Introducing the Earls of Warenne and Surrey

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

The Warenne earls of Surrey were a fascinating family, right at the heart of English history and politics for almost 300 years, from the time of the Norman Conquest to the reign of Edward III. They held lands throughout England, acted as justiciars, sheriffs and generals – and yet, few people know their story.

But who were they?

William I de Warenne was rewarded for his support of King William II in the 1088 rebellion with the earldom of Surrey. However, the earls thereafter were as often referred to as the earls of Warenne – or the familial Earl Warenne, rather than earls of Surrey. The earldoms of Sussex and Strathearn (Scotland) were later added to these titles. As they appear to have preferred the simple familial title of Earl Warenne, that is how I have chosen to refer to them, except when establishing their titles. The Warenne’s extensive lands were spread over 13 counties and spanned the country from Lewes on the south coast to their castles of Conisbrough and Sandal in Yorkshire, with their family powerbase in East Anglia, where they built a magnificent priory, castle and medieval village at Castle Acre.

Wakefield, including Sandal Castle, appears to have come into the hands of the Warenne family at some point before 1121, during the tenure of the 2nd Earl Warenne. It is possible that they were acquired possibly in an exchange of lands with William Meschin, who had taken control of the Warenne holdings of Kimbolton in Huntingdonshire and Dean in Bedfordshire some time before 1130.

The family mausoleum was at St Pancras Priory in Lewes, founded by the first earl and his wife, Gundrada. It is the burial place of all but two subsequent earls and numerous other family members, as well as several earls of Arundel and their countesses.

For almost 300 years the Warenne earls of Surrey were some of the most influential men in the country, but the family died out rather ingloriously, with the seventh – and last – earl’s marital difficulties. Despite a prestigious marriage to a granddaughter of the king of England, John de Warenne, 7th Earl Warenne, died with no legitimate son to succeed him, though he had numerous acknowledged illegitimate children to whom he had given the family name.

Gundrada de Warenne, wife of the 1st earl

The first Warenne earl, William de Warenne, Earl of Warenne and Surrey, came to England with William the Conqueror’s invasion force and fought at the Battle of Hastings in 1066. As a younger son, he had little hope of an inheritance and had acquired his fortune and reputation fighting for the duke of Normandy, making his name as a young man at the 1054 Battle of Mortemer.

The Warennes were at the heart of English history and politics from the time of the Conquest to the death of John de Warenne, the 7th and last earl in 1347

So who were the Warenne earls?

Briefly,

William de Warenne was a distant cousin of William the Conqueror and fought at the Battle of Hastings. William was a trusted advisor and companion of King William I and was appointed justiciar in England during the king’s absences in Normandy. He pursued a personal feud against English freedom fighter, Hereward the Wake, after Hereward murdered his brother-in-law, Frederic. William was created Earl of Surrey by King William II, just weeks before his death in 1088, having been fatally wounded at the siege of Pevensey. William and his wife, Gundrada, founded the first Cluniac priory in England, St Pancras, at Lewes in Sussex. It would become the family mausoleum. William and Gundrada’s coffins were found in the 19th century, when the railway line was being laid, and are now interred in the Gundrada Chapel of Trinity Church, Southover.

The Warenne coat of arms, adopted by William de Warenne, 2nd Earl of Warenne and Surrey

He was succeeded by his oldest son, William II de Warenne (it was a popular name) who was earl for 50 years. This William had an awkward relationship with Henry I – William was thwarted in love by Henry when they both set their sights on the same woman, Matilda of Scotland. William supported Robert Curthose’s claim for the throne against Henry, but was persuaded to abandon the duke of Normandy in favour of the king of England after the former’s failed attempt to invade England led to Earl Warenne’s lands being confiscated by King Henry. From that moment on Earl Warenne was loyal to Henry and gave a rousing speech in favour of King Henry before the 1119 Battle of Bremule. He married Isabel de Vermandois, granddaughter of King Henry I of France and widow of Robert, Earl of Gloucester. The relationship caused some scandal as one chronicler suggests Isabel and William ran away together, before Isabel’s first husband was dead. William’s royal ambitions would be realised when his daughter, Ada de Warenne, married Prince Henry of Scotland in 1139; William’s grandsons, Malcolm IV and William the Lion, both succeeded to the Scottish throne.

The 3rd earl fought on the wrong side (in my opinion) during the Anarchy; he supported King Stephen. Also named William, he and his forces were ignominiously routed at the 1141 Battle of Lincoln, leaving King Stephen to be captured by Earl Robert of Gloucester. Earl Warenne redeemed himself by capturing the same Earl Robert during the Rout of Winchester in the summer of 1141, thus facilitating and exchange of commanders that saw King Stephen’s release from imprisonment at Bristol Castle. Perhaps growing tired of the constant civil war, in 1147 the earl left on the Second Crusade with his half-brother, Waleran de Beaumont, Count of Meulan, led by the brothers’ second cousin, Louis VII, and his wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine. Earl William was killed at the age of 28 at the Battle of Mount Cadmus in January 1148, leaving the earldom to his young daughter, Isabel.

Seal of Isabel de Warenne, 4th Countess of Warenne and Surrey in her own right

The 4th earl. Now this is where the subsequent numbering of earls gets confusing. There were two 4th earls, though some history books count them as the 4th and 5th earls. The earldom actually belonged to Isabel. Isabel de Warenne was 4th Countess of Warenne and Surrey in her own right. Her first husband, William of Blois (the first 4th earl), was the youngest son of King Stephen and her second husband, Hamelin Plantagenet (the second 4th earl), was the illegitimate half-brother of King Henry II; a thoroughly modern Hamelin changed his name from Plantagenet to de Warenne on marrying Isabel. The first marriage produced no children, which was a stroke of luck for Henry II, as William of Blois could have founded a dynasty to rival the mighty Plantagenets. The second marriage proved more fruitful, with three daughters and a son. Hamelin was a loyal supporter of his brother, Henry II, and nephews, Richard I and King John – despite the fact John seduced one of Hamelin’s daughters, fathering an illegitimate child with her. Hamelin also built the magnificent keep at Conisbrough Castle, South Yorkshire.

Their son, William de Warenne, the 5th Earl, was first cousin to both King Richard I and King John. He probably grew up in Normandy, and served with King Richard in France in the 1190s. William played an active role in English politics, negotiating with the rebels on John’s behalf in Spring 1215, attempting to avert civil war. He was a signatory of the Magna Carta in 1215 and again on its reissue in 1225; he was one of the few surviving earls to have witnessed both issues of the charter. He did side with the rebel barons and their French allies, for a time, but returned to the fold following King John’s death in October 1216. He then helped to negotiate the peace, in September 1217, which saw the French Prince Louis give up his claim to England and return home. He married Matilda Marshal, daughter of the great William Marshal, Earl of Pembroke and regent of England for the first few years of Henry III’s reign. The couple had two children; their daughter, Isabel d’Aubigny, Countess of Arundel, became famous for berating King Henry III over the appropriation of a wardship that was rightfully hers.

Seal of John de Warenne, 6th Earl of Warenne and Surrey

John de Warenne, the 6th earl, was the longest serving earl of them all, holding the title for 64 years. His father died when he was 8 years old. Henry III became his brother-in-law when he married the king’s half-sister, Alice de Lusignan, daughter of Queen Isabella of Angouleme and her second husband, Hugh X de Lusignan. The marriage was a happy one and the couple truly loved each other; following Alice’s death in childbirth, John did not take another wife. John de Warenne fought in the Second Barons’ War and was a close associate of the future king, Edward I. He was at the Battle of Lewes in 1264, fighting for King Henry III against Simon de Montfort, but escaped to the continent when the battle was lost. John was probably at Evesham for the defeat and death of Simon de Montfort, though his presence is not recorded; he was certainly with Henry III’s son, Edward, in the days before the battle. His daughter, Isabella, was married to John Balliol, King of Scots, and the mother of Edward Balliol, who pursued his own claim to the Scottish throne in the 1330s. John was guardian of Scotland for a time and lost the Battle of Stirling to William Wallace in 1298. John de Warenne was a brutal man with a sense of humour; he once claimed the rights to all the rabbit warrens in Surrey – because it was his name! His son, William de Warenne, had died during a tournament in 1286, so when John died in 1304, aged 68, he was succeeded by his 18-year-old grandson, John II de Warenne.

Lewes Castle, Sussex, seat of the earls of Warenne and Surrey

John II de Warenne, the 7th and last earl of Warenne and Surrey, spent most of his adult life trying to divorce his wife, Jeanne de Bar (Joan of Bar), a granddaughter of King Edward I, in order to marry his mistress. He made various claims to try and effect a divorce, including that he had had an affair with his wife’s aunt, Mary of Woodstock, who had been a nun from the age of 7. John was embroiled in a private – but very public – feud with Thomas of Lancaster, Edward II’s most powerful vassal, and even went so far as kidnapping Lancaster’s wife, Alice de Lacey. In retaliation, Lancaster seized the Warenne castles of Conisbrough and Sandal, both being close to his own castle of Pontefract. The castles were only restored to John after Lancaster’s execution following his defeat at the Battle of Boroughbridge, in 1322. John was involved in many of the events that shaped the reign of Edward II, though he did not fight in the 1314 English defeat by the Scots at the Battle of Bannockburn. He supported Edward II to the end – almost, only adding his to support to Isabella of France and the future Edward III, when he saw that the king’s cause was hopeless. He died in 1347 at Conisbrough, still married to Jeanne de Bar and with no legitimate heir to succeed him. The earldom passed to his nephew, Richard FitzAlan, Earl of Arundel, but the Yorkshire lands, including Conisbrough and Sandal castles, passed to the crown and were given to Edward III’s fourth surviving son, Edmund of Langley, 1st Duke of York.

Castle Acre Priory, Norfolk, one of the Cluniac monasteries founded by the Warenne earls

And that is just a – very – brief summary of the earls.

The Warenne family has a fascinating history, right at the heart of English politics for the better part of 3 centuries. They had family bond that is not always found amongst the aristocracy, with brothers and sisters helping and supporting each other and working for the benefit of their family. Strategic marriages forged links with the greatest families in England, Scotland and France; their family connections spanned the greatest noble houses, from the Marshals, the FitzAlans, the Lusignans, the d’Aubignys and Percys to the Scottish, French and English royal families.

One family, over 8 generations, the Warennes were at the centre of 300 years of English history.

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Selected Sources:

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; 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; The Oxford Companion to British History Edited by John Cannon; The Plantagenets, the Kings who Made England by Dan Jones; History Today Companion to British History Edited by Juliet Gardiner and Neil Wenborn;  Brewer’s British Royalty by David Williamson; Britain’s Royal Families, the Complete Genealogy by Alison Weir; Conisbrough Castle Giudebook by Steven Brindle and Agnieszka Sadraei; The Mammoth Book of British Kings and Queens by Mike Ashley; The Plantagenets, the Kings that made Britain by Derek Wilson; royaldescent.net; F. Royston Fairbank, ‘The Last Earl of Warenne and Surrey, and the Distribution of his Possessions’, The Yorkshire Archaeological Journal, vol. XIX; Scott L. Waugh, ‘Warenne, John de, seventh earl of Surrey earl of Surrey and Sussex, Earl Warenne’, ODNB; ‘Annals written by a certain monk of Lewes, from the birth of Christ to the year 1312’ quoted in Blaauw, On the Early History of Lewes Priory; Kelcey Wilson-Lee, Daughters of Chivalry: The Forgotten Children of Edward I; Katheryn Warner, Philippa of Hainault: Mother of the English Nation

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My Books

Defenders of the Norman Crown: The Rise and Fall of the Warenne Earls of Surrey tells the fascinating story of the Warenne dynasty, of the successes and failures of one of the most powerful families in England, from its origins in Normandy, through the Conquest, Magna Carta, the wars and marriages that led to its ultimate demise in the reign of Edward III.

