The finalised cover for Defenders of the Norman Crown: Rise and Fall of the Warenne Earls of Surrey, coming out next year.
Huge thanks to designer Paul Wilkinson at Pen & Sword for making my book look sooo good!
Defenders of the Norman Crown: Rise and Fall of the Warenne Earls of Surrey
In the reign of Edward I, when asked Quo Warranto? – by what warrant he held his lands – John de Warenne, the 6th earl of Warenne and Surrey, is said to have drawn a rusty sword, claiming ‘My ancestors came with William the Bastard, and conquered their lands with the sword, and I will defend them with the sword against anyone wishing to seize them.’
John’s ancestor, William de Warenne, 1st Earl of Surrey, fought for William the Conqueror at the Battle of Hastings in 1066. He was rewarded with enough land to make him one of the richest men of all time. In his search for a royal bride, the 2nd earl kidnapped the wife of a fellow baron. The 3rd earl died on crusade, fighting for his royal cousin, Louis VII of France…
For three centuries, the Warennes were at the heart of English politics at the highest level, until one unhappy marriage brought an end to the dynasty. The family moved in the most influential circles, married into royalty and were not immune to scandal.
Defenders of the Norman Crown 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.
If you have been following this blog for any length of time, you will have noticed that I have a fondness for the Warennes. The family were earls of Surrey from 1088 until the death of the last Warenne earl in 1347. They possessed lands throughout England, stretching from Lewes in Sussex to Castle Rising in Norfolk and on to Conisbrough and Sandal Castles in Yorkshire.
Growing up close to the Warenne castle at Conisbrough in South Yorkshire, I developed a fascination for the castle’s history, for its connections to royalty, and for the family which built this amazing stronghold – the Warennes. As a student, I worked at the castle as a volunteer tour guide and started researching the story of the family. Many, many years later, when Pen & Sword asked me for some book ideas, I suggested writing a biography of the family, not really expecting them to say ‘yes’ – but they did. Defenders of the Norman Crown: Rise and Fall of the Warenne Earls of Surreyis a book I have always wanted to write, but never expected I would get the chance.
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 MSN.com’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. Indeed, it is from Ada de Warenne, daughter of the second earl, married to the oldest son of the king of Scots, that all the leading competitors for the Scottish throne, after the death of Margaret, Maid of Norway in 1286, are descended. Queen Elizabeth II, herself, can trace her own lineage back to Ada and, through Ada, to the second earl of Warenne and Surrey.
In the 14th century, one unhappy marriage brought the dynasty to an end, the family’s influence and achievements almost forgotten…
Writing Defenders of the Norman Crown: Rise and Fall of the Warenne Earls of Surrey and researching this incredible family has been an amazing experience – a dream come true – and I will be eternally grateful to Pen & Sword for allowing me to tell their story.
Defenders of the Norman Crown: Rise and Fall of the Warenne Earls of Surrey tells the story of this remarkable dynasty. It is a story of power, ambition, loyalty and – above all – family!
Defenders of the Norman Crown: Rise and Fall of the Warenne Earls of Surrey will be published by Pen & Sword in the spring of 2021.
It is my turn on the Historical Writers Forum Blog Hop today. The theme this time is Favourite Historical Figures. Now, usually, I would automatically go for Nicholaa de la Haye – and she is still my favourite. But today I thought I would have a change and introduce a lady I met whilst writing Ladies of Magna Carta: Women of History in Thirteenth Century Europe.
Matilda Marshal, Countess of Norfolk, Warenne and Surrey.
Matilda – also known as Mahelt or Maud – was the eldest daughter of the great William Marshal, Earl of Pembroke, known to many as The Greatest Knight! She lived through on of the most tumultuous periods of English history, the reign of King John, Magna Carta, the First Barons’ War and the minority of King Henry III.
Although we do not have a birth date for Matilda Marshal, given that her parents married in 1189 and she had two elder brothers, Matilda was probably born in 1193 or 1194. She was the third child and eldest daughter of William Marshal and his wife Isabel de Clare. The Histoire de Guillaume le Marechale praises 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.’1 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.’2 Of William and Isabel’s five daughters, it is only Matilda who is mentioned in the Histoire as being ‘loved dearly’ by her father.
In 1207 when the Marshal family moved to Ireland, William looked to settle Matilda’s future. Now aged 13 of 14, Matilda was old enough to be married and William approached Roger Bigod, second Earl of Norfolk, to propose a match between Matilda and Roger’s son and heir, Hugh Bigod. Hugh was Roger’s son by his wife Ida de Tosny, former mistress of King Henry II and the mother of the king’s son, William Longespée, Earl of Salisbury. Roger and Ida had married at Christmas in 1181 and so Hugh was probably in his mid-twenties when the marriage with Matilda was suggested.
According to the Histoire William asked Roger Bigod ‘graciously, being the wise man he was, to arrange a handsome marriage between his own daughter and his son Hugh. The boy was worthy, mildmannered, and noblehearted and the young lady was a very young thing and both noble and beautiful. The marriage was a most suitable one and pleased both families involved.’3 The match was a good one. After the marriage, Matilda lived with her husband at the earl of Norfolk’s magnificent thirteen-towered castle at Framlingham. In 1209 she gave birth to a son, Roger, who would succeed his father as 4th Earl of Norfolk. Another son, Hugh, was born in 1212, and a daughter, Isabelle in 1215. A third and final son, Ralph, was probably born in 1216 or 1217.
Matilda’s family was deeply divided by the Magna Carta crisis and subsequent civil war. Her husband and father-in-law had joined the ranks of the baronial rebellion in 1215, as had her brother, William Marshal the Younger, whilst her father remained a staunch supporter of the king, holding the Welsh Marches for the Royalist cause during the civil war.
In 1216 the war touched Matilda personally, with Framlingham Castle being besieged by King John, who demanded the castle’s surrender:
The King to his well-beloved men, William le Enveise, constable of Framlingham, and all the knights presently with him in that castle, greetings. We command that you deliver up to our trusty and well beloved William de Harcourt and Elias de Beauchamp the castle of Framlingham. And in testimony hereof we thereto send you these our letters patent. Witness myself, at Framlingham, the thirteenth day of March, in the seventeenth year of our reign.4
We do not know whether Matilda was in residence at the castle at the time of the siege; her father-in-law was in, or on his way to, London and her husband Hugh’s whereabouts are unknown, but he was not at Framlingham. The king allowed the constable, William le Enveise, to send messengers to the earl and seek advice on what they should do. The earl probably advised the constable to surrender as the castle capitulated to the king without a fight two days later. One of Matilda’s sons, most likely the eldest, Roger, was taken as hostage.
It is not hard to imagine what thoughts and feelings – and fears – must have gone through Matilda’s mind, knowing that her young son, only 6 or 7 years of age, was in the custody of King John. The king’s treatment of Matilda de Braose was common knowledge, and rumours of what had happened to Arthur of Brittany were rife. Her own two older brothers, William and Richard, had also been held for several years as hostages to their father’s good behaviour. It must have been a comfort to Matilda, however, to know that King John depended on the loyalty of her father, and so would treat the boy well, if only to avoid alienating the man whose support he sorely needed.
Despite King John’s death in October 1216, Matilda’s husband and father-in-law remained in rebellion, supporting the claims of Louis of France, the dauphin, who had invaded England early in 1216 and controlled much of the south. The earl of Norfolk only came to terms with the Royalist government when the French prince returned home in September 1217; after which he was finally restored to the earldom of Norfolk and Framlingham Castle was returned to him. It was probably also at this time that his grandson, Roger, was returned to his mother; his last year as a hostage would have been when his own grandfather, William Marshal, was in power as regent. Which must have allowed Matilda to rest easier and allayed her fears for her son.
Matilda spent time with her father while he was dying in April and May 1219. The Histoire says of Matilda at her father’s deathbed:
‘My lady Mahelt [Matilda] la Bigote was so full of grief she almost went out of her mind, so great was her love for him. Often she appealed to God, asking Him why He was taking from her what her heart loved most.’5
It goes on to tell the story of the ailing William Marshal calling for his daughters to sing to him. William asked Matilda to be the first to sing:
‘She had no wish to do so for her life at the time was a bitter cup, but she had no wish to disobey her father’s command. She started to sing since she wished to please her father, and she sang exceedingly well, giving a verse of a song in a sweet, clear voice.’6
Matilda’s husband, Hugh, succeeded to the title of earl of Norfolk when his father died sometime between April and August 1221, probably aged well into his seventies. The new earl, however, only enjoyed his title for four years; he died suddenly in 1225, aged only 43. He was succeeded by their eldest son, Roger, then only 16 years old and therefore still a minor. His wardship was given to William Longespée, Earl of Salisbury, the young earl’s half-uncle, but when Longespée died the following year, the wardship was transferred to Alexander II, King of Scots.
