Not all medieval women were paragons of virtue. Not all that surprising as I’d hazard the paragons among us were as much of a minority back then as they are now, but still.
Today’s protagonist falls in the category, mean, cruel and generally bad-ass, at least if we’re to believe her near-contemporary Orderic Vitalis, who has nothing good to say about her in his chronicle. Orderic is generally considered a trustworthy source, but when approaching today’s formidable Mabel, one should keep in mind that Orderic was a monk at an abbey generously endowed by Mabel’s hereditary enemies, ergo we should take some of what he says with a pinch of salt. Still, no smoke without fire, and while Orderic may be exaggerating, this particular lady is not one I’d present my back to after a heated quarrel as she might very well be tempted to sink a dagger in it.
Mabel de Bellême probably had her contrary character from her father. William de Bellême , known as William Talvas I, comes down to us as being as rapacious and ambitious as all of his family with the added qualities of cruelty and sinfulness. Supposedly, this gent was so irritated by his wife’s piety that he had her strangled on the way to church.
How this affected his little daughter, Mabel, we don’t know. It does seem to have horrified his son, Arnulf. Some years later, William added to his list of sins by imprisoning, mutilating and blinding a certain William fitzGiroie, this due to an infected feud between the two men. Even worse, he took the opportunity to imprison fitzGiroire when he was attending William Talvas’ second wedding.
Somehow, fitzGiroie survived his torture and retired to live out his days in a convent. His sons promised revenge, and Arnulf, who clearly inherited his character from his pious and strangled-to-death mama, was so disgusted he ousted his father in 1048 and forced him into exile. For some odd reason, Mabel chose to accompany her father into uncertainty and penury (well, everything is relative) rather than stay with her goody-goody brother. Says a lot about her character, albeit that at the time she can’t have been more than a teenager.
Father and daughter ended up as charity cases with the powerful Montgomerie family. William decided to bargain with what he had, which is how Mabel ended up betrothed to the eldest Montgomerie son, Roger, in return for William promising she’d inherit his lands upon his death. A somewhat worthless promise at the time, seeing as Arnulf was in control of the Bellême lands and honours. However, William was the rightful owner, and I suppose he (and the Montgomeries) gambled on him somehow regaining control.
Fortunately for everyone involved (except poor Arnulf), Arnulf died very soon after exiling his father. William was restored, the value of Mabel as a bride spiked, and Roger was quick to convert the betrothal into a marriage, thereby adding considerably to the Montgomerie lands. Maybe having a termagant in bed was worth it, or maybe he had Mabel well and truly tamed in the privacy of their solar. Or maybe they liked each other, seeing as they would go on to have ten children. They do seem to have shared certain traits, such as ambition, ruthlessness and greed, but Roger is rarely vilified for these qualities, while Mabel, according to Orderic, was an unnatural, evil woman who’d go on to bequeath all her nasty attributes to her eldest son, Robert, known as a singularly cruel man.
Roger Montgomerie was one of William the Conqueror’s most trusted men—this long before he’d earned the epithet Conqueror and still struggled with being nick-named the Bastard Duke. When William concentrated on pacifying his new realm after 1066, he entrusted Roger with helping Matilda rule Normandy. This Roger did well—he seems to have done most things well—which is why he ended up as the Earl of Shrewsbury.
Upon William Talvas’ death, Mabel became the Dame de Alençon, de Séez, and Bellême. Together with her husband, Mabel now controlled a sprawling collection of lands, all the way from southern Normandie and Maine to England. Life, one could say, was good, and with so much stuff to administer, Mabel should not have had time for mischief. Not so. Mabel, according to Orderic, greatly enjoyed being a pain in the nether parts. In particular, she enjoyed needling the powerful Church and the various religious establishments that were slowly expanding their hold on the land.
Mabel was no fool: to challenge the religious institutions outright would be to court serious danger, not only from the Church itself but also from her husband’s overlord. William the Conqueror was one of those complicated characters who combined an outward show of personal piety with a ruthless approach to anyone who threatened what he considered his. Mabel therefore decided on a subtle approach, whereby she would descend on an abbey complete with a HUGE entourage, and stay for several days as their guest, thereby depleting their stores. Her favourite target was the Abbey of Saint-Evroul (where Orderic would, some years later, become an oblate), and when the abbot dared protest at her extended visits, she threatened to return with an even larger retinue.
As told by Orderic, this is when the abbot rebuked her for her wicked ways, suggesting she cease them before they brought her great pain. Mabel just laughed, but that self-same evening, she was afflicted by a terrible, terrible pain. As per some, the pain centred round breasts, so when she stumbled upon a nursing infant, she insisted on placing said child at her breasts. The baby nursed, Mabel felt immediate relief, and the baby died. No major loss, according to Mabel: peasant brats were of no major importance.
