William (III) de Warenne was the son of William (II) de Warenne, 2nd Earl of Warenne and Surrey, and Isabel de Vermandois, a granddaughter of King Henry I of France. William was born in 1119, a year after his parents’ marriage. He was the eldest of five children. His two brothers, Reginald and Ralph, appear frequently in his story, suggesting a close family bond. Of his sisters, Ada married Prince Henry of Scotland, and was the mother of two Scottish kings, Malcolm IV and William the Lion. Gundreda de Warenne married Roger de Beaumont, Earl of Warwick, who was a cousin of Gundreda’s half-brothers, the famous Beaumont twins, Waleran and Robert.
Waleran and Robert de Beaumont were the eldest sons of Isabel de Vermandois by her first husband, Robert de Beaumont, Count of Meulan and Earl of Leicester. Isabel had nine children with her first husband and five more with Earl Warenne. Interestingly, the two families appear to have got on rather well together. William (III) can often be found in the company of one or both of his older, twin, half-brothers, such as at the deathbed of Henry I, at Lyons-la-Forêt in 1135; William was there alongside his father, the second earl, and his brothers Waleran de Beaumont, Count of Meulan, and Robert de Beaumont, Earl of Leicester.
Following his father’s death in 1138, William (III) inherited the lands and titles of the earl of Warenne and Surrey. As such, he was heavily involved in that period of history known as the Anarchy, the contest between King Stephen and Empress Matilda for Stephen’s crown. As his father had done, the 3rd earl supported King Stephen, fighting at both the First Battle of Lincoln and the siege of Winchester in 1141. By the late 1140s, although the conflict between Stephen and Matilda was still unresolved, Earl Warenne and his half-brother, Waleran de Beaumont, appear to have wanted to get away from the constant unrest of the cousins’ war and looked to join a more noble enterprise.
On 24 March 1146, Palm Sunday, near Vézélay, and perhaps motivated by the example of his royal cousin, Louis VII of France, William de Warenne took the cross and committed himself to the Second Crusade. From this moment on, the earl’s time was taken up with preparations for the expedition and making arrangements to ensure the security and administration of his earldom during his absence. Among others, he confirmed grants to Castle Acre Priory of the land of Thexton in Norfolk which Osmoda de Candos had given with the consent of her husband Philip: William’s brother Reginald is named in the charter and his brother Ralph, as well as his wife, Countess Ela, are all listed among the witnesses. He also confirmed a gift made to his brother Reginald whereby William son of Philip, gave his land of Harpley in Norfolk. During the winter of 1146–47, the earl granted to the monks of Castle Acre, a confirmation of any acquisitions which they might make, ‘from my fee of whatever tenancy within my tenseria [authority], whether by way of gift or purchase.’1
In 1147, before leaving England’s shores, the earl, his family and leading magnates congregated at Lewes Priory for the dedication of the new priory church. Most of the royal court were present, as were Ralph and Reginald de Warenne, the earl’s brothers; four leading church prelates attended, including Theobald, Archbishop of Canterbury and Henry of Blois, Bishop of Winchester as well as the bishops of Rochester and Bath. Also present were the abbots of Reading and Battle, the prior of Canterbury and William d’Aubigny, Earl of Sussex. Earl Warenne appears to have used the occasion to set his affairs in order and guarantee the security of his earldom during his absence.
The most significant charter issued on this occasion added to the endowment of Lewes’ priory church and promised that the earl would pay the taxes that the priory would ordinarily owe to the king. In it, the earl confirmed ‘all its lands of his fee, undertaking to acquit it of danegeld and all other services due to the king; and gift of tithe of corn, etc., from all his demesne lands and a full tenth penny of all his rents in England. He issued the charter when he caused the priory church to be dedicated and endowed it with the tenth penny of his rents, giving it seisin thereof by hair from his own head and that of Ralph de Warenne his brother, cut with a knife by Henry, bishop of Winchester, before the altar.’2 The locks of hair of Earl William and his brother Ralph, ceremoniously cut off by Bishop Henry before the altar, would afterwards have been placed on the altar, alongside the knife used in the ceremony, and may have later been ‘filed’ within the charter when it was sealed.