With custody of the young earl of Norfolk, and of all his lands, Alexander II married Roger to his sister, Isabella of Scotland. The only lands not granted to the king of Scots were those which Matilda held in dower as Hugh Bigod’s widow. Matilda was still only 32 when Hugh died, with three of her four children still to care for. As a valuable marriage prize she, or her family, acted quickly to secure her future and safety and within three months of her husband’s death, Matilda was married once more.
Her second husband was William de Warenne, 5th Earl of Surrey, also known as Earl Warenne. William was the only son of Isabel de Warenne, Countess of Surrey in her own right, and her second husband, Hamelin de Warenne, half-brother of King Henry II. Matilda was the earl’s second wife, his first wife, Matilda, daughter of William d’Aubigny, second Earl of Arundel had died childless on 6 February 1215 and was buried at Lewes Priory, Sussex. William de Warenne was a neighbour of the Bigods, having lands centred in Castle Acre in Norfolk, and he had joined the rebellion against King John at about the same time as Roger Bigod, although William was back in the Royalist camp by March 1217 and was a prominent participant in the negotiations which ended the war in August 1217.
Probably born in the late 1260s, William was considerably older than his new wife and the marriage appears to have been one of practicality, rather than affection. The earl had purchased Matilda’s marriage, essentially meaning her dower in Norfolk, before July 1225. Matilda continued to style herself as ‘Matildis la Bigot’ in charters, with ‘Matildis de Warenne’ added only as an afterthought, or not at all. For example, a charter from the early 1240s, following the death of William de Warenne, has the salutation, ‘ego Latilda Bigot comitissa Norf ’ et Warenn.’7 This may be an indication that this second marriage was not of Matilda’s own choosing and may even have preferred to remain a widow, rather than entering into this second marriage. The continuing use of her name from her first marriage possibly being her own mark of rebellion against her new situation.
After the resolution of the crisis of 1216/1217 William de Warenne served the crown faithfully, save for his brief involvement in the confederation against it led by Henry III’s brother Richard of Cornwall, between July and October 1227. He was forced to surrender Tickhill Castle, but his disgrace was only temporary and in 1228 he received the third penny for the county of Surrey for the first time, an honorary payment previously denied to William and his father. In 1230 William de Warenne was appointed keeper of the east-coast ports of England during the king’s expedition to Brittany. In 1236 he was cup bearer at the coronation of Eleanor of Provence and in 1237 he witnessed the reissue of Magna Carta; the ageing earl was one of the few surviving barons who had been witness to the original charter in 1215.
In his early 70s, William de Warenne died in London on 27 or 28 May 1240; he was buried before the high altar at his family’s foundation of Lewes Priory in Sussex. In his memory, the king ordered that a wayside cross be erected on the road between Carshalton and Merton, in Surrey. Matilda bore her second husband two children, a boy and a girl, John and Isabel (later Isabel d’Aubigny). John would succeed his father as earl and attained his majority in 1248, when he succeeded to the vast Warenne estates. He would pursue a martial career and was one of Edward I’s fiercest generals. Matilda did not marry again after William’s death. In 1246, as the last surviving child of William Marshal, and with neither of her five brothers leaving a son, Matilda was granted the Marshal’s rod by King Henry III. She did, at this point, change her name on charters, to ‘Martill marescalla Angliae, comitissa Norfolciae et Warennae.’8
Emphasising her Marshal name as her father’s eldest surviving child, Matilda was, significantly, claiming the title Marshal of England as her right, thus increasing her power and prestige, and taking the authority of the marshal as her own. Matilda appears to have acted independently during her second marriage, purchasing land in the Don Valley in South Yorkshire, close to the Warenne stronghold of Conisbrough Castle and after the queen she was ‘undoubtedly the most powerful and wealthy woman in England from 1242 onwards.’9
Matilda Marshal died in 1248, in her mid-50s. Choosing to be interred with her Marshal family, rather than either of her husbands, Matilda was buried at Tintern Abbey, Monmouthshire. Her three Bigod sons and their Warenne half-brother carried their mother’s bier into the church, where she was laid to rest close to her mother, Isabel, two of her brothers, Walter and Ancel, and her sister, Sybil. It is through Matilda’s marriage to Hugh Bigod, Earl of Norfolk, that the present duke of Norfolk also bears the title of Earl Marshal.
1David Crouch and Anthony Holden, History of William Marshal: Text and Translation; 2 ibid; 3ibid; 4Letter of 13 March 1216, Rich Price, King John’s Letters; 5Crouch and Holden, History of William Marshal: Text and Translation; 6ibid; 7Chadwick, Elizabeth, ‘Clothing the Bones: Finding Mahelt Marshal’, livingthehistoryelizabethchadwick.blogspot.com; 8Vincent, Nicholas, ‘William de Warenne, fifth earl of Surrey [Earl Warenne] (d. 1240)’, Oxforddnb.com; 9David Crouch quoted in Chadwick, ‘Clothing the Bones: Finding Mahelt Marshal’.
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 England; The Plantagenet Chronicle Edited by Elizabeth Hallam; Maurice Ashley The Life and Times of King John; Roy Strong The Story of Britain; Oxford 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.
Ada de Warenne was born around 1120, daughter of William de Warenne 2nd Earl of Surrey and Isabel de Vermandois. Through her mother, she was a great-granddaughter of Henry I of France and half-sister to twins Waleran and Robert de Beaumont, Count of Meulan and 2nd Earl of Leicester, respectively, and Hugh de Beaumont, 1st Earl of Bedford. Her niece, Isabel de Warenne, would marry William of Blois, the younger son of King Stephen and, following his death, Hamelin, half-brother of Henry II of England. Ada’s family connections were of the highest quality in the Anglo-Norman world.
As a consequence, Ada’s future marriage became an international concern. On 9 April 1139, a peace treaty was concluded between King Stephen of England and King David I of Scots. Primarily negotiated by Stephen’s wife, Queen Matilda – King David’s own niece – the terms were extremely favourable to the defeated Scots. All the lands that Prince Henry of Scotland, King David’s son and heir, had held in 1138 were returned to him, save for the castles at Bamburgh and Newcastle, for which he was recompensed with two towns of equal value in the south. Furthermore, Henry was confirmed as earl of Huntingdon and created earl of Northumbria, a title which encompassed Northumberland, Durham, Cumberland, Westmoreland and the parts of Lancashire north of the Ribble.
It was agreed that English law would remain in force in these regions, but that the barons within the earldom were permitted to do homage to Prince Henry, saving only their allegiance to King Stephen. In return, King David and his son promised a permanent peace and provided four hostages. Although the text of the treaty is now lost, it seems likely that the prince’s marriage to Ada de Warenne, sister of the third Earl Warenne and half-sister of the Beaumont twins, was included in the terms of the Treaty of Durham.
Shortly after the treaty was signed, Prince Henry joined King Stephen’s court for a time, accompanying Stephen on campaign, which came with not without a little risk. It was probably during his stay with Stephen’s court that Henry married his bride. Orderic Vitalis claims that the marriage was a love match; however, the timing clearly suggests that the union was a consequence of the 1139 treaty of Durham, perhaps with the intention of drawing Henry into Stephen’s corner by allying him in marriage to his staunchest supporters, the Beaumont twins. On her marriage, which took place sometime between the conclusion of the treaty of Durham and Henry’s return to Scotland, Ada became Countess of Huntingdon and Northumbria and Lady of Haddington and Crail.
Henry was the only surviving son of King David I of Scotland and his queen, Matilda (or Maud), widow of Simon (I) de Senlis, who had died in 1113. Henry’s mother, Matilda, was the daughter of Waltheof, Earl of Northumbria, and Judith, a niece of William the Conqueror. Henry’s older brother, Malcolm, was tragically killed when a toddler; he was reportedly murdered by a Scandinavian monk in his father’s service, who is said to have savagely attacked the child with his artificial iron hand. Needless to say, the murderous monk was executed: David ordered that he be torn apart by wild horses.
On her marriage, Ada became Countess of Huntingdon and Countess of Northumbria. The marriage produced 3 sons and 3 daughters.
Ada never became Queen of Scots as Henry of Scotland died in 1152, a year before the death of David I. On his son’s death, David recognised his grandson and Ada’s eldest son, Malcolm, as his heir. During her son’s reign, Ada became known as The Queen Mother of Scotland. At this time, in her charters, she is most frequently styled ‘Ada comitissa regis Scottorum.’
Born in 1142, Malcolm succeeded to the crown at the age of 11 as Malcolm IV. Also known as Malcolm the Maiden, he died, unmarried, at Jedburgh in December 1165. Ada had been trying to arrange a suitable bride for him when he died.