1 family. 8 earls. 300 years of English history!

Defenders of the Norman Crown: Rise and Fall of the Warenne Earls of Surrey is now available from Pen & Sword BooksAmazon in the UK and US and Book Depository.

Also by Sharon Bennett Connolly:

Ladies of Magna Carta: Women of Influence in Thirteenth Century England looks into the relationships of the various noble families of the 13th century, and how they were affected by the Barons’ Wars, Magna Carta and its aftermath; the bonds that were formed and those that were broken. It is now available from Pen & Sword,  Amazon and from Book Depository worldwide.

Heroines of the Medieval World tells the stories of some of the most remarkable women from Medieval history, from Eleanor of Aquitaine to Julian of Norwich. Available now from Amberley Publishing and Amazon and Book Depository.

Silk and the Sword: The Women of the Norman Conquest traces the fortunes of the women who had a significant role to play in the momentous events of 1066.  Available now from Amazon,  Amberley Publishing, Book Depository.

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©2021 Sharon Bennett Connolly

The Parentage of Gundrada de Warenne

Gundrada de Warenne, the Gundrada chapel, Trinity Church Southover

When I first volunteered at Conisbrough Castle, in the early 1990s, it was believed that Gundrada de Warenne the wife of William de Warenne, first Earl of Warenne, was the daughter of William the Conqueror and Matilda of Flanders. Royal connections were very important in the 11th century and still provide a fascination to us today, so it was a fabulous piece of history to be able to impart to visitors. Unfortunately, the truth is never quite what it seems.

Sometime in the years either side of the Conquest, William de Warenne married Gundrada. Gundrada’s parentage has long been a subject of debate among historians. Her story throughout history has been coloured by the belief, now thought to be a mistaken one, that she was the daughter of Queen Matilda. Many historians from the eighteenth to the twentieth centuries accepted this as fact and obviously started their research from this false assumption, without looking deeper into the origins of the story. For many years Gundrada was believed to be the fifth and youngest daughter of William the Conqueror and his wife, Matilda of Flanders. In 1878 Sir George Duckett wrote an article for the Cumberland and Westmorland Archaeological Society arguing that the foundation charter for St Pancras Priory, Lewes ‘expressly states Gundrada to have been the Queen’s Daughter’, the wording within the charter being; ‘pro salute dominæ meæ Matildis Reginæ matrix uxoris mea’ [ ‘for the health of my mistress Queen Matilda, mother of my wife’].1

This statement in the priory’s second founding charter, issued in the reign of King William II Rufus, appeared to contradict the claims by Orderic Vitalis, a near contemporary, that ‘Guillelmo de Guarenna qui Gundredam sororem Gherbodi conjugem habitat, dedit Surregiam.’ [‘William de Warenne, whose wife Gundrada was sister of Gerbod, was given Surrey’.]2 Gundrada’s own tombstone contains enough ambiguity to add to the confusion, rather than clarify the issue:

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 …
she was to the wretched; a Mary she was in her piety.
That part of Martha [in her] died; the greater part of Mary survives.
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 …3

In 1846 Thomas Stapleton wrote a paper for the Archaeological Journal proposing that Gundrada was Matilda’s daughter from an earlier, undocumented marriage, to Gerbod, advocate of Saint-Bertin, thus explaining her also being a sister to Gerbod, Earl of Chester. In this theory, it was proposed that Gundrada was not a daughter of the king, but his stepdaughter. This notion neatly ties in with Orderic Vitalis identifying Gundrada as ‘Sister of Gherbode, a Fleming, to whom King William the First had given the City and Earldom of Chester.’4 E.A. Freeman, in his six-volume The History of the Norman Conquest of England, published between 1867 and 1879 stated, ‘For a long while, Gundrada was looked on as a daughter of William himself, but there is no doubt that she and her brother Gerbod were the children of Matilda by her first husband.’5

The certainty of Gundrada being the daughter of Matilda of Flanders mean that historians tried to fit the facts to that theory, rather than re-examining the case entirely.

Tomb of Gundrada, Gundrada Chapel, Trinity Church, Southover

Disputing the suggestion of Matilda’s marriage to Gerbod, historian W.H. Blaauw observed that not one of the Norman chroniclers ‘dropped the smallest hint of any husband or child, or consequently any such divorce on the part of Matilda previous to her marriage with the King.’6 Duckett goes on to say that the Norman chroniclers, indeed, said quite the opposite; each of them attesting that Matilda was a young, unmarried girl at the time of her betrothal to William of Normandy. However, Duckett then draws the conclusion that this can only mean that Gundrada was the daughter of both Matilda and William of Normandy, and that Gerbod of Chester was her foster-brother, rather than actual brother. The claim was also made in a charter in which the king gave to the monks of St Pancras (Lewes) the manor of Walton in Norfolk, on the foundation of the priory. In the charter the king distinctly names ‘Guilelmi de Warenna, et uxoris suæ Gundredæ filiæ meæ’ (‘William de Warenne and his wife Gundrada, my daughter’).7

St Pancras Priory at Lewes was founded as a Cluniac monastery by William and Gundrada and it may be that the monks got carried away with the idea of their foundress having royal blood; royal links could prove financially lucrative when a monastery was looking for benefactors, and would help a monastery stand out among the many vying for patronage. However, it may also be that there was a simple error when copying the charter from the original. For whatever reason, the claims by St Pancras Priory at Lewes have caused controversy throughout the ensuing centuries. Other suggestions have included that Gundrada was an adopted daughter, raised alongside William and Matilda’s own children who were of a similar age. Alternatively, due to her Flemish origins, it has been argued that the confusion arose as she had joined Matilda’s household at an early age; an assertion supported by Matilda’s gift to Gundrada of the manor of Carlton in Cambridge – a manor Gundrada later gave to Lewes Priory. In 1888, writing in the English Historical Review, E.A. Freeman returned to the subject and used the priory’s original charter to conclude that there was no familial relationship between Gundrada and William the Conqueror. In it, while the king and William de Warenne, both, mention Gundrada, neither refer to her as being related to the king or queen. Freeman stated, ‘there is nothing to show that Gundrada was the daughter either of King William or of Queen Matilda; there is a great deal to show that she was not.’8

It now seems more likely that Gundrada was a Flemish noblewoman, the sister of Gerbod who would be, for a brief time, earl of Chester. Historian Elisabeth van Houts argues that Gundrada was most likely a distant relative of Queen Matilda and the counts of Flanders, as asserted in her epitaph as ‘offspring of dukes’ and a ‘noble shoot’. Indeed, had her father been William the Conqueror, her epitaph would surely have referred to her as the offspring of kings. Even if she had been the daughter of Matilda by an earlier marriage, off-spring of kings would have still been appropriate, given that Queen Matilda was the granddaughter of King Robert II of France.

William de Warenne, the Gundrada chapel, Trinity Church Southover

Gundrada’s father may also have been called Gerbod, or Gherbode. It is highly likely that this was the same Gerbod who was the hereditary advocate of the monastery of St Bertin; a title which in later generations will pass down through the Warenne family. Another brother, Frederic, appears to have jointly, with Gundrada, held lands in England even before the Conquest, when two people named Frederic and Gundrada are mentioned as holding four manors in Kent and Sussex. It would indeed be a coincidence if there were two other related people, named Frederic and Gundrada, very distinctive foreign names, in England at that time. Gundrada’s brothers, it seems, were deeply involved in the border politics between Flanders and Normandy; indeed, it is thought that Gerbod resigned his responsibilities in Chester in order to return to the Continent to oversee the family’s lands and duties there, following the death of an older brother, Arnulf II of Oosterzele-Scheldewindeke.

Gundrada’s brother, Frederic, along with the count of Flanders, was a witness to Count Guy of Ponthieu’s charter to the Abbey of St Riquier in 1067.9 The ‘dukes’ referred to in Gundrada’s epitaph, although naturally assumed to be of Normandy, could well refer to a kinship with the house of Luxembourg, to which Queen Matilda’s paternal grandmother, Orgive, belonged. Moreover, Frederic was a familial name within the house of Luxembourg. This kinship via the House of Luxembourg with Queen Matilda would also explain the queen’s gift to Gundrada, of the manor of Carlton, which is usually given as evidence that Gundrada belonged to the queen’s household; an association which would be entirely consistent with kinship.

The Warenne coat of arms, the Gundrada chapel, Trinity Church Southover

Marriage between William de Warenne and Gundrada was a good match on both sides. Although William was a second son, he had acquired lands and reputation through his military skills. Warenne’s lands in Normandy lay close to the border with Flanders, while Gundrada, with her politically astute brothers and links to England even before the Conquest, would have been an attractive proposition as a bride. Both Frederic and Gerbod appear to have joined the Norman expedition to England, with Frederic receiving, as reward, lands in Norfolk, Suffolk and Cambridgeshire, valued at over £100 a year; lands which had previously belonged to a rich Englishman named Toki. Gerbod, in turn, was given the earldom of Chester, which he held until relinquishing it to return to Flanders in 1071.

Gundrada’s parentage may not be as illustrious as was once thought and her origins are now obscured by time, but the dynasty that she and William founded would be at the heart of the Anglo-Norman political elite for the next three centuries. In the twelfth century, her great grandsons, Malcolm IV and William the Lion, would sit on the Scottish throne and her descendants would, eventually, become the rulers of the United Kingdom, even down to the present incumbent, Queen Elizabeth II.

Footnotes:

1 My translation from quote in George Floyd Duckett, Observations on the Parentage of Gundreda, the Daughter of William Duke of Normandy, and Wife of William de Warenne; 2 ibid; 3 Elisabeth M.C. Van Houts and Rosalind C. Love (eds and trans), The Warenne (Hyde) Chronicle; 4 Early Yorkshire Charters Volume 8: The Honour of Warenne, Edited by William Farrer and Charles Travis Clay; 5 ibid; 6 W.H. Blaauw quoted in Duckett, Observations on the Parentage of Gundreda; 7 Duckett, Observations on the Parentage of Gundreda; 8 Farrer and Clay, Early Yorkshire Charters; 9 C.P. Lewis, ‘Warenne, Gundrada de (d.1085)’, ODNB.

Sources:

Early Yorkshire Charters Volume 8: The Honour of Warenne, Edited by William Farrer and Charles Travis Clay; England Under the Norman and Angevin Kings by Robert BatlettBrewer’s British Royalty by David WilliamsonBritain’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; George Floyd Duckett, Observations on the Parentage of Gundreda, the Daughter of William Duke of Normandy, and Wife of William de Warenne; Elisabeth M.C. Van Houts and Rosalind C. Love (eds and trans), The Warenne (Hyde) Chronicle; C.P. Lewis, ‘Warenne, Gundrada de (d.1085)’, ODNB; Elisabeth Van Houts, ‘The Warenne View of the Past’, in Proceedings of the Battle Conference 2003, edited by John Gillingham

Images:

©2021 Sharon Bennett Connolly. Published with the kind permission of the rector of Trinity Church, Southover

My books

Defenders of the Norman Crown: The Rise and Fall of the Warenne Earls of Surrey tells the fascinating story of the Warenne dynasty, of the successes and failures of one of the most powerful families in England, from its origins in Normandy, through the Conquest, Magna Carta, the wars and marriages that led to its ultimate demise in the reign of Edward III.

1 family. 8 earls. 300 years of English history!

Defenders of the Norman Crown: Rise and Fall of the Warenne Earls of Surrey will be released in the UK on 31 May and in the US on 6 August. And it is now available for pre-order from Pen & Sword BooksAmazon in the UK and US and Book Depository.

Also by Sharon Bennett Connolly:

Ladies of Magna Carta: Women of Influence in Thirteenth Century England looks into the relationships of the various noble families of the 13th century, and how they were affected by the Barons’ Wars, Magna Carta and its aftermath; the bonds that were formed and those that were broken. It is now available from Pen & Sword,  Amazon and from Book Depository worldwide.

