The Origins of the Warenne Family

The Warenne coat of arms, Holy Trinity Church Southover

From the time of the Norman Conquest to the death of the seventh and last earl, the Warenne family was at the heart of English politics and the establishment, providing military and administrative support to the Crown. In the years following 1066 William I de Warenne, who became the first Earl of Surrey in 1088, was the fourth richest man in England and the richest not related to the royal family – he ranks at number 18 in’s Top 20 Richest People of All Time. The earls of Surrey were at the centre of the major crises of medieval England, from the Norman Conquest itself to the deposition of Edward II and accession of Edward III. Strategic marriages forged links with the leading noble houses in England and Scotland, from the Marshals, the FitzAlans, the d’Aubignys and Percys to the Scottish and English royal families themselves.

But where did they originate?

As with most medieval Anglo-Norman families, the origins of the Warenne family are shrouded in the sands of time and the distance of over a thousand years. Given that the family hailed from Normandy, it is likely that they had Scandinavian ancestry, just like the majority of Normans, including their duke, William (known as William the Bastard, or William the Conqueror). Duke William was descended from the famous Rollo, the first Norse, or Viking, ruler of Normandy. William was the illegitimate son of Robert I the Magnificent, who was duke of Normandy from 1027 until his death in Nicaea in 1035, whilst returning from pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Before departing on this pilgrimage, Robert had named William, then only 7 or 8 years old, as his heir, despite the question mark over his birth.

Several studies were written in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries in an attempt to establish the Warenne family’s origins, and its relationship to the duke of Normandy. The family name is probably derived from the hamlet of Varenne, situated just south of Arques in northern France and 13 miles from Bellencombre. The village is situated on the river of the same name, Varenne (previously known as Guarenne). Varenne was part of the Warenne lands in the département of Seine-Inférieure, Normandy. William de Warenne, the first earl of Surrey, was a younger son of Rodulf, or Ralph, de Warenne.

Rodulf was a minor Norman lord with lands in the Pays de Caux; his first wife, Beatrix, was the mother of William and his older brother, another Rodulf, and possibly an unnamed sister. Although William de Warenne’s ancestry is far from clear, it seems likely that his mother Beatrix was a niece of Duchess Gunnor. As the wife of Duke Richard I of Normandy, Gunnor was the mother of Emma of Normandy and the great-grandmother of Duke William of Normandy. Emma of Normandy was wife of both Ӕthelred II and King Cnut, kings of England; she holds the distinction of being the only woman to have been crowned queen of England twice, with two different husbands. Emma was the mother of Harthacnut and Edward the Confessor, also kings of England, and great-aunt of Duke William, later king of England. If Beatrix’s familial link to Duchess Gunnor is true, it would mean that William de Warenne was a second cousin, once removed, of the victorious duke of Normandy, later to be known as William the Conqueror. The two families were certainly related in some way, as Anselm, Archbishop of Canterbury, would later forbid a marriage between William de Warenne’s son, another William, and an illegitimate daughter of Henry I on the grounds of consanguinity (meaning the couple was too closely related by blood to be allowed to marry).

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

In 1782 Rev John Watson wrote a two-volume biography of the Warenne earls of Surrey for Sir George Warren, to demonstrate the knight’s descent from the Warenne earls. Watson tried to establish the origins of the Warennes, but his family trees are confusing, and his sources are not cited. He claimed that the Warennes were descended from Herfastus through a daughter who married Walter de Saint Martin. This daughter supposedly gave birth to William de Warenne, Earl of Varenne in Normandy, who in turn married a daughter of Rafe de Torta, a Danish nobleman who was protector of Normandy in the time of Duke Richard I. This William de Warenne was, supposedly, the father of William I de Warenne. Although there are no sources mentioned, it seems likely that Rev Watson got his information from the chronicler Robert de Torigny. There was no mention of Rodulf, who is clearly identified in the cartulary of the Holy Trinity of Rouen as being the father of William de Warenne and his older brother: ‘ filii eorum Rodulfus et Willelmus’.