He was succeeded by Ada’s 2nd son, William I the Lion. William was one of the longest reigning king of Scots in history, ruling for 49 years. He married Ermengarde de Beaumont, a granddaughter of Henry I of England by his illegitimate daughter, Constance. William and Ermengarde had 3 daughters and a son, who succeeded his father as Alexander II in 1214. Their 2 eldest daughters, Margaret and Isabella, are mentioned in Magna Carta. They became hostages of King John following the treaty of Norham in 1209; the English king had promised to marry at least one of them to his son, the future King Henry III, and to find a suitable husband for the other. Both girls married English nobles – eventually. Their brother, Alexander II, married Henry III’s sister, Joan, but the marriage was childless.
Ada and Henry’s 3rd son, David, Earl of Huntingdon, married Matilda of Chester and it is through the daughters of David that Robert the Bruce and John Balliol both based their claims as Competitors to the Scots crown in the 1290s.
Of the 3 daughters, Matilda died young, in 1152. Ada of Huntingdon married Floris III, Count of Holland, in 1161. She had 4 sons and 4 daughters before the count died at Antioch while on the 3rd Crusade, in 1190. Ada’s great-great-grandson, Floris V, Count of Holland, was one of the 13 Competitors for the Scots crown in 1291. Margaret married Conan IV, Duke of Brittany and Earl of Richmond in 1160. She was the mother of Constance, Duchess of Brittany, wife of Henry II’s son Geoffrey and mother of the tragic Arthur of Brittany who was murdered by King John, and Eleanor, the Pearl of Brittany who spent all her adult life in ‘honourable imprisonment’ in England.
Following her husband’s death Ada played little part in the politics of Scotland. She did, however, take great interest in the futures of her children, arranging the marriages of her daughters and seeking a bride for her son, King Malcolm IV. She later retired to her dower lands at Haddington in East Lothian, given to her by David I and possibly the 1st Royal Burgh in Scotland.
A generous patroness of the Church, Ada de Warenne died in 1178, shortly after founding the nunnery at Haddington She is believed to be buried in the Haddington area, although the exact location of her grave is lost to history. In 1198 her grandson, the future Alexander II, would be born in her old palace at Haddington, after her dower-lands were passed on to her daughter-in-law, Queen Ermengarde.
Images from Wikipedia.
Further Reading: G.W.S. Barrow, David I (c. 1185-1153) (article), Oxforddnb.com; Keith Stringer, Ada [née Ada de Warenne], countess of Northumberland (c. 1123-1178), Oxforddnb.com; Keith Stringer, Henry, earl of Northumberland (c. 1115-1152) (article), Oxforddnb.com; The Chronicle of Henry of Huntingdon; W.W. Scott, Malcolm IV (c. 1141–1165) (article), (article), Oxforddnb.com; Comprising the history of England, from the invasion of Julius Caesar to the accession of Henry II. Also, the Acts of Stephen, King of England and duke of Normandy Translated and edited by Thomas Forester; Early Yorkshire Charters Volume 8: The Honour of Warenne, Edited by William Farrer and Charles Travis Clay; Brewer’s British Royalty by David Williamson; The Mammoth Book of British Kings and Queens by Mike Ashley; The Story of Scotland by Nigel Tranter; Ada, Queen Mother of Scotland (article) by Victoria Chandler; David Ross, Scotland: History of a Nation; Matthew Lewis, Stephen and Matilda’s Civil War: Cousins of Anarchy; Stephen Spinks, Robert the Bruce: Champion of a Nation.
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.
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
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.  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
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.
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
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
I have always been fascinated by the story of The Anarchy, that period of civil war in 11th century England. Empress Matilda fought her cousin, King Stephen, for the crown of England and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle famously reported:
… they said openly that Christ and His saints slept. Such things, and more than we know how to tell, we suffered 19 years for our sins.
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, edited and translated by Michael Swanton, p.265
King Stephen of England and his wife, Matilda of Boulogne, had 3 children who survived infancy, and yet – on his death – Stephen disinherited his surviving son, William, to leave his throne to Henry, Count of Anjou and Duke of Normandy. Henry was the son of Stephen’s bitter enemy, Empress Matilda.
Matilda of Boulogne, herself, was a cousin of Empress Matilda through her mother, Mary of Scotland, sister to the empress’s mother, Matilda of Scotland. Matilda of Boulogne and Empress Matilda were both granddaughters of Malcolm III of Scotland and his saintly wife, Margaret of Wessex; they were nieces of King David I of Scotland.
The Empress was was the only surviving legitimate child of Henry I (reigned 1100-1135), and his designated heir – but she was a woman and England’s nobles were reluctant to be ruled by a woman. Their reluctance to allow Matilda to take the throne was heightened by their dislike and distrust of Matilda’s husband, Geoffrey, Count of Anjou. Stephen of Blois was Henry I’s nephew and the son of Henry’s sister, Adela of Normandy. He was one of the old king’s closest male relatives and in the confusion following Henry’s death it was Stephen who took the initiative, acting quickly and decisively, and taking the kingdom of England and duchy of Normandy for himself.
What followed was a period known as the Anarchy, almost 20 years of conflict and bloodshed as Stephen and Matilda battled for supremacy. Ultimately, Stephen managed to retain control of England but Matilda’s eldest son, Henry, was eager to win back his birthright.
Following several incursions by Henry – whilst still in his teens – he and Stephen came to an agreement: Stephen would hold the throne until his death, but Henry would succeed him.
So, what happened to Stephen’s children?
Stephen and Matilda had 2 children, Baldwin and Matilda, who did not survive to adulthood. Matilda was married in 1136, as an infant, to Waleran de Beaumont, eldest twin son of Robert de Beaumont, 1st Earl of Leicester, and Isabel de Vermandois. The poor little girl died the following year, aged only 4.
Eustace IV, Count of Boulogne
The eldest surviving son of Stephen and Matilda was Eustace IV, Count of Boulogne. Eustace was an unpleasant character, by most accounts. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle called him ‘an evil man’ who ‘robbed the lands and laid heavy taxes upon them’. Henry of Huntingdon’s appraisal of Eustace was almost as damning:
… he was a man proven in military skill, but obdurate against the things of God, very harsh towards the incumbents of churches, very loyal towards those who persecute the Church.
The History of the English People 1000-1154 by Henry of Huntingdon
Eustace was married in Paris, in 1140, to Constance, the only daughter of Louis VI of France and his 2nd wife, Adelaide of Savoy. She was the sister of King Louis VII, the first husband of Eleanor of Aquitaine. Constance ‘was a good woman but enjoyed little happiness with him’. According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle:
1140. Then Eustace the king’s son travelled to France and took to wife the sister of the king of France and thought to get Normandy through that, but he had little success, and with jut cause, because he was an evil man, because wheresoever he came he did more evil than good; he robbed the lands and laid great taxes on them. He brought his wife to England and put her in the castle at Canterbury. She was a good woman but she had little happiness with him, and Christ did not wish that he should rule long, and he  and his mother  both died.
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, edited and translated by Michael Swanton, p.267
Stephen made attempts to have Eustace crowned, in his own lifetime, as heir-designate, in order to guarantee his succession. This was blocked by the Papacy; though they supported Stephen as king, over Matilda, they were keen to see the throne return to the senior legitimate line of Henry I through Matilda’s son, Henry.
The young prince had retired from court after Stephen came to terms with Henry. He was;
‘greatly vexed and angry because the war, in his opinion, had reached no proper conclusion’.
Although Eustace had been recognised, as Stephen’s heir, by the secular baronage, I can’t help thinking that it was a real stroke of luck for England when Eustace died of a seizure or ‘in a fit of madness’ in August 1153. He had recently laid waste to the lands of the abbey of Bury St Edmunds and so some said the revered saint had exacted his revenge. Another theory was that he choked to death and, of course, rumours of poisoning are not surprising; Eustace’s death paved the way for an ‘understanding’, over the succession, between Stephen and Henry of Anjou.
William, Earl of Surrey
Stephen’s youngest son was William, who was born sometime in the mid-1130s. It is thought William was born following Stephen’s accession to the English throne in 1135, as he was named after his great-grandfather, William the Conqueror, King of England and Duke of Normandy, rather than with a name associated with the County of Boulogne, as had his older brothers, Eustace and Baldwin.
In 1148 he was married to Isabel de Warenne, sole heiress to William de Warenne, 3rd Earl of Surrey, in order to bring the vast Warenne lands within the influence of the crown. Isabel’s father had departed on the Second Crusade in 1147 and would not return, being killed at the Battle of Mount Cadmus, in Laodicea, in January 1148. William was being addressed as an earl even before his father-in-law’s death.1 He would succeed to the County of Boulogne in 1153, on the death of Eustace and the county of Mortain on the death of his father in 1154.
