Defenders of the Norman Crown, by Sharon Bennett Connolly

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Defenders of the Norman Crown

Although I like to think that I know a bit about medieval history, I must confess that I knew almost nothing about the Warenne Earls of Surrey when I started reading this book.  I certainly had no idea how influential they were but now I feel like an expert. This is not just a book about who married whom and who issued which charter to whom but how the individuals involved may have felt and what their aspirations were.

The Warenne Earls were at the heart of Norman politics and English government for several hundred years. Thus they played a part – sometimes a pivotal one – in the events that shaped medieval England: the Anarchy, the chaos of King John’s reign culminating in Magna Carta; the Barons’ War of Simon de Montfort against Henry Ill; the Scottish wars of Edward I; the demise of Edward II and so it goes on. As well as witnessing all these events, the Warennes often helped to determine their outcome by leading armies, laying sieges and advising kings – or even sometimes abandoning them!

Sharon gives us a glimpse of how these influential noblemen saw themselves in relation to their peers, as well as their monarchs. She places each earl in the context of his time whether he is a crusader, an administrator or perhaps just a lover of tournaments. Several of the Warennes were all of those things but sometimes they, like all prominent nobleman had to judge which way to jump at the crisis points of a reign and the Warenne earls were frequently required to do so. When a king was challenged by his barons, should the earl support his king, or should he find common cause with some of his fellow barons? His decisions would make or ruin his family’s fortunes and thus a willingness to be, shall we say flexible was often necessary for survival.

As ever, Sharon shines a light on the lives of the Warenne women as well as the men, which helps to give the reader an understanding of how medieval society operated at the highest levels. Marriages often provided the means by which the Warenne family extended their influence and infiltrated their bloodline into several of the ruling houses of Europe. But an unsuccessful marriage could also spell disaster and indeed it was a loveless and childless marriage which ultimately sounded the death knell of the Warenne line and not even the greatest noble family could survive that.

Medieval scholarship is not for the faint hearted, but this author’s commitment to meticulous research is very evident throughout the book. Sharon’s detailed knowledge of her subject matter illuminates every page yet the information is packaged in a way that makes it easy for the reader to absorb. In exploring such a long period of time, the scope for confusion is massive especially when many of the protagonists bear the same name! Yet Sharon reconstructs a clear, fascinating narrative of the Warennes which is underpinned by the skilful use of source material.

In this book Sharon not only provides the reader with a deep insight into the whole Warenne dynasty, but also opens a window into a turbulent period of English history.

Derek Birks is the author of The Last of the Romans novels, published by Sharpe Books.

Defenders of the Norman Crown