Genealogy at its most basic, and to me most boring, is simply a search for and listing of the names and dates of our ancestors. Finding those names is precious, don’t get me wrong, but finding a way to turn those names into personalities through historical associations, anecdotes, photos, portraits, copies of original documents – that is precious.
When researching quite early ancestors, there is usually no opportunity to get a glimpse of the person behind the name. That’s what makes the publication of some potential personal letters by William IV de Warenne, 5th Earl of Surrey, such a find.
The book which includes them, Lost Letters of Medieval Life, English Society, 1200-1250, edited by Martha Carlin and David Crouch, is a set of transcriptions of form letters from the early 13th century with historical context. The authors make the case that many of the letters were less formulaic than probably generalized versions of actual letters the original author had come across. The two letters below that are thought to have been written by William are of that ilk. Relative to other letters included in the book, these two show the writer to be a man with a strong personality.
The earl of Warenne to the count of Aumale, greetings. That which ceases from use has prepared the way for its own retirement. We knights are being kept from action like unskilled clodhoppers; this long interval of sitting around, which prevents the practic of knightly exercise, gives one kidney stones. You will have heard that a certain tournament has been sworn between us and O., the earl of xxx. We beg you with our utmost affection to come to it. Since we are unfit, we trust in your integrity as to a city; to your triumphal banner as to a castle with its walls and surrounding moat, which is accustomed to be the refuge of the weary and of those oppressed by an adverse fate. And those who are accustomed to our protection in the best possible manner have committed themselves to being defended [by] the might of your protection. We also desire your presence there all the more because we believe it will be essential to us.
The authors argue that, “Warenne’s grumpy reference to “this long period of sitting around”, which has turned his knights into “unskilled clodhoppers” and rusted their martial skills, suggests that it has been a very long time since his last tournament. This fits well with the apparent date of this letter of 1214×40, between William II de Forz’s succession to the county of Aumale in 1214 and William IV de Warenne’s death in 1240.
Another point of interest in this letter is its language, which is extremely colorful. The gruffness and bluntness of the complaints about knights sitting around getting kidney stones sounds like an authentic voice of an aging aristocrat who longs for action. Equally striking, and quite poignant, is the remarkable image by which Warenne commits himself and his knights to the younger Aumale’s command and banner, like refugees entrusting themselves to the might of a strong city or a walled and moated castle. Such a poetic image makes for a most unusual and lively invitation to a tournament.”
A second letter translated by the authors is also thought to have originally been written by Earl William IV de Warenne. It demonstrates the earl’s erudition, as well as giving that glimpse of his strong personality.
An earl to an earl, greetings. An assembly for the practice of knightly skills is refreshed by a modest suspension. One should not cancel it, but let it be interrupted for a brief time. For who can fight without a pause? That which lacks daily rest cannot endure; a bow, unless you cease to draw it, will grow slack. After a break, and the benefit of rest, we rise up all the keener for our knightly exercise; after a rest, with our strength renewed, we strive all the more at the delightful sport of the tournament. We recall the deeds of our ancestors – the deed of the duke of Macedon and the doughty deeds of the Twelve Peers – who rouse us to a gathering of knightly practice. They learned by tourneying in time of peace how they should withstand their enemies in war. One whom fear holds back, or costs constrain, should be [?be forced] to a tournament; one who is terrified to [?hear] the sound of the charge should stay at home. We shall come thither to preserve our honor, [and] so that we may put ourselves to the test there. And [if] anyone is more fervent at arms, may the gout take him!
The authors analyze the letter as follows: “This jocular letter makes a plea for a pause between tournaments by discoursing on the extreme physical demands that tourneying places on the participants. It also alludes to some of the other trials of the tournament circuit, especially the great expense and the risk of injury. The writer, in support of his argument, trots out a classical tag about how a bow that is drawn unceasingly will lose its spring. This line derives from Ovid’s Heroides, a collection of fictitious letters written by heroines of classical mythology to the lovers who abandoned or rejected them. In Poem IV (lines 89-92), Phaedra attempts to seduce her stepson, Hippolytus, by advising him to relax from his rigidly moral principles, saying: ‘that which lacks its alterations of repose will not endure; … The bow…if you never cease to bend it, will grow slack”….. The use of a steamy quotation in the context of this martial letter is quite humorous. The writer also evokes some celebrated avatars of military life, the ‘duke of Macedon’ and the ‘Twelve Peers.’ The duke is Alexander the Great, as depicted in Alexandreis (1170’s), a widely read life of Alexander composed by Walter de Chatillon in Latin verse. The Twelve Peers could be either the ‘paladins’ of the epic cycle of Charlemagne or the twelve companions of Alexander the Great in Alexander of Paris’s late twelfth-century epic, Roman d’Alexandre.
The writer’s urgent plea for a rest, his blunt language, his ancestral and literary allusions, his sturdy enthusiasm, and his wry reference to gout in closing all bespeak a man of some age and elite education. In fact, they strongly recall the language of [the previous letter], suggesting that this letter might be a follow-up to it. If so, the earl to whom [this letter] is addressed is presumably the same earl “O” … with whom Warenne agreed to sponsor a tournament, and Warenne is now begging him to agree to a brief break.
The writer is clearly echoing the prevailing belief that knights required time – typically, two weeks – to recuperate between tournaments. … Despite its heartfelt request for a break, however, this letter reveals clearly the massive enthusiasm for the tournament that still energized the higher aristocracy in the early thirteenth century…. The earl’s blunt assertion in this letter that anyone who fears the financial costs or the physical risks of tourneying should stay at home makes it clear that this sport is only for those who are very fit, very brave, and very rich….”
The insights into this man that these authors and the letters provide are a gift – a glimpse of an intelligent, educated man of strong opinion, blunt language, and immense confidence. With these tidbits, we can build an idea of a personality beyond just the name and title, adding a richness to the image and story we build of this man. Many thanks to the authors for bringing these letters to light!
Carlin, Martha, and David Crouch, eds. and transls. Lost Letters of Medieval Life, English Society, 1200-1250. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013. PP. 210-16.
References or recommendations made by the authors:
Farrer, William and Charles T. Clay, eds., Early Yorkshire Charters, vol. 8, Yorkshire Archaeological Society (Leeds, 1914-65), 1-40. For info on the Warenne family.
Lewis, Christopher P., “The Earldom of Surrey and the Date of Domesday Book”, Historical Research, 63 (1990), 329-36.
Revised: 30 October 2016
William IV de Warenne, 5th Earl of Surrey (d. 1240) was the 3x great-grandfather of Ankaret le Strange, 7th Baroness Strange of Blackmere, (abt 1361-1413) whose grandson, Sir Thomas Grene/Greene, Knt, (1400-1462) was 4x great-grandfather of Katherine Marbury/Merbury, (1610-1687) who was the 3x great-grandmother of Sarah Scott, (1749-1825), who married Maj. Coggeshall Olney, and who were the great-grandparents of Eliza Jane Olney.