Daughters of the Greatest Knight

Arms of William Marshal, Earl of Pembroke

It is impossible to talk about anything related to Magna Carta without mentioning the man who has come to be known as ‘the Greatest Knight’: William Marshal, Earl of Pembroke, and his family. Marshal was one of the few nobles to stay loyal to King John throughout the Magna Carta crisis. That is not to say that the king and Marshal did not have their differences, nor that their relationship was always smooth sailing. However, William Marshal was famed for his loyalty and integrity and maintained his oaths to King John throughout his reign, regardless of the distrust between the two men.

The children of William and his wife, Isabel de Clare, cannot fail to have benefited from William Marshal’s rise through the ranks from fourth son and humble hearth knight, to earl of Pembroke and, eventually, regent for King Henry III. Their father’s position as a powerful magnate on the Welsh Marches, and the most respected knight in the kingdom, saw William’s daughters make advantageous marriages in the highest echelons of the English nobility.

William and Isabel were the parents of 10 children who survived to adulthood, 5 boys and 5 girls. In a bizarre and sad twist of fate, each of the boys would, in turn, succeed to the earldom, with not one leaving a male heir to continue the Marshal line. Of the girls, the couple’s eldest daughter was Matilda, also known as Maud or Mahelt. Given that her parents married in 1189 and she had two elder brothers, Matilda was probably born in 1193 or 1194. The Histoire de Guillaume le Maréchal wrote glowingly of Matilda, saying she had the gifts of

‘wisdom, generosity, beauty, nobility of heart, graciousness, and I can tell you in truth, all the good qualities which a noble lady should possess.’

 Histoire de Guillaume le Maréchal 

The Histoire goes on to say;

‘Her worthy father who loved her dearly, married her off, during his lifetime to the best and most handsome party he knew, to Sir Hugh Bigot.’

 Histoire de Guillaume le Maréchal 

Unfortunately for Matilda, her husband Hugh, the eldest son of the earl of Norfolk, was among the rebels during the Magna Carta crisis; their eldest son was taken hostage by the king when their castle at Framlingham surrendered to the royal army. It must have been a comfort to Matilda that, on John’s death, her son’s welfare, while still a hostage, would have been supervised by the new regent, the boy’s grandfather. When Hugh died in 1225, Matilda married for a second time just a few months later, to William de Warenne, Earl of Warenne and Surrey, thus uniting the Bigod, Warenne and Marshal families. The marriage appears to have been one of convenience rather than love but produced 2 children, a boy and a girl. Matilda’s son by her second marriage, John de Warenne, joined his 3 older Bigod half-brothers, Roger, Hugh and Ralph as pall bearers for their mother’s coffin at her funeral in 1248, when she was laid to rest beside her mother at Tintern Abbey in Monmouthshire.

Seal of Matilda Marshal’s youngest son John de Warenne, 6th Earl of Warenne and Surrey

The next daughter, Isabel, was at least six years younger than Matilda, born in 1200. She was married to Gilbert de Clare, Earl of Gloucester and Hertford, who was twenty years her senior. Gilbert was the son of Richard de Clare, earl of Hertford, and Amicia, coheiress of William, Earl of Gloucester; through his mother he could trace his ancestry back to King Henry I, albeit through king’s illegitimate eldest son, Robert of Gloucester, the stalwart supporter of his half-sister, Empress Matilda. Gilbert’s aunt, Amicia’s sister, was Isabella of Gloucester, the discarded first wife of King John, who had held the earldom of Gloucester until her death on 14 October 1217, when it passed to Gilbert.

Both Gilbert and his father were named among the twenty-five barons appointed as Enforcers of Magna Carta in 1215; as a consequence, father and son were excommunicated at the beginning of 1216. After the death of King John, Gilbert sided with Prince Louis of France and was only reconciled with the royalist cause after the Battle of Lincoln in May 1217. This was despite having married Isabel, the second daughter of William Marshal, in 1214; Marshal had been regent of England for 9-year-old Henry III since King John’s death in October 1216. Like her older sister, Isabel had found her husband’s family were on the opposing side to her father in the Magna Carta crisis and the civil war that followed. They had 6 children together before Gilbert’s death in October 1230; he died on the return journey from an expedition to Brittany. Isabel was married again, not 6 months later, to the king’s younger brother, Richard, Earl of Cornwall. The early deaths of at least 2 children put a strain on this marriage and Richard had been seeking a divorce when Isabel found herself pregnant again. She was safely delivered of the longed-for son and heir, Henry of Almain in 1235. Tragically, Isabel herself died in childbirth, in 1240. Her baby son, Nicholas, died the same day.

