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WILLIAM DE WARREN

The Conqueror and His Companions

by J.R. Planché, Somerset Herald. London: Tinsley Brothers, 1874.

(Heydon notation in paragraph 4.)
"De Garenes i vint Willeme" is all we learn from Wace about his appearance at Hastings, except that his helmet fitted him admirably, "Mult li sist bien et chief li helme;" for the mention of which interesting circumstance I suspect the gallant knight is more indebted to rhyme than to record — to the art of poetry rather than to the skill of his armourer. Fortunately we have made his acquaintance some time previous to the Conquest, and there are circumstances of much more importance and interest connected with him than the well-fitting of his helmet. His parentage has been variously represented, and that of his wife the subject of the keenest controversy.

To begin with the beginning. Without bewildering the reader with the conflicting accounts of the early contemporary chroniclers, and the unsatisfactory conclusions of more recent writers, I will at once refer to the earliest mention of William de Warren in history that I am aware of, which occurs in Orderic Vital's account of the battle of Mortemer and its results in 1054. "Duke William," (not William de Warren) he tells us, "being enraged by the shelter and safe conduct granted by Roger de Mortemer, who commanded his Norman forces on that occasion, to the Comte de Montdidier, who had fought on the side of the enemy French and taken refuge in Roger de Mortemer’s, Norman Castle of Mortemer. Duke William banished Roger de Mortemer from Normandy and confiscated all his possessions;" but being afterwards reconciled to him he restored them to him, with the exception of Mortemer’s own “Castle of Mortemer”, which the Duke gave to William de Warren, "one of his loyal young vassals," whom Orderic makes the Conqueror describe as a cousin or kinsman of De Mortemer, acknowledging no consanguinity to himself.

The probabilities are that he was the son of a Ralph de Warren, a benefactor to the abbey of La Trinité du Mont about the middle of the 11th century, who, as well as Roger de Mortemer, Nicholas de Basqueville, Walter de St. Martin, and many others, were the issue of some of the numerous nieces of the Duchess Gonnor ("Nepotes plures predicta Gunnora"), who have been inaccurately set down as kinsmen instead of distant connections of her great-grandson the Conqueror.

William de Warren, to whom the Duke of Normandy gave the Castle of Mortemer, was a young man, we are told, at that period, and would, therefore, scarcely have attained the prime of life in 1066. He is named amongst the principal persons summoned to attend the Council at Lillebonne, when the invasion of England was decided upon, and was no doubt present in the great battle, for his services in which he received as his share of the spoil some three hundred manors, nearly half that number being in the county of Norfolk. (It is known and recorded that this William de Warren awarded a small portion of his land in Norfolk to a Heydon cousin for his services in the Crusades.)

In 1067, on the King's departure for Normandy, William de Warren was joined with Hugh de Grentmesnil, Hugh de Montfort, and other valiant men in the government of England, under the superior jurisdiction of the Earl-bishop Odo and William Fitz 0sbern.

In 1074, on the breaking out of the rebellion of Roger, Earl of Hereford, and Ralph, Earl of Norfolk, we find him associated with Richard de Bienfaite as Chief Justiciaries of England, and summoning the rebels to appear before the King's High Court; and on their refusal, William de Warren with Robert Malet, son of William Malet, marched against Earl Ralph, and routing the rebels at Fagadune, pursued them to Norwich, taking many prisoners, whom, according to the barbarous practice of the age, they mutilated by chopping off the right foot—an unmistakable proof that the sufferers had taken a step in the wrong direction.

Of his personal prowess no special anecdote has been preserved, and it is as the husband of the mysterious Gundred, or Gundrada, that his name has descended to the present day with any special interest attached to it.

Whether the hand of this lady was bestowed upon him previously to his services at Senlac, or as a part of his reward for them, does not appear, and our ignorance of the date of their marriage has been the principal obstacle in the way of those who have so hotly disputed her relationship to William the Conqueror, for could we even arrive at an approximate date it might enable us to calculate her probable age at that period, and whether she was born before or after 1053, on which fact depends the whole question.

