William de Warenne, 1st earl of Surrey, was a younger son of Rodulf de Warenne and his wife Beatrix. It is possible that Beatrix was a niece of Duchess Gunnor of Normandy, making young William a cousin of William the Bastard, duke of Normandy. The family name is probably derived from the hamlet of Varenne, part of the Warenne lands in the department of Seine-Inférieure, Normandy. William’s older brother, Rodulf or Ralph, would inherit the greater part of the Warenne family estates in Normandy.
His birth, as you might expect, is shrouded in the fog of time; a younger son of the minor nobility does not tend to get a mention until he does something remarkable or becomes someone notable. Although still young William was considered a capable and experienced enough soldier to be given joint command of a Norman army, by the mid-1050s. His 1st recorded military action is in the campaign against his own kinsman, Roger (I) de Mortemer of 1054, as one of the commanders of an army which defeated the French.
De Warenne was rewarded with some of the Mortemer lands; some of which he managed to retain even after Mortemer’s restoration to favour, including the castles of Mortemer and Bellencombre. Bellencrombe would become the capital of the de Warenne estates in Normandy. De Warenne received more rewards from the confiscated lands of William, count of Arques in 1053. Duke William’s confidence in de Warenne is demonstrated in the fact he was one of the barons consulted during the planning of the invasion of England in 1066.
In fact, William de Warenne is one of only a handful of Norman barons known to have fought at the Battle of Hastings on 14th October, 1066. De Warenne was rewarded with vast swathes of land throughout the country. According to the Domesday survey his lands extended over 13 counties; stretching from Conisbrough in Yorkshire to Lewes in Sussex. His territories were acquired over the course of the reign of William I and elevated him the highest rank of magnates. By 1086 his riches were only surpassed by the king’s half-brothers and his own kinsman, Roger de Montgomery.
Throughout his career, William de Warenne acquired lands in numerous counties, sometimes by nefarious means. Much of the property, such as Conisbrough, had formerly belonged to the late king, Harold. In Norfolk he is said to have asserted lordship over freemen not necessarily assigned to him. He had disputes with neighbouring landowners in Conisbrough, over which properties were sokelands and he is said to have stolen lands from the bishop of Durham and the abbot of Ely. Some acquisitions were obtained peacefully, such as the manor of Whitchurch in Shropshire, which was left to him by his kinsman Roger de Montgomery. William was an energetic and attentive landowner, and improved the economy of most of his estates; more than tripling his sheep flock at Castle Acre and doubling the value of his Yorkshire estates in just 20 years (at a time when the county was devastated by the Harrying of the North.
In 1067 William de Warenne was one of 4 prominent Normans appointed to govern England during William the Conqueror’s absence in Normandy. Following the Conquest, he continued to support the king and – subsequently – his son, William II Rufus – as a military commander for over 20 years. In 1074 he was with is father at the abbey of Holy Trinity in Rouen and in 1083-85 he fought with the king on campaign in Maine, being wounded at the siege of the castle of Sainte-Suzanne.
In 1075, along with Richard de Clare, his fellow justiciar, he was sent to deal with the rebellion of Earl Ralph de Gael of East Anglia. De Gael had failed to respond to their summons to answer for an act of defiance and so the 2 lords faced and defeated the rebels at Fawdon in Cambridgeshire, mutilating their prisoners afterwards. Ralph withdrew to Norwich Castle; besieged for 3 months he managed to escape his attackers by boat, while the castle surrendered and was occupied by de Warenne.
William de Warenne was married to a Flemish noblewoman, Gundrada; her brother Gerbod was sometime earl of Chester and another brother, Frederic, held lands in Norfolk which eventually passed to Gundrada. There was some debate among historians that Gundrada may have been the daughter of William the Conqueror, but the confusion appears to have come from her being part of the household of William’s wife, Matilda. Gundrada and William were married sometime around the time of the Conquest, possibly shortly before the expedition to conquer England.
They had 3 children together. Their eldest son, William, would succeed his father as Earl of Surrey and de Warenne. He married Isabel de Vermandois, widow of Robert de Beaumont, earl of Leicester; with whom he had, apparently, been having an affair even before the earl’s death. Young William had a chequered career, he supported the claims of Robert Curthose, duke of Normandy, to the English throne against the duke’s younger brother, Henry I. However, duke Robert lost and was captured and imprisoned by Henry. Henry eventually forgave William, who fought for the king at the Battle of Bremule and was with Henry he died in 1135.