It was suggested by Robert de Torigny, in his additions to the Gesta Normannorum Ducum of William of Jumièges, that William de Warenne was the brother of another Norman baron, Ralph de Mortemer. However, de Torigny’s genealogies are also rather confusing and it seems more likely that the two lords were cousins, as described by Orderic Vitalis, rather than brothers. Both are said to be descended from Hugh, who later joined the church and became bishop of Coutances. William’s father, Rodulf de Warenne, has been described as ‘ filius episcopi’, as was Roger de Mortemer, Ralph’s father. The cartulary of Rouen’s Abbey of the Holy Trinity describes Rodulf and Roger as co-heirs, implying they were brothers, in the abbey’s purchase of 100 acres of woodland. The relevant charter can be dated to before 1055 as it is witnessed by Mauger, Archbishop of Rouen, who was deposed in that year. Duke William, Rodulf’s wife Beatrix and Roger’s two sons, William and Hugh, were also witnesses to the charter.

William’s father, Rodulf I de Warenne, who survived to a grand old age and died around 1074, is also mentioned in a charter of Robert I, Duke of Normandy, father of William the Conqueror which can be dated to sometime between 1030 and 1035, when Duke Robert left on his pilgrimage to the Holy Land, and confirmed the foundation of the Abbey of St Amand at Rouen. The duke died on his return journey and was succeeded by his son, William. Briefly, the details of the charter give sufficient information of the landscape to suggest that Rodulf’s lands must have been outside Rouen’s existing city wall; it describes the land ‘as far as the wall of the city that sweeps from there to the land of Ralph de Warenne.’ The land was to the east of the city and close to Mount Saint Catherine, where the Abbey of the Holy Trinity stood.

William the Conqueror depicted in the Bayeux Tapestry

In 1053, the year by which William of Normandy had married Matilda of Flanders, Rodulf, described as ‘quidam miles de Warenna, Radulfus nomine’ (‘a Warenne knight named Ralph’), gave all his land in Vascoeuil, in the Eure département, to the Abbey of St Pierre de Préaux. This charter also granted high justice to the duke of Normandy, which suggests that Vascoeuil was a part of the ducal demesne, another possible indication of a familial link between Rodulf, and his wife, and the ducal house. Rodulf’s wife Beatrix gave her consent to the gift, with Rodulf’s brother Godfrey being a witness on the charter.

Sometime between May 1055 and 1059, Beatrix died and Rodulf married his second wife, Emma. Rodulf and Beatrix had at least three children. The oldest was Rodulf (or Ralph) II de Warenne, who inherited the greater part of the Warenne estates from his father. William de Warenne was the second son of the family. The feodary of Philip II Augustus, King of France, dated between 1210 and 1220 demonstrates that some of the Warenne estates, both in the Pays de Caux and near Rouen, by the dawn of the thirteenth century, formed part of the barony of Esneval. This suggests that Rodulf II had at least one child, and that his lands eventually passed through a daughter, an heiress, who married into the d’Esneval family. These lands are shown to be in the hands of Robert d’Esneval in return of knights’ fees in 1172.13

Rodulf I de Warenne also had a daughter, whose name is unknown, though whether her mother was Beatrix or Emma is undetermined as she does not appear as a witness on any charters, unlike her brothers. This daughter was married to Erneis de Coulances and had two sons, Richard and Roger. Richard became lord of Coulances and a benefactor of the Abbey of St Evroul; he had fifteen children by his wife, Adelaisa and died on 15 September 1125. Roger, also named Roger de Guarenna and described by Orderic Vitalis as nephew of William Earl of Surrey, became a monk at St Evroul in 1081, spending forty-six years there.

Another branch of the Warenne family may have descended from Roger, son of Ralph (or Rodulf) de Warethnæ, who held lands near Arques and was himself witness to a charter in favour of the Abbey of St Wandrille sometime before 1045. There is no extant evidence of a familial link, but it is possible, given that Roger and Rodulf were of the same generation, that they were cousins and that Rodulf is likely to be the Rodulf referred to as Rodulf Warethna in an entry in the Holy Trinity cartulary, undated but probably around 1060, in which Hugh de Flamanville sold to the abbey tithe and land in Emanville, Motteville and Flamanville.

William’s father, Rodulf I de Warenne, appears to have survived well beyond the Norman Conquest of England; he is recorded in 1074 as having made a gift of a church and tithe in the Pays de Caux to the Abbey of Holy Trinity in Rouen. The charter is witnessed by Rodulf, his wife and his sons: ‘Signum ipsius Rodulfi. Signum Emmæ uxoris ejus. Signum Rodulfi filii eorum. Signum Willelmi fratris ejus’ (‘Signed Rodulf our son and William his brother’). This is the last mention of Rodulf I and he is likely to have died shortly afterwards.

By this time William I de Warenne was a wealthy lord in his own right, with extensive lands in England and Normandy.


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,,; 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),


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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 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.

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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.

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