Shortly after his brother’s death, and with the help of the clergy, William made an agreement with Henry of Anjou, whereby he waived his own rights to the crown in return for assurances explicitly recognising his rights to his lands, as Count of Boulogne and Earl of Surrey. Although, it is not known whether he did this willingly, or was persuaded by others, the agreement was an essential tool for the peaceful accession of Henry.
In spite of this agreement, William was implicated in a plot against Henry in early 1154 – or he at least knew about it – in which some Flemish mercenaries planned, but failed, to ambush Henry on the road near Canterbury. There may have been a tit-for-tat retaliation as William’s leg was broken in an ‘accident’ at about the same time.
However, when King Stephen died, William made no attempt to oppose Henry’s accession. In the early years of his reign, Henry acted to curb some of the power and influence William may have wielded by confiscating some of the lands and castles from his patrimony of Mortain, but allowing him to retain the earldom of Surrey, for the most part. William was even knighted by Henry II, after he joined the new king on his campaign against Toulouse.
William died in France, without issue, in 1159, after falling ill at the Siege of Toulouse and was buried in the Hospital of Montmorillon in Poitou, France. He was in his early 20s and left his young wife, Isabel, about the same age, a widow.
Mary of Boulogne
William was succeeded in the County of Boulogne by his sister, Mary, the 3rd surviving child of Stephen and Matilda. Mary was born around 1136 and placed in a convent at an early age, first at the Priory of Lillechurch, Kent, and then at Romsey Abbey, where she was elected Abbess sometime before 1155.
Five years later – shortly after William’s death – Mary was abducted by Matthew of Alsace, 2nd son of the Count of Flanders, and forced to marry him. There was outrage among the clergy – the incident was even discussed by the Pope – but the marriage was allowed to stand, at least until Mary produced and heir to the county of Boulogne. Mary and Matthew had 2 children – Ida and Mathilde – and it was after the birth of Mathilde that the couple were divorced, in 1170.
Matthew would continue to rule Boulogne and be succeeded by Ida, his eldest daughter by Mary, on his death in 1173. Mary was allolwed to return to the convent life, becoming a Benedictine nun at St Austrebert, Montreuil. She died there in July 1182, aged about 46.
The abduction and forced marriage of Mary may well have been a political move. Although there does not appear to be any proof that Henry II sanctioned it, he certainly benefited from Mary being safely married to a loyal vassal. She was, after all a great heiress and – through her father – a rival claimant to the throne of England.
It is, perhaps, a sad legacy for King Stephen that, after almost 20 years of warfare in order to hold onto his throne, the king was not able to pass it on to any of his children. His sons dying without issue meant that his bloodline continued only through his daughter, Mary, and the County of Boulogne, which Stephen had inherited through his marriage to Matilda.
Footnotes: 1 Farrer, William and Charles Travis Clay, editors, Early Yorkshire Charters, Volume 8: The Honour of Warenne.
Donald Matthew, King Stephen; Robert Bartlett, England Under the Norman and Angevin Kings; David Williamson, Brewer’s British Royalty; the History Today Companion to British History; Dan Jones, the Plantagenets; englishmonarchs.co.uk; The Oxford Companion to British History; Mike Ashley, The Mammoth Book of British kings & Queens; Alison Weir, Britain’s Royal Families, the Complete Genealogy; Farrer, William and Charles Travis Clay, editors, Early Yorkshire Charters, Volume 8: The Honour of Warenne; Gesta Stephani; Henry of Huntingdon, The History of the English People 1000-1154; J. Sharpe (trans.), The History of the Kings of England and of his Own Times by William Malmesbury; Catherine Hanley, Matilda: Empress, Queen, Warrior; Orderici Vitalis, Historiae ecclesiasticae libri tredecem, translated by Auguste Le Prévost; Chronicles of the Reigns of Stephen, Henry II and Richard I; Edmund King, King Stephen; Donald Matthew, King Stephen; Teresa Cole, the Anarchy: The Darkest Days of Medieval England; Matthew Lewis, Stephen and Matilda’s Civil War: Cousins of Anarchy.
I have written previously about the 1217 Battle of Lincoln, but did you know that was the Second Battle of Lincoln? The First Battle of Lincoln occurred during the period known as The Anarchy, the conflict for the throne fought between King Stephen and Empress Matilda.
Early in 1141, news reached King Stephen that Ranulf de Gernons, the disgruntled Earl of Chester, had captured Lincoln Castle. Disappointed in his aspirations to Carlisle and Cumberland after they were given to Prince Henry of Scotland, Ranulf had turned his sights on Lincoln Castle, which had once been held by his mother, Lucy of Bolingbroke, Countess of Chester. Countess Lucy had died around 1138, leaving her Lincolnshire lands to her son by her second marriage, William de Roumare, Ranulf’s half-brother. Her lands elsewhere had been left to Ranulf de Gernons, who was the son of her third marriage, to Ranulf le Meschin, Earl of Chester.
It seems that in late 1140 Ranulf and his brother had contrived to gain possession of Lincoln Castle by subterfuge. As the story goes, the two brothers waited until the castle garrison had gone hunting before sending their wives to visit the castellan’s wife. A short while after, Earl Ranulf appeared at the castle gates, wearing no armour and with only three attendants, supposedly to collect his wife and sister-in-law. Once allowed inside, he and his men overpowered the small number of men-at-arms left to guard the castle and opened the gates to his brother. The half-brothers took control of the castle and, with it, the city of Lincoln.
The citizens of Lincoln appealed to the king, who had promptly arrived outside the castle walls by 6 January 1141 and began his siege. Earl Ranulf somehow escaped from the castle and returned to his lands in Chester in order to raise more troops. He also took the opportunity to appeal to his father-in-law for aid. Ranulf’s father-in-law was, Robert, Earl of Gloucester, the illegitimate son of Henry I and brother of Empress Matilda. A very capable soldier, Earl Robert commanded Matilda’s military forces and his daughter, Maud of Gloucester – Ranulf’s wife – was still trapped inside Lincoln Castle. If the need to rescue his daughter was not enough motivation to persuade Robert to intercede at Lincoln, Ranulf also promised to switch his allegiance, and his considerable resources, to Empress Matilda. Robert marched to Lincoln, meeting up with his son-in-law along the way. The earls’ forces arrived on the outskirts of Lincoln on 1 February, crossed the Fossdyke and the River Witham and arrayed for battle. Their rapid approach caught Stephen unawares. Outnumbered, Stephen was advised to withdraw his forces, until he could muster enough men to make an even fight of it.
Stephen, perhaps remembering the destruction of his father’s reputation after his flight from Antioch, refused to withdraw. He would stand and fight. The next morning, 2 February 1141, before battle was joined, King Stephen attended a solemn mass in the cathedral; according to Henry of Huntingdon, who claimed Bishop Alexander of Lincoln as his patron and may well have been present, the service was replete with ill omens:
‘But when, following custom, he offered a candle fit for a king and was putting it into Bishop Alexander’s hands, it broke into pieces. This was a warning to the king that he would be crushed. In the bishop’s presence, too, the pyx above the altar, which contained the Lord’s Body, fell, its chain having snapped off. This was a sign of the king’s downfall.’
Henry of Huntingdon, The History of the English People 1000-1154
After mass, the king led his forces through Lincoln’s West Gate, deploying them on the slope leading down to the Fossdyke. He formed his army into three divisions, with mounted troops on each flank and the infantry in the centre. On the right flank were the forces of Waleran de Meulan, William de Warenne, Simon de Senlis, Gilbert of Hertford, Alan of Richmond and Hugh Bigod, Earl of Norfolk. The left was commanded by William of Aumale and William of Ypres, Stephen’s trusted mercenary captain, who led a force of Flemish and Breton troops. The centre comprised the shire levy, which included citizens of Lincoln, and Stephen’s own men-at-arms, fighting on foot around the royal standard.
The opposing army also deployed in three divisions, with ‘the disinherited’, those deprived of their lands by King Stephen, on the left. The infantry, comprising of Earl Ranulf’s Cheshire tenants and other levies, and dismounted knights were in the centre under Earl Ranulf himself. The cavalry, under the command of Earl Robert of Gloucester formed the right flank. The Welsh mercenaries, ‘ill armed but full of spirits’ were arrayed on the wings of the army. Before the battle, Earl Ranulf addressed his father-in-law and fellow barons, saying,
‘Receive my hearty thanks, most puissant earl, and you, my noble fellow-soldiers, for that you are prepared to risk your lives in testimony of your devotion to me. But since it is through me you are called to encounter this peril, it is fitting that I should myself bear the brunt of it, and be foremost in the attack on this faithless king, who has broken the peace to which he is pledged. While I, therefore, animated by my own valour, and the remembrance of the king’s perfidy, throw myself on the king’s troops … I have a strong presage that we shall put the king’s troops to the rout, trample under foot his nobles, and strike himself with the sword.’