A 2nd son, Reynold de Warenne, led the assault on Rouen in 1090, for William II Rufus, in the conflict between the English king and his older brother, Duke Robert. However, by 1105 Reynold was now fighting for the duke against the youngest of the Conqueror’s sons, Henry I, defending the castle of Saint-Pierre-sur-Dives for the duke. He was captured by Henry the following year, but had been freed by September 1106. It is possible he died shortly after, but was certainly dead by 1118 when his brother issued a charter, in which he gave 6 churches to Lewes Priory, for the soul of deceased family members, including Reynold.
Gundrada and William also had a daughter, Edith, who married Gerard de Gournay, son of the lord of Gournay-en-Bray. Gerard also supported William II Rufus against Duke Robert and took part in the Crusade of 1096. Edith later accompanied him on pilgrimage back to Jerusalem, sometime after 1104, where he died. Gerard was succeeded by their son, Hugh de Gournay, whose daughter Gundreda would be the mother of Roger de Mowbray. Edith then married Drew de Monchy, with whom she had a son, Drew the Younger.
Gundrada died in childbirth at Castle Acre in Norfolk on 27th May 1085. She was buried in the chapter-house of the couple’s own of foundation Lewes Priory.
William’s 2nd wife was a sister of Richard Guet, who was described as ‘frater comitissae Warennae’ when he gave the manor of Cowyck to Bermondsey Abbey in 1098.¹ Guet was a landowner in Perche, Normandy, but his sister’s name has not survived the passage of time. All we know of her is that, a few days after her husband’s death, she attempted to gift 100 shillings to Ely Abbey in restitution for damage caused by William de Warenne. The monks refused the donation, hoping that Warenne’s departing soul had been claimed by demons.²
Despite this reputation at Ely, William de Warenne and his wife, Gundrada, had a reputation for piety. At some point in their marriage, probably 1081-3, they went on pilgrimage to Rome. Due of war in Italy they only got as far as the great abbey of Cluny in Burgundy, where they were received into the fellowship of monks. On their return to England they founded a priory at Lewes, following the Cluniac rule and a prior and 3 monks were sent from Cluny to establish the foundation. It was the 1st Cluniac foundation in England.
Following the Conqueror’s death, William fought in support of the late king’s 2nd son, William II Rufus against his older brother, Robert Curthose, who had inherited the dukedom of Normandy. He was rewarded in early 1088 with the earldom of Surrey. The new earl fought for William II Rufus during an invasion by Robert’s supporters and was badly wounded at the siege of Pevensey Castle, East Sussex, in the spring of 1088. He was taken to Lewes, where he died of his wounds on 24th June of the same year. Earl Warenne was buried beside his 1st wife, Gundrada, in the chapter-house of Lewes Priory.
Following the dissolution of Lewes Priory in the 16th century, the tombs were moved. The remains of Gundrada and William were discovered in 2 leaden chests in the parish church of St John at Southover in Lewes in 1845 and laid to rest, for a final time, at the Southover church in 1847.
Footnote: ¹ Early Yorkshire Charters Volume 8: The Honour of Warenne, Edited by William Farrer and Charles Travis Clay; ² ibid
©2016 Sharon Bennett Connolly.
My book, Heroines of the Medieval World, looking into the lives of some of the most fascinating women from medieval history, will be published by Amberley on 15th September, 2017. It is now available for pre-order from both Amberley Publishing and Amazon.
Pictures: Gundrada and William de Warenne church windows ©lewespriory.org.uk; Bayeux Tapestry, Castle Acre and Pevensey Castle courtesy of Wikipedia.
Sources: Early Yorkshire Charters Volume 8: The Honour of Warenne, Edited by William Farrer and Charles Travis Clay; William the Conqueror, the Bastard of Normandy by Peter Rex; England Under the Norman and Angevin Kings by Robert Bartlett; Brewer’s British Royalty by David Williamson; Britain’s Royal Families, the Complete Genealogy by Alison Weir; british-history.ac.uk; kristiedean.com; English Heritage Guidebook for Conisbrough Castle by Steven Brindle and Agnieszka Sadrei; oxforddnb.com.