The next-youngest of the Marshal sisters, Sibyl, was born around 1201: she was married to William de Ferrers, fifth earl of Derby. Unlike her elder sisters, Sibyl and her husband played little part in national affairs. Ferrers had been plagued by gout since his youth and led a largely secluded life. He was regularly transported by litter. Further, he had never fully recovered from an accident that had happened sometime in the 1230s. While crossing a bridge at St Neots in Huntingdonshire, Ferrers was thrown from his litter, into the water. It must have been a terrifying experience. He succeeded to the earldom of Derby on his father’s death in 1247 but died in 1254. During the marriage Sibyl gave birth to 7 children, all daughters: Agnes, Isabel, Maud, Sibyl, Joan, Agatha and Eleanor. Sibyl died sometime before 1247 and was laid to rest at Tintern Abbey, alongside her mother.

Tintern Abbey, Monmouthshire, resting place of several members of the Marshal family

William and Isabel Marshal’s fourth daughter, Eva, was born in about 1203 in Pembroke Castle, and so was only 16 when her father died – and 17 when she lost her mother. As a child, she spent several years with her family in exile in Ireland, only returning to England when her father was finally reconciled with King John in 1212. Sometime before 1221, Eva was married to William (V) de Braose, Lord of Abergavenny, son of Reginald de Braose and grandson of Matilda de Braose, who had died of starvation in King John’s dungeons in 1210. William de Braose was a wealthy Norman baron with estates along the Welsh Marches. He was hated by the Welsh, who had given him the nickname Gwilym Ddu, or Black William, and had been taken prisoner by Llywelyn ap Iorweth – Llywelyn the Great – in 1228.

Although he had been released after paying a ransom, de Braose later returned to Llywelyn’s court to arrange a marriage between his daughter, Isabella, and Llywelyn’s son and heir, Dafydd. During this stay, Eva’s husband was ‘caught in Llywelyn’s chamber with the King of England’s daughter, Llywelyn’s wife’. Whilst Llywelyn’s wife, Joan, Lady of Wales, the illegitimate daughter of King John, was imprisoned for a year, a much worse fate was meted out to William de Braose. He was publicly hanged on Llywelyn’s orders, leaving Eva a widow at the age of 27, with 4 young daughters, all under the age of 10. Despite the discomfort caused by Llywelyn’s execution of Braose, the marriage of Isabella and Dafydd went ahead, following some impressive diplomacy on Llywelyn’s part. Eva never remarried and spent her widowhood managing her own lands. She was caught up the revolt of her brother, Richard, in 1234, and appears to have acted as intermediary between her brother and the king to help resolve the situation. She died in 1246.

The youngest Marshal sister was Joan, who was still only a child when William Marshal died in 1219, being born in 1210. She is mentioned in the Histoire as having been called for by her ailing father, so that she could sing for him. Joan was married, before 1222, to Warin de Munchensi, a landholder and soldier who was born in the mid-1190s. When his father and older brother died in 1204 and 1208 (possibly), respectively, Warin was made a ward of his uncle William d’Aubigny, Earl of Arundel. He was ill-treated by King John, who demanded 2,000 marks in relief and quittance of his father’s Jewish debts on 23 December 1213. He was ordered to pay quickly and pledged his lands as a guarantee of his good behaviour.

Effigy identified as William Marshal, Temple Church, London

This harsh treatment drove him to ally with the rebel barons and he was captured fighting against the royalist forces, and his father-in-law, at the Battle of Lincoln, on 20 May 1217. He was, soon after, reconciled with the crown and served Henry III loyally on almost every military campaign of the next forty years. His marriage to Joan Marshal produced two children; John de Munchensi and a daughter, Joan, who would marry the king’s half-brother, William de Valence, fourth son of Isabelle d’Angoulême and her second husband, Hugh X de Lusignan, Count of La Marche. It was through his wife and, more accurately her mother, that William de Valence was allowed to accede to the earldom of Pembroke following the extinction of the Marshal male line. Joan Marshal died in 1234 and so never saw her daughter marry and become countess of Pembroke in 1247.