Heroines of the Medieval World tells the stories of some of the most remarkable women from Medieval history, from Eleanor of Aquitaine to Julian of Norwich. Available now from Amberley Publishing and Amazon and Book Depository.

Silk and the Sword: The Women of the Norman Conquest traces the fortunes of the women who had a significant role to play in the momentous events of 1066.  Available now from Amazon,  Amberley Publishing, Book Depository.

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You can be the first to read new articles by clicking the ‘Follow’ button, liking our Facebook page or joining me on Twitter and Instagram.

©2021 Sharon Bennett Connolly.

The Origins of the Warenne Family

The Warenne coat of arms, Holy Trinity Church Southover

From the time of the Norman Conquest to the death of the seventh and last earl, the Warenne family was at the heart of English politics and the establishment, providing military and administrative support to the Crown. In the years following 1066 William I de Warenne, who became the first Earl of Surrey in 1088, was the fourth richest man in England and the richest not related to the royal family – he ranks at number 18 in 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.

But where did they originate?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

William the Conqueror depicted in the Bayeux Tapestry

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sources:

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

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My books

Coming 31st May:

Defenders of the Norman Crown: The Rise and Fall of the Warenne Earls of Surrey tells the fascinating story of the Warenne dynasty, of the successes and failures of one of the most powerful families in England, from its origins in Normandy, through the Conquest, Magna Carta, the wars and marriages that led to its ultimate demise in the reign of Edward III.

Defenders of the Norman Crown: Rise and Fall of the Warenne Earls of Surrey will be released in the UK on 31 May and in the US on 6 August. And it is now available for pre-order from Pen & Sword BooksAmazon in the UK and US and Book Depository.

Also by Sharon Bennett Connolly:

Ladies of Magna Carta: Women of Influence in Thirteenth Century England looks into the relationships of the various noble families of the 13th century, and how they were affected by the Barons’ Wars, Magna Carta and its aftermath; the bonds that were formed and those that were broken. It is now available from Pen & Sword,  Amazon and from Book Depository worldwide.

Heroines of the Medieval World tells the stories of some of the most remarkable women from Medieval history, from Eleanor of Aquitaine to Julian of Norwich. Available now from Amberley Publishing and Amazon and Book Depository.

Silk and the Sword: The Women of the Norman Conquest traces the fortunes of the women who had a significant role to play in the momentous events of 1066.  Available now from Amazon,  Amberley Publishing, Book Depository.

You can be the first to read new articles by clicking the ‘Follow’ button, liking our Facebook page or joining me on Twitter and Instagram.

©2021 Sharon Bennett Connolly

Defenders of the Norman Crown

Defenders of the Norman Crown: Rise and Fall of the Warenne Earls of Surrey is now available for pre-order.

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.

As a child, I regularly visited Conisbrough Castle. I have fond memories of summer picnics in the outer bailey, rolling down the hills and sneaking past the man in his little hut to get into the inner bailey without paying (sorry about that).

Conisbrough Castle

In those days the history of the castle mainly focused on the fact it was the inspiration for the Saxon stronghold of the eponymous hero’s father in Sir Walter Scott’s novel, Ivanhoe. Scott is said to have been driving by in a carriage, on his way to Scotland, when he saw the castle and decided it was the perfect setting for a Saxon lord’s home – quite ironic, considering the fact it had been a Norman stronghold since the Conquest, although it had previously belonged to the unfortunate King Harold II, defeated and killed at the Battle of Hastings.

As a tour guide at the castle in the 1990s, I developed a fascination for the family that had once owned Conisbrough Castle and built the magnificent hexagonal keep: the Warenne earls of Surrey. The last Warenne earl died 674 years ago and the castle became a royal castle shortly after. However, for almost 300 years, from the Norman Conquest to 1347, Conisbrough Castle was part of the vast Warenne demesne. The extensive Warenne lands spanned the country from Lewes on the south coast to their castles of Conisbrough and Sandal in Yorkshire, with their family powerbase in East Anglia, where they built a magnificent priory, castle and medieval village at Castle Acre. The family mausoleum was at St Pancras Priory in Lewes, founded by the first earl and his wife, Gundrada, burial place of all but two subsequent earls and numerous other family members.

St Pancras Priory, Lewes

The Warennes were at the heart of English history and politics from the time of the Conquest to their demise. The Warenne story is one of drama, tragedy, glory and ambition that was consigned to history with the death of John II de Warenne, the seventh and last Earl of Warenne, Surrey, Sussex and Strathearn. The dynasty founded by William and Gundrada in the turmoil of the Norman Conquest, would continue to serve the Crown until John’s death in 1347.

To tell the Warenne story has been a personal ambition for a long time; I cannot wait for you to read the story of this incredible family.

Defenders of the Norman Crown: Rise and Fall of the Warenne Earls of Surrey

Defenders of the Norman Crown: Rise and Fall of the Warenne Earls of Surrey will be released in the UK on 31 May and in the US on 6 August. And it is now available for pre-order from Pen & Sword Books, Amazon in the UK and US and Book Depository.

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Also by Sharon Bennett Connolly:

Ladies of Magna Carta: Women of Influence in Thirteenth Century England looks into the relationships of the various noble families of the 13th century, and how they were affected by the Barons’ Wars, Magna Carta and its aftermath; the bonds that were formed and those that were broken. It is now available from Pen & Sword,  Amazon and from Book Depository worldwide.

Heroines of the Medieval World tells the stories of some of the most remarkable women from Medieval history, from Eleanor of Aquitaine to Julian of Norwich. Available now from Amberley Publishing and Amazon and Book Depository.

Silk and the Sword: The Women of the Norman Conquest traces the fortunes of the women who had a significant role to play in the momentous events of 1066.  Available now from Amazon,  Amberley Publishing, Book Depository.

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You can be the first to read new articles by clicking the ‘Follow’ button, liking our Facebook page or joining me on Twitter and Instagram.

©2021 Sharon Bennett Connolly.

The Warennes and the First Cluniac Priory in England

Lewes Priory Sussex

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.

The memorial to the 1264 Battle of Lewes, in the grounds of Lewes Priory

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

Castle Acre Priory, Norfolk

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. [45] 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
St John the Baptist church, Southover

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.

But that is a story for another day….

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Images:

All images are ©2020 Sharon Bennett Connolly

Footnotes:

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

Sources:

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

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My Books

Defenders of the Norman Crown: The Rise and Fall of the Warenne Earls of Surrey tells the fascinating story of the Warenne dynasty, of the successes and failures of one of the most powerful families in England, from its origins in Normandy, through the Conquest, Magna Carta, the wars and marriages that led to its ultimate demise in the reign of Edward III.

1 family. 8 earls. 300 years of English history!

Defenders of the Norman Crown: Rise and Fall of the Warenne Earls of Surrey is now available from Pen & Sword BooksAmazon in the UK and US and Book Depository.

Also by Sharon Bennett Connolly:

Ladies of Magna Carta: Women of Influence in Thirteenth Century England looks into the relationships of the various noble families of the 13th century, and how they were affected by the Barons’ Wars, Magna Carta and its aftermath; the bonds that were formed and those that were broken. It is now available from Pen & Sword,  Amazon and from Book Depository worldwide.

Silk and the Sword: The Women of the Norman Conquest traces the fortunes of the women who had a significant role to play in the momentous events of 1066.  Available now from Amazon,  Amberley Publishing, Book Depository.

Heroines of the Medieval World tells the stories of some of the most remarkable women from Medieval history, from Eleanor of Aquitaine to Julian of Norwich. Available now from Amberley Publishing and Amazon and Book Depository.

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You can be the first to read new articles by clicking the ‘Follow’ button, liking our Facebook page or joining me on Twitter and Instagram.

©2020 Sharon Bennett Connolly

Matilda of Flanders, Queen of the Conqueror

Matilda of Flanders

Matilda of Flanders was the consummate duchess and queen. Born in the early to mid-1030s, possibly around 1032, Matilda was the daughter of Baldwin V, Count of Flanders, and his wife Adela of France, a daughter of Robert the Pious, King of France. Matilda had two brothers and each of them became Count of Flanders in his turn; Baldwin of Mons and Robert the Frisian. As is often the case with medieval women, we know very little of Matilda’s early life, though it is likely she was raised alongside her aunt, Judith, her father’s sister who was of a similar age to Matilda, and who would go on to marry Tostig, Earl of Nurthumberland and brother of king Harold II.

The first time Matilda appears on the world stage is when her marriage is being discussed. There is a popular story of how Matilda refused to marry William, Duke of Normandy, stating that she was too highly born to marry a bastard. As the legend goes; on hearing this, William was so infuriated that he rode to Flanders and confronted Matilda. He is said to have thrown her to the ground, before pulling her braids and cutting her with his spurs. Matilda, unlikely as it seems, then accepted his proposal and they were married. Despite the story most likely being a later invention, William was the one to propose the marriage and, although he was a duke, his illegitimacy would have meant making a proposal to a niece of the King of France was audacious, to say the least.

The arrangements for the marriage of Matilda and William probably started in 1048, but it was a long, drawn out matter, marred by papal and political machinations. The Synod of Reims, of 3 and 4 October 1049, issued a decree instructing Count Baldwin not to allow the marriage of his daughter to Duke William. However, despite these papal objections, Matilda and William were married by 1053, at the latest. A penance was later imposed on the couple for their disobedience in marrying against papal prohibition. Each was to found an abbey; William founded the Abbaye-aux-Hommes, or St Stephen’s Abbey, in his Norman capital of Caen, while Matilda founded the Abbaye-aux-Dames, or Holy Trinity Abbey, in the same city. The two abbeys still stand to this day.

William the Conqueror from the Bayeux Tapestry

The marriage between Matilda and William proved to be a strong and trusting relationship; William is one of very few medieval kings believed to have been completely faithful to his wife, no known lovers or illegitimate children have ever been uncovered, although that did not stop the rumours. William of Malmesbury related one such story, of William having a mistress, the daughter of a priest, who Matilda ordered to be hamstrung and disinherited; in punishment, Matilda is said to have been beaten to death by a horse bridle. Malmesbury himself was sceptical of the story and, given that Matilda’s death came after a short illness in 1083, it does seem rather far-fetched.

William trusted Matilda to act as regent in Normandy during his many absences on campaign or in England. Their relationship appears to have been more of a partnership than most marriages of the time; she was witness to thirty-nine pre-conquest and sixty-one post-conquest charters. Matilda supported her husband’s proposed invasion of England; she promised a great ship for William’s personal use, called the Mora. Just before leaving for England in 1066, William accompanied Matilda to the consecration of her foundation, Holy Trinity Abbey – the Abbaye-aux-Dames – in Caen, arranging for his duchess to act as regent in his absence. The Conquest was a close-run thing and it was not until 1068 that William felt secure enough to bring his wife to England for her coronation. Matilda, six months pregnant with her son Henry, who would be born at Selby in September, was crowned Queen of England in Westminster Abbey, by Archbishop Ealdred of Canterbury, at Whitsuntide 1068.

Matilda and William had a large family, with four boys and at least four daughters. Of their sons; the eldest, Robert Curthose, would inherit Normandy, Richard was killed in a hunting accident as a youth, William, known as Rufus, became King William II, and the youngest was the future King Henry I. Of the four or five daughters; Adeliza became a nun following a series of failed marriage plans, Cecilia was given to the convent of Ste Trinité as a child, Constance married Alain Fergant, Duke of Brittany, and Adela married Stephen of Blois and was the mother of King Stephen of England. There are suggestions of two further daughters, Matilda and Agatha, though evidence for their existence is limited. Queen Matilda was very close to her family, especially her eldest son, Robert. William and Robert, father and son, however, were often at loggerheads, with Robert rebelling against his father as a young man. Matilda was constantly trying to play the peacemaker. During a period of exile imposed on Robert, Matilda still supported her son as best she could; she would send him vast amounts of silver and gold through a Breton messenger, Samson.