That they were married before 1078 is certain, as in that year they founded the Priory of Lewes in Sussex, and we have the charters of King William, which he granted to that establishment for the health of the souls of his lord and ancestor, King Edward, of his father Count-Robert, of his own soul and that of his wife, Queen Matilda, and of all their children and successors, and for the souls of William de Warren and his wife Gundrada, his (William's) daughter and their heirs.

The words "my daughter" — "filiæ meæ" — would be decisive of her being the acknowledged child of the King; but independently of their being scarcely legible, it is contended that they are in a different and later hand; and there is this to be observed, which I do not remember having seen noticed, that the King has just previously used the expression "our children and successors" (filiorum atque successorum nostrorum"), so that his particularising Gundrada as "my daughter" would imply that she was not by his wife Matilda.

Exactly in opposition to this is the declaration of William de Warren himself, in whose charter to the priory, granted after the death of Gundred in childbirth (6 kalends of June, 1085), he states his donations to be for the salvation of the souls, amongst others, of his lady Queen Matilda, mother of his wife ("matris uxoris meæ"), excluding in turn King William from any share in her parentage. Was she then the sister of Gherbod the Fleming, Earl of Chester, as Orderic Vital distinctly describes her, without the slightest allusion to her parents? And, if so, was Queen Matilda the mother of both by a previous marriage, which has been utterly ignored by contemporary writers, and never yet established by recent investigators? Mr. Freeman accepts that interpretation, and I can advance no argument in dispute of it. It is much more likely, as he observes, that a stepfather should call the daughter of his wife his daughter, than that a husband should speak of the mother of his wife in anything but a strictly literal sense.

Then how are we to account for the universal silence of the chroniclers, native and foreign, on the subject? Mr. Freeman quotes the instance of their apparent ignorance of the marriage of Robert the Devil with the widow of UIf; but this is a much more important case. We have the unequivocal declaration of William de Warren that Queen Matilda was the mother of his wife, and unless that charter is spurious, of which there is not the slightest suspicion, the evidence to that extent is conclusive.

But we have not yet done with riddles. Amongst the benefactors of Bermondsey, I find one Richard Guett, recorded as brother of the Countess of Warren, and the donor of the manor of Cowyke to the monks of that abbey, 11th of Rufus, A.D. 1098.

Gundred at that period had been dead thirteen years; but that she is the person alluded to there can be no doubt, as she is styled only "Comtesse Warenne;" whereas Isabelle de Vermandois, wife of her son, the second William, was Countess of Warren and Surrey.

Then who was this Richard Guett? Was he another child of Matilda of Flanders, a brother or halfbrother of Gherbod and Gundred, or a brother-in-law, for the old writers pay little attention to these nice distinctions, as we have seen in the case of Odo of Champagne? Had Matilda of Flanders as many husbands as Adelaide, Countess of Ponthieu, and, like her, issue by each? What was the real cause of the inhibition of her marriage with William, Duke of Normandy, — its delay for six years?  (Queen Matilda as a 17-year-old girl was a monstress teenager witch with a real attitude problem. “If I can’t have him, nobody can have him).” What truth is there in the story of her unreturned affection for the Anglo-Saxon Brihtric Meaw, and of her vindictive conduct to him after she became Queen of England? I have hesitated to believe in the popular tradition that Duke William grossly assaulted the daughter of Baldwin in the street or in her own chamber, not that I have any doubt about his being capable of such an outrage, but because he was too politic to commit it, and she was not the woman to have forgiven it, assuming that the offence was the simple refusal of his hand on the ground of his illegitimacy. It is obvious, however, that the early life of Matilda is involved in mystery, and it is highly probable that a clearer insight into it would enable us to account for much which we now reject as legend, or fail to reconcile with acknowledged facts. If there be any foundation for the story of William's brutality, the outburst of ungovernable fury might have been due to a much greater provocation than has been assigned for it. Brihtric, the son of Algar or Alfar, surnamed Meaw (Snow), from the extreme fairness of his complexion, an Anglo-Saxon Thegn, possessor of large domains in England, had been sent on an embassy from King Edward the Confessor to the Connt of Flanders. Matilda, we are told, fell desperately in love with him, and offered herself to him in marriage! Either disgusted by her forwardness, or preferring another, he declined the flattering proposal. "Hell hath no fury like a woman foiled," and she kept her wrath warm till she was in a position to ruin the man she had so passionately loved. She had no sooner become the Queen of England than she induced William to confiscate, on some pretence, all Brihtric's estates, and obtained the greater proportion for herself. The unfortunate Thegn was arrested at his house at Hanley, in Worcestershire, on the very day Saint Wulfstan had consecrated a chapel of his building, dragged to Winchester, and died in a dungeon! The truth of this story is supported by the impartial evidence of Domesday, in which Hanley and the principal manors held by Brihtric in the time of King Edward are recorded as the possessions of Queen Matilda, and the remainder passed to Fitz Hamon.

