Hamelin de Warenne: The Devoted Black Sheep

By James Turner

Family was of the utmost importance in shaping the identity, political affinity and horizons of twelfth century aristocrats. This was no less true for royals with the Norman and Angevin kings of England finding both their greatest supporters and ardent foes emerging from the ranks of their own family throughout the 12th century. This series looks at the lives and relationships of a category of people who due to the circumstances of their birth sat on the periphery of this vast and interconnected dynastic systems – the royal bastards.

In 1164 Henry II’s half-brother Hamelin married the Angevin Empire’s most desirable and highly sought-after heiress, Countess Isabel of Surrey, simultaneously gaining a wife, an earldom and a fortune. The marriage was, of course, instigated at the behest of Henry II and like the marriages of all royal family members at this time, illegitimate or otherwise, was arranged more for its potential political utility to the king than out of a sense of familial devotion.


Hamelin is, however, something of an anomaly, being the only illegitimate royal family member raised to an earldom during the twelfth century who was not the son of a king. The illegitimate son of the dashing and ambitious Count Geoffrey ‘le Bel’ of Anjou, the details of Hamelin’s early life and the identity of his mother remain sadly obscured from us. The commencement of his meteoric rise to power, through royal service,  a decade into his half-brother’s reign strongly suggests that he was born sometime in the very late 1130’s or early 1140’s in the midst of the long running war for control of Normandy with King Stephen of England.

Geoffrey’s wife, the Empress Matilda, as the sole remaining legitimate child of Henry I was implacably determined to overthrow her cousin and claim her birthright. That this goal necessitated the invasion and subjugation of Anjou’s hereditary enemy, the Duchy of Normandy, seemed to suit Geoffrey just fine. While able to cooperate in a broad strategic sense and to the degree necessarily to facilitate the birth of their three sons, the marriage was somewhat tempestuous. As a result of this mutual mistrust and personal antipathy, Matilda preferred to prosecute the war in England alongside her half-brother and cadre of loyal retainers while leaving Geoffrey to his own devices in Normandy. Hence Hamelin.

It’s possible that after his father’s premature death from fever in 1151, more than a decade prior to Hamelin’s emergence in earnest as a player upon the political scene, Hamelin was raised and supported within the household of one of his royal half-brothers. The lack of evidence, however, makes the extent of Hamelin’s engagement with familial identity and the degree of his personal association and affinity with his royal half-brother difficult to gauge. While we are unable to entirely discount the notion that the two half-brothers shared a strong personal affinity, contextual factors and their later conduct towards one another seem to suggest that their political cooperation and Hamelin’s sudden elevation was primarily motivated by political and contextual concerns.


1164 was a time of considerable political and constitutional friction, marking as it did the height of the divisive investiture crisis and the king’s ill-fated struggle with his former friend and Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Becket. Henry’s personal and political support systems were further undermined with the sudden death of his legitimate younger brother, William. With his own children still too young to participate in the defense and expansion of their shared dynastic enterprise, Henry II instead turned to Hamelin to occupy the role originally marked out for the deceased William in the king’s political and dynastic strategy. At the Council of Northampton, Hamelin attacked the Archbishop most vociferously, testifying that William’s death was the result of the heartache and sense of loss he felt after his proposed marriage to Isabel de Warenne was blocked by Becket on the ground of consanguinity and the Archbishop’s supposedly malicious subsequent refusal to seek a Papal dispensation.

As a reward for Hamelin’s loyalty in this challenging matter and as a means of salvaging his schemes of consolidating support amongst the aristocracy, the king brokered a marriage between his half-brother and the now available Countess Isabel. At a stroke Hamelin’s marriage made him one of the wealthiest men in the Angevin hegemony with estates on both sides of the Channel, with extensive lands in the north of England and a strong strategic position in Normandy, which no doubt was one of the reasons Henry II had been so eager to place his proxies in a position of control over the de Warenne affinity.

As the only child of Earl William de Warenne and his wife Adela the daughter of Count William of Ponthieu, Isabel hailed from an exceptionally well-connected family of impeccable aristocratic pedigree. Isabel’s father was the maternal half-brother of Earl Robert of Leicester and Count Waleran of Meulan, intimately connecting her and her new husband to the powerful Beaumont family. Her great grandfather, yet another William, had been created earl of Surrey by King William Rufus and the family’s affinity which had included extensive holdings in the county, since the immediate aftermath of the Conquest, represented an island of remarkable coherency and consistency in the treacherous and ever shifting ground of aristocratic politics. By the time of her marital and political union with Hamelin, Isabel was already a widow having previously been married to William of Blois, the youngest son of King Stephen. Their marriage had been one of Stephen’s principal pillars of support in the latter days of his reign which Henry II now eagerly sought to co-opt and incorporate within his own powerbase.


Perhaps because of the tangential nature of his royal connection and lack of direct engagement with royal identity, Hamelin integrated more fully with the aristocratic family and regional affinity which he was placed within than other royal bastards. In a charter issued some time before 1202, Hamelin donated all the tithes derived from the farming of eels within Yorkshire, in exchange for prayers for the souls of his relatives. Included amongst this list of beneficiaries, alongside King Henry and their father Count Geoffrey, were his father-in-law Earl William de Warenne and his wife’s ancestors.

Indeed, Hamelin seems to have adopted the de Warenne name as his own, referring to himself in his charters as Hamelin, earl of Warenne. This styling excludes not only the royal connections, which made Hamelin’s marriage and elevation possible, but also the toponym of Surrey, a strategy which stressed Hamelin’s membership and concordant with his adopted family while also building upon the conflation between the family and its long held comital title to further spread their influence and authority through the region’s aristocratic affinities.

