Three Women And A Castle

In 1138 William D’Aubigny II removed the wooden fort built by his father and started to construct the impressive Norman castle at Rising, the remains of which stand today. This was a testimony to his increased wealth and status (he had just married the former queen – the widow of Henry I, Adeliza of Louvain). However, the stories around three of the women associated with Castle Rising are just as interesting.

Castle Rising, near King’s Lynn 
Photo © James Rye 2021

The Betrayed Cousin – Matilda

Castle Rising was built during a time of civil war and anarchy, and possibly in direct response to that national upheaval. One chronicler, Robert de Torigni, suggests that as many as 126 castles were built in England during this period.

Although he had made careful plans for his succession, when Henry I died in 1135 an eighteen year civil war broke out. Henry’s only legitimate son, William Adelin, had drowned in the White Ship disaster in 1120, so the king had appointed his daughter, Matilda, as heir. However, she was out of the country when her father died and the barons were unhappy about a woman succeeding to the throne. Her cousin, Stephen, treacherously claimed the crown.


Matilda returned to the England in 1139 to regain her throne. A weak and uncertain monarchy led to a period of great uncertainty and unrest. It was a time of considerable castle building as local lords tried to impose their power more firmly and protect themselves. Later historians called this period “The Anarchy”. As the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle notes: “In the days of this King [Stephen] there was nothing but strife, evil and robbery, for quickly the great men who were traitors rose against him.”

The civil war was ultimately a stalemate, even though there were times when it looked that either side might win. In February 1141 Stephen was captured trying to besiege Lincoln Castle which had fallen to Matilda’s supporters. However, this advantage was soon lost when Matilda’s main military leader, Robert of Gloucester (her half-brother), was captured at Winchester in September of the same year.

Ultimately the key prisoners were exchanged and it was agreed that Stephen would retain the throne until death and that Matilda’s son, Henry, would succeed after Stephen’s death.

The Loyal Stepmother – Adeliza

Henry I was in his early fifties when he married his nineteen-year-old second wife, Adeliza of Louvain. This meant that Adeliza technically became Matilda’s step-mother. However, only one year of age separated the two women, and both had married much older men. Crucially Adeliza had been present in 1127 when Henry had asked the barons to swear allegiance to Matilda as his rightful heir.

Adeliza of Louvain

Although Stephen and many of the barons were prepared to conveniently forget the oath that they swore to Henry and Matilda, Queen Adeliza was not prepared to put the occasion aside so easily. When Matilda needed a safe space to land in England in 1139 she chose Arundel Castle which was owned by Adeliza. This must have led to some interesting domestic conversations as Adeliza’s new husband, William D’Aubigny II (the Castle Rising founder), was a supporter of Stephen. Despite possible protests by William, it is difficult to argue that Adeliza had done anything wrong in offering hospitality to her step-daugher.

The chronicler, John of Worcester, described what he thought had happened. “When, however, he [Stephen] learned that the ex-queen [Adeliza] had received the ex-empress [Matilda], with her large band of retainers, at Arundel, he was much displeased, and marched his army thither. But she, being awed by the king’s majesty, and fearing that she might lose the rank she held in England, swore solemnly that no enemy of his had come to England on her invitation; but that, saving her dignity, she had granted hospitality to persons of station, who were formerly attached to her.”

Stephen avoided a long siege and allowed Matilda to leave Arundel and go to her supporters in Bristol. At the time some regarded Stephen’s behaviour as an act of lunatic chivalry. The period of anarchy began in earnest, and Stephen probably grew to regret his decision.

The Misunderstood Mother – Isabella

The woman most closely associated with Castle Rising is Isabella, and she is certainly the most misunderstood. The false narrative which is repeated again and again is that Isabella was involved in the brutal murder of her husband, Edward II, and that as a result she has eventually imprisoned at Castle Rising by her son, Edward III.

It is true that Isabella had just cause to be very angry with her husband (see Castle Rising’s She-Wolf Revisited 1 of 2). It is also true that she arrived back in England on 24 September 1326 with her lover, Roger Mortimer, and seized control of the country from her husband (see Castle Rising’s She-Wolf Revisited 2 of 2).

Isabella of France

However, although it is possible that Edward II was killed by Isabella and Mortimer, it is unlikely that Isabella would directly have countenanced cruelty towards the man whom she had some feeling for. Although it was very convenient for Isabella and Mortimer for people to think that Edward was dead (it stopped the pope arguing that Isabella should be reconciled to her husband), there is some evidence that Edward II was alive until at least 1330 and possibly after that.

Whatever happened to Edward II (the evidence is complex and, some would argue, unclear) the young Edward III seized the throne and Mortimer was executed. After a short period of house arrest at Windsor Castle in 1330 following her downfall, Isabella was soon allowed to go free. Some years later she was restored to her pre-1324 enormous income of £4,500 a year. Isabella’s status dictated that she should be treated with respect, and Edward III’s claim to the French throne was in part, based on his mother’s lineage. He would not want to treat her harshly. She spends a lot of time at Castle Rising because it was one of her favourite castles, but she is clearly not a prisoner.

We know that when in Norfolk the dowager queen spent money on minstrels, huntsmen, grooms, clothes, books, and jewels. The Lynn Chamberlain’s accounts contain references to paying for carts to carry the queen’s luggage, and for sending gifts of bread and wine to the castle. Edward III often writes to her and sends her gifts of wine, boar, and caged birds. In the last months of her life she spent £1,400 on clothes, falcons, and jewels. Edward III and Queen Philippa visit her in the castle in 1342, 1343, 1344, and 1349. The long-suffering mayor of Lynn was commanded to send eight carpenters to prepare the castle for the king’s arrival.

Occasionally, when not on her estates Isabella was clearly welcome at court and received visitors. There is evidence that Edward III may have wanted to use her intelligence and skill to take part in peace negotiations with France on more than one occasion. And Isabella was no stranger to royal celebrations. The accounts for 1344 show that Edward III paid for mulberry-coloured Turkish cloth and taffeta for Queen Philippa (his wife) and for Queen Isabella to go on hunting expeditions with him. In 1358 she appeared at the St George’s Day celebrations at Windsor wearing a dress made of silk, silver, 300 rubies, 1800 pearls and a circlet of gold.

The dowager queen of England died at Hertford Castle on 22 August 1358 and was buried on 27 November at the fashionable Greyfriars church in London. After Isabella’s death the castle at Rising passed into the ownership of her grandson, the Black Prince, hero of the Battles of Crécy (1346) and Poitiers (1356).

During Isabella’s time Castle Rising was a busy place and was definitely not a royal prison.

© James Rye 2024

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