Although the problems with Robert, their eldest son, caused considerable tensions within the marriage, Matilda and William’s relationship is one of the most successful of the medieval period. Their partnership as rulers, and as husband and wife, was strong and appeared to be one built on mutual respect. One contemporary remarked that ‘The Queen adored the King and the King the Queen.’ [1]

Matilda’s son Henry I, King of England

Matilda’s piety was renowned. Although founding the Abbaye aux Dames in Caen was a penance for her irregular marriage to William, her constant and repeated donations to religious houses demonstrated her dedication to her faith. The nuns of her abbey at Ste Trinité, Caen, received a substantial bequest from Matilda’s will, written the year before her death; as well as her crown and sceptre, they were given a chalice, a chasuble, a mantle of brocade, two golden chains with a cross, a chain decorated with emblems for hanging a lamp in front of the altar, several large candelabras, the draperies for her horse and all the vases ‘which she had not yet handed out during her life’. [2]

Having drawn up her will in 1082, it is possible that Matilda was aware of her illness long before her last summer. The continuing worry over the rift between her husband and beloved son cannot have helped her health, and the arrival of winter saw her gravely ill. Matilda died on 2 November 1083, having ‘confessed her sins with bitter tears and, after fully accomplishing all that Christian custom requires and being fortified by the saving sacrament’. [3] Her husband was with her throughout the final moments of her illness, and he ‘… showed many days of the deepest mourning how much he missed the love of her whom he had lost’. [4] She was buried at Ste Trinité, Caen, following a funeral that lasted two days and that was attended by a host of monks, abbots, bishops and nuns and a host of people came to pay homage. There is no record of which of her children attended the funeral, although her daughter Cecilia was most likely in attendance, being a nun of the abbey. The original tombstone still survives; it has an inscription carved around the edge, emphasising her royal descent on her mother’s side.

Queen Matilda’s Grave, Ste Trinité, Caen

Matilda’s height has been discussed frequently by historians, with some claiming that she was a dwarf. The casket, containing her bones, was opened in 1961 and misreported as revealing a woman of about 4ft 2in tall. However, Professor Dastague, from the Institut D’Anthropologie at Caen, who was present at the original dig confirmed that it had been calculated that Matilda was in fact 152cm, about 5ft, in height. [5] Matilda’s actual height cannot be said with certainty, however, as the skeleton which was examined was incomplete. The queen’s grave had been destroyed in the sixteenth century, during the French Wars of Religion, and much of her remains never recovered.

William the Conqueror followed his wife to the grave four years later, in 1087. In many aspects of her life, Matilda is clearly seen as the ideal medieval wife and mother. Ever supportive of her husband, he relied heavily on her to administer Normandy in his frequent absences. Even when disobeying William, in her support of their eldest son Robert, she was still trying to be the embodiment of the good medieval woman, playing the peacemaker between warring members of her family. Her piety and steadfast support of her husband provided an example for future queens, and noble ladies, to follow.

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This article, first appeared in March 2019, as Matilda of Flanders: The Ideal Medieval Queen, on Mary Anne Yarde’s wonderful blog Myths, Legends, Book and Coffee Pots.

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Footnotes:

[1] Les Oeuvres Poétiques de Baudri de Bourgueil edited by P. Abrahams; [2] Musset, La Reine Mathilde, quoted by Elizabeth van Houts in oxforddnb.com. [3] Matilda by Tracy Borman, [4] Chronicles of the Kings of England, From the Earliest Period to the Reign of King Stephen by William of Malmesbury; [5] A Historical Obstetric Enigma: How Tall was Matilda? (article) by J Dewhurst Journal of Obstetriccs and Gynaecology.

Pictures:

Courtesy of Wikipedia

Sources:

England Under the Norman and Angevin Kings by Robert Bartlett; Heroines of the Medieval World by Sharon Bennett Connolly; Chronicles of the Kings of England, From the Earliest Period to the Reign of King Stephen by William of Malmesbury; Silk and the Sword: The Women of the Norman Conquest by Sharon Bennett Connolly; Brewer’s British Royalty by David Williamson; Britain’s Royal Families, the Complete Genealogy by Alison Weir; Matilda by Tracy Borman; The Norman Conquest by Marc Morris; The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles by Michael Swanton; The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle by James Ingram; The Mammoth Book of British Kings and Queens by Mike Ashley; oxforddnb.comQueen Matilda, wife of William the Conqueror, was NOT a Dwarf (article) by Marc Morris, marcmorris.org.uk; epistolae.ccnmtl.columbia.edu; womenshistory.about.com; Les Oeuvres Poétiques de Baudri de Bourgueil edited by P. Abrahams

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My Books

Ladies of Magna Carta: Women of Influence in Thirteenth Century England  looks into the relationships of the various noble families of the 13th century, and how they were affected by the Barons’ Wars, Magna Carta and its aftermath; the bonds that were formed and those that were broken. It is now available from Pen & SwordAmazon and from Book Depository worldwide.

Also by Sharon Bennett Connolly:

Silk and the Sword: The Women of the Norman Conquest traces the fortunes of the women who had a significant role to play in the momentous events of 1066.  Available now from Amazon,  Amberley Publishing, Book Depository.

Heroines of the Medieval World tells the stories of some of the most remarkable women from Medieval history, from Eleanor of Aquitaine to Julian of Norwich. Available now from Amberley Publishing and Amazon and Book Depository.

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Judith of Flanders, Countess of Northumberland

Judith of Flanders

Judith of Flanders was born sometime in the early 1030s. Her father was Baldwin IV, Count of Flanders; he died in 1035, when Judith was, at most, five years old and possibly still only a baby.

Baldwin had been count since the age of seven, from 987. His first wife was Orgive of Luxembourg, the mother of Baldwin’s son and heir, Baldwin V, who was born in 1012. Orgive died in 1030. Their son, Baldwin V, married Adele of France, the second daughter of Robert II (the Pious), King of France, and they had at least three children together, including Baldwin VI, Count of Flanders, and Matilda of Flanders, Duchess of Normandy and Queen of England as the wife of William the Conqueror. After Orgive’s death, Baldwin IV married again. In about 1031 he wed Eleanor of Normandy, the daughter of Baldwin’s neighbour, Richard II, Duke of Normandy, and his wife, Judith of Brittany. Eleanor’s brother was Robert I, Duke of Normandy, the father of William the Conqueror, who became Duke of Normandy and King of England. Eleanor’s daughter and only child Judith, therefore, was a first cousin of William the Conqueror, the future King of England, as well as aunt of his wife, Matilda.

When her father died in 1035, Judith’s older brother, who was about twenty years her senior, succeeded as Count Baldwin V; it would be he who decided on Judith’s future when the time came for her to marry. We know nothing of Judith’s childhood or level of education. As the daughter of a count, expected to make a good marriage into another ruling or noble family, she would have been taught how to run a large household, dancing, embroidery and possibly some languages, such as Latin. It is unlikely, however, that she was taught to read and write, skills usually reserved for members of the Church. It is possible she was raised alongside her niece, Matilda, who was of a similar age to Judith.

Cover of one of the four gospels commissioned by Judith of Flanders

In the late summer or autumn of 1051, Judith was married to Tostig, a son of the powerful Earl Godwin of Wessex and his wife, Gytha. And when the family fell foul of King Edward the Confessor, Judith accompanied them into exile; back to her homeland of Flanders. Tostig was probably the third eldest son of Godwin and Gytha of Wessex, one of his older brothers being the future King Harold II of England. He would have been in his early twenties at the time of his marriage and the family’s subsequent exile; Judith was no more than six years younger than him, which would suggest she was at least fifteen years old at the time of her marriage.

Judith would have returned to her new homeland of England when Tostig and his family forced their return from exile in 1052. After some vigorous negotiations in London, an uneasy peace was restored between Earl Godwin and the king. Judith and Tostig would have finally been able to settle down to married life, following months of uncertainty and upheaval. Although it is impossible to say for certain, they were probably given one of Godwin’s many comital estates, somewhere in Wessex, in which to set up their household. Their marriage appears to have been a successful one, with no rumours of infidelity recorded by the various chroniclers of the time. They are thought to have had two sons together, Skuli Tostisson Kongsfostre and Ketil Tostisson, born in 1052 and 1054, respectively.

Tostig was created earl of Northumbria in 1055 and spent the next few years sparring with Malcolm III, King of Scots. However, with peace restored Tostig left on pilgrimage to Rome in 1061, taking Judith with him. They were accompanied by several English bishops, including Ealdred, bishop of Worcester, who had just been made archbishop of York by King Edward, and was travelling to Rome to receive his pallium.

Their party reached Rome in the spring of 1061, where they were received honourably by Pope Nicholas; Tostig given the honour of attending a synod, possibly that held on 15 April at Easter 1061, at which Tostig is said to have sat next to the pope. Shortly after departing Rome for their homeward journey, Tostig’s party were caught up in a local dispute between the papacy and the Tuscan nobility; they were ambushed while travelling along the Via Cassia, by the Count of Galeria. Tostig was able to escape by the ruse of one of his own thegns pretending to be the earl. Judith and a large portion of the party had gone on ahead and were unaware for some time of what had befallen Tostig. She must have been relieved to hear of the failure of the attack when Tostig eventually caught up with her.

Memorial to the Battle of Stamford Bridge, York

Judith appears to have been a very pious individual, although some stories have come down to us of disagreements between the Earl and his countess, and the Church. One story from Symeon of Durham tells of Judith’s attempts to circumvent the rules of the community of St Cuthbert. Despite there being a specific injunction forbidding women to enter the precincts of the church in which lay the shrine of St Cuthbert, Judith was determined to get around this. She sent one of her own maidservants to attempt entry, but the poor girl fell ill as soon as she crossed the boundary and died shortly afterwards, clearly demonstrating the power of St Cuthbert’s will. We can assume that Judith gave up trying to enter the shrine after that! Judith sent gifts to the cathedral – including a crucifix, church ornaments and images of the Virgin Mary and St John the Evangelist, decorated in gold and silver – to make amends for her disastrous attempt to break the rules.

Despite this, the relationship between the couple and the Church at Durham was generally cordial and mutually appreciated. The earl and countess were notable for almsgiving in Northumbria, and for their generosity towards the community of St Cuthbert. In return Æthelwine, Bishop of Durham, was generous enough to give Judith a relic containing some of St Oswine’s hair. As a consequence, Tostig and Judith are both commemorated in the Durham Liber Vitae.

In 1065, rebellion in Northumbria, and the lack of support from his fellow nobles – including his brother Harold – saw Tostig and his family banished from England; he and Judith, their children and their entire household, crossed the English Channel on 1 November 1065. They made their way to Flanders, to seek refuge with Judith’s brother, Count Baldwin, where they were warmly welcomed just a few days before Christmas.

Memorial Plaque, Stamford Bridge, York

However, everything changed in January 1066, with the death of Edward the Confessor and the accession of Tostig’s brother, Harold, to the English throne. Not one to miss an opportunity, Tostig started raiding English shores, before invading from Scotland with his ally Harald Hardrada, King of Norway. They defeated the Northumbrians at the Battle of Fulford, near York, before facing Tostig’s brother, King Harold II, across the battlefield of Stamford Bridge a few days later. King Harold proved victorious and Tostig and his ally, Harald Hardrada, were both killed in the fighting.

