issued to the priory over the years were allowances of venison for sick monks, fishing rights, the monopoly of eels from the Warenne’s Yorkshire properties and the right of taking wood three days a week from Pentecost (fifty days after Easter Sunday) to St Peter’s day (29 June).7 Of the Warenne earls of Surrey, all were buried at the priory at Lewes, except the third earl, who died on crusade in the Holy Land, and William of Blois, the first husband of Isabel de Warenne, who was buried in France. In addition to the family members, Lewes Priory was the chosen final resting place for the rich and noble, including earls and countesses of Arundel, and members of the prominent Nevill, Maltravers and Bohun families.

Gundrada died in childbirth at Castle Acre in Norfolk on 27 May 1085. It seems the misunderstanding over Gundrada’s parentage, and the claim that she was the daughter of William the Conqueror and his queen, Matilda of Flanders, arose with the monks at Lewes Priory, when a copy of an earlier charter claimed she was the daughter of Matilda of Flanders. Whether this was accidental or a deliberate misdirection is open to conjecture; the impression of royal links could give houses an advantage over other monasteries when seeking patronage. 

Gundrada died before her husband received his earldom, and so never bore the title of countess. She was buried in the chapter house of St Pancras Priory at Lewes; her husband would be buried beside her three years later. Around 1145, when new monastic buildings were consecrated at St Pancras, Gundrada’s bones were placed in a leaden chest and interred under a tombstone of black Tournai marble, ‘richly carved in the Romanesque style, with foliage and lions’ heads’.8 The sculptor was trained at Cluny and would later work for Henry I’s nephew, Henry of Blois, Bishop of Winchester and brother of King Stephen. The inscription on the tombstone, which runs along all four sides and down the middle, reads:

‘Gundrada, offspring of dukes, glory of the age, noble shoot,

brought to the churches of the English the balm of her character.

As a Martha …

That part of Martha [in her] died; the greater part of Mary survives.

she was to the wretched; a Mary she was in her piety.

O, pious Pancras, witness of truth and justice,

she makes you her heir; may you in your clemency accept the mother.

The sixth day of the kalends of June, showing itself,

broke the alabaster containing her flesh …’

Elisabeth M.C. Van Houts and Rosalind C. Love (eds and trans), The Warenne (Hyde) Chronicle

William de Warenne was awarded the earldom of Surrey in the spring of 1088. He did not live long enough to enjoy his new title, however, dying within months, or possibly weeks, of attaining the honour, in June 1088. It is conceivable that William’s epitaph was written by Orderic Vitalis himself, who recreates it in volume iv of his Ecclesiastical History. [45] It reads:

‘Earl William, in this place your fame is kindled.

You built this house and were its generous friend:

This (place) honours your body, because pleasing was the gift

you gave so willingly to the poor of Christ.

The saint himself, Pancras, your heir, who guards your ashes,

Will raise you to the mansions of the blessed in the stars.

Saint Pancras give, we pray, a seat in heaven

To him who for your glory gave this house.’

Elisabeth M.C. Van Houts and Rosalind C. Love (eds and trans), The Warenne (Hyde) Chronicle
St John the Baptist church, Southover

Following the dissolution of St Pancras Priory at Lewes in the sixteenth century, the tombstone was first moved to Isfield Church; it was moved again in 1775 to the parish church of St John the Baptist at Southover in Lewes. The church is situated close to the grounds of the ruined priory and may once have been within the priory’s precincts. The remains of Gundrada and William were discovered in the ruined priory in two leaden chests in 1845 and finally laid to rest in the Gundrada chapel at the Southover church in 1847. 9

The priory founded by William and Gundrada would continue its association with the Warenne family until the death of John, the seventh and final Warenne Earl of Surrey, who was buried there in 1347. The relationship was not always amicable, however; Earl Hamelin, the 4th Earl Warenne and second husband of Countess Isabel, had a long-running disagreement with the founding house at Cluny.

But that is a story for another day….

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Images:

All images are ©2020 Sharon Bennett Connolly

Footnotes:

1Elisabeth Van Houts, Hereward and Flanders (article), Anglo-Saxon England vol. 28; 2A History of the County of Sussex: Volume 2 edited by William Page; 3 Lewes Chartulary quoted in W.H. Blaauw, On the Early History of Lewes Priory, and its Seals, with extracts from a MS. Chronicle, Sussex Archaeological Collections; 4W.H. Blaauw, On the Early History of Lewes Priory, and its Seals, with extracts from a MS. Chronicle, Sussex Archaeological Collections; 5Bullarum. Rom. Pontiff. Collectio, t.l. Roma, 1739-62 quoted in ibid; 6Edward Impey, Castle Acre Priory and Castle, English Heritage; 7Blaauw; 8Warenne, Gundrada de (d.1085) (article) by C.P. Lewis, Oxforddnb.com, oxforddnb.com; 9Elisabeth M.C. Van Houts and Rosalind C. Love (eds and trans), The Warenne (Hyde) Chronicle

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, 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

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My Books

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 & SwordAmazon and from Book Depository worldwide.

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,  Amberley Publishing, Book Depository.

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.

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©2020 Sharon Bennett Connolly

Gundrada, Daughter of Debate

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Lewes Priory, Sussex

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

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

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

Castle_Acre_Castle
Castle Acre, Norfolk

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

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

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

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

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

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Tombs of Gundrada and William de Warenne

However, poor Gundrada had died in childbirth at Castle Acre in Norfolk on 27th May 1085, therefore never receiving the title of countess. She was buried in the chapter house of Lewes Priory; her husband would be buried beside her 3 years later. Around 1145 new monastic buildings were consecrated at Lewes Priory, Gundrada’s bones were placed in a leaden chest and interred under a tombstone of black Tournai marble, ‘richly carved in the Romanesque style, with foliage and lions’ heads’³. The sculptor was trained at Cluny and would later work for Henry I’s nephew, Henry of Blois, bishop of Winchester and brother of King Stephen.

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

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

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

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

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

Sources: Early Yorkshire Charters Volume 8: The Honour of Warenne, Edited by William Farrer and Charles Travis Clay; England Under the Norman and Angevin Kings by Robert Batlett; Brewer’s British Royalty by David Williamson; Britain’s Royal Families, the Complete Genealogy by Alison Weir; british-history.ac.uk; kristiedean.com; English Heritage Guidebook for Conisbrough Castle by Steven Brindle and Agnieszka Sadrei; oxforddnb.com.

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My books

Out Now!

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 & SwordAmazon and from Book Depository worldwide.

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,  Amberley Publishing, Book Depository.

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.

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

©2016 Sharon Bennett Connolly.