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Serving their kings – meet the de Warenne earls!

The first time I came into contact with Sharon Bennett Connolly was when I discovered her excellent blog, History—the interesting bits. Turns out Ms Bennett Connolly and I tend to agree on what is interesting, so I became a regular visitor. Since then, Ms Bennett Connolly has gone on to publish several books about—primarily—medieval women and their lives. Her latest book, however, tells the story of a dynasty: the Warenne family.

But before I share my thoughts about Sharon’s latest, I invited her over to answer a couple of questions. So, welcome to my blog, Sharon (I hand her a cup of tea and a Swedish cinnamon bun) How about we start with you telling us why you’re so fascinated by the de Warenne family!

Sharon: I grew up just a few miles away from Conisbrough Castle in South Yorkshire, which was one of the Warennes’ major castles. I played in the castle grounds as a child, did the precarious walk climb to the top of the keep every summer – it was precarious as the castle had no floors or roof in those days. The walls were slimy and the walkway was very narrow. You took your life in your hands!

When I was older, after graduating university, I volunteered at the castle as a tour guide. This was in the 1990s and little was said about the Warennes – the tour mainly concentrated on the fact it was Sir Walter Scott’s inspiration for Ivanhoe’s family home. There were little snippets about the Warennes, however, which whetted my appetite for finding out more. We used to tell visitors that the first earl was married to Gundrada, daughter of William the Conqueror and Matilda of Flanders. It isn’t true, but the story has been around since the 1080s, so is taking a while to fade away. The tour also highlighted that the keep was built by Hamelin, an illegitimate half-brother of King Henry II and the 4th Earl Warenne.

Ever since, I have had a desire to learn more about the Warennes, and gradually built up my research over time. I have always wanted to tell their story but was not sure anyone would be interested in the family. How wrong I was! Their story is fascinating and at the heart of English medieval history and I have had a wonderful reaction from readers – many of them descendants of the Warennes – who seem to have enjoyed discovering more about the family as much as I did.

In total, there would be seven de Warenne earls. All of them led relatively exciting lives, but if you were to pick one earl as your favourite, which one would it be?

Sharon: That is a hard one. Each earl was definitely an individual and made his own contribution to the family story and legend. I think the one that stands out most for me – and I absolutely loved writing his story – was John II, the 6th Earl Warenne. John succeeded to the title at the age of 8, during the reign of Henry III. He was a good friend of Edward I – he was also Edward’s uncle-by-marriage as the husband of Alice de Lusingan, Henry III’s half-sister. John was deeply involved in the Second Barons’ War, fighting on the royalist side against Simon de Montfort and his fellow rebel barons. After the defeat at the Battle of Lewes in 1164, he fled to France with his brother-in-law, William de Valence, Earl of Pembroke, and other royalists, but returned to play a part in the Evesham campaign in 1165, though we do not know if he actually fought in the battle in which de Montfort was slain.

And then there’s Scotland. In his 60s, John was appointed Guardian of Scotland, but had to rule from south of the border as the Scottish climate was not conducive to his health. He was ignominiously defeated by William Wallace at the Battle of Stirling in 1298, and is reported to have ridden non-stop for Berwick after the battle, his horse dying under him as he arrived at the city gates.

John’s political exploits were just as dramatic as his military ones. His response to the Quo Warranto proceedings, where Edward I required him to prove by what right he held his lands, was said to be him raising a rusty sword and declaring ‘My ancestors came with William the Bastard and conquered their lands with the sword and I shall defend them with the sword.’ John also once mortally wounded a fellow baron after an argument during a council meeting. He was definitely a man of his time, but seems to have had a wicked sense of humour – he once claimed the rights to all the rabbit warrens in Sussex because it was, literally, his name!

It wouldn’t be a Sharon Bennett Connolly book if there weren’t some ladies included. You have dedicated an entire chapter to Ada de Warenne, who married the Scottish heir, gave him several children and then was left widowed when her hubby died relatively young. Ada never remarried. Do you think she was “allowed” to remain a widow because her son was the Scottish king? Or was it the other was round: BECAUSE she was the mother of the Scottish king she was not allowed to marry again, thereby giving someone too much influence over the young king?