Henry of Huntingdon, The History of the English People 1000-1154
Earl Robert of Gloucester responded to Ranulf and addressed the army:
‘It is fitting that you should have the honour of the first blow, both on account of your high rank and your exceeding valour… The king has inhumanely usurped the crown, faithless to the fealty which he swore to my sister, and by the disorder he has occasioned caused the slaughter of many thousands; and by the example he has set of an illegal distribution of lands, has destroyed the rights of property… There is one thing, however, brave nobles and soldiers all, which I wish to impress on your minds. There is no possibility of retreat over the marches which you which you have just crossed with difficulty. Here, therefore, you must either conquer or die, for there is no hope of safety in flight. The only course that remains is, to open a way to the city with your swords. If my mind conjectures truly, as flee you cannot, by God’s help you will this day triumph… You. Victorious, will see the citizens of Lincoln, who stand in array nearest their walls, give way before the impetuosity of your attack and, with faint hearts, seek the shelter of their houses…
There is Alan of Brittany in arms against us, nay against God himself; a man so execrable, so polluted with every sort of wickedness that his equal in crime cannot be found… Then, we have opposed to us the Earl of Mellent [Meulan], crafty, perfidious; whose heart is naturally imbued with dishonesty, his tongue with fraud, his bearing with cowardice … slow in advance, quick in retreat, the last in fight, the first in flight. Next, we have against Earl Hugh, who not only makes light of his breach of fealty against the empress, but has perjured himself most blatantly a second time; affirming that King Henry conferred the crown on Stephen, and that the king’s daughter abdicated in his favour. Then we have the Earl of Albemarle [Aumale], a man singularly consistent in his wicked courses, prompt to embark in them, incapable of relinquishing them; from whom his wife was compelled to become a fugitive, on account of his intolerable filthiness. The earl also marches against us, who carried off the countess just named; a most flagrant adulterer, and a most eminent bawd, a slave to Bacchus and no friend to Mars; redolent of wine, indolent in war. With him comes Simon, earl of Northampton, who never acts but talks, who never gives but promises, who thinks that when he has said a thing he has done it, when he has promised he has performed… So of the rest of Stephen’s nobles: they are like the king; practised in robbery, rapacious for plunder, steeped in blood and all alike tainted with perjury… If you are of one mind in executing the divine judgement, swear to advance, execrate retreat, and in token of it, unanimously raise your hands to heaven.’
Henry of Huntingdon, The History of the English People 1000-1154
Earl Robert’s speech spared no criticism of King Stephen’s noble commanders. By process of elimination, we can surmise the Earl William de Warenne is the unnamed earl who carried of the wife of the earl of Aumale and is dismissed as a drunkard womaniser who was ‘indolent in war’. Though Warenne had had little success in conflict, this harangue is somewhat of an exaggeration; Earl Warenne, at this time, was still relatively young, being no more than 21 years. He had managed to achieve quite a reputation in a very short time if Robert of Gloucester was referring to him.
Henry of Huntingdon reports speeches from both sides, exhorting the men to battle and insulting the opposing commanders. As his voice ‘was not clear’ Baldwin fitz Gilbert was deputed to speak for King Stephen:
‘All ye who are now about to engage in battle must consider three things: first, the justice of your cause; secondly, the number of your force; and thirdly, its bravery: the justice of your cause that you may not peril your souls; the number of your force that it may not be overwhelmed by the enemy; its valour, lest, trusting to numbers, cowardice should occasion defeat. The justice of your cause consists inn this, that we maintain, at the peril of our lives, our allegiance to the king, before God, against those of his subjects who are perjured to him. In numbers we are not inferior in cavalry, stronger in infantry. As to the valour of so many barons, so many earls, and of our soldiers long trained to war, what words can do it justice? Our most valiant king will alone stand in place of a host. Your sovereign, the anointed of the Lord, will be in the midst of you; to him, then, to whom you have sworn fealty, keep your oaths in the sight of God, persuaded that he will grant you his aid according as you faithfully and steadfastly fight for your king, as true men against the perjured, as loyal men against traitors…’
Henry of Huntingdon, The History of the English People 1000-1154
Baldwin fitz Gilbert’s speech goes on to describe Earl Robert of Gloucester as having ‘the mouth of a lion and the heart of a hare,’ saying he is ‘loud in talk, but dull in action.’ Earl Ranulf of Chester is described as ‘a man of reckless audacity, ready for a plot, not to be depended on in carrying it out, rash in battle, careless of danger; with designs beyond his powers aiming at impossibilities…’ The speech is just as scathing for the rest of the rebel army, announcing, ‘For the other nobles and knights, they are traitors and turncoats, and I would that there were more of them, for the more there are the less are they to be feared.’ The harangue ends with the exhortation, ‘Lift up your hearts, and stretch out your hands, soldiers, exultingly, to take the prey which God himself offers to you.’1
According to Henry of Huntingdon, the armies were mobilising before Baldwin fitz Gilbert’s speech ended. The rebels were the first to advance, ‘the shouts of the advancing enemy were heard, mingled with the blasts of their trumpets, and the trampling of the horses, making the ground to quake.’ The ranks of the ‘disinherited’ moved forward with swords drawn, rather than lowered lances, intent on close quarter combat. This left flank of the rebel army fell upon Stephen’s right flank, ‘in which were Earl Alan, the Earl of Mellent [Meulan], with Hugh, the Earl of East Anglia [Norfolk], and Earl Symon, and the Earl of Warenne, with so much impetuosity that it was routed in the twinkling of an eye, one part being slain, another taken prisoner and the third put to flight.’ Faced with the ferocity of the assault and the very real prospect of death, rather than being taken prisoner and held for ransom, the earls fled the field with the remnants of their men. It was every man for himself as Stephen’s right wing disintegrated in panic.2
The left wing of the royal army appeared to have greater success, at least initially. The men of William of Aumale, Earl of York and Stephen’s mercenary captain, William of Ypres, rode down the Earl of Chester’s Welsh mercenaries and sent them running, but ‘the followers of the Earl of Chester attacked this body of horse, and it was scattered in a moment like the rest.’3 Other sources suggest that William of Ypres and William of Aumale fled before coming to close quarters with the enemy.4 Either way, William of Ypres’ men were routed and he was in no position to support the king and so fled the field, no doubt aware that he would not be well-treated were he to be captured.
Stephen’s centre, the infantry, including the Lincolnshire levies and the king’s own men-at-arms, were left isolated and surrounded, but continued to fight. Stephen himself was prominent in the vicious hand-to-hand fighting that followed. Henry of Huntingdon vividly describes the desperate scene as ‘the battle raged terribly round this circle; helmets and swords gleamed as they clashed, and the fearful screams and shouts re-echoed from the neighbouring hill and city walls.’5 The rebel cavalry charged into the royal forces killing many, trampling others and capturing some. King Stephen was deep in the midst of the fighting:
‘No respite, no breathing time was allowed, except in the quarter in which the king himself had taken his stand, where the assailants recoiled from the unmatched force of his terrible arm. The Earl of Chester seeing this, and envious of the glory the king was gaining, threw himself upon him with the whole weight of his men-at-arms. Even then the king’s courage did not fail, but his heavy battle-axe gleamed like lightning, striking down some, bearing back others. At length it was shattered by repeated blows, then he drew his well-tried sword, with which he wrought wonders until that, too, was broken.’
Henry of Huntingdon, The History of the English People 1000-1154;
According to Orderic Vitalis and the Gesta Stephani, it was the king’s sword that broke first, before he was passed a battle-axe by one of the fighting citizens of Lincoln, in order to continue the fight. Whatever the order, the king’s weapons were now useless and the king ‘fell to the ground by a blow from a stone.’6 Stephen was stunned and a soldier named William de Cahaignes then rushed at him, seized him by his helmet and shouted, ‘Here! Here! I have taken the king!’7
The king’s forces being completely surrounded, flight was impossible. All were killed or taken prisoner, including Baldwin fitz Gilbert, the man who had given the rousing pre-battle speech to the men. In the immediate aftermath of the fighting, Lincoln was sacked, buildings set alight, valuables pillaged, and its citizens slaughtered by the victorious rebels.
Defeated, Stephen was first taken to Empress Matilda and then to imprisonment at Bristol Castle. A victorious Matilda was recognised as sovereign by the English people; the people of London being among the first to accept her.
