05 February 2013

Scandalous Affairs: The "Abduction" of Isabel de Vermandois

By Lisa J. Yarde

On June 5, 1118, the Countess of Leicester Isabel de Vermandois became a widow upon the death of her husband, Robert de Beaumont. Within a year, Isabel remarried and bore a son for William de Warenne, the second Earl of Surrey. At the outset, this union would seem perfectly respectable, a second chance at happiness for a woman still of childbearing age and blessed with a royal pedigree. Instead Isabel's second marriage concealed a long-standing affair with William, which involved her "abduction", resulted in an illegitimate child and contributed to the unhappy passing of her first husband. According to the historian Henry of Huntingdon, these unfortunate circumstances hastened the death of Robert de Beaumont, brokenhearted "after his wife ran off with his fellow earl."

Isabel de Vermandois descended from Count Hugh de Vermandois, brother to Philip I of France, one of the Capetian line of kings. In 1096, while Isabel was still a teenager, she married Robert de Beaumont, who would have been 50 years old. A hero of the battle of Hastings in 1066 and companion of the Conqueror, Robert served three successive Anglo-Norman kings. In his youth, William de Warenne did not enjoy such a companionable relationship with the same rulers. Like many among the newly-landed nobility of England whose fathers claimed victory at Hastings, William held property in the country of his birth and Normandy, resulting in divided loyalties.   

Remains of the motte at Robert's castle
of Leicester - Creative Commons 
The divisions faded for a time under the reign of King Henry I (1100-1135), who claimed England and Normandy. Isabel, Robert and William became part of the Anglo-Norman aristocracy at Henry's court, already rife with scandals of the sovereign's own making. Henry enjoyed the notoriety of love affairs with women of varying classes, resulting in 21 acknowledged illegitimate children. Before Henry took the throne, William sought and lost the hand of Edith, of royal blood derived from England's former rulers. Instead, she became Henry's queen just after his ascension. Henry tried diffusing any resentment by arranging a marriage between one of his illegitimate daughters and William, but the Church would later forbid the union. During the same time, Isabel and Robert's family grew to include 3 sons and 5 girls, starting with their daughter Emma in 1102 and twin boys in 1104. Robert's wealth and prestige increased in 1107, as the first Earl of Leicester.  

No one knows when the affair between Isabel and William began, but his purported abduction of her would have occurred sometime between February 1116 (when William and Robert last cooperated on a mission for the king) and Robert's death in 1118. Gossip even suggested William had not stolen Isabel away; rather, she agreed to run away with him, favoring a much younger man over her aged first husband. While the chronicles don't agree on the date, the birth of Gundred de Warenne likely resulted during the affair. It's also uncertain where the couple might have escaped Robert's wrath, since William held castles throughout Yorkshire, Sussex and Norfolk.
Ruins of Castle Acre, Norfolk: did William
take Isabel here after abducting her? - Creative Commons 
After her second marriage, the new Countess of Surrey went on to have another daughter and two more sons for William. At King Henry's command, William even served as part of a council of four charged with overseeing the estates of Robert's twin heirs. Interestingly, Isabel's children by both sets of partners seem to have coexisted happily. Robert's heirs and William's eldest son attended the deathbed of King Henry in 1135, and Gundred married Robert's nephew, Roger de Beaumont. 

Despite Isabel's scandalous affair with William, public disgrace did not taint her future or that of her children. Through their marital alliances, Isabel became the ancestress of famous medieval figures, including Simon de Montfort, Malcolm IV and his brother William I of Scotland, and Robert the Bruce.              

You can learn more about the love triangle of Isabel, Robert and William in my latest title, The Burning Candle

Lisa J. Yarde writes fiction inspired by the medieval period. She is the author of historical novels set in medieval England and Normandy, The Burning Candle, based on the life of Isabel de Vermandois, and On Falcon's Wings, chronicling the star-crossed romance between Norman and Saxon lovers. Lisa has also written Sultana and Sultana’s Legacy, novels set during a turbulent period of thirteenth century Spain,where rivalries and ambitions threaten the fragile bonds between members of a powerful family.