Sharon: I did not come across any suggestion that Ada ever wanted to remarry, nor that it was suggested to her. She seems to have been very content with raising her children and organising their marriages, and, later, with administering her lands and patronising religious foundations.

It certainly caused fewer complications for her sons, if she remained unmarried, so I think it was the best solution for everybody. Ada had already given birth to at least 7 children – 2 of whom became Scotland’s king – so she probably shied away from a second marriage, not wanting to push her luck in the birthing chamber. It may also have been significant for her that her last and youngest child, Matilda, died soon after her birth, and in the same year as her father – Ada’s husband – Prince Henry. Such losses in close proximity to each other must have affected her greatly.

If you were to write a novel featuring one of the Warennes, which Warenne would it feature and why?

Sharon: The Warennes are definitely novel material, they were at the heart of English history for 300 years, but it would be so hard to choose just one to write a novel about. I think it would have to be a series!

If I did decide to write a novel about one of them, I think I would start with the first earl – so that I could then write the second earl’s story as a sequel. (Anna: I like how you think 😊 ) William de Warenne, the first earl, had quite the life. From a younger son with few prospects, to a celebrated soldier at a young age, to a companion of William the Conqueror, and then to become the fourth richest man in England – and in the Top 20 of richest men in the whole of history – is quite an achievement.

And his wife, Gundrada, only adds to his story. She was instrumental in the founding of the first Cluniac priory in England, at Lewes. Her brother, Frederic, was murdered by English freedom fighter, Hereward the Wake, thus sparking a personal and rather violent feud between William and Hereward.

William spent his entire adulthood fighting for the Norman kings, first William the Conqueror and then William II Rufus. He was made an earl just weeks or months before his death in 1088 – from wounds received at the siege of Pevensey. You certainly would not need to invent any drama!

The last de Warenne earl died without legitimate heirs after a spectacularly failed marriage. You insinuate that maybe the age gap was too big between John de Warenne and his wife, Joan, but other de Warenne men had married women much younger than them and made it work. Do you have any other theories as to why Joan and John’s marriage was such an utter failure?

Sharon: I don’t think the age difference would have been a big problem had John been 30 and Joan 20, but because Joan was only 10 years old when the couple married, it meant that John had to wait 4 or 5 years, at least, before he could treat Joan as a full wife. In the meantime, John fell in love elsewhere.

And I do think he fell in love with Maud Nerford. He went to great lengths to try and marry Maud, going from one ecclesiastical court to another in repeated attempts to obtain a divorce.

In 1309, 3 years after the wedding and possibly before John and Joan had consummated the marriage, John was asking permission from the king to designate his own heir, suggesting he would not be having an heir by his wife. King Edward II permitted the change, so long as any children he had by Joan were not disinherited. This seems to be wishful thinking on the king’s part, that John and Joan would have children. Three years later, in 1313, the king sent a trusted man to Conisbrough Castle, to escort a neglected Joan to London, where she was given rooms in the Tower.

It was a sorry and sad state of affairs, made worse by the political situation in the country at the time. Powerful barons, such as Thomas of Lancaster – cousin to both the king and Joan – fiercely opposed John’s divorce petition, thus sparking a rather vindictive feud in which John kidnapped Lancaster’s wife, and Lancaster seized John’s Yorkshire lands.

Finally: as a follower of your blog (and a reader of your other books) I am more than aware of your fascination with Nicholaa de la Haye. When will we see a novel featuring this lady – with a cameo part for Hamelin and Isabel de Warenne?

Sharon: Funny you should say that! I am currently working on a biography of Nicholaa de la Haye, for Pen & Sword books, which should be out in a couple of years. I do love Nicholaa’s story and think she is an excellent example of what women were – and are – capable of.