His affairs in order, the earldom was placed under the supervision of his very capable brother, Reginald de Warenne. The pope stipulated that church sanctions should not be invoked, ‘in respect of those men whom our beloved son Stephen the illustrious king of the English or his adversaries disinherited on the occasion of the war held for the realm before they took the cross.’3 In a time of continued civil war, this guaranteed protection of a crusader’s lands was a necessity. Earl William was now able to depart on crusade, secure in the knowledge that the family and lands he left behind were well protected from anyone wishing to take advantage of his absence:
At Whitsuntide Lewis [Louis], king of France, and Theodorie, earl of Flanders, and the count of St Egidius, with an immense multitude from every part of France, and numbers of the English, assumed the cross and journeyed to Jerusalem, intending to expel the Infidels who had taken the city of Rohen. A still greater number accompanied Conrad, emperor of Germany; and both armies passed through the territories of the emperor of Constantinople, who afterwards betrayed them.Henry of Huntingdon
There were, in fact, two crusades that departed England’s shores in 1147. Some of the crusaders, an Anglo-Flemish force, went to Portugal and successfully captured Lisbon from the Muslims. Earl William de Warenne and his older brother Waleran de Beaumont joined their cousin King Louis VII of France and set out for the Holy Land. Taking the overland route, they followed in the footsteps of the German emperor, Conrad III, who had left Germany in May and arrived in Constantinople in September. Louis, accompanied by his wife Eleanor of Aquitaine, arrived in Constantinople with his army, on 4 October. Tensions ran high from the start. On initially hearing of the proposed crusade, Byzantine emperor Manuel Comnenus, afraid of losing local trading connections, made a truce with the Turkish sultan of Rum in 1146 to protect Constantinople’s Asian lands from attack. To the Western crusaders, this was more proof of the apostasy of the Eastern church. The more fervent of Louis’ followers accused Emperor Manuel of treason and urged Louis to attack the emperor. Louis, on the other hand, was persuaded to appease the emperor by his less volatile advisers and the king promised to restore any imperial lands they may capture.
The German and French contingents met at Nicaea in November, with the Germans having already suffered a defeat at Dorylaeum on 25 October, after taking the inland route towards the kingdom of Jerusalem. The two armies combined now set off on the coastal route, following the path of the first crusaders’ advance into Philadelphia in Lydia. By the time they reached Ephesus, Conrad was seriously ill and returned to Constantinople to recover. The French king and his army continued on to Antioch; marching through difficult terrain in mid-winter proved particularly harrowing. The Seljuk Turks waited for the crusaders on the banks of the river Meander, but Louis’ army forced their way through. On 6 January 1148, they reached Laodicea and from there marched into the mountains that separate the Phrygia of the Pisidia. It was here that the army met with disaster.
As they crossed Mount Cadmus, the vanguard advanced too far ahead under the leadership of Geoffrey de Rançon, thus becoming detached from the main body of the army. As the vanguard progressed across Mount Cadmus, the French column followed behind, secure in the knowledge that the vanguard occupied the high ground to their front. William de Warenne was in the king’s bodyguard, towards the rear of the column, as they advanced. When the Turks appeared, the French broke their ranks and rushed upon them with swords drawn; the disorder in the ranks handing the advantage to their enemy. Retreating, the French found themselves in a narrow gorge, with a steep precipice on one side and crags on the other. Horses, men and baggage were forced over the precipice by the advancing Turks. Louis VII’s biographer, Odo de Deuil, related the events:
“…the king, who had been left behind in peril with certain of his nobles, since he was not accompanied by common soldiers or serjeants with bows (for he had not fortified himself for crossing the pass, which by common agreement he was to cross the next day), careless of his own life and with the desire of freeing the dying mob, pushed through the rear-guard and courageously checked the butchery of his middle division. He boldly assaulted the infidel, who outnumbered him a hundred times and whom the position aided a great deal; for there no horse could stand, I shall not say gallop, but barely stand, and the slower attack which resulted in the weakened knights’ thrust when wounding the enemy. On the slippery slope our men brandished their spears with all of their own might, but without the added force of their horses, and from the safe shelter of rocks and trees the Turks shot arrows. Freed by the knights’ efforts, the mob fled, carrying their own packs or leading the sumpter animals, and exposed the king and comrades to death in their stead….During the engagement the king lost his small but renowned royal guard; keeping a stout heart; however, he nimbly and bravely scaled a rock by making use of tree roots which God had provided for his safety. The enemy climbed after, in order to capture him, and the more distant rabble shot arrows at him. But by the will of God his cuirass protected him from the arrows, and to keep from being captured he defended the crag with his bloody sword, cutting off heads and hands of many opponents in the process…”Odo of Deuil, De Profectione Ludovici VII in Orientem
King Louis’ bodyguard was cut down in the fighting and William de Warenne was among the fallen. Louis himself was able to escape the carnage, standing alone against a number of attackers. As the night drew in, the king and survivors were able to take advantage of the darkness to reunite with the vanguard, which had believed the king lost. In one of his letters to Abbot Sugar, King Louis wrote of the disaster on Mount Cadmus, explaining how he had been separated from the vanguard and his escort had been cut down, with the loss of his cousin, William de Warenne. He was too upset to give any more details and Mount Cadmus remains a battle of which very little is known beyond the basic details.