The various experiences of the 5 Marshal daughters serve as a demonstration of the divisions among the nobility, caused by the Magna Carta crisis, with several of them finding themselves on the opposing side to that of their father. It must have been a source of great anxiety for a family which appears to have been otherwise very close. These 5 young women also provide a snapshot of the fates of women in thirteenth century England, death in childbirth, early widowhood and second marriages arranged for personal security rather than love. What is evident is that, just like their father, these girls were an integral part of the Magna Carta story.

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An earlier version of this article first appeared on Samantha Wilcoxson’s blog.

Sources:

Rich Price, King John’s Letters Facebook group; Robert Bartlett England Under the Norman and Angevin Kings 1075-1225; Dan Jones The Plantagenets; the Kings who Made EnglandThe Plantagenet Chronicle Edited by Elizabeth Hallam; 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; Ralph of Diceto, Images of History; 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; Vincent, Nicholas, ‘William de Warenne, fifth earl of Surrey [Earl Warenne] (d. 1240)’, Oxforddnb.com.

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.

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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©2021 Sharon Bennett Connolly

Book Corner: A Marriage of Lions by Elizabeth Chadwick

England, 1238

Raised at the court of King Henry III as a chamber lady to the queen, young Joanna of Swanscombe’s life changes forever when she comes into an inheritance far above all expectations, including her own.

Now a wealthy heiress, Joanna’s arranged marriage to the King’s charming, tournament-loving half-brother William de Valence immediately stokes the flames of political unrest as more established courtiers object to the privileges bestowed on newcomers.

As Joanna and William strive to build a life together, England descends into a bitter civil war. In mortal danger, William is forced to run for his life, and Joanna is left with only her wit and courage to outfox their enemies and prevent them from destroying her husband, her family, and their fortunes.

What a marvellous adventure!

A Marriage of Lions is another fabulous, character-driven historical novel from Elizabeth Chadwick. An enjoyable and entertaining read, it will take you through the full range of emotions; it will have you in tears in one moment and shouting at the characters in the book the next. Beautifully written, it is a wonderful reading experience.

As I have come to expect with Elizabeth Chadwick, A Marriage of Lions transports you back through the centuries, so expertly that you can almost imagine yourself in the midst of Henry III’s court and the battle of wills between Henry and Simon de Montfort. In a change of focus to most books of the time, Elizabeth foregoes telling de Montfort’s story to concentrate on the remarkable relationship of William de Valence and his wife, Joanna de Munchesny, granddaughter of the great William Marshal.

Having just written a biography of the Warenne family, who were the earls of Surrey from the time of the Norman Conquest to the death of the 7th and last earl in 1347, I took particular interest in Elizabeth’s portrayal of John de Warenne, 6th Earl of Surrey, who was brother-in-law to both King Henry III and William de Valence. He was also a cousin to William’s wife, Joanna, through their Marshal mothers. And I have to say, I think Elizabeth got John spot on. He was a loyal, noble character with his friends and family – a trait that ran through his family. Though he could be ruthless to his enemies and was not a benevolent lord to his tenants. 

A Marriage of Lions is not just a fascinating read, it is an experience not to be missed, shining a light on the 13th century, on not only the complex political manoeuvring, but also on the family dynamics that coloured the politics of all those involved, from inheritance disputes to political reform and financial management. Elizabeth manages to weave all these different threads into one fabulous, addictive story.

Elizabeth Chadwick seamlessly combines the history with the fiction.

‘Did you know my mother well?’ Joanna ventured, hoping for crumbs.

Her aunt held out her empty cup to a passing servant to be refilled. ‘I was married with a child before she was born, but I saw her sometimes and I grew to know her better when our father was dying. We sang to him, your mother and me. She was young and shy, but he took great delight in it and it was a moment of light and blessing amid his pain.’ a shadow crossed her face. ‘Our mother died less than a year later and I cared for your mother until she came to be wed. That is why I say you are like her for I knew her well when she was your age. I miss her. I miss all of my sisters. I am the last one. None have made old bones.’