It seems that this incident made Mabel somewhat wary of inflicting her presence on religious houses. Besides, she had other fish to fry, notably the personal vendetta of her family against the heirs of fitzGiroire, the man who her father had tortured so cruelly. Already back in the early 1060s, Mabel and Roger succeeded in convincing Duke William to seize the fitzGiroire lands and hand them over to Mabel. Obviously, this did not go down well, and the fitzGiroire heir, Arnold de Echauffour, protested loudly. So loudly, in fact, that in 1063 Duke William relented and was all for returning the lands to the rightful owner.
“What? Take my lands?” Mabel spluttered, almost choking on her wine. “Over my dead body!”
“If we’re going to be correct, they’re really his lands,” Roger said.
“Once mine, always mine,” Mabel retorted. She considered just what to do for some days, before concluding that the solution was simple. Kill Arnold and the problem would go away.
“We can’t just ride in there and cut him down,” Roger protested. “Duke William would nail my balls to the closest church door for breaking his peace!”
“Well, we can’t have that,” Mabel said, pursing her lips. “I’ll find another way. Maybe, if we’re fortunate, God will strike him down.”
Even Roger raised his brows at that…
Mabel wasn’t about to wait for God to intercede. Instead, she resorted to that most classic of female murder weapons: poison. On one occasion when Arnold was visiting (and one can’t help but wonder why he’d do that—unless, of course, he’d been lured there with promises of discussing the return of his lands) Mabel doctored his goblet of wine. Unfortunately for her, Arnold wasn’t thirsty. Instead, Roger’s younger brother Gilbert drank the poisoned brew—and died. I imagine this sparked heated discussions in the privacy of the solar.
“My brother! Damn it, woman, you’ve murdered Gilbert!”
“That’s what you get for hogging the visitor’s cup.” She sidled closer. “I didn’t mean to, you know that. I liked Gilbert.” Her fingers slipped inside her husband’s shirt, tugging at his chest hair. “But those lands of his won’t come amiss, dear husband. There will be a new babe come spring.”
“Huh!” He slid her a look. “Truly? A new babe?”
One failure was not enough to stop Mabel. Soon enough, she’d sunk her claws into one of Arnold’s servants, promising him gold and gratitude everlasting if he’d only do this teensy-weensy little favour for her: poison his master. Which he did, thereby ridding Mabel’s world of the hated Arnold.
Now, before dismissing this story out of hand as being the figment of Orderic’s heated imagination, it might serve to remember that Orderic does have a reputation for telling things as they were—and that one of his fellow monks was the son of the murdered Arnold. Plus, Orderic’s father had served Roger Montgomery for his whole life, so Orderic did have access to very good sources.
With advancing age, one could have hoped Mabel would mellow. Very little indicates she did, remaining as rapacious as ever well into middle-age. In 1077, she went after the lands of one Hugh Brunel, sending her men-at-arms to drive him from his home. Hugh fled, but promised retribution. Mabel probably laughed. What on earth could Hugh do to her, Dame de Alençon, de Séez, and Bellême in her own right, Countess of Shrewsbury and Lady of Arundel through her husband? Turns out she underestimated Hugh…
In late 1079, Mabel was enjoying a warm bath in one of her castles when out of nowhere several men broke into her room.
“Remember me?” Hugh said, drawing his sword. And just like that, he cut her head off before fleeing the castle with his brothers.
An apt end to an evil woman according to Orderic, who goes on to quote her epitaph, adding a sour comment along the lines that whoever wrote it was doing her friends (and husband) a favour rather than portraying the lady in question correctly.
Sprung from the noble and the brave,
Here Mabel finds a narrow grave.
But, above all woman’s glory,
Fills a page in famous story.
Commanding, eloquent, and wise,
And prompt to daring enterprise;
Though slight her form, her soul was great,
And, proudly swelling in her state,
Rich dress, and pomp, and retinue,
Lent it their grace and houours due.
The border’s guard, the country’s shield,
Both love and fear her might revealed,
Till Hugh, revengeful, gained her bower,
In dark December’s midnight hour.
Then saw the Dive’s o’erflowing stream
The ruthless murderer’s poignard gleam.
Now friends, some moments kindly spare,
For her soul’s rest to breathe a prayer!
Assuming Ordric has things right, I somehow think breathing a couple of prayers would not suffice to give Mabel’s soul rest. Alternatively, the epitaph has it right and Orderic, otherwise so credible, had personal reasons behind his character assassination. We will never know, will we? Still, I do believe that a lady who has her head chopped off by “revengeful Hugh” must have done something to deserve it.