Publication Date: 30th May 2021
Publisher: Pen & Sword History
Page Length: 280 Pages
Genre: Historical Non-Fiction / Biographies
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.
The Earls of Surry
The earls of Surrey were rich and powerful lords for most of the medieval era, holding sway 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, from Sussex to Yorkshire, acted as justiciars, sheriffs and generals – and yet, few people know their story.
The first earl, William de Warenne, was rewarded for his support of King William II Rufus 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. 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.
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.
William de Warenne
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.
So who were the Warenne earls of Surrey?
William de Warenne, the first earl, 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 beneath the ruins of the priory in 19th century, when the railway line was being laid, and are now interred in the Gundrada Chapel of Trinity Church, Southover.
The first earl 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.
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.
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.
Sharon Bennett Connolly is the best-selling author of 3 non-fiction history books. Sharon is the author of Heroines of the Medieval World, Silk and the Sword: The Women of the Norman Conquest and Ladies of Magna Carta: Women of Influence in Thirteenth Century England. Her fourth book, Defenders of the Norman Crown: Rise and Fall of the Warenne Earls of Surrey, telling the story of the Warenne earls over 300 years and 8 generation, was released in May 2021. A member of the Royal Historical Society, Sharon has studied history academically and just for fun – and has even worked as a tour guide at historical sites. She also writes the popular history blog, www.historytheinterestingbits.com. Sharon regularly gives talks on women's history; she is a feature writer for All About History magazine and her TV work includes Australian Television's 'Who Do You Think You Are?'
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