Mastodon The Writing Desk: Special Guest Post: Warenne Family Ties, By Sharon Bennett Connolly, Author of Defenders of the Norman Crown

24 June 2021

Special Guest Post: Warenne Family Ties, By Sharon Bennett Connolly, Author of Defenders of the Norman Crown

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In the reign of Edward I, when asked Quo Warranto - by what warrant he held his lands - John de Warenne, the 6th earl of 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”

When I started writing Defenders of the Norman Crown: Rise and Fall of the Warenne Earls of Surrey, I expected to find a healthy – or, rather, unhealthy - level of sibling rivalry. After all, this family was related to both the Norman and Plantagenet royal families, neither of whom are renowned for any sort of brotherly love.
You only have to look at the warring antics of Robert Curthose, William II and Henry I, to imagine the level of sibling rivalry involved in Norman times. The three brothers fought over who should have Normandy and England after their father’s death, to the extent that Robert Curthose ended up the prisoner of his little brother, Henry I, for the last 30 years of his life. The Plantagenets were little better, with Prince – later King – John trying to steal his brother’s throne while Richard I was imprisoned in Germany.

With these examples in mind, I was surprised to discover that the Warennes were a rather functional bunch as far as family goes. They went out of their way to help and support each other, even to the extent of half-siblings and in-laws. William de Warenne, the first earl of Warenne and Surrey (often referred to, simply, as Earl Warenne), pursued a private feud with English freedom fighter, Hereward the Wake, after he murdered William’s brother-in-law, Frederic. 

The Warenne (Hyde) Chronicle claims that Hereward, ‘Among his other crimes, by trickery he killed Frederick, brother[-in-law] of Earl William of Warenne, a man distinguished by lineage and possessions, who one night was surrounded in his own house.’ Following Frederic’s murder, according to the Chronicle, ‘such discord arose between Hereward and William that it could not be settled by any reparation nor in any court.’ According to the Gesta Herewardi, Frederic was planning to capture or kill Hereward, who struck first by killing Frederic.

William de Warenne, 1st earl of Surrey
Holy Trinity Church, Lewes

William de Warenne was determined to get his revenge; he attempted to ambush Hereward at a place called Earith. One of William’s men tried unsuccessfully to bribe Hereward’s men to betray him. William was unhorsed when Hereward fired an arrow at him; it rebounded from William’s mailcoat, but the force of the shot saw William fall from his horse and rendered unconscious as he hit the ground. The ambush having failed, William de Warenne then appears in the Gesta Herewardi with an angry outburst against the Norman knight Deda, who had given a eulogistic account of the rebels on the Isle of Ely. According to the Liber Eliensis, William ‘flared up with weighty indignation, and alleged that he [Deda] had been inveigled by a bribe and was lying.’

William de Warenne, the second Earl Warenne, continued the tradition of looking out for family, when his younger brother, Rainald, was captured by King Henry I. In 1105 Rainald de Warenne was among the supporters of Robert Curthose, Duke of Normandy and Henry I’s oldest brother, who captured and imprisoned Robert fitz Hamon, a friend of King Henry, intending to ransom him. Henry saw fitz Hamon’s capture as an opportunity to deal decisively with Normandy, though he claimed he was invading not out of ambition, but to protect the church and the poor people of Normandy. 

Henry invaded in the spring of 1106. Rainald de Warenne was captured by Henry’s forces during a skirmish at the fortified Abbey of Saint-Pierre-sur-Dive. The abbot there had been plotting with Duke Robert to trap Henry, offering to hand over the castle to the English king, while sequestering Rainald de Warenne, Robert de Stuteville and their men within, ready to seize Henry as soon as he entered. Suspecting treachery, Henry arrived at daybreak with a force of 700 men-at-arms and took the garrison completely by surprise, capturing the duke’s men and burning the castle to the ground.

The sources vary, but Rainald was released either shortly before or shortly after the battle of Tinchebrai – the final, decisive battle between the royal Norman brother. Orderic Vitalis claims that William de Warenne served as one of King Henry’s chief commanders at Tinchebrai and that Rainald was released shortly before the battle. Grateful for his brother’s release, Earl William urged his men to fight the king’s cause with the utmost determination. 

According to the Warenne (Hyde) Chronicle, however, Rainald was not released until after the battle, when he was ‘reluctantly handed back to his brother, who pleaded for him to Henry.’ Whichever is correct, the result was the same, Rainald was now free, thanks to the insistence and loyalty of his older brother.

In the next generation, the children and stepchildren of William de Warenne, the 2nd Earl Warenne, got on remarkably well together. William had married Isabel de Vermandois, the widow of the recently deceased Robert de Beaumont, Earl of Leicester. Isabel was already the mother of 9 children, including the famous twins Robert and Waleran de Beaumont, when she married William, with whom the chronicler Henry of Huntingdon claims she was having an affair, even before her husband died. 

With William, Isabel had a further 5 children, 3 noys and 2 girls. Earl Warenne was at King Henry I’s deathbed, alongside his son, also named William de Warenne (the future 3rd Earl Warenne), and stepsons, Waleran and Robert de Beaumont. When the 2nd Earl Warenne died, it was Waleran de Beaumont who became the head of the combined, and rather large, Beaumont/Warenne family. Indeed, Waleran and William de Warenne, 3rd Earl Warenne, having grown tired of the Anarchy – the war between King Stephen and Empress Matilda which lasted from 1135 to 1154 - departed on Crusade together in 1147. Unfortunately, William de Warenne was killed at the Battle of Mount Cadmus in January 1148, and Waleran returned home alone.

A touching story from just before his departure on crusade relates to the 3rd Earl Warenne and his two younger brothers, Reginald and Ralph de Warenne. The earl held a dedication ceremony for the new church at St Pancras Priory, Lewes, the mausoleum of the Warenne family, founded by the 1st earl and his wife, Gundrada. In the accompanying charter, the earl endowed the priory, in which his father and grandparents were buried, and where his mother would soon be laid to rest, with the tenth penny of his rents and ‘giving it seisin thereof by hair from his own head and that of Ralph de Warenne his brother, cut with a knife by Henry, bishop of Winchester, before the altar.’ 

St Pancras Priory, Lewes

It is not hard to imagine how moving a ceremony this must have been, two brothers kneeling before the altar to have their hair cut by the bishop of Winchester, Henry of Blois, the brother of King Stephen. The scene is made all the more poignant in hindsight, knowing that the third earl never returned from the crusade on which he was about to embark.

And when the 3rd Earl Warenne failed to return from the Holy Land, it was down to his younger brother, Reginald, to look after the family interests and those of his brother’s sole surviving heir, William’s daughter, Isabel de Warenne, the 4th Countess of Warenne and Surrey. Isabel, though still only a child, had been married to King Stephen’s youngest son, William of Blois, probably before her father’s departure to the Holy Land.

Such examples of the earls taking care of their family, and working in alliance with their in-laws, was to be a feature of every generation down to the 7th and last earl, John II de Warenne, who was given the custody and care of his cousin, Edward Balliol, the son of John Balliol, the deposed King of Scots, around 1307. The Warenne earls, to a man, looked after their relations, both near and far. In the story of a family, it is quite fitting that the Warenne earls appear to have always put family first.

Sharon Bennett Connolly
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About the Author

Sharon Bennett Connolly is the best-selling author of three other 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. 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 writes the popular history blog, 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?' Find out more at Sharon's website and follow her on Facebook and Twitter @Thehistorybits

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