Sunday, April 8, 2012

The Burning Candle: William de Warenne, Earl of Surrey


Next up in my primer on the historical figures of The Burning Candle is William de Warenne, the second Earl of Surrey. William was one of the richest men in medieval England with an annual income of 1,165 pounds sterling; equal to the modern-day sum of 151 billion US dollars, a figure slightly dwarfed by the assets of his father and namesake, the first Earl of Surrey. To put the figure into better perspective, Carlos Slim Helu currently tops Forbes' Magazine's World Billionaire List as the world's richest man at 62 billion. William de Warenne would have been worth the equivalent of more than twice that amount in his day.

Facts about William's life
Born: date unknown
Father: William de Warenne, first Earl of Surrey
Mother: Gundred, sister of Gerbod the Fleming
Siblings: Edith, wife of Gerard de Gournay and  Dreux de Monchy (sister); Reynald / Reginald (younger brother)
Titles: Earl of Surrey (succeeded upon the death of his father in 1088)

Before I settle down to write any manuscript, the world of my primary characters requires intensive research, starting with the basics of who their parents were, when and where they were born and died, etc. So, it's incredibly frustrating to me that I can't find simple facts about William de Warenne's birth. The surname given to him by medieval convention suggests he was born in Varenne, Normandy. His Christian name came from his father, who served as a loyal companion of Duke William of Normandy, later King of England. In 1088, the Duke's successor King William Rufus made his father's loyal companion the first Earl of Surrey. Unfortunately, the title soon fell to the younger William, as his father died on June 24, 1088 of an arrow wound sustained during a siege of Pevensey Castle, when the leg turned gangrenous. Since William did not require a guardian and secured his inheritance as second Earl of Surrey upon his father's death, I assume he was born by at least 1070-1072 (sixteen being around the age of majority).


The history of William's mother Gundred is slightly convoluted. For centuries, she was referred to as a daughter of Matilda of Flanders, wife of Duke William of Normandy. The Burning Candle, in part, explores why that connection would have been  impossible. Gundred was most likely the sister of Gerbod the Fleming, the Earl of Chester in 1070, of no relation to Matilda of Flanders. Gundred might have married William's father in 1070 also. In addition to William, she gave birth to a daughter Edith and a younger son, alternatively referred to in period sources as Reynald or Reginald. Before Gundred's death in 1085, she and William's father founded the Clunaic monastic house at Lewes Priory (ruins of which are shown here), where the couple lies buried.

As the eldest son, William inherited great wealth from his father, including lands in over thirteen English counties and his father's seat at Castle Acre in Norfolk. In Normandy, the  family holdings of Mortemer and Bellencombre would have been his also. Within a few years, William had settled on a prospective bride. She was Edith, the daughter of Malcolm III of Scotland and his sainted queen, Margaret. Through Edith's birth, the blood of Scottish Kings and the old Anglo-Saxon royal line were fused; Margaret's grandfather was King Edmund II of England, called Ironside and Margaret's brother was Edgar the Aetheling, the last legitimate English claimant of the crown after the Norman invasion. Edith had spent most of her life from the time she was six in 1086 at Romsey Abbey, near Southampton, but apparently never took the veil. She rejected William's proposal (whether of her own initiative or on the advice of others).  Instead, in November 1100, she married Duke William's fourth son, Henry, who has just seized the throne of England. 

The death of King William Rufus while hunting in the New Forest in August 1100 threw England into chaos.  Henry along with several nobles, including Robert de Beaumont, Comte de Meulan, raced to Winchester and claimed the treasury and crown. Henry and William Rufus' brother, Robert Curthose, had been the Duke of Normandy since their father's death and the Duke had every expectation (by pact with William Rufus) that he would have succeeded to the throne of England. The situation left Earl William of Surrey in a quagmire - he owed fealty to the King of England for his lands there, but he could not risk losing his Norman estates. William chose to support Duke Robert. In July 1101, a Norman invasion force of 200 ships and 260 knights landed at Portsmouth, with William as part of the retinue. King Henry raced from Pevensey and met his brother the Duke. The two sides came to an agreement, after which the Duke returned to Normandy with William, who cannot have been a happy man at his departure. His men had supposedly raided some of his neighbors in Norfolk. For his failure to control them, William lost the earldom of Surrey, which he regained in 1103. Afterward, William became a loyal supporter of King Henry and served as one of his commanders in 1106 at the battle of Tinchebrai, where Henry defeated his brother Robert and claimed the dukedom.

Perhaps around 1101-1103, King Henry might have been giving thought on how to placate William, bitter about the loss of his earldom and his prospective bride to the monarch. The King proposed a match between one of his unnamed bastard daughters to William. Anselm, the Archbishop of Canterbury, rejected the union for concerns about consanguinity, blood ties between William and Henry. Eventually, William did gain a bride of royal blood, just not one whom Henry expected.

Next week, more on Henry I of England.

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