“Nearby the baggage train was still crossing the pass, because the closer packed it was, the slower it fled over the crags. When he came upon it, the king, who was on foot, secured a horse and accompanied the men through the evening, which had already fallen. At that time breathless cohorts of knights from the camp met him and groaned when they saw him alone, bloody, and tired, for, without asking, they knew what had happened and mourned inconsolably for the missing royal escort, which numbered about forty (to wit, the count of Warenne and his brother Evrard of Breteuil, Manasses of Bulles and Gautier of Montjay and others; but I shall not record the names of all, lest I be considered unnecessarily wordy.)”Odo of Deuil, De Profectione Ludovici VII in Orientem
Despite the heavy losses, King Louis’ crusade continued, reuniting with the German contingent between March and June 1148. They failed to take Edessa and were forced to withdraw from Damascus after a week of heavy fighting, when fresh Muslim forces arrived. The crusade ended in failure and the French king, who blamed Emperor Manuel Comnenus for the fiasco, accepted the aid of Manuel’s enemy Roger of Sicily, who sent ships to take the French forces home. Of the English forces, while William de Warenne was lost at Mount Cadmus, his brother Waleran de Beaumont, Count of Meulan and Earl of Worcester, made it back to England’s shores, narrowly surviving a shipwreck along the way; he founded a monastery in gratitude. Of the two Anglo-Norman bishops who accompanied the crusade, Roger of Chester died at Antioch and was buried there, whereas Arnulf of Lisieux, who had served as one of the leading diplomats, returned but with his reputation faded.
Perhaps it was always on the cards that the 3rs Earl Warenne’s unspectacular military career would end with his death in battle. He was only 28 years old and had held the earldom for just over nine years. The earl had been a stalwart supporter of King Stephen, not once wavering in his allegiance, despite his failures in Normandy and at Lincoln early on in his career. He had done extensive work on the family’s property at Castle Acre, reinforcing the castle and replanning the town, building the ramparts that now surround it. William de Warenne had been a generous benefactor to the church, especially the Warenne foundations at Lewes and Castle Acre.
Even in his absence on crusade, the earl was still technically in charge; his brother, Reginald, issued a number of charters, each with the proviso that ‘if Jesus Christ brought back the earl [from the crusade] he would cause him to confirm it’ or ‘do his best to obtain the earl’s confirmation.’4
The death of William de Warenne, 3rd Earl of Warenne and Surrey brought an end to the senior male line that had been founded with the creation of the earldom for William (I) de Warenne in 1088. The earl was survived by his wife, Ela de Talvas, still a young woman, and his daughter, Isabel de Warenne, a child probably no more than 10 years of age. Isabel was now the richest heiress in England and married to King Stephen‘s youngest son, William of Blois. The earl’s estates were left in the capable hands of his youngest brother, Reginald de Warenne, Baron of Wormegay, who would watch over them for his niece and her young husband.
1 Edmund King, King Stephen; 2 Farrer, William and Charles Travis Clay, editors, Early Yorkshire Charters, Volume 8: The Honour of Warenne; 3 Epistolae Pontificum Romanorum ineditae quoted in Edmund King, King Stephen; 4 Farrer, William and Charles Travis Clay, editors, Early Yorkshire Charters, Volume 8: The Honour of Warenne; Odo of Deuil, De Profectione Ludovici VII in Orientem, magnacharta.com.
Robert Batlett, England Under the Norman and Angevin Kings; Dan Jones, The Plantagenets; 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; Morris, Marc King John: Treachery, Tyranny and the Road to Magna Carta; Church, Stephen, King John: England, Magna Carta and the Making of a Tyrant; doncasterhistory.co.uk; 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; Rev. John Watson, Memoirs of the Ancient Earls of Warren and Surrey, and Their Descendants to the Present Time, Volume I; Odo of Deuil, De Profectione Ludovici VII in Orientem; magnacharta.com; Cokayne, G.E., The Complete Peerage, Vol. XII; Henry of Huntingdon, The Chronicle of Henry of Huntingdon.
Louis VII and Laodicea courtesy of Wikipedia; Warenne seal, Castle Acre Priory, St Pancras Priory and Seal of Isabel de Warenne are ©2021 Sharon Bennett Connolly
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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 Books, Amazon in the UK and US, Bookshop.org and Book Depository.
1 family. 8 earls. 300 years of English history!
Also by Sharon Bennett Connolly:
Ladies of Magna Carta: Women of Influence in Thirteenth Century England looks into the relationships of the various noble families of the 13th century, and how they were affected by the Barons’ Wars, Magna Carta and its aftermath; the bonds that were formed and those that were broken. It is now available in paperback and hardback from Pen & Sword, Amazon, Bookshop.org and from Book Depository worldwide.
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Silk and the Sword: The Women of the Norman Conquest traces the fortunes of the women who had a significant role to play in the momentous events of 1066. Available now from Amazon, Amberley Publishing, Bookshop.org and Book Depository.
Alternate Endings: An anthology of historical fiction short stories including Long Live the King… which is my take what might have happened had King John not died in October 1216. Available in paperback and kindle from Amazon.
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©2021 Sharon Bennett Connolly