‘I am sorry, madam,’ Joanna said. Her aunt Isabelle, Mahelt’s sister, had died bearing the child she had been carrying at the Queen’s churching – a stillborn son. Her husband, the King’s brother, Richard, had since departed on crusade with Simon de Montfort who was making good use of his exile. ‘I am sorry for the loss of your husband too.’

‘Him I do not miss,’ her aunt said brusquely. ‘Marriage is a bargain and you make the best of your circumstances. If you are fortunate you will bear sons and daughters to nurture and shape, who will be your consolation and make you proud.’

She beckoned to a junior squire who had been attending on the newly knighted Peter of Savoy.

The boy joined them and bowed. Joanna eyed him curiously. He had glossy crow’s wing hair and dark-brown eyes set under slanted brows. He was of about her own age and she recognised his guarded expression from her own repertoire. Her aunt introduced him as her son, John de Warenne, who was entering the household of the newly knighted Peter of Savoy as his squire and ward, where he would be trained to knighthood.

The boy bowed again and gave Joanna an evaluating, slightly wary look. She could almost see prickles bristling on him like a defensive hedgehog. She understood his tension for she had reacted in the same way when she first arrived at court.

‘I will be glad to have another cousin to talk to,’ she said.

Elizabeth Chadwick demonstrates a deep understanding of the politics and nuances of the royal court of Henry III, showing how factionalism and court favourites led to the Second Barons’ War and how it was Henry’s Lusignan siblings suffered from the fallout of Henry’s mounting disagreements with Simon de Montfort. A Marriage of Lions also shows readers how women, despite their inability to take to the field of battle, could use their own skills and abilities to not only protect their family, but also further the interests of their husbands and children. Through Joanna de Munchesny, Elizabeth Chadwick emphasises that medieval women were no more meek and defenceless in the 13th century than they are today. Joanna was intelligent and resourceful – and a force to be reckoned with! She is a character than any reader can admire and get behind.

I have written about many of the historical personages in A Marriage of Lions, either as research subjects or peripheral subjects of my books and I found myself nodding along to Elizabeth Chadwick’s own assessments of these characters, from Simon de Montfort to John de Warenne, from Matilda Marshal to de Montfort’s wife, Eleanor of England – I think Elizabeth and I must read many of the same books for research. This also serves to demonstrate how much knowledge and research the author has accumulated over the years, and how deeply she comes to understand her characters. While this isn’t essential in a historical fiction book, it does help to add authenticity to a novel, and draws the reader in deeper, so that they become totally immersed in the story and its characters.

While I have enjoyed many an Elizabeth Chadwick novel, A Marriage of Lions stands on a level with The Greatest Knight as one of her very best. If you are an Elizabeth Chadwick fan, this is a must read. If you have never read Elizabeth, then I suggest you start with this one – you will definitely want to read the rest afterwards. It is one of the best historical fiction novels that I have read this year. I did not want it to finish and yet – at the same time – could not wait to get to the end!

Elizabeth Chadwick has a knack of getting into the heads and hearts of her characters, so that they jump off the page and insinuate themselves into the thought of the reader. The book is impossible to put down – until the very last page. And finishing the book – especially this book – leaves the reader bereft.

To buy the book: Amazon

About the author:

New York Times bestselling author Elizabeth Chadwick lives in a cottage in the Vale of Belvoir in Nottinghamshire with her husband and their 3 dogs. Her first novel, The Wild Hunt, won a Betty Trask Award and To Defy a King won the RNA’s 2011 Historical Novel Prize. She was also shortlisted for the Romantic Novelists’ Award in 1998 for The Champion, in 2001 for Lords of the White Castle, in 2002 for The Winter Mantle and in 2003 for The Falcons of Montabard. Her sixteenth novel, The Scarlet Lion, was nominated by Richard Lee, founder of the Historical Novel Society, as one of the top ten historical novels of the last decade. She often lectures at conferences and historical venues, has been consulted for television documentaries and is a member of the Royal Historical Society.

For more details on Elizabeth Chadwick and her books, visit http://www.elizabethchadwick.com, follow her on Twitter, read her blogs or chat to her on Facebook.

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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 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