After her hand had been rejected by the noble Saxon, it is presumed she became the wife of a Fleming, named Gherbod, who appears to have held the hereditary office of Advocate of the Abbey of Saint Bertin, in St. Omers, and by whom she had at least two children, viz., Gherbod, to whom William gave the earldom of Chester, and Gundred, "the sister of Gherbod," and wife of William de Warren. Was this a clandestine or an informal marriage, which, as it has never been acknowledged by any chronicler, contemporary or other, might have been unknown to the Duke of Normandy, when he proposed to one whom he believed to be the maiden daughter of the Count of Flanders, and the corporal chastisement inflicted, however unworthy of a man, passed over, sub silentio, for prudential reasons, by the parties who had been guilty of a disgraceful suppression of facts? The subsequent marriage under such circumstances will awaken no surprise in any one who has studied the character of William. Utterly unscrupulous, destitute of every generous, noble, or delicate feeling, every action of his life was dictated by POLICY alone. An alliance with the Count of Flanders might be considered by the crafty schemer sufficiently advantageous to warrant his overlooking any objectionable antecedents in the conduct of a granddaughter of a king of France, his first discovery of which had provoked his savage nature into a momentary ebullition of fury. Her being the mother of two children was a point in her favour with a man whose sole motive for marrying was the perpetuation of a dynasty, and the fair prospect of legitimate issue, in whose veins the blood of the Capets should enrich that of the Furrier of Falaise, would overcome any hesitation at espousing the widow of an Advocate of St. Bertin. On the other hand, Count Baldwin would be too happy to embrace the opportunity of reinstating his daughter in a position befitting her birth, and, as well as the lady herself, gladly condone past insults for future advantages and the hope of smothering, in the splendor of a ducal wedding, the awkward whispers of scandal.

I have said thus much simply to show the view that may be taken of these mysterious circumstances, in opposition to the rose-colored representations of some modern historians, who, upon no stronger evidence, elevate the Conqueror into a model husband, and describe Matilda as the perfection of womankind. To return to Gundred: her mother, Matilda, the third child of parents who were married in 1027, could not well have been born before 1030, and would therefore be some three years younger than the Conqueror.

In 1047, the time named as that of the Duke's first proposal, she would have been seventeen, and at that age either passionately in love with Brihtric, or already the youthful bride of the Advocate of St. Bertin.

In either case her rejection of William — and in the latter the Papal inhibition — is perfectly understandable. Assuming the marriage, she could scarcely have been the mother of the younger Gherbod and his sister Gundred before 1050; and the Countess of Warren, who died in childbed in 1085, would, according to this calculation, have then been in her thirty-fifth year. These dates are fairly presumable, and are not contradicted by any circumstances of which I am aware.

No date has ever been assigned to the marriage of Gundred, but it is probable that it took place subsequent to the invasion, and about the same time that the earldom of Chester was bestowed on her brother Gherbod, with whom she may have come to England in the train of their mother, Matilda, on her visit in 1068, for there is not the slightest trace of Gherbod's presence at Hastings; and the magnificent gift of the County Palatine of Chester to a foreigner unknown to fame must have been owing to private family influence, as no service of any description is recorded for which it could be considered a merited reward.

