The Warennes, Earls of Surrey from the Norman Conquest until 1347, may not be as familiar to us as some other great medieval families. But, as historian Sharon Bennett Connolly tells Historia, for three centuries they were at the heart of English power and had an important role in the politics of their day.
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).
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 first Warenne earl, William de Warenne, Earl of Warenne and Surrey, came over with William the Conqueror’s invasion force and fought at the Battle of Hastings in 1066. As a younger son, he had made his fortune fighting for the duke of Normandy, making his name as a young man at the 1054 Battle of Mortemer. 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. Their extensive 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, and was the burial place of all but two subsequent earls and numerous other family members.
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.
So who were the Warenne earls?
William de Warenne was a cousin of William the Conqueror and fought at the Battle of Hastings. 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 just weeks before his death in 1088, having been fatally wounded at the siege of Pevensey.
He was succeeded by his oldest son, William 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. He did give a rousing speech in favour of Henry before the 1119 Battle of Brémule, though.
He married Isabel de Vermandois, granddaughter of King Henry I of France and widow of Robert de Beaumont, Earl of Leicester. The relationship caused some scandal as one chronicler suggests Isabel and William ran away together, before Isabel’s first husband was dead.
The third Earl, another William, fought on the wrong side (in my opinion) during the Anarchy and was ignominiously routed at the 1141 Battle of Lincoln, leaving his king, Stephen, to be captured by Earl Robert of Gloucester. He redeemed himself by capturing the same Earl Robert during the rout of Winchester in the summer of 1141, facilitating King Stephen’s release from imprisonment.
Growing tired of the constant civil war, in 1147 the Earl left on the Second Crusade, led by Louis VII and Eleanor of Aquitaine, with his half-brother, Waleran de Beaumont.
The fourth Earl. Now this is where it gets confusing. There were two fourth earls. Each was married to Isabel de Warenne, fourth Countess of Surrey in her own right. William of Blois (the first fourth earl) was the youngest son of King Stephen, and Hamelin de Warenne (the second fourth earl) was the illegitimate half-brother of King Henry II; a thoroughly modern Hamelin changed his name from Plantagenet to 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.
William de Warenne, the fifth Earl, was cousin to King Richard I and King John. He was a signatory of Magna Carta in 1215 and again on its reissue in 1225. He did side with the rebel barons and their French allies, for a time, but returned to the fold following King John’s death. He married Matilda Marshal, daughter of the great William Marshal, Regent of England for the first few years of Henry III’s reign.
John de Warenne, the sixth Earl, was the longest serving earl, holding the title for 64 years. Henry III became his brother-in-law when John married the king’s half-sister, Alice de Lusignan. John de Warenne fought in the Second Barons’ War and was a close associate of the future Edward I. He was at the Battle of Lewes in 1264 but escaped to the continent when he though the battle lost. John was probably at Evesham for the defeat and death of Simon de Montfort.
He was Guardian of Scotland for a time and lost the Battle of Stirling Bridge to William Wallace. 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!
John II de Warenne, the 7th and last Earl, spent most of his adult life trying to divorce his wife, Jeanne de Bar, in order to marry his mistress. 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. He was involved in many of the events that shaped the reign of Edward II, and was one of the three barons who was charged with the custody of Piers Gaveston after his arrest. He supported Edward II to the end… almost.
And that is just the actual earls. The Warenne family has a fascinating history, right at the heart of English politics. 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 eight generations and 300 years of history.
Defenders of the Norman Crown: Rise and Fall of the Warenne Earls of Surrey by Sharon Bennett Connolly is published on 30 May, 2021. It’s also available direct from the publisher, Pen & Sword.
Sharon is the best-selling author of three non-fiction history books: 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 regularly gives talks on women’s history; she is a feature writer for All About History magazine and her TV work includes Australia’s Who Do You Think You Are?
Sharon has also written about Magna Carta’s inspirational women for Historia.
Other features you may enjoy include:
Lost and found: remembering William Marshal, the Greatest Knight by Elizabeth Chadwick
Matilda: The greatest king England never had and Magna Carta, both by Catherine Hanley, and Catherine’s interview with Historia
The Normans: conquest through adaptation and The Other Conquest – 850th anniversary of the Norman invasion of Ireland by Ruadh Butler
The Templars and the reconquest of Spain and The women of the Knights Templar, both by Simon Turney
Opus Anglicanum: the beauty of medieval English embroidery by Carol McGrath
Lewes Priory, the Warenne family mausoleum: by Sharon Bennett Connolly
The keep of Conisbrough Castle, built by Hamelin de Warenne: by Sharon Bennett Connolly
The Battle of Brémule, c1375-80: via Wikipedia
Stained glass representation of the Warenne shield, Trinity Church, Southover. Photo by the author and published with the kind permission of the rector of Trinity Church, Southover
The seal of John de Warenne, 6th Earl of Surrey: via Wikimedia