Hamelin throughout his charters carefully stressed the status of his wife and that he was acting on her authority as the hereditary countess. Hamelin appears to have been comfortable and confidant in carrying out the day to day maintenance and administration of their landed interests and extensive political affinity alone. Yet Hamelin and Isabel, on numerous occasions, issued joint charters under a shared writ. As their son, the newest William, approached adulthood an acknowledgment of his assent to the distribution and management of his inheritance was also included into the address clause of his parent’s jointly issued charters such as their gift, sometime in the 1180s, of the income from the mills of Conisbrough castle for the maintenance of the castle’s chapel dedicated to St Philip and St James. The necessity to include William, and an at least notional reference to his assent, within the administration and redistribution of the family’s interests is a reflection of the increasingly well-defined and legally entrenched inheritance practices of the latter half of the twelfth century.


The earl worked diligently to improve and defend his surrogate families holdings rebuilding the de Warenne castle at Conisbrough in stone at tremendous expense in the 1180s. Constructed with the benefit of the latest developments, in architecture, technology and military theory the fortress was at the time of its construction on the bleeding edge of the field of defensive architecture and could be counted amongst the  greatest citadels in England. Centuries later the sight of the castle’s weathered but proud keep would become a major inspiration for Sir Walter Scott who erroneously believed the castle was Saxon in origin.

In 1173, Henry II was still reeling from the dramatic political fallout of Becket’s murder and found himself heavily engaged with directing the invasion of Ireland and the exertion of royal authority over the participants and their newly established territories. It is probably a result of these pressures that the king elected to make Hamelin viscount of Touraine, giving him responsibility for overseeing a crucial border region and potentially dangerous political fault line. It seems probable that Hamelin was granted this important lordship as a result of his presence at the king’s side earlier that year during the subjugation of the troublesome Count Raymond of Toulouse which greatly increased royal authority and power within the area.

Soon afterwards Henry nominated Hamelin as the proposed custodian and guardian of the castles of Chinon and Loudun which the king intended to bestow upon his youngest son, Prince John. This period of guardianship never actually took place, with Henry, the king’s eldest son, who was already disenfranchised and dissatisfied by his alienation from the resources and mechanisms of governance, went into open rebellion against his father in protest. In 1176, Hamelin was once more engaged in family service when he escorted his royal niece, Joan, to Sicily acting as a witness to her marriage to King William II. Despite Hamelin’s frequent cooperation with the king and engagement in service on behalf of their shared dynastic and political interests, it seems he attended court infrequently and can be found amongst the witness lists in a relatively small number of royal charters for a noble of his rank, although in those few he does appear in, he is afforded precedence over other close royal advisors and allies.

In contrast to Hamelin’s loyal and steadfast but somewhat detached and distant adherence to his half-brother, following Henry’s death in 1189, Hamelin rapidly emerged as one of key supporters of his nephew, Richard I. Their close relationship and political alignment can be seen in Hamlin’s frequent accompaniment of the king at the beginning of his reign and extensive engagement with the royal court, attesting to at least thirteen charters within a matter of months as the king and his advisors sought to put the Angevin realm in order. The earl maintained this royal alignment following the king’s departure on crusade and attempted to preserve royal interests and authority within England, aligning with the king’s chosen deputy, Chancellor William de Longchamp, against Bishop Hugh de Puiset of Durham and Prince John’s attempts to expand their authority.


Hamelin’s preference for cleaving to royal authority at the expense of alignment with other family members can be seen both through his attempts to thwart John’s bid for power and his arrest of another of his nephews, the illegitimate, Archbishop Geoffrey of York, who had attempted to gain entry into England despite being exiled, although the uproar following the archbishop’s arrest swiftly persuaded the administration to release him. Hamelin’s prestige within the aristocracy and his personal and political affinity with his royal nephew can be seen when alongside the earl of Arundel, William d’Aubigny, he was placed in charge of the collection and protection of the vast sums of money being raised to ransom King Richard from Duke Leopold of Austria.

Following Richard’s liberation and return to England, he remained close with his illegitimate uncle who continued to play a prominent role in the theatre of government, serving as a sword bearer during the king’s second coronation in 1194, alongside King William of Scotland. Hamelin was also present at the Council of Nottingham in which those who had supported John’s ambitions or otherwise sought to take advantage of the king’s absence were punished. Having cut across him in the previous reign Hamelin had little power and influence in the court of King John preferring instead to operate within his own affinity and regional aristocratic networks.

Hamelin remained an acknowledged but, in many ways, distant presence within the context of a wider Anglo-Noman and Angevin royal identity; instead of immersing himself in royal familial identity, he cultivated a strong affinity and reciprocal relationship with his most direct legitimate patrons and family members, most notably Henry II and Richard I. The erosion of Hamelin’s prominence within the aristocratic networks of the Angevin hegemony and participation within a shared royal dynastic enterprise following the death of Richard I was the direct result of this preference and a lack of personal affinity with John with whose ambitions he had previously clashed.

This is the sixth in a series of articles known as A Bastard’s Lot: The Illegitimate Royal Children of 12th Century England, by James Turner. 

James Turner has recently completed his doctoral studies at Durham University before which he attended the University of Glasgow. Deeply afraid of numbers and distrustful of counting, his main research interests surround medieval aristocratic culture and identity.

Top Image: Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine with their courtiers – BnF, MS Français 123, folio 229r



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