Judith’s whereabouts during Tostig’s invasion are not mentioned. It is possible that she stayed safe in Flanders with her family and two young sons, the oldest of whom was about fourteen by 1066. However, she may have travelled with her husband; there is a suggestion that at least one of her sons fought at Stamford Bridge and travelled to Norway with the survivors. Following Tostig’s defeat at Stamford Bridge, and Harold’s subsequent death at the Battle of Hastings, Judith’s two sons by Tostig eventually sought refuge with King Olaf ‘the Peaceable’ of Norway, Harald Hardrada’s son who had been allowed to return home following his father’s defeat and death at Stamford Bridge. Little is known of their movements after that, other than that the oldest, Skuli Tostisson Kongsfostre, must have married and had children as he was the ancestor of King Inge II of Norway.

Wedding of Judith of Flanders and Welf IV, Duke of Bavaria

For a time, Judith remained in Flanders from where her older, half-brother, Count Baldwin V, arranged a second marriage for her in about 1070, to Welf IV, the newly created Duke of Bavaria. The couple were to have two sons and a daughter; Welf, who succeeded his father as Duke of Bavaria and died in 1119, Henry and Kunizza, who married Count Frederick of Diessen and died in 1120. Henry succeeded his brother as Duke of Bavaria and died in 1126; he had at least seven children by his wife, Wulfhilde of Saxony.

A patron of the arts, Judith is renowned for the commissioning of four gospel books, luxurious creations produced in England, probably at Winchester. When Judith left England, she took these gospels, with other manuscripts and relics in her private collection, with her to Flanders. After she remarried, they accompanied her to southern Germany.

On 12 March 1094, with the approval of her husband and sons, Judith drew up a list of bequests. She bequeathed the four gospels and other treasures, to the monastery at Weingarten, a foundation of her husband’s family, thus helping to disseminate Anglo-Saxon art throughout southern Europe. Among the bequests was also a relic of Christ’s blood, given to her by her father. She died a year later, on 5 March 1095, and was buried at the Abbey of Weingarten. Judith is remembered at Weingarten as a widowed queen of England, perhaps a testimony to how close her first husband got to the English throne.

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This article, Judith of Flanders, Countess of Northumberland, first appeared on Mary Anne Yarde’s wonderful blog Myths, Legends, Book and Coffee Pots.

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Pictures:

Courtesy of Wikipedia, except Stamford Bridge memorials ©2018 Sharon Bennett Connolly and Judith’s gospel courtesy of the British Library.

Sources:

The English and the Norman Conquest by Dr Ann Williams; Brewer’s British Royalty by David Williamson; Britain’s Royal Families, the Complete Genealogy by Alison Weir; The Wordsworth Dictionary of British History by JP Kenyon; The Norman Conquestby Marc Morris; Harold, the King Who Fell at Hastings by Peter Rex; The Anglo-Saxons in 100 Facts by Martin Wall; The Anglo-Saxon Age by Martin Wall; Kings, Queens, Bones and Bastards by David Hilliam; The Mammoth Book of British kings & Queens by Mike Ashley; The Oxford Companion to British History Edited by John Cannon; The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles translated and edited by Michael Swaton; The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle translated by James Ingram; Queen Emma and the Vikings by Harriett O’Brien; The Bayeux Tapestry by Carola Hicks; On the Spindle Side: the Kinswomen of Earl Godwin of Wessex by Ann Williams; oxforddnb.com.

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My Books

Coming 31st May:

Defenders of the Norman Crown: The Rise and Fall of the Warenne Earls of Surrey tells the fascinating story of the Warenne dynasty, of the successes and failures of one of the most powerful families in England, from its origins in Normandy, through the Conquest, Magna Carta, the wars and marriages that led to its ultimate demise in the reign of Edward III. 

Defenders of the Norman Crown: The Rise and Fall of the Warenne Earls of Surrey is now available for pre-order from Pen & Sword Books.

Also by Sharon Bennett Connolly:

Ladies of Magna Carta: Women of Influence in Thirteenth Century England looks into the relationships of the various noble families of the 13th century, and how they were affected by the Barons’ Wars, Magna Carta and its aftermath; the bonds that were formed and those that were broken. It is now available from Pen & Sword,  Amazon and from Book Depository worldwide.

Heroines of the Medieval World tells the stories of some of the most remarkable women from Medieval history, from Eleanor of Aquitaine to Julian of Norwich. Available now from Amberley Publishing and Amazon and Book Depository.

Silk and the Sword: The Women of the Norman Conquest traces the fortunes of the women who had a significant role to play in the momentous events of 1066.  Available now from Amazon,  Amberley Publishing, Book Depository.

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You can be the first to read new articles by clicking the ‘Follow’ button, liking our Facebook page or joining me on Twitter and Instagram.

©2019 Sharon Bennett Connolly

Gytha of Wessex and the Fall of the House of Godwin

Statue of King Harold, Waltham Abbey

The years following the death of Earl Godwin of Wessex, husband of Gytha, saw the rise of their sons. Harold had succeeded to his father’s earldom of Wessex and in 1055 Tostig was given the earldom of Northumbria; Earl Siward had died at York, leaving only a young son, Waltheof, to succeed him. It was thought too dangerous to leave a county which bordered Scotland in the hands of a child, and so the earldom was awarded to Tostig. When Ælfgar succeeded to his father Leofric’s earldom of Mercia in 1057, he had to relinquish the earldom of East Anglia, which was given to Gyrth, one of Gytha and Godwin’s younger sons. Another son, Leofwine, appears to have succeeded to part of the earldom of Ralph, Earl of Hereford, on his death in 1057, gaining lands in the south Midlands, including in Hertfordshire, Middlesex and Buckinghamshire.

The movements of Gytha herself over the years immediately following Godwin’s death have gone unrecorded. The widow of the great earl probably spent most of her time in retirement on her estates, possibly visiting her family on occasion and spending time at King Edward’s court, with her daughter, Queen Edith.

However, her family was threatened yet again in 1065, when the Northumbrians revolted against her son Tostig’s harsh rule. Unrest in Northumbria had been growing steadily over recent years. Tostig was rarely in the earldom, preferring to spend his time at court, with the king and his sister, and leaving the day-to-day governance of Northumbria to his representatives in the region. It was these representatives, therefore, who bore the brunt of the disaffection with Tostig’s rule. According to John of Worcester, a force of 200 armed men marched on York, killing about 200 of the earl’s retainers, seizing his weapons and treasury, which were stored in the city.¹ The rebels then invited Morcar, the brother of Earl Edwin of Mercia, to become their earl.  The rebellion gathered pace when Mercian Earl Edwin joined his own forces with those of Morcar, and the brothers were, in turn, joined by their Welsh allies and marched south.

They met Earl Harold, Tostig’s brother, at Northampton; Harold’s message to the rebels was to withdraw their army and take their grievances to the king. The rebels, however, demanded that Tostig should not only be removed from Northumbria, but banished from England altogether. No lord – including Harold – was prepared to restore Tostig by force; no one wanted to see the country divided by civil war. Having run out of options, Edward acquiesced to the rebels’ demands. Morcar was confirmed as Earl of Northumbria and the rights they had enjoyed in the past, called the ‘Laws of Cnut’ by the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, were restored to the Northumbrians. Tostig was exiled. It must have caused Gytha great distress to see her son, Tostig, with his wife, Judith, young children and household, cross the English Channel to Flanders, on 1 November 1065. It was probably the last time she saw her son.

Tostig’s departure was merely the start of a year of grief for both Gytha, although it may not have felt that way during the start of the new year of 1066. On 5 January, Edward the Confessor breathed his last, leaving the kingdom to his brother-in-law, Earl Harold. Gytha must have seen Harold’s hasty coronation on 6 January, in the newly rebuilt Westminster Abbey, as the crowning glory forher family, and a sign of new beginnings for all her children. However, if Harold expected a honeymoon period as king, he was to be sorely disappointed. By Easter, England was living in fear of invasion from Duke William of Normandy. These fears were further stoked when ‘a sign such as men never saw before was seen in the heavens.’²

Memorial to the Battle of Stamford Bridge, outside York

The appearance of the great comet, later to be known as Halley’s Comet, was seen as a portent for change in the kingdom. The comet was visible every night for the whole of the last week of April, and no sooner had it disappeared than news arrived of a hostile fleet attacking England’s shores. The threat did not come from Normandy, but from Gytha’s exiled son, Tostig. How devastated she must have been, to see one son attacking another, but Harold proved implacable and set out for Sandwich to confront Tostig. Tostig withdrew before his brother’s arrival and sailed up the coast towards Northumbria, eventually seeking refuge with King Malcom in Scotland.

Having seen off his brother, Harold now prepared to face the greater threat of Duke William of Normandy, watching and waiting for the arrival of William’s ships. The fear and anticipation that gripped the country cannot have failed to affect Gytha, knowing that her sons were at the heart of events. Leofwine and Gyrth were stalwart in their support of Harold, whilst Tostig was brooding and planning in the court of the Scots king. The months of anticipation must have been hard on them all, but in September, Harold was forced to stand down his army, provisions had run out and ‘no man could keep them there any longer. They therefore had leave to go home; and the king rode up, and the ships were driven to London; but many perished ere they came thither.’²

As the summer drew to a close, Harold received news that his brother, Tostig, had landed in the north with Harald Hardrada, King of Norway, and 300 ships. They defeated a force of Northumbrians, led by the Mercian brothers, earls Morcar and Edwin, at the Battle of Fulford on 20 September 1066. Having received news of this defeat, King Harold force marched his army the 190 miles from London to York in just four days, so that he was able to face the Scandinavians at Stamford Bridge, on the outskirts of the city, on 25  September. He was accompanied by two of his younger brothers, Gyrth and Leofwine.

King Harold’s troops prevailed, despite their near-exhausted state after such a march. Harald Hardrada and Tostig were both killed in the battle, which saw about 11,000 of the estimated 20,000 combatants dead at the end of the day. Harold had no time to savour his victory, nor mourn the loss of his brother, for three days after the battle Duke William of Normandy landed at Pevensey on the south coast. As soon as he received the news, Harold turned his army south and marched to face this new enemy. It may well be that he sent a messenger to his mother while en route, informing her of Tostig’s death and of his own success.

William of Jumièges states that Gytha tried to persuade Harold against facing Duke William. In the same, tense family conference, Harold’s brother Gyrth offered to fight the Duke, ‘since he had sworn no oath and owed nothing to him’.[4] Harold was enraged, he ‘taunted Gyrth and even insolently kicked his mother Gytha who was trying to hold him back.’[4] By 14 October Harold had arrived at Senlac Hill, 7 miles north of Hastings, where he arrayed his army to face the opposing Normans. Stories have Gytha awaiting the outcome of the battle behind the lines, with Harold’s handfast wife, Edith Swanneck.

By the end of the day, three of Gytha’s sons lay among the dead; Harold, Gyrth and Leofwine. It is also possible her grandson Hakon died on the field of battle; he had returned to England with Harold in 1064, after being held hostage in Normandy since 1052. According to William of Poitiers, ‘Far and wide the earth was covered with the flower of the English nobility and youth, drenched in blood.’[5]

Edith searching the battlefield for Harold’s body

In the aftermath of the battle there is a heartrending story that Gytha and Edith walked the battlefield, searching for Harold’s body, which was said to be recognisable by marks that only Edith, his lover of twenty years, would know (probably tattoos). It was reported that Gytha offered Duke William the weight of Harold’s body in gold, if she could be allowed to take him for burial. William refused, with an angry retort, saying it would be unfair to bury him, given that so many remained unburied on the field on his account. However, most sources suggest that William then ordered that Harold be buried in an unmarked grave, on a cliff overlooking England’s shores. Other stories have Harold’s remains being claimed by Edith and taken for burial at Harold’s own foundation of Waltham Abbey. Whether it was Gytha or Edith who identified Harold, whether he was buried in Waltham Abbey of an unmarked grave close to the sea, the tragedy for Gytha and Edith was that Harold was dead and William was now England’s ruler.