1 Henry of Huntingdon, The History of the English People 1000-1154; 2 ibid; 3 ibid; 4 Gesta Stephani; 5 Henry of Huntingdon, The History of the English People 1000-1154;6 J. Sharpe (trans.), The History of the Kings of England and of his Own Times by William Malmesbury; 7 Henry of Huntingdon, The History of the English People 1000-1154
Gesta Stephani; Henry of Huntingdon, The History of the English People 1000-1154;J. Sharpe (trans.), The History of the Kings of England and of his Own Times by William Malmesbury; Catherine Hanley, Matilda: Empress, Queen, Warrior; Orderici Vitalis, Historiae ecclesiasticae libri tredecem, translated by Auguste Le Prévost; Chronicles of the Reigns of Stephen, Henry II and Richard I; William Farrer and Charles Travis Clay, editors, Early Yorkshire Charters, Volume 8: The Honour of Warenne; Edmund King, King Stephen; Donald Matthew, King Stephen; Teresa Cole, the Anarchy: The Darkest Days of Medieval England; David Smurthwaite, The Complete Guide to the Battlefields of Britain; Matthew Lewis, Stephen and Matilda’s Civil War: Cousins of Anarchy.
Isabel de Warenne was the only surviving child of William de Warenne, 3rd Earl of Warenne and Surrey, and his wife Adela, or Ela, de Talvas, daughter of William III of Ponthieu. When her father died on the Second Crusade to the Holy Land, in around 1148, Isabel became 4th Countess of Surrey and one of the most prized heiresses in England and Normandy, with large estates in Yorkshire.
Isabel was born during a period of civil war in England, a time known as The Anarchy (c.1135-54), when King Stephen fought against Empress Matilda, the daughter of Henry I, for the right to rule England. Isabel’s father, William, was a staunch supporter of the king and had fought at the Battle of Lincoln in February 1141, though without distinction; his men were routed early on in the battle and William was among a number of earls who fled the field. He later redeemed himself that summer by capturing Empress Matilda’s brother and senior general, Robert Earl of Gloucester, at Winchester.
The earl appears to have tired of the civil war in 1147 and departed on Crusade with his half-brother, Waleran de Beaumont, Count of Meulan, and their cousin, King Louis VII of France. In the same year, as part of King Stephen’s attempts to control the vast de Warenne lands during a crucial time in the Anarchy, Earl Warenne’s only daughter, Isabel, was married to Stephen’s younger son, William of Blois, who would become Earl by right of his wife, following the 3rd earl’s death on Crusade in 1148; he was killed fighting in the doomed rearguard at the Battle of Mount Cadmus near Laodicea in January 1148.
It has been suggested that William of Blois was some 7 or 8 years younger than his wife, Isabel. However, this seems improbable and it appears more likely that the young couple were of similar ages. Isabel’s father had been born in 1119 and was no older than 29 when he died; his wife, Ela de Talvas, was a few years younger than her husband. This means that, even if the couple married as soon as they reached the ages allowed by the church to marry, 12 for a girl and 14 for a boy, and Ela fell pregnant on her wedding night, Isabel could have been no older 13 in 1147. Given the danger associated with girls giving birth before their teens, it seems plausible that Isabel was not born until the late 1130s and may have been between 10 and 12, or younger when she married William of Blois.
Even before it was known that Earl Warenne had died on crusade, William of Blois was already being referred to as earl in a number of charters relating to Warenne lands, one such charter, dated to c.1148, was issued with the proviso ‘that if God should bring back the earl [from the crusade] he would do his best to obtain the earl’s confirmation, or otherwise that of his lord earl William, the king’s son.’1
During the 3rd earl’s absence, and while the new earl and countess were still only children, the vast Warenne lands were administered by the 3rd earl’s youngest brother, Reginald de Warenne, Baron Wormegay, who was a renowned and accomplished administrator and estate manager. We do not know when news reached England of the earl’s death, the tidings may have arrived before the return of the earl’s half-brother, Waleran, later in the year. However, the future of the earldom was already secure with the succession of Isabel and her young husband, carefully watched over by Isabel’s uncle, Reginald.
In 1154 the young couple’s future prospects could have changed drastically when William’s elder brother Eustace, their father’s heir, died. As a consequence, William inherited his mother’s County of Boulogne from his brother, adding to his already substantial domains. He may also have expected to inherit his brother’s position as heir to the throne – or not. It seems that William’s ambitions did not extend to the lofty heights of the throne, or he was not considered suitable for the crown. Either way, the young man was removed from the succession to the crown by his own father, when Stephen made a deal with Empress Matilda’s son, Henry of Anjou, that the crown would go to him on Stephen’s death, thus returning the crown to the rightful line of succession.
William seems to have accepted this, on the whole. Although there is some suggestion of his involvement in a plot against Henry later in 1154, during which William suffered a broken leg, he served Henry loyally, once he became king, until his own death, returning from the king’s campaign in Toulouse, in 1159.
Now in her mid-20s, and as their marriage had been childless, Isabel was once again a prize heiress. Although she seems to have had a little respite from the marriage market, by 1162 Henry II’s youngest brother, William X, Count of Poitou, was seeking a dispensation to marry her. The dispensation was refused by Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, on the grounds of consanguinity; the archbishop’s objection was not that Isabel and William were too closely related, but that William and Isabel’s first husband had been cousins. William died shortly after the archbishop refused to sanction the marriage – it is said, of a broken heart.
King Henry was not to be thwarted so easily in his plans to bring the Warenne lands into the royal family, and his illegitimate half-brother, Hamelin, was married to Isabel in 1164. Hamelin was the son of Herny’s father, Geoffrey, Count of Anjou, and an unknown woman, born around 1130, in the time when Geoffrey and Empress Matilda were estranged. In an unusual step, Hamelin took his wife’s surname and bore the titles Earl of Warenne and Surrey in her right.
The marriage appears to have been highly successful. Hamelin was loyal to his brother and his nephew, Richard I, and played a prominent part in English politics whilst Richard was absent on the 3rd Crusade. He also built the highly innovative keep at Conisbrough in the 1170s and 1180s.
Isabel and Hamelin had four surviving children. Their son and heir, William, would become the 5th Earl of Surrey and married Maud Marshal, daughter of the great William Marshal, Earl of Pembroke and regent for King Henry III. There were also three daughters, Ela, Isabel and Matilda, however it has been suggested that Matilda was Hamelin’s daughter by a previous relationship, but this theory is based on an erroneous death date for her husband. One of the daughters – although it is not clear which – bore an illegitimate son, Richard Fitzroy, by her cousin, John (the future King John).
Isabel died in her mid-60s, in 1203, and was buried at Lewes Priory, alongside Hamelin, who had died the previous year. In 1202, Countess Isabel had granted ‘for the soul of her husband earl Hamelin, to the priory of St Katherine, Lincoln, of similar easements for 60 beasts, namely for 40 as of his gift and 20 as of hers.’2
Footnotes: 1 Farrer, William and Charles Travis Clay, editors, Early Yorkshire Charters, Volume 8: The Honour of Warenne; 2 ibid
Sources: 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
Ladies of Magna Carta: Women of Influence in Thirteenth Century Europe is going on tour – virtually at least. With articles, book reviews and interviews coming over the next 2 weeks, we will be visiting such exotic places as Barnsley, Tennessee, the Yorkshire Dales, Sussex and Michigan – all from the desktop!
Here’s the itinerary!
First stop is 1st July at my amazing publishers, Pen and Sword, who have done a wonderful job of organising the tour. Here’s an article on the inspiration behind the book.
5th July, Joanna Arman, The History Lady, will publishing her thoughts on Ladies of Magna Carta. I’m not nervous – much!
6th July, I will be stopping by for a cuppa with Samantha Wilcoxson to talk about The Marshal Sisters.
7th July, I will be chatting with Susan Higginbotham on History Refreshed about why it is so hard to love Isabelle d’Angoulême.
I will be making 2 stops on 8th July, visiting Simon Turney’s S.J.A. Turney’s Books and More, with an article on the many Family Ties of the women of the Magna Carta a story, plus Simon has written a wonderful review of Ladies of Magna Carta. And then it’s a quick hop over to visit Carol McGrath for her review of Ladies of Magna Carta and a chat about history, research and writing in general.
9th July I’ll be visiting the inimitable author, Tony Riches, with an article on Matilda de Braose.
I would like to thank Rosie and Rebecca at Pen & Sword and all the authors and bloggers involved for taking part in this amazing tour. I am truly humbled and grateful that you have all taken the time to read Ladies of Magna Carta and shared your thoughts and blog space with me.
Signed book plates
If you have a copy of Ladies of Magna Carta and would like a signed book plate to pop in the front, for you or someone else, just drop me a line via the ‘Contact Me‘ page with your address and who you would like the dedication made out to, and I will get one out to you.