In the foundation charter to Lewes, William de Warren himself tells us that he set out with his wife, Gundred, on a journey to Rome, but was unable to pass the German frontier in consequence of the war raging between the Emperor and the Pope. They therefore visited the Abbey of Cluni, where the Prior and the community most hospitably entertained them in the absence of Hugh, the Abbot. No date is mentioned, but the circumstances to which he alludes enable us to arrive at an approximate one.

In the Council of Worms, 23rd of January in that year, sentence of excommunication was passed upon the contumacious Kaiser, and his subjects absolved from their oath of fidelity; and in the following year, Henry, accompanied by his wife and infant son, Conrad, presented himself as a penitent before the walls of the Castle of Canossa, in Lombardy, where the Pontiff was then residing; and after remaining for three days, with naked feet and without food, in token of his contrition, was admitted, on the fourth, to the presence of the triumphant Pontiff, in consequence of the mediation of his cousin, the Countess Matilda, the Count of Savoy, and the Abbot of Cluni, who were at that period at Canossa with his Holiness.

This latter event occurred on the 26th of January 1077, and we therefore know that Abbot Hugh was then in Lombardy. How long he was absent from Cluni on that occasion I cannot say, but we may fairly conjecture that William and Gundred were the guests of the Prior towards the close of the year 1076, or in the early part of 1077, in which latter year, they having long before resolved to found some religious house for the welfare of their souls, determined that, in gratitude for their reception at the Abbey of Cluni, it should rather be of the Cluniac order than any other. Having obtained the license of King William, Abbot Hugh, at their request, sent over four of his monks, the principal of whom, named Lanzo, became the first Prior of St. Pancras at Lewes, which was founded and endowed by the Earl accordingly.

The Countess died, as before stated, in 1085, and was buried in the chapter house at Lewes.

On the breaking out of Bishop Odo's rebellion, in the first year of the reign of Rufus, William, Earl of Warren, stood fast by the King, and served him most loyally both in the field and the council-chamber, for which good service he was created Earl of Surrey.

He enjoyed his new dignity but for a brief period, dying in 1089, 8 kalends of July (where, or of what disorder, is not stated), and was buried near his wife in the chapter house of Lewes.

The discovery of their coffins a few years ago raised the controversy respecting the parentage of Gundred, which can scarcely even now be considered absolutely decided.

As in the case of Adelaide, Countess of Ponthieu, some charter or trustworthy document may yet be discovered which will clear up, by a simple fact, the mystery surrounding the early life of the Queen of the Conqueror, and not only enable us correctly to affiliate Gherbod and Gundred, but also to identify the hitherto unnoticed claimant to the honour of being one of their nearest relations, Richard Guett, the benefactor of Bermondsey, "brother of the Countess of Warren." From the register of Ely, in the Bodleian Library, Dugdale quotes the following tale of wonder: — " It is reported that this Earl William did violently detain certain lands from the monks of Ely, for which, being after admonished by the Abbot, and not making restitution, he died miserably; and though his death happened very far off the Isle of Ely, the same night he died, the Abbot, lying quietly in his bed, and meditating on heavenly things, heard the soul of the Earl in its carriage away by the Devil, cry out loudly and with a known and distinct voice, 'Lord have mercy upon me! Lord have mercy upon me!' and moreover that the next day the Abbot acquainted all the monks in Chapter therewith; and, likewise, that about four days after there came a messenger to them from the wife of the Earl with one hundred shillings for the good of his soul, who told them that he died the very hour the Abbot heard that outcry; but that neither the Abbot nor any of the monks would receive it, not thinking it safe for them to take the money of a damned person."

"If the first part of this story," adds honest old Norroy, " as the Abbot's hearing that noise, be no truer than the last, viz., that his lady sent them one hundred shillings, I shall deem it to be a mere fiction in regard the lady was certainly dead about three years before."

What appears more incredible to me is that there was not one monk to be found in the convent who would pocket the money "for the good of the soul" of the departed delinquent, who had "died miserably," — a statement which, taken in conjunction with the preternatural communication of the event to the holy Abbot, conveys to my mind an ugly idea of a guilty foreknowledge of it.

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