As William consolidated his hold on England and as she was grieving the loss of four sons within a space of three weeks, Gytha probably retreated to her estates in Wessex. Her one surviving son, Wulfnoth, was still a hostage in Normandy and so nothing more is heard of her until 1068. Gytha appears to have settled in the west of Wessex, for she and her family were implicated in a conspiracy in Exeter, from where messages were being sent to other cities, urging rebellion. It appears that Gytha planned a Godwinson revival with the sons of Harold and Edith Swanneck.

In their late teens or early twenties, the boys fled to Ireland after the death of their father and were now plotting to return with an invasion fleet. King William had just returned from Normandy, when the conspiracy arose. Exeter was to be the base from which the rebellion could gather and spread throughout the country; when the king demanded Exeter give the king its fealty, the city refused. As William arrived at the city with his army, they played for time, saying they would open their gates, while at the same time preparing to resist. After eighteen days of siege, the city surrendered. The Norman chroniclers suggest that the inhabitants were worn down by William the Conqueror’s relentless assaults, or that the city wall partially collapsed; while the English Chroniclers argue that the surrender came about after Gytha had deserted the cause.

Battlefield at Hastings

According to John of Worcester, ‘the countess Gytha, mother of Harold, king of England, and sister of Sweyn, king of Denmark, escaped from the city, with many others, and retired to Flanders; and the citizens submitted to the king, and paid him fealty.’¹ Gytha took a boat into the Bristol Channel and landed on the island of Flat Holme, possibly to await the arrival of her grandsons from Ireland. And with Gytha and her supporters gone, the city was able to surrender and agree terms with the king. Following the failure of the conspiracy, Gytha’s lands in England were declared forfeit and distributed among the victorious Normans, as had previously happened to those who had fought at Hastings in 1066.

She remained on Flat Holm for some time; her grandsons, Godwine, Edmund and Magnus, arrived from Ireland later in the year, possibly making a brief stop on Flat Holm to visit her before landing in Somerset and making for Bristol. Although the campaign failed to take the city, they returned to Ireland with considerable plunder after raiding along the Somerset coast. Another attempt at gathering support in Devon the following year also ended in failure and the boys returned to Ireland.

It was probably after this second failed invasion that Gytha left the island of Flat Holm and England, taking with her ‘a great store of treasure’.[6] She was accompanied by several surviving members of her family, including her daughter, Gunhilda, and her granddaughter and namesake Gytha (Harold’s daughter by Edith Swanneck). After a short stay in Flanders, Gytha may have made her way to Denmark, where her nephew Swein Estrithson was king.

Gytha’s daughter, Gunhilda, joined the convent at St  Omer, staying there for several years before moving to Bruges. Apart from one visit to Denmark, she then spent the remainder of her years in Bruges, dying there on 24 August 1087, a memorial plaque, discovered in 1786, describes her as a child of noble parents, her father Godwin ‘ruled over the greater part of England’ and her mother Gytha ‘sprung from a noble family of Danes’.[7] According to Ann Williams, Gunhilda had lived her life as a vowess, taking a vow of perpetual virginity when still a girl. In Bruges she may have been attached to the Church of St Donatien as a vowess, as she had donated a collection of relics to the church.

Gytha, Countess of Wessex

Gytha’s granddaughter, Gytha, the daughter of King Harold by Edith Swanneck, was married to Vladimir II Monomakh, prince of Smolensk and (later) Kiev, sometime after her arrival on the Continent. She was the mother of Mstislav the Great, Grand Prince of Kiev, who was born in 1076; he was the last ruler of a united Kievan Rus. Gytha died in 1107; it was through her and her son Mstislav that the Godwinson blood eventually made it back into the English royal family, with Mstislav’s direct descendant Philippa of Hainault, wife and queen of Edward III.

Unfortunately for us, once she reaches the Continent, Gytha, the wife of Godwin, disappears from history. Where she lived, and for how much longer, has gone unrecorded, shrouding her last days or years in mystery.

Gytha’s life was an extraordinary story of privilege and power, war and loss. She was a wife whose husband decided the fate of kings, and a mother who lost four sons in battle within three weeks in 1066, three in the same battle. It is impossible to imagine the agony of waiting at Hastings, and hearing of the death of her son the king. It speaks for her determination and tenacity that she did not just curl up and give in after such losses. She continued her resistance to William the Conqueror for as long as she could, before going into exile on the Continent, disappearing from the pages of history.

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Photos of King Harold and Stamford Bridge ©Sharon Bennett Connolly 2018. Pictures of Gytha and Edith Swanneck courtesy of Wikipedia.

Footnotes: ¹The Chronicle of John of Worcester, translated and edited by Thomas Forester, A.M.; ²The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle translated by James Ingram; ³The Chronicle of Henry of Huntingdon. 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; [4] Gesta Normannorum Ducum by William of Jumièges, edited and translated by Elizabeth Van Houts; [5] The Gesta Guillielmi of William of Poitiers, edited by R.H.C. Davis and Marjorie Chibnall; [6] The Ecclesiastical History of England and Normandy by Ordericus Vitalis; [7] On the Spindle Side: the Kinswomen of Earl Godwin of Wessex by Ann Williams.

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Sources: The English and the Norman Conquest by Dr Ann Williams; Brewer’s British Royalty by David Williamson; Britain’s Royal Families, the Complete Genealogy by Alison Weir; The Wordsworth Dictionary of British History by JP Kenyon; The Norman Conquestby Marc Morris; Harold, the King Who Fell at Hastings by Peter Rex; The Anglo-Saxons in 100 Facts by Martin Wall; The Anglo-Saxon Age by Martin Wall; Kings, Queens, Bones and Bastards by David Hilliam; The Mammoth Book of British kings & Queens by Mike Ashley; The Oxford Companion to British History Edited by John Cannon; The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles translated and edited by Michael Swaton; The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle translated by James Ingram; Queen Emma and the Vikings by Harriett O’Brien; The Bayeux Tapestry by Carola Hicks; On the Spindle Side: the Kinswomen of Earl Godwin of Wessex by Ann Williams; oxforddnb.com.

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My Books

Ladies of Magna Carta: Women of Influence in Thirteenth Century England  looks into the relationships of the various noble families of the 13th century, and how they were affected by the Barons’ Wars, Magna Carta and its aftermath; the bonds that were formed and those that were broken. It is now available from Pen & SwordAmazon and from Book Depository worldwide.

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Also by Sharon Bennett Connolly:

Silk and the Sword: The Women of the Norman Conquest traces the fortunes of the women who had a significant role to play in the momentous events of 1066.  Available now from Amazon,  Amberley Publishing, Book Depository.

Heroines of the Medieval World tells the stories of some of the most remarkable women from Medieval history, from Eleanor of Aquitaine to Julian of Norwich. Available now from Amberley Publishing and Amazon and Book Depository.

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You can be the first to read new articles by clicking the ‘Follow’ button, liking our Facebook page or joining me on Twitter.

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©2018 Sharon Bennett Connolly

Gytha of Wessex and the Rise of the House of Godwin

Countess Gytha

I have to admit, I expected Emma of Normandy to be the woman who stole the show with my latest book, Silk and the Sword: the Women of the Norman Conquest, but I was pleasantly surprised to discover it was Gytha of Wessex! Gytha completes the triumvirate of remarkable women who presided over the first half of the eleventh century in England; the others being Emma of Normandy and the legendary Lady Godiva. However, unlike Emma and Godiva, Gytha was at the centre of events before, during and after the fateful year of 1066. Her story is far too long to be told in one blog post, so I will concentrate on the lesser known part of the story; the early years of the marriage of Godwin and Gytha.

A woman of impeccable pedigree, Gytha was the mother of a large brood of children that included several earls, the queen of Edward the Confessor and the last Anglo-Saxon king of England. Raised in Denmark, Gytha was the daughter of Thorgils Sprakaleg, a Danish magnate who himself was said to have been the grandson of a bear and a Swedish maiden. Although obviously not true, such a legend serves to weave a sense of mystery and legacy into a family. Little is known of her mother; a later story suggested she was Tyra, daughter of Harold Bluetooth, king of Norway and Denmark, but this has been discounted by historians.

Gytha was probably either born in the last decade of the tenth century or the first decade of the eleventh, and she had at least two brothers. Eilaf who was Earl of Gloucestershire under King Cnut while her second brother, Earl Ulf, was married to King Cnut’s sister, Estrith, and was the father of Swein Estrithson, King of Denmark from 1047 to 1076. Earl Ulf had two other children, Beorn Estrithson and Asbjørn; Beorn spent time with his aunt’s family and was murdered by his cousin, Gytha’s oldest son, Swein Godwinson, in 1049. Ulf acted as Regent of Denmark for King Cnut before he was killed, apparently on the orders of Cnut himself, on Christmas Day 1026.

It was in about 1022 that Gytha was married to Godwin. According to The Life of King Edward, commissioned by Gytha’s daughter, Queen Edith, it was early in his reign that King Cnut took Godwin with him to Denmark, where the king ‘tested more closely his wisdom’, and ‘admitted [him] to his council and gave him his sister [sic] as wife.’¹ Although Gytha was not, in fact, Cnut’s sister, she was still a part of the extended Danish royal family; giving her to Godwin as a wife was a substantial reward and a sign of Cnut’s trust in him. What Gytha thought of being given in marriage to a man below her station, no matter how much a favourite of Cnut’s he was, we can only surmise. We can assume that she probably had little say in the matter; once Cnut had decided on the marriage, who could refuse such a powerful king?

King Cnut and Gytha’s brother, Earl Ulf

Godwin’s background is obscured by time, but it is likely that he was the son of Wulfnoth Cild, a Sussex thegn who fell afoul of the politics and political machinations of the reign of Æthelred II the Unready. The appellation ‘Cild’ denotes a young man or warrior and is usually applied to those of rank in Anglo-Saxon England. In 1009  Wulfnoth had been accused of treason by Brihtric, the brother of the powerful and wily Eadric Streona. What treason he had committed is unclear, and it is likely that the charges were unfounded. The accusations came during the muster of the magnificent new fleet, built on the orders of Æthelred II to counter the incursions of the Scandinavians. Wulfnoth fled to sea, taking twenty of the new ships with him. According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Brihtric went in pursuit of him, with eighty ships, but his force was run aground in a heavy storm and then attacked by Wulfnoth, who set fire to Brihtric’s ships. The destruction of the greater part of the fleet was to put an end to any hope of campaigning off the English coast and Æthelred gave up on the project and went home.

It is possible that Godwin was married to a lady called Thyra, before he married Gytha.  According to William of Malmesbury, Thyra was Cnut’s sister, and a quite unpleasant lady. She is said to have had a son who, while out riding a horse ‘was carried into the Thames, and perished in the stream: his mother, too, paid the penalty of her cruelty; being killed by a stroke of lightning. For it is reported, that she was in the habit of purchasing companies of slaves in England, and sending them into Denmark; more especially girls, whose beauty and age rendered them more valuable, that she might accumulate money by this horrid traffic.’²

Godwin appears to have accumulated considerable lands during the reign of Cnut. Although only one charter survives from the period, in which Cnut granted him Polhampton in Hampshire, Godwin also possessed manors in Kent, Sussex and Hampshire, some of which had previously belonged to the royal estates in the reign of Æthelred II. Although we don’t hear of Gytha at this time – the chronicles rarely mention the women – we can assume that she enjoyed and benefitted from the favour her husband received from King Cnut. It is likely that she spent the majority of her time in the 1020s and 1030s giving birth to, and raising, her large brood of children. Gytha and Godwin had a large family of at least ten – possibly eleven – children.

Their daughter Edith was probably born within a year of the marriage and would become Queen of England as the wife of King Edward the Confessor. Although we cannot be certain of the order of birth, the eldest son seems likely to have been Swein, who was born in about 1023, with Harold – the future King Harold II – probably arriving the year after. Five more sons may have followed; Tostig, Gyrth, Leofwine, Wulfnoth and possibly Alfgar.