Sharon Bennett Connolly has been fascinated by history her whole life. She has studied history academically and just for fun – and even worked as a tour guide at historical sites. For Christmas 2014, her husband gave her a blog as a gift – http://www.historytheinterestingbits.com – and Sharon started researching and writing about the stories that have always fascinated, concentrating on medieval women. Her latest book, Ladies of Magna Carta: Women of Influence in Thirteenth Century England, released in May 2020, is her third non-fiction book. She is also the author of Heroines of the Medieval World and Silk and the Sword: The Women of the Norman Conquest. Sharon regularly gives talks on women’s history; she is a feature writer for All About History magazine and her TV work includes Australian Television’s ‘Who Do You Think You Are?‘
Malcolm IV (the Maiden), King of Scots, was the son of Prince Henry of Scotland and Ada de Warenne. He was the grandson of David I, King of Scots and great-grandson of Malcolm III, King of Scots and second his wife St Margaret, herself a descendant of Alfred the great. On his mother’s side, he was the grandson of William de Warenne, second Earl of Warenne and Surrey, and Isabel de Vermandois, granddaughter of King Henry I of France and his queen, Anna of Kiev.
The younger Malcolm was born between born between 23 April and 24 May 1141. He earned the soubriquet ‘the Maiden’ due to his youth, religious devotion and the fact he remained unmarried. Malcolm had become his grandfather’s heir following his father’s death in 1152, at which time he had been placed into the custody of Duncan, Earl of Fife, and taken on a progress around Scotland north of the Forth, following the old Celtic tradition of showing the heir to the kingdom. When King David I died less than twelve months after his son, Henry, on 24 May 1153, he was succeeded by his grandson, Malcolm. The new king succeeded to the crown at the age of twelve – possibly even on his twelfth birthday – as Malcolm IV.
The accession of Malcolm surpassed all the ambitions of his Warenne grandfather. William de Warenne, the second earl, had sought a royal bride for himself. He had not lived to see his daughter marry the heir to the Scottish throne not to see his grandson’s accession and coronation, which surpassed all of his aspirations and ambitions.
The chronicles make no mention of Malcolm’s mother, Ada, playing a part in the politics of Scotland during her eldest son’s kingship. She did appear at court often and was present for many of the important occasions; she was also a witness to no less than sixteen of Malcolm’s charters. Ada did, moreover, take great interest in the futures of her children, arranging the marriages of her two surviving daughters and employing any means possible to persuade her son to marry. The chronicler, William of Newburgh, relates a story of the lengths Ada had to go to in order to get her reluctant son to choose a bride. Ada went so far as to present her son with a young woman of noble birth, in his bed. Not wishing to cause an argument with his mother, Malcolm did not send her away and allowed the lady to spend the night in his royal bed; while he slept on the floor, wrapped in his cloak. Ada, it seems, was relentless in her attempts to persuade Malcolm to marry, until the young king tired of her constant nagging and begged her to hold her peace.
While William of Newburgh makes it sound as if Ada was pushing for grandchildren, or tempting her son to lose his innocence, Ada’s constant attempts to discuss marriage with Malcolm had a political motive as much as a personal one. She was well aware of the importance of royal marriage, not just for the continuation of a dynasty and political alliance, but also for the strength and stability of the monarchy itself. Ada, moreover, was not the only one eager to see the young king settle down with a wife.
The Scottish curia regis (royal council) continued to pressure Malcolm to find a bride, even after his mother had given up. Arnold, Bishop of St Andrews encouraged Malcolm to follow the example of his recently married sisters. The king, however, was no more persuaded by the archbishop and his royal council than he was by his mother. He was eager to hold onto to the highest ideals of Christian knighthood and remain chaste. Malcolm’s relative youth may also have led him to believe that he had many years ahead of him and plenty of time before he needed to settle down and raise a family.
Malcolm’s kingship faced several challenges during his all-too-short reign. In November 1154, the young king was faced with a revolt from Somerled, Earl of Argyll. The unrest was to continue for several years, with Somerled only suing for peace in 1159 having been deprived of his chief supporters, the MacHeths, father and sons, who had been reconciled with the king in 1157.
Malcolm’s greatest challenge, however, was with his larger neighbour, England. While David I had taken advantage of the civil war in England during Stephen’s turbulent reign – known to history as the Anarchy – the accession of Henry II in 1154 changed the political landscape entirely. In 1157 the two kings met at Chester, where Malcolm performed homage ‘in the manner in which his grandfather had been the man of old King Henry’. 1 This homage suggests that Malcolm was accepting that he was a vassal of King Henry, as David I had done with King Henry I. He was also forced to resign his lordship of Northumberland, Cumberland and Westmorland, although the honour of Huntingdon was returned to the Scots king and his brother and heir, William, was given the lordship of Tynedale.
In 1159 Malcolm, his brother and others joined Henry II and the English army on an expedition to Toulouse; William of Blois, son of King Stephen and husband of Malcolm’s cousin, Isabel de Warenne, Countess of Surrey, was also part of the expedition. The military enterprise gave Malcolm the chance to be knighted honourably in the field. The Scots contingent joined Henry II at Poitiers on 24 June and Henry knighted Malcolm at Périgueux a few days later. The expedition met with initial success and the army overran the county of Toulouse before laying siege to the city itself. However, the siege had to be abandoned when King Louis VII of France, another kinsman of Malcolm’s, intervened.
By the end of the year, Henry and Malcolm were back in Limoges, crossing to England shortly afterwards. Malcolm returned to Scotland in 1160 and to a revolt of six earls led by Feterth, Earl of Strathearn, angry at his expedition with the English army. Mediation by the clergy led to an uneasy peace and their abandoning of their besieging Malcolm at Perth. Unrest then arose in Galloway and Malcolm made several forays into the region before the end of the year, when Fergus, lord of Galloway, submitted to the king. It was the last major unrest by any Scottish earls for not only Malcolm’s reign, but for also for that of his brother, William I.
Malcolm was again summoned to meet Henry II in 1163. Despite falling ill at Doncaster, he was still expected to complete the journey to Henry’s court and arrived at Woodstock at the end of June. It seems Henry wanted to assert his supremacy over Britain, as a group of Welsh rulers had also been called to attend the English king. On 1 July, Malcolm renewed his oath to Henry and handed over hostages, the most senior of whom was his own youngest brother, David, soon to be made earl of Huntingdon. Homage given, Malcolm returned to Scotland, where he faced a revolt led by Somerled, Lord of the Isles, who was later killed in an attempted raid on Glasgow in 1164.
Malcolm appears to have never fully recovered from the illness he suffered in Doncaster in 1163 and frequently complained of pains in his head and feet. He planned a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, to pray for healing, but was too ill to undertake it. He died at Jedburgh on Thursday 9 December 1165, aged only 24: he had reigned for 12 years and 6 months and was buried among his ancestors at Dunfermline Abbey. We do not have his mother’s response to the death of her first-born son, but it cannot have been easy for her, only in her forties herself and already a widow of thirteen years. Malcolm was succeeded by his brother William, later known as William the Lion.
Footnote: 1 The Melrose Chronicle quoted in W.W. Scott, Malcolm IV (c. 1141–1165)
Scott, W.W., Malcolm IV (c. 1141–1165) Oxforddnb.com; Mackay, A.J.G. (ed.), The Historie and Chronicles of Scotland … by Robert Lindesay of Pitscottie; Ross, David, Scotland: History of a Nation; 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; Danziger, Danny and John Gillingham, 1215: The Year of Magna Carta; Crouch, David, William Marshal; fmg.ac; Brewer’s British Royalty by David Williamson; The Mammoth Book of British Kings and Queens by Mike Ashley; The Story of Scotland by Nigel Tranter; Ada, Queen Mother of Scotland (article) by Victoria Chandler.
Today it is my turn on the Historical Writers Forum Blog Hop: Momentous Events. Given my recent book is Ladies of Magna Carta, it only seems right that the momentous event I talk about should be the birth of Magna Carta itself.
1214 ended badly for King John. Attempts to appease his continental enemies had not had the desired results and he was at war in France. As a consequence, John sought a reconciliation with the Lusignans, agreeing to grant them Saintes and Oléron and to marry his daughter Joan to Hugh X de Lusignan, the son of Hugh IX de Lusignan, who had been betrothed to John’s wife, Isabelle d’Angoulême, in return for their support. A similar peace offering, of the earldom of Richmond, to Pierre, Duke of Brittany, was less well received and the duke remained aloof. John’s campaign was successful at first, with him entering Angers unopposed before he laid siege to Roche-au-Moine. However, he was forced to retreat on 2 July, with the approach of the army of Prince Louis of France and the refusal of the Poitevins to fight by his side.
