King Henry II’s illegitimate half-brother: Hamelin de Warenne, a man of unwavering loyalty

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Hamelin of Anjou, or Hamelin de Warenne as he would become known years later, was the illegitimate son of Geoffrey Plantagenet, Count of Anjou, Touraine, and Maine.  His mother seems to have been Adelaide of Angers; he also had two illegitimate half-sisters – Emma and Mary of Anjou. Hamelin himself was born soon after his father’s marriage to Empress Matilda, daughter and heiress of King Henry I of England, the woman whom Geoffrey didn’t quite like perhaps because of their age difference.

Hamelin de Warenne

Henry Curtmantle (Henry FitzEmpress or Henry Plantagenet) was the eldest son of Geoffrey and Mathilda.  After the end of the Anarchy that was a series of bloody civil wars in England and Normandy between 1135 and 1153, Henry finally became King of England in 1154.  The Norman and Angevin rulers of England found their greatest support among their relatives, so King Henry II relied upon his half-brother Hamelin, who was loyal to him for the rest of Henry’s life.   

The first King of the House of Plantagenet ensured that Hamelin would transform into a rich and well-connected aristocrat.  First of all, Hamelin was granted lands in Touraine on the continent, so he was styled Vicomte de Touraine.  To cement an alliance with the de Warenne family, Henry selected a suitable bride for Hamelin – young Isabel de Warenne, Countess of Surrey, who was the only daughter and sole heiress of William de Warenne, 3rd Earl of Surrey and his wife Adela.  By arranging a marriage of his half-brother to one of the wealthiest heiresses in England, Henry succeeded in keeping the de Warenne estates in the hands of his trusted relative.  Interestingly, Isabel’s first husband was William of Blois, Count of Boulogne, a younger son of the late King Stephen, whom Henry II and his parents had battled against during the Anarchy.  

The wedding of Hamelin of Anjou and Isabel de Warenne was lavishly celebrated in April 1164.  Hamelin was now married to a woman descended from both Anglo-Norman nobility and French royalty. Her great grandfather, William de Warenne, the first Earl of Surrey, had been a distant cousin of William the Conqueror, and he received lordships and lands in England for his military services at the Battle of Hastings.  

Afterwards, Hamelin took the surname de Warenne and became Earl of Surrey by right of his spouse, although he was often styled Comte de Warenne.  The marriage seemed to be a happy one and produced four children.

Aerial view of Conisbrough Castle, looking east

The de Warenne lands in England were rich and vast.  Conisbrough Castle, located in South Yorkshire, played a special role for the de Warenne family.  Hamelin and Isabel liked Yorkshire, and Hamelin had the castle extensively rebuilt between 1180 and 1190, having constructed the stone keep and built new fortifications.  King John I visited Conisbrough Castle in 1201.  Hamelin appears to have been fond of building and rebuilding fortresses: in the Castle of Mortemer, he erected a cylindrical keep, and he carried out reconstruction works at Château Bellencombre on the banks of the Varenne River in Normandy.  Throughout his charters, Hamelin emphasized the high status of his wife and that he was acting on her authority as the hereditary countess.

The coat-of-arms of the de Warenne family, from a manuscript of about 1250–54

Sometimes, even illegitimate brothers are more trustworthy and loyal to monarchs than their legitimate siblings.  This would later be proved by the frictions between the sons of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine.  A man of honor, Hamelin always sided with his royal half-brother.   Hamelin supported Henry when Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury and former Lord Chancellor, fell from the king’s good graces in 1164.  However, after Becket’s downfall, Hamelin believed in his sainthood and assumed that he was cured of blindness thanks to the saint’s powers.  Hamelin supported Henry against the revolt of his sons and Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine in 1173.  

Hamelin was one of those who escorted the monarch’s youngest daughter, Joanna, to Sicily for her marriage to King William of Sicily.  Remarkably, Hamelin was the only illegitimate man with royal blood who was not a son of the king but who was nevertheless elevated to an earldom during the 12th century.  King Henry II must have loved Hamelin very much, for Hamelin’s quick ascendancy to power through royal service is truly remarkable.  Perhaps Henry and Hamelin shared a close bond since childhood if Hamelin had been raised within the household of one of his royal half-brothers, Mathilda and Geoffrey’s legitimate sons, but this cannot be proved.  

Following the death of Henry II, Hamelin de Warenne remained loyal and devoted to the next monarch – King Richard the Lionheart, who was his nephew.  During Richard’s absence on the Third Crusade, Hamelin sided not with the nobles supporting Prince John, but with William Longchamp, who had been appointed Lord Chancellor and Chief Justiciar soon after Richard’s accession in 1189.  During King Richard’s captivity in Germany after he had been seized on the way back from the Holy Land, Hamelin worked with the king’s mother, Eleanor of Aquitaine, acting as one of the treasurers to raise funds for Richard’s ransom.  After the Lionheart’s release and return to England, Hamelin attended the second coronation of his liege lord in 1194.

After his nephew’s untimely passing, Hamelin’s allegiance was transferred to King John I.  In spite of his advancing age, Hamelin was present at John’s coronation in 1199.  We don’t know a lot about Hamelin’s relationship with King Henry II’s youngest son, save that the man’s loyalty remained unshakable.  

Interestingly, one of Hamelin and Isabel’s daughters—either Adela (also known as Ela) or Isabel—became the mistress of her cousin Prince John long before John’s kingship.  In 1190 when both Isabel and Hamelin were still alive, this daughter birthed John’s bastard – Richard FitzRoy, Baron of Chilham in Kent.  It is difficult to imagine her parents approving of her illicit affair. 

Panorama of the remains of the Lewes Priory

Hamelin de Warenne passed away on the 7th of May 1202 at the age of 72.  He was interred in Sussex at the Chapter House at Lewes Priory, which would be destroyed during the Dissolution of the Monasteries on the orders of King Henry VIII centuries later.  Isabel died in 1203 and was buried next to him. 

All images are in the public domain.

Text © 2020 Olivia Longueville

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