Death of Leofwine at the Battle of Hastings, depicted in the Bayeux Tapestry

Tostig, Gyrth and Leofwine all became earls under Edward the Confessor and were deeply involved in the events of 1066, although not all on the same side. While still only a child, Wulfnoth was taken to Normandy as a hostage in about 1052, with his nephew, Hakon (the son of Wulfnoth’s older brother, Swein). Wulfnoth died sometime after 1087, but whether in England or Normandy is unclear. It is possible that young Hakon died whilst still a hostage in Normandy; however, there is some suggestion that he was released following Harold’s visit to Normandy in 1064 and fought – and died – alongside his uncles at the Battle of Hastings on 14 October 1066. Little is known of Alfgar; if he existed, he may have been a monk at Reims in France.

As well as Edith, Gytha and Godwin are thought to have had two or three more daughters. Little is known of Eadgiva (or Eadgifu), but for her name and that she held the comital estate of Crewkerne in Somerset; she is also on a list of women in confraternity with the New Minster at Winchester but may have been dead by 1066. A younger daughter, Gunhilda, is believed to have been a vowess from an early age and became a nun after the Conquest, either at St Omer in France or Bruges in Flanders. Gunhilda died at Bruges on 24 August 1087 and is buried in Bruges Cathedral.

When Edward the Confessor came to the throne in 1042 the support of the powerful Earl Godwin was essential to the success of his accession. Among the lands acquired by Godwin during the 1040s was Woodchester in Gloucestershire, which he bought for Gytha. The manor was intended to support her when she stayed at Berekely, for ‘she was unwilling to use up anything from that manor because of the destruction of the abbey.’¹

As Godwin’s star continued to rise; so too did that of his family. In 1043 an earldom, centred on Hereford, had been created for his eldest son, Swein, and in 1044 Harold, the next oldest, was made Earl of East Anglia. Gytha must have been proud to see her husband and sons rise so high, and surely was overjoyed as she became the mother of a queen when her eldest daughter, Edith, married King Edward on 23  January 1045. The family must have appeared unassailable to their fellow and rival nobles.

For Gytha, it was mostly a time for pride in her children, although one of her sons would disappoint and humiliate her. Swein Godwinson was, by most accounts, a rather unpleasant character. Although a notable fighter, he was ruthless and determined. One source suggests that  Swein had, at some point, impugned his mother’s reputation, claiming that he was not the son of Godwin, but of the former king, Cnut. The claim was indignantly refuted by Gytha, who gathered together the noble ladies of Wessex to witness her oath that Godwin was Swein’s father. It is impossible to imagine what must have gone through Gytha’s mind when Swein made this claim. To be so blatantly accused of infidelity by her eldest son, someone who should have had a care for his mother’s reputation, must have been heartbreaking. Whether it was a political move – to pursue a claim to the throne as Cnut’s heir – or not, Swein effectively rejected Godwin as his father and called his mother an unfaithful wife.

Harold Godwinson, King of England

In the national theater, moreover, the year 1051 brought a crisis that threatened the family’s very position in English society. Edward the Confessor, unhappy at the apparently unassailable position of the Godwin family, sought to curb the Earl of Wessex’s strength and influence. Both sides raised their retainers, intending to defend their positions with force, if necessary. Civil war loomed.

The two sides came back from the brink, with Godwin called before the king to answer for his actions. The king, however, offered to take the earl back into his peace ‘when he gave him back his brother alive.’ Earl Godwin’s involvement in the death of Edward’s brother, Alfred, had come back to haunt him. Godwin would have known, at that moment, that there was no chance of reconciliation. The earl rode away from London, returning to Bosham. John of Worcester takes up the story:

… but his army gradually dwindling away and deserting him, he did not venture to abide the judgment of the king’s court, but fled, under cover of night. When, therefore, the morning came, the king, in his witan, with the unanimous consent of the whole army, made a decree that Godwin and his five sons should be banished. Thereupon he and his wife Gytha, and Tostig and his wife Judith, the daughter of Baldwin, count of Flanders, and two of his other sons, namely, Sweyn and Gyrth, went, without loss of time, to Thorney, where a ship had been got ready for them. They quickly laded her with as much gold, silver, and other valuable articles as she could hold, and, embarking in great haste, directed her course towards Flanders and Baldwin the count.³

Godwin and Gytha’s two other sons, Harold and Leofwine, headed west; arriving at Bristol, they took Swein’s ship, which had already been prepared and provisioned for him, and sailed to exile in Ireland. The couple’s youngest son, Wulfstan, and Swein’s son, Hakon, may already have been in the custody of King Edward as hostages. Queen Edith, therefore, was the only Godwin who remained at liberty in England, although not for long. She was banished to the nunnery at Wherwell, where Edward’s half-sister was abbess; her land, jewels and possessions were taken from her and Edward may have started divorce proceedings, though they were never completed.

Godwin and Gytha, along with Swein, Tostig and the family’s retainers, spent the winter in Bruges from where Swein, looking to the salvation of his soul, set out on pilgrimage to Jerusalem. According to John of Worcester, Swein walked the whole way, barefoot, but caught a cold on the way home and died. In the spring of 1052, the family set about orchestrating their return to England. After some initial setbacks,  Godwin attacked the Isle of Wight and was reunited with his sons, Harold and Leofwine, newly arrived from Ireland. They proceeded, along the Sussex and Kent coasts, to London, unopposed, and anchored on the south bank of the Thames, opposite the forces of the king and his earls who were waiting on the north bank with fifty ships.

Queen Edith of Wessex

Godwin sent to the king, requesting the restoration of his lands and the lands of his sons, but Edward flatly refused. However, public opinion had turned against the king; his strong support for his Norman advisers and the visit of William of Normandy soon after the Godwin’s exile, had soured public opinion which turned to favour Godwin and his family. The Norman contingent of Edward’s administration, seeing events were turning against them, and that Godwin would be welcomed back into the fold, mounted their horses and fled London, some going north, some west; presumably with Godwin and Gytha’s son, Wulfstan, and their grandson, Hakon, as hostages.

The following morning Godwin met the king in a council outside London. The Earl begged forgiveness of the king, declaring that he and his sons were innocent of the charges laid against them. Despite his underlying fury, Edward had no choice but to grant Godwin a pardon and restore the lands and titles of the whole family. According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Gytha is even mentioned in the agreement, whereby the council ‘gave Godwin fairly his earldom, so full and so free as he at first possessed it, and his sons also all that they formerly had; and his wife and his daughter so full and so free as they formerly had.’ Soon after, their daughter, Edith, was fetched from her incarceration in the nunnery and reinstated as queen.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle also mentions that Godwin fell sick shortly after the conclusion of negotiations with Edward. Given that the earl died at Easter 1053, we can imagine that Gytha spent the winter nursing her ailing husband. On Easter Monday (12 April), Godwin was dining with his sons, Harold and Tostig, and King Edward, at Winchester, when ‘he suddenly sank towards the foot-stool, deprived of speech and of all his strength; he was carried to the king’s chamber, and it was thought it would pass over, but it was not so; but he continued like this unspeaking and helpless, through until the Thursday and then gave up his life. And he lies there in the Old Minster; and his son Harold succeeded to his earldom.’ [ASC]

Writing later, with a flair for the dramatic, William of Malmesbury had Godwin’s last words to Edward before he collapsed as; ‘May God not permit me to swallow if I have done anything to endanger Alfred or to hurt you.’² Contemporary chronicles do not mention such a declaration, so while it makes Godwin’s death appear as divine justice, it is more than likely untrue.

King Harold’s coronation in the Bayeux Tapestry

Following his death the House of Godwin continued its inexorable rise. Harold had succeeded to his father’s earldom of Wessex and in 1055 Tostig was given the earldom of Northumbria; Earl Siward had died at York, leaving only a young son, Waltheof, to succeed him. It was thought too dangerous to leave a county which bordered Scotland in the hands of a child, and so the earldom was awarded to Tostig. When Ælfgar succeeded to his father Leofric’s earldom of Mercia in 1057, he had to relinquish the earldom of East Anglia, which was given to Gyrth, one of Gytha’s younger sons. Another son, Leofwine, appears to have succeeded to part of the earldom of Ralph, Earl of Hereford, on his death in 1057, gaining lands in the south Midlands.

Gytha’s movements in the years immediately after Godwin’s death have gone unrecorded. The widow of the great earl probably spent most of her time in retirement on her estates, possibly visiting her family on occasion and spending time at King Edward’s court, with her daughter, Queen Edith. One can imagine she would watch the success of her son’s with pride, unaware of the looming storm clouds that would see 4 of her sons lying dead on battlefields at Stamford Bridge and Hastings within the short space of 3 weeks in the autumn of 1066.

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Footnotes: ¹Godwine, earl of Wessex (d. 1053) by Ann Williams, oxforddnb.com; ²The History of the Kings of England and of his Own Times by William Malmesbury; ³The Chronicle of John of Worcester, translated and edited by Thomas Forester; [ASC] The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle translated by James Ingram

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Sources: The English and the Norman Conquest by Dr Ann Williams; Brewer’s British Royalty by David Williamson; Britain’s Royal Families, the Complete Genealogy by Alison Weir; The Wordsworth Dictionary of British History by JP Kenyon; The Norman Conquestby Marc Morris; Harold, the King Who Fell at Hastings by Peter Rex; The Anglo-Saxons in 100 Facts by Martin Wall; The Anglo-Saxon Age by Martin Wall; Kings, Queens, Bones and Bastards by David Hilliam; The Mammoth Book of British kings & Queens by Mike Ashley; The Oxford Companion to British History Edited by John Cannon; The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles translated and edited by Michael Swaton; The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle translated by James Ingram; Queen Emma and the Vikings by Harriett O’Brien; The Bayeux Tapestry by Carola Hicks; oxforddnb.com.

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My Books

Coming 31st May:

Defenders of the Norman Crown: The Rise and Fall of the Warenne Earls of Surrey tells the fascinating story of the Warenne dynasty, of the successes and failures of one of the most powerful families in England, from its origins in Normandy, through the Conquest, Magna Carta, the wars and marriages that led to its ultimate demise in the reign of Edward III.

Defenders of the Norman Crown: Rise and Fall of the Warenne Earls of Surrey will be released in the UK on 31 May and in the US on 6 August. And it is now available for pre-order from Pen & Sword BooksAmazon in the UK and US and Book Depository.

Also by Sharon Bennett Connolly:

Ladies of Magna Carta: Women of Influence in Thirteenth Century England looks into the relationships of the various noble families of the 13th century, and how they were affected by the Barons’ Wars, Magna Carta and its aftermath; the bonds that were formed and those that were broken. It is now available from Pen & Sword,  Amazon and from Book Depository worldwide.

Heroines of the Medieval World tells the stories of some of the most remarkable women from Medieval history, from Eleanor of Aquitaine to Julian of Norwich. Available now from Amberley Publishing and Amazon and Book Depository.

Silk and the Sword: The Women of the Norman Conquest traces the fortunes of the women who had a significant role to play in the momentous events of 1066.  Available now from Amazon,  Amberley Publishing, Book Depository.

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You can be the first to read new articles by clicking the ‘Follow’ button, liking our Facebook page or joining me on Twitter and Instagram.

©2018 Sharon Bennett Connolly

The Wives and Family of King Harold II

Statue of King Harold II at Waltham Abbey

The future king, Harold II Godwinson, was born into an Anglo-Danish family whose extensive influence and power meant they were frequently seen as the power behind the throne. This also meant that they were often seen as a threat to the man wearing the crown – especially Edward the Confessor – and suffered exile as a result.