Although he was able to keep his own army intact, John’s fate was sealed on 27 July when his half-brother William Longespée, Earl of Salisbury, and John’s German and Flemish allies faced King Philip II of France at the battle of Bouvines. They were decisively defeated. Otto IV managed to escape, but William Longespée was captured and taken to Paris, along with the counts of Flanders and Boulogne. With the threat in the north neutralised, Philip was now able to join his army to that of his son, Prince Louis, and challenge John in the south. John had no choice but to seek peace and a 5-year truce was agreed on 13 October, with Ralph of Coggeshall reporting rumours that it had cost John 60,000 marks.1
At home, John’s policy of reform of the sheriffs and forest officials in 1212–1213 had resulted in a significant reduction in royal revenue, and the military campaign had drained John’s treasury further. He was no longer a wealthy king. In October 1214 John returned to England; the defeat by the French at the Battle of Bouvines had ended the king’s hopes of regaining the lost Angevin empire. Baronial opposition to John now gathered pace. The refusal to pay scutage of 3 marks on the knights’ fee demonstrating a coordinated effort by the magnates, rather than the individual disobedience that had been seen earlier in the reign.
The barons’ objections to John were almost beyond number. He had failed to face the French and had lost not only his family’s Continental possessions, but also those of his barons. Few had forgotten his treachery against his brother in trying to take the throne whilst Richard was on crusade. Added to these catastrophes was the character and personality of John himself. By nature, John was paranoid, secretive and distrustful. His cruelty was widely known. He stood accused of killing his nephew, Arthur, a rival claimant to the English throne; he had hanged twenty-eight Welsh hostages (sons of rebel chieftains); and he had hounded William de Braose and his family all the way to Ireland and back. De Braose’s wife and son died in one of John’s prisons, probably from starvation.
The History of William Marshal, a biography of the great knight and statesman, claimed that John treated his prisoners harshly and with such indignity that it was a disgrace to all involved.2 His barons even complained that he forced himself on their wives and daughters. With such military losses, accusations of murder and seemingly acute character flaws stacked against him, it is no wonder England’s king faced opposition by many of the most powerful in his realm.
In January 1215 John arranged to meet with his challengers in London to hear their demands, and it was agreed that they would reconvene at Northampton on 26 April to hear the king’s response. The disaffected barons demanded reform and the confirmation of the coronation charter of King Henry I, in which the king promised;
‘Know that by the mercy of God and by the common counsel of the barons of England I have been crowned king of this realm. And because the kingdom has been oppressed by unjust exactions, being moved by reverence towards God and by the love I bear you all, I make free the Church of God … I abolish all the evil customs by which the kingdom of England has been unjustly oppressed.’ 3
Although many of the clauses of this charter, also referred to as the Charter of Liberties, were now outdated, several still resonated with the barons, including that a baron’s widow could not be married without her consent, that an heiress could not be married without the consent of her relatives and that, on the death of a baron, his heir would only pay a relief that was ‘just and lawful.’4
Whilst John was ruminating on these demands, both sides were preparing for war. John borrowed from the Templars to pay his mercenaries and on 4 March he took the cross. This latter move was seen as being highly cynical and no one seems to have believed that John would actually go on crusade. His purpose for doing so was political: a crusader’s lands and properties were protected by the church and this action firmly identified the king’s opponents as the ‘bad guys’.
John failed to appear at Northampton in April. He did, however, send messages to the rebels. According to the Barnwell annalist the king ‘tried to win them back through many emissaries, and there was much discussion amongst them, the archbishop, bishops and other barons acting as intermediaries, the king himself staying at Oxford.’5 On 5 May the rebels formally renounced their fealty. John retained the support of some magnates, such as William Marshal and William de Warenne, but the majority were now standing against him. As was London, which opened its gates to the rebels on 17 May, despite John’s granting the city the right to elect its mayor only eight days before. In the Welsh Marches the Braose family had allied with Llywelyn ap Iorwerth and had taken Shrewsbury.
The rebels were ready to fight. After occupying London, they made one final attempt to prevent war, presenting the king with a list of their demands. John had no choice but to make concessions and on 10 June agreed to further discussions of the rebels’ terms. Following these negotiations, a long, detailed document was produced, dealing with the particular grievances of the time and with injustices in general. It touched on the whole system of royal government. And it was granted to ‘all free men of the realm and their heirs forever.’6
Of its sixty-three clauses some terms were asking for immediate remedies, such as the removal of corrupt administrators and the sending home of foreign mercenaries. A clause stating that fighting outside of the kingdom could not be imposed by the king was a reaction to John’s recent attempts to force his English barons to help him recover his Continental domains. Others had long-term aims. The document sought to guarantee the privileges of the church and the City of London. Restrictions were placed on the powers of regional officials, such as sheriffs, to prevent abuses. The royal court was fixed at Westminster, for justice to be obtainable by all, and royal judges were to visit each county regularly. Taxes could no longer be levied without the consent of the church and the barons.
Clauses included the fixing of inheritance charges and the protection from exploitation for under-age heirs; the king was to take only what was reasonable from an estate (although ‘reasonable’ remained undefined). From henceforth a widow was to be free to choose whether or not to remarry and her marriage portion (dowry) would be made available to her immediately on her husband’s death. Another clause sought to prevent the seizure of land from Jews and the king’s debtors. Magna Carta even went so far as to regulate weights and measures. It also reduced the size of the king’s forests and limited the powers of forest justices.
Although most of the sixty-three clauses of Magna Carta are now defunct, three still remain as major tenets of British law, including ‘to no one will we sell, to no one will we deny or delay right or justice.’ That no person would be imprisoned, outlawed or deprived of his lands except by judgement of his peers and the law of the land has remained the cornerstone of the English legal system ever since.
Magna Carta was sealed at Runnymede, Berkshire, on 15 June 1215. John ordered that the charter be circulated around the towns and villages, throughout the realm; only 4 original copies survive today, 2 at the British Library and 1 each at Lincoln and Salisbury. As a peace agreement between the king and his rebellious barons, however, it failed miserably. By July, John was appealing to the pope for help. Pope Innocent III’s response arrived in England in September. The treaty was declared null and void; according to Innocent, Magna Carta was:
‘not only shameful and base but also illegal and unjust. We refuse to overlook such shameless presumption which dishonours the Apostolic See, injures the king’s right, shames the English nation, and endangers the crusade. Since the whole crusade would be undermined if concessions of this sort were extorted from a great prince who had taken the cross, we, on behalf of Almighty God, Father, Son and Holy Ghost, and by the authority of Saints Peter and Paul His apostles, utterly reject and condemn this settlement. Under threat of excommunication we order that the king should not dare to observe and the barons and their associates should not insist on it being observed. The charter with all its undertakings and guarantees we declare to be null and void of all validity for ever.’7
The letter was accompanied by more papal letters, excommunicating rebels, including nine barons and the Londoners. However, by the time the letters arrived in England, the dispute had already erupted into the Barons’ War. John laid siege to Rochester Castle with his mercenaries and the castle surrendered on 30 November, after a seven-week siege. Deciding they could no longer deal with John’s perfidy, the rebel barons had invited the King of France, Philip II Augustus, to claim the throne.
Philip’s son and heir, the future Louis VIII, accepted the offer. He sent an advanced guard, which arrived in December of 1215. Louis himself would arrive in the spring of 1216. He landed on the south coast and marched for London, where he was proclaimed King of England on 2 June 1216, just 13 days before the 1st anniversary of Magna Carta…
1 John Gillingham, John (1167–1216), Oxforddnb.com; 2L’Histoire de Guillaume le Maréchale quoted in John Gillingham, John (1167–1216), Oxforddnb.com; 3 Coronation Charter of Henry I in bl.uk; 4 Select Charters quoted in Marc Morris, King John: Treachery, Tyranny and the Road to Magna Carta; 5 The Barnwell annalist quoted in Elizabeth Hallam (editor), The Plantagenet Chronicles; 6 Danny Danziger and John Gillingham, 1215: The Year of Magna Carta; 7 Letter from Pope Innocent III, quoted in Danny Danziger and John Gillingham, 1215: The Year of Magna Carta
Robert Bartlett England Under the Norman and Angevin Kings 1075-1225; Dan Jones The Plantagenets; the Kings who Made England; The Plantagenet Chronicle Edited by Elizabeth Hallam; Maurice Ashley The Life and Times of King John; Roy Strong The Story of Britain; Oxford Companion to British History; Mike Ashley British Kings & Queens; David Williamson Brewer’s British Royalty; Danny Danziger and John Gillingham, 1215: The Year of Magna Carta; John Gillingham, John (1167–1216), Oxforddnb.com; Marc Morris, King John: Treachery, Tyranny and the Road to Magna Carta