As to writing a novel. I am not sure I have the confidence or ability. If I ever do try to write one, it will probably be about Nicholaa. And Hamelin and Isabel would certainly play a part – Lincoln and Conisbrough are not that far apart, so it is highly likely they knew each other. Isabel made a bequest to St Katherine’s Priory in Lincoln, on Hamelin’s death, suggesting that she had connections in the city. It would be interesting to think of the two of them, sitting at table discussing family, castles and the politics of the day – and maybe what they both thought of some of the great and noble knights of the time (such as William Marshal – did they have fangirls in those days?)

I may see if I can flesh out an idea for a novel as I write Nicholaa’s biography. Then it will depend if I have the courage to let anyone read it….

Anna: Thank you, Sharon! I am already looking forward to reading more about Nicholaa, this very capable woman who was consistently loyal to King John. Makes one wonder if John didn’t have some redeeming qualities 😊 (Hamelin de Warenne would not agree, seeing as John seduced one of Hamelin’s daughters and sired a son)

So: back to Defenders of the Norman Crown.

What did I know about the Warenne family prior to reading Defenders of the Norman Crown? Much less than I thought I did, because Ms Bennett Connolly takes us through quite a journey covering close to three centuries as she introduces us to the various members of this noble family. The Warenne family arrived in England with William the Conqueror, loyal service to the Duke of Normandy ensuring the first “English” Warenne earl, William, was granted so much land he died the fourth richest in the realm. Not bad for the second son of a relatively obscure family.

Things would become even better—at least for a while—as William de Warenne’s descendants would go on to number two Scottish kings as well as a sequence of powerful English earls. One earl would die on a crusade. Another would suffer humiliating defeat at the hands of William Wallace, and the last of the earls nabbed a Plantagenet bride but was to find no happiness—at all—with his wife.

As Ms Bennett Connolly details the lives, successes and woes of the various Warennes, she also introduces characters I knew very little about—like Henry of Huntingdon, heir to the Scottish throne and married to Ava de Warenne, granddaughter of the first English Warenne earl. Ava surely deserves a book of her own (yes?) : not only was she the mother of two Scottish kings, indirect ancestress to both Robert Bruce and John Balliol, but she was also a woman who managed her vast lands on her own after the death of her husband.

The de Warenne family lived through  a lot of upheaval. Accordingly, Ms Bennett Connolly gives the readers brief summaries about everything from the Great Anarchy to de Montford’s rebellion and Edward II’s deposition, while throwing in casual and intriguing little extras like the fact that the first William de Warenne supposedly chopped off the feet of the rebels after a failed rebellion—or that Henry of Huntingdon’s elder brother died as a child because he was attacked by a Scandinavian monk with an iron hand (!).

Ms Bennett Connolly has, as always, done impressive research, be it contemporary chronicles, charters, and other documents. At times, the sheer amount of information is a bit like a tidal wave, with the reader almost drowning in the listings of various properties, donations to religious establishments, etc. etc. Sometimes, the human aspect gets lost in all this—at least for a couple of pages—but Ms Bennett Connolly’s passion for her subject shines like a beacon throughout.

I would not recommend reading Defenders of the Norman Crown is one sitting. Rather, it is a book best enjoyed chapter by chapter. I think this is how the author intended for her book to be read, which is why she ensures each chapter presents a conclusive picture of its protagonist, even when it means she sometimes repeats the same information in various chapters. Besides, this is not a novel: it is a meticulously compiled family history, and as such it is best enjoyed one generation at the time.

Get your own copy here!

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, is due to be 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 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?




Twitter: @Thehistorybits




3 thoughts on “Serving their kings – meet the de Warenne earls!”

  1. Jeanette Harvey

    A very interesting post especially with the links to some of the older Scottish kings. I look forward to reading this book, and others about the Warenne family. Well done Sharon, and thanks Anna for sharing!
    Jeanette Harvey (author of Sisters of The Bruce)

  2. I’m currently reading this book and enjoying immensely. Even if the de Warrennes did conquer the English and stole their lands 🤪. Well it’s history innit? Well done ladies.

  3. Thank you so much for inviting me to chat about my favourite subject, Anna. I really enjoyed it and I’m so glad you liked the book. Best wishes, Sharon xx

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