Harold was born around 1022/3 to Godwin and his wife, Gytha Thorkelsdottir. Gytha was a member of the extended Danish royal family, as her brother, Ulf, was married to King Cnut the Great’s sister, Estrith. Gytha’s nephew, Sweyn Estrithson, would eventually rule Denmark as king. Harold received the earldom of East Anglia in 1044 and, as the oldest surviving son of Godwin, Earl of Wessex, he succeeded to his father’s earldom in 1053. Godwin died at Winchester in Easter week of 1053, after collapsing during a feast to entertain his son-in-law, King Edward the Confessor.

Harold’s sister, Edith, was the wife of King Edward; she had married him in January 1046. However, the fact they had no children meant there was no clear successor to the English crown; a situation that would be a major cause of the crisis of 1066. Of Harold’s brothers three were to become earls; Tostig, Gyrth and Leofwine. However, Tostig was driven out of his earldom of Northumberland by an uprising in 1065 and replaced with Morcar, the brother of Edwin, earl of Mercia. Gyrth and Leofwine both fought – and died – alongside Harold at Hastings. Harold’s older brother, Sweyn, once Earl of Hereford, had left on pilgrimage to Jerusalem in 1051, to atone for his many sins, which included the murder of his own cousin and the kidnapping and rape of an abbess, Eadgifu. He died – or was killed – on his journey home. Another, younger brother, Wulfnoth, was a hostage at the court of William, Duke of Normandy, along with his nephew – Sweyn’s son – Hakon.

Memorial to the 1066 Battle of Stamford bridge just outside York

Harold, himself, was not only one of the king’s foremost earls but also one of his most respected advisors and generals. In short, the Godwinsons were the most powerful family in the kingdom, after the king himself – and often resented for the fact. At one point Harold, with his father and brothers, had been exiled from England after quarrelling with the king. During a visit to Normandy in 1064, Harold is even said to have sworn an oath to back William of Normandy’s claim to the English throne in the likely event that Edward the Confessor died without an heir; a claim that William used to the full in order to secure papal approval for his invasion of England.

However, when it came to the moment of truth, it was Harold the old king is said to have named on his deathbed as his successor. He was crowned on 6 January, just hours after the burial of Edward the Confessor in Westminster Abbey. There was no gentle introduction to kingship for King Harold II, however, and  almost immediately he had to prepare to defend England against the rival claimants of Norway and Normandy; and against his own brother, Tostig, who had joined forces with Harald Hardrada, King of Norway.

Harold’s love life was as tangled as his political life.

The battlefield of Hastings

Harold probably met Edith the Swan-neck (or Swanneshals) at about the same time as he became Earl of East Anglia, in 1044, which makes it possible that Edith the Swan-neck and the East Anglian magnate, Eadgifu the Fair, are one and the same. Eadgifu the Fair held over 270 hides of land and was one of the richest magnates in England. The majority of her estates lay in Cambridgeshire, but she also held land in Buckinghamshire, Hertfordshire, Essex and Suffolk; in the Domesday Book, Eadgifu held the manor at Harkstead in Suffolk, which was attached to Harold’s manor of Brightlingsea in Essex, and some of her Suffolk lands were tributary to Harold’s manor of East Bergholt.

While it is by no means certain that Eadgifu is Edith the Swan-neck, several historians – including Ann Williams in the Oxford Database of National Biography – make convincing arguments that they were. Even their names, Eadgifu and Eadgyth, are so similar that the difference could be merely a matter of spelling or mistranslation; indeed, the Abbey of St Benet of Hulme, Norfolk, remembers an Eadgifu Swanneshals among its patrons.

The gatehouse of Battle Abbey

What we do know is that by 1065 Harold had been living with the wonderfully-named Eadgyth Swanneshals (Edith the Swan-neck) for twenty years. History books label her as Harold’s concubine, but Edith was, obviously, no weak and powerless peasant, so it’s highly likely they went through a hand-fasting ceremony  – or ‘Danish marriage’ – a marriage, but not one recognised by the Church. It was not an uncommon practice – King Cnut had married his first wife, Ælfgifu of Northampton, in the same fashion. Edith being a hand-fast wife meant that Harold was still free to marry a second ‘wife’ in a Christian ceremony at a later date. Although we can’t say why Harold didn’t marry Edith in a manner recognised by the Church, it may be that they were both young and one or both of their families would not consent to their marriage.

Harold and Edith had about six children together – including three sons, Godwin, Edmund, Magnus and possibly a fourth, Ulf. They also had two daughters. Gytha married Vladimir Monomakh, Great Prince of Kiev, and is the ancestress of the current queen, Elizabeth II, through her descent from Philippa of Hainault. A second daughter, Gunnhild, spent sometime in Wilton Abbey in Wiltshire, although it is not certain that she was there with the intention of becoming a nun, or for safety and protection from the invading Normans. However, she is said to have eloped, before taking her vows, with a Breton knight, Alan the Red.

Lady Godiva, grandmother of Harold’s second wife, Ealdgyth

However, despite their twenty years and many children, and with the health of the king, Edward the Confessor, deteriorating, it became politically expedient for Harold to marry, to strengthen his position as England’s premier earl and, possibly, next king. Ealdgyth of Mercia was the daughter of Alfgar, Earl of Mercia, and granddaughter of the famous Lady Godiva and, according to William of Jumièges, very beautiful. Her brothers were Edwin, Earl of Mercia, and Morcar, who replaced Harold’s brother Tostig as Earl of Northumberland in the last months of 1065.

Ealdgyth was the widow of Gruffuddd ap Llywelyn, King of Gwynedd from 1039 and ruler of all Wales after 1055, with whom she had had at least one child, a daughter, Nest. Gruffuddd had been murdered in 1063, following an English expedition into Wales. Gruffudd’s own men are said to have betrayed their king, killed him and presented his head to Harold in submission. Harold’s subsequent marriage to Ealdgyth, which probably took place at the end of 1065 or beginning of 1066, not only secured the support of the earls of Northumbria and Mercia, but also weakened the political ties of the same earls with the new rulers of north Wales.

William the Conqueror, Harold’s nemesis

As Harold’s wife Ealdgyth was, therefore, for a short time, Queen of England. However, with Harold having to defend his realm, first against Harold Hardrada and his own brother, Tostig, at Stamford Bridge in September of 1066 and, subsequently, against William of Normandy at Hastings, it is unlikely Ealdgyth had time to enjoy her exalted status. At the time of the Battle of Hastings, on 14 October 1066, Ealdgyth was in London, but her brothers took her north to Chester soon after. Although sources are contradictory, it seems possible Ealdgyth was heavily pregnant and gave birth to a son, or twin sons, Harold and Ulf Haroldson, within months of the battle. The identity of Ulf’s mother seems to be sorely disputed, with some believing he was the twin brother of Harold and others that he was the youngest son of Edith Swan-neck; I suppose we will never know for certain.

Unfortunately, we hear nothing of Ealdgyth after the birth of Harold (and Ulf); her fate remains unknown. Young Harold is said to have grown up in exile on the Continent and died in 1098.

Despite his marriage to Ealdgyth of Mercia it seems Edith the Swan-neck remained close to Harold and it was she who was said to be waiting close by when the king faced William of Normandy at Senlac Hill near Hastings on 14 October 1066. She awaited the outcome alongside Harold’s mother, Gytha. Having lost a son, Tostig, just two weeks before, fighting against his brother and with the Norwegians at the Battle of Stamford Bridge, Gytha lost three more sons – Harold, Gyrth and Leofwine and, possibly, her grandson, Haakon, in the fierce battle at Hastings.

Waltham Abbey, where Edith is said to have brought Harold’s body after the Battle of Hastings

It is heart-wrenching, even now, to think of Edith and the elderly Gytha, wandering the blood-soaked field after the battle, in search of the fallen king. Sources say that Gytha was unable to identify her sons amid the mangled and mutilated bodies. It fell to Edith to find Harold, by undoing the chain mail of the victims, in order to recognise certain identifying marks on the king’s body – probably tattoos. There is a tradition, from the monks of Waltham Abbey, of Edith bringing Harold’s body to them for burial, soon after the battle. Although other sources suggest Harold was buried close to the battlefield, and without ceremony, it is hard not to hope that Edith was able to perform this last service for the king. However, any trace of Harold’s remains was swept away by Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries, so the grave of England’s last Anglo-Saxon king is lost to history.

Edith searching the battlefield of Hastings for Harold’s body

After another year or so of leading resistance to Norman rule in the south-west, Harold’s mother, Gytha, eventually fled into exile on the Continent, taking Harold and Edith’s daughter, another Gytha, with her. Gytha and her nephew, Swein Estrithson, King of Denmark, arranged the marriage of the younger Gytha to the prince of Smolensk and – later – Kiev, Vladimir II Monomakh.

Edith and Harold’s sons fled to Ireland with all but one living into the 1080s, though the dates of their eventual deaths remain uncertain. Gunnhild remained in her nunnery at Wilton until sometime before 1093, when she became the wife or concubine of Alan the Red, a Norman magnate. Whether or not she was kidnapped seems to be in question but when Alan died in 1093, instead of returning to the convent, Gunnhild became the mistress of Alan’s brother and heir, Alan Niger. Alan Rufus held vast lands in East Anglia – lands that had once belonged to Eadgifu the Fair and, if Eadgifu was Edith the Swan-neck, it’s possible that Alan married Gunnhild to strengthen his claims to her mother’s lands.

Stone marking the site of Harold’s grave at Waltham Abbey

After 1066 Edith’s lands had passed to Ralph de Gael, but he rebelled against King William and so they were eventually given to Alan the Red. Gunnhild and Alan are thought to have had a daughter, Matilda, who was married to Walter d’Eyncourt. Matilda and Walter’s oldest son, William d’Eyncourt, died as a child whilst fostered in the household of William II Rufus. He was buried in Lincoln Cathedral, but his grave is now lost

Of Edith the Swan-neck, there is no trace after Harold is interred at Waltham Abbey. Although she spent twenty years at the side of the man who would become king, and her daughter, Gytha, would be an ancestress of the English royal family of today, Edith simply disappears from the pages of history. Overall, history has treated Edith kindly; sympathising with a woman who remained loyal to her man to the end, despite the fact her official status was questionable.

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Pictures ©2018 Sharon Bennett Connolly except Lady Godiva, which is courtesy of the Rijksmuseum and Edith at Hastings and William the Conqueror, which are courtesy of Wikipedia.

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Sources: The English and the Norman Conquest by Dr Ann Williams; Brewer’s British Royalty by David Williamson; Britain’s Royal Families, the Complete Genealogy by Alison Weir; The Wordsworth Dictionary of British History by JP Kenyon; The Norman Conquest by Marc Morris; Harold, the King Who Fell at Hastings by Peter Rex; The Anglo-Saxons in 100 Facts by Martin Wall; The Anglo-Saxon Age by Martin Wall; Kings, Queens, Bones and Bastards by David Hilliam; The Mammoth Book of British kings & Queens by Mike Ashley; The Oxford Companion to British History Edited by John Cannon; The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles translated and edited by Michael Swaton; The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle translated by James Ingram; Queen Emma and the Vikings by Harriett O’Brien; The Bayeux Tapestry by Carola Hicks; oxforddnb.com.

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My books

Ladies of Magna Carta: Women of Influence in Thirteenth Century England looks into the relationships of the various noble families of the 13th century, and how they were affected by the Barons’ Wars, Magna Carta and its aftermath; the bonds that were formed and those that were broken. It is now available from Pen & Sword,  Amazon and from Book Depository worldwide.

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Also by Sharon Bennett Connolly:

Heroines of the Medieval World tells the stories of some of the most remarkable women from Medieval history, from Eleanor of Aquitaine to Julian of Norwich. Available now from Amberley Publishing and Amazon and Book Depository.

Silk and the Sword: The Women of the Norman Conquest traces the fortunes of the women who had a significant role to play in the momentous events of 1066.  Available now from Amazon,  Amberley Publishing, Book Depository.

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©2018 Sharon Bennett Connolly