Who were the Warenne Earls of Surrey? As good as forgotten now, for 300 years they were at the heart of English history, as medieval historian and novelist John Paul Davis learned when reading Defenders of the Norman Crown, Sharon Bennett Connolly’s history of the once-prominent family. He reviews it for Historia.
Defenders of the Norman Crown – Rise and Fall of the Warenne Earls of Surrey is the latest work by bestselling non-fiction author and historian Sharon Bennett Connolly. As a fellow author of the medieval era, I’ve been aware of Sharon’s work for some time; however, this was my first full read. I began this book on a Friday and finished it on the Sunday. I’m already looking forward to the next instalment.
For anyone yet to come across Sharon, this highly likeable doting mother and history enthusiast is the author of three other works of non-fiction: Ladies of Magna Carta: Women of Influence in Thirteenth Century England, Silk and the Sword: The Women of the Norman Conquest, and Heroines of the Medieval World, courtesy of Amberley and Pen & Sword History.
Defenders of the Norman Crown is her second for Pen&Sword – a publisher we share. As usual with Pen’s hardbacks, the first edition is beautiful to behold with an eye-catching cover and the typical plates section filled with plenty of images relevant to the content.
While Sharon’s latest book offers a slight detachment from her previous three in that the focus is on an entire dynasty, the medieval timeline covers similar ground. It doesn’t take long to realise that this work is particularly personal to Sharon. In the introduction, she nostalgically recalls her childhood visits to Conisbrough Castle in Yorkshire – including trips where she sneaked in without paying – as well as a school trip in which her schoolteacher paid the bus driver in 2ps. Many of the photographs of castle ruins and church interiors she took herself, just one indication of many that her trips were as far and wide as they were numerous.
Throughout our journey across England, parts of Scotland and Normandy, as well as 300 years of family history, we encounter several influential people. The earliest is William I de Warenne, first Earl of Surrey, the fourth-wealthiest man in William the Conqueror’s kingdom.
After William’s death at the first siege of Pevensey – predeceased by his wife, Gundrada, in childbirth – the tale becomes the preserve of William’s sons and heirs. Over the coming two hundred pages, the long arms of the Warenne clan are laid bare. The Scottish kings Malcolm IV and William the Lion were sons of Ada de Warenne, herself daughter of the second Earl. Many other Scottish kings and pretenders claimed descent in later years, while John Balliol’s wife, Isabella, was also a Warenne.
Blood links with the Plantagenets are also covered in detail. Through her marriage to Hamelin Plantagenet, fourth Earl of Surrey – Henry II’s illegitimate half-brother – Isabel de Warenne was aunt to Richard I and John. John himself even fathered a son with Isabel’s daughter. Outside of the royal circles, England’s ‘greatest knight’ William Marshal, first Earl of Pembroke, was just one important noble of Warenne stock.
Though no two characters covered throughout Sharon’s work are exactly alike, certain trends become apparent. Consistently loyal to the Crown, the Warennes’ impressive landholdings crossed 13 counties, plus parts of Normandy, on which they built compulsively. In addition to Conisbrough, whose magnificent keep remains a fine legacy, Castle Acre and Lewes – a favourite of mine – were equally impressive. Complementary to the latter, the first earl also founded the Priory of St Pancras, which developed into one of the wealthiest of the age. The tombs of the first earl and his wife, Gundrada, can still be found in the local church.
That a family whose considerable influence on medieval Britain has become so little known is a genuine perplexity. One possible explanation is somewhat indicated in another of Sharon’s recollections, these of her time as a tour guide at Conisbrough. Even today, the theme there is more Ivanhoe than Warenne, perhaps understandable as Sir Walter Scott found the castle of inspiration for his famous novel after passing by in 1811.
Another explanation put forward is the fate of the seventh Warenne earl, who died in 1347. Unlike his forebears, Earl John fathered no legitimate heirs despite siring several outside the marriage bed. Thanks to them and those of the female line, their descendants still walk the earth, albeit under different names. A more renowned descendant than Elizabeth II is unlikely to be found.
The more one reads of Sharon’s biography, the sadder the lack of memory of this family starts to feel – especially as the evidence indicates a tendency towards loyalty and devotion, often a rarity for a clan never far from political intrigue. Nevertheless, during their three-century height of power, their influence was evident. Present throughout the Norman Conquest, two barons’ wars, Longshanks’s hammering of the Scots, and Edward II’s dethronement, there is no doubt England would have been a far different kingdom without them.
Brought to us in a highly readable narrative, research of which could fill several libraries, Sharon illustrates a sound understanding of the family’s history. By guiding us on a journey from Normandy to Scotland, from the days of Robert le Magnifique to Edward III, we are invited to see Britain’s development through the eyes of crucial eyewitnesses whose story has often gone untold.
A riveting insight into the rise and fall of the most influential family you’d otherwise never have heard of. My thanks to Pen & Sword for the complimentary review copy. 5/5.
Defenders of the Norman Crown: Rise and Fall of the Warenne Earls of Surrey by Sharon Bennett Connolly was published on 30 May, 2021.
Sharon’s Historia feature, At the heart of English history: the Warenne Earls of Surrey, looks in greater detail at the seven Earls.
She has also written about Magna Carta’s inspirational women.
His previous non-fiction book, King John, Henry III and England’s Lost Civil War, came out on 30 June, 2021.
He’s also the author of a number of historical thrillers.
You may also enjoy Elizabeth Chadwick’s feature Lost and found: remembering William Marshal, the Greatest Knight.
Ruadh Butler’s The Normans: conquest through adaptation examines the success of the Norman takeover of England.