HISTORICAL BOOK REVIEW: ‘Defenders of the Norman Crown – Rise and Fall of the Warenne Earls of Surrey’ by Sharon Bennett Connolly

In the reign of Edward I, when asked Quo Warranto – by what warrant he held his lands – John de Warenne, the 6th earl of Surrey, is said to have drawn a rusty sword, claiming “My ancestors came with William the Bastard, and conquered their lands with the sword, and I will defend them with the sword against anyone wishing to seize them”

John’s ancestor, William de Warenne, 1st Earl of Surrey, fought for William the Conqueror at the Battle of Hastings in 1066. He was rewarded with enough land to make him one of the richest men of all time. In his search for a royal bride, the 2nd earl kidnapped the wife of a fellow baron. The 3rd earl died on crusade, fighting for his royal cousin, Louis VII of France…

For three centuries, the Warennes were at the heart of English politics at the highest level, until one unhappy marriage brought an end to the dynasty. The family moved in the highest circles, married into royalty and were not immune to scandal.

Defenders of the Norman Crown tells the fascinating story of the Warenne dynasty, of the successes and failures of one of the most powerful families in England, from its origins in Normandy, through the Conquest, Magna Carta, the wars and marriages that led to its ultimate demise in the reign of Edward III.

Purchase on Amazon here

It isn’t often I purchase books outside my main areas of interest (I just don’t have the time), but Sharon Bennett Connolly is an author worthy of an exception. After writing several other books focussing on women in the medieval era, all books I found really interesting, here was another opportunity to delve into a new period without feeling confused.

I knew absolutely nothing about the de Warenne family, had never bothered to glance past their names until this book was released, so I chose it solely based on the author’s previous books. The story of the de Warennes covers 300 years, spreads over England, Scotland and Normandy. It starts with William I de Warenne, 1st Earl of Surrey, the fourth-wealthiest man under William the Conquerer, a title won by fighting in the 1066 Battle of Hastings to conquer England. William survived the battle and took a huge swathe of southern England for himself, founding Lewes Priory, only to die in battle soon after. While the story of William and his noble Flemish wife Gundrada could be a story on its own, the book spreads out its tentacles to show the lives and reach of the de Warenne family across several centuries.

The de Warenne family accomplished much and held power from one generation to the next. Apart from Lewes, the family built Castle Acre in Norfolk and Conisbrough in Yorkshire (a place the author is an expert on, as the book shows) and within a generation of the first Earl of Surrey, the family had power in England and Normandy. Isabel Warenne, 4th Countess Surrey and sole heir to the title married a son of King Stephen, and then Hamelin de Anjou (a Plantagenet and half-brother of King Henry II), who took the title of Earl of Warenne, and together they continued this powerful family line. This made Isabel aunt to two further English kings, among many aristocratic connections. The family also stretched their reach into Scotland, with Isabella’s aunt Ada de Warrenne giving birth to two Scottish kings, Malcolm IV and William the Lion, while her other children married powerfully into Scotland (as in such as the notorious Bruce family), Wales and Holland. The stories of these family members stretch out across countries, time and tales of legendary people and battles.

The de Warennes power in the period is so intertwined with power and royalty, it is interesting there are not many more works on these people. William de Warenne, 6th Earl of Surrey was a supporter of Edward II, only to switch to Simon Montfort’s camp, and then back again, (a story all on its own) that saw him given control of Scotland where he saw off William Wallace’s rebellion. By this time, the de Warennes were totally linked with so many of the highest noble houses across England and Scotland, right up in the royal lines of both countries.

I won’t add spoilers, but the details of William de Warenne, the would-be 7th Earl of Surrey are discussed, both the long-held assumptions and new theories of his death. The more dubious John de Warenne, the eventual 7th Earl of Surrey, married King Edward I’s granddaughter, his own cousin who was only ten at the time of the wedding. But John, after a colourful personal and professional life (like divorce, mistresses and battles against the Mortimers and Piers Gaveston), left only illegitimate children, giving the Surrey title his sister’s Arundel son (who himself married a le Despenser and then Eleanor of Lancaster!). The de Warenne name may have died after 300 years, but had spread into all the high nobility, represented in every single noble house (such as de Vere, FitzAlan, Holland, Percy, Howard, Mowbray, Beauchamp, Beaumont, Lancaster, later also spreading into the Nevilles, Parrs, Hungerfords, St Johns – have I missed any? probably), and while the Earl of Surrey title eventually settled into a role within the Duke of Norfolk’s rank, the de Warennes had already embedded themselves into every level of the noble rank right up into the royal line. The name of de Warenne spread so far and wide over 300 years, I drew a little tree for myself to keep up. While not called de Warenne today, their ancestors are still going strong.

Honestly, how the author managed to fit so much into one book is a true feat. None of those discussed is worthy of dismissal; every single person brought something to this extraordinary family. To hold power for 300 years over such a time shows how remarkable the de Warennes were, male and female. We need fewer shows about the same few characters over and over, especially when we have authors like Sharon Bennett Connolly preparing such dramatic and exciting stories like the de Warenne dynasty, who are just waiting for their moment in the sun once more.

Being an author who tends to work on the period of 1450 onwards, I knew precious little details about many of the non-royals mentioned in this book, and I feel truly better for reading Defenders of the Norman Crown. This book is one of insight, enthusiasm and careful diligence to the subject, and a true credit to its author.

no free book or money changed hands in return for this review

One thought on “HISTORICAL BOOK REVIEW: ‘Defenders of the Norman Crown – Rise and Fall of the Warenne Earls of Surrey’ by Sharon Bennett Connolly

  1. Oh wow! What an amazing review. It means so much, coming from a historian like yourself. Thank you so much Caroline.

    Like

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