This quaint tower on the edge of Sées is all that is left of a mighty entrance gate. Here a levy would be charged to every person and cart passing into the town.
The gates may have kept out the vast forests of Écouves that once stretched all the way to Paris, but they would not have keep out one of the most disliked women in medieval history. Mabel, Dame de Alençon, de Séez, and Bellême, Countess of Shrewsbury and Lady of Arundel. As you can tell from her title, for a while she owned this town.
Mabel was born into the influential Talvas family, in Alencon in 1026. Unfortunately for Normandy she reportedly took after her father, William I Talvas, whose cruelty was legendary. He had his wife killed on her way to church for disagreeing with him and liked to blind and mutilate enemies unfortunate enough to come within his grasp. This horrendous act forced William’s son into action and he exiled his father. Mabel would not leave her father’s side and the pair set out into Normandy, soon convincing the influential Montgomerie family to take them in.
Mabel was rich, indulged, her father’s favourite and probably a lot more intelligent than her brothers. She was certainly more determined. The charm of a huge inheritance promised by her father William I Talvas (if they could get it back off his eldest son) convinced Roger de Montgomerie she should be his wife and sometime around 1054, they married.
Mutual ambition made the marriage a success and they went on to have 11 children. Roger’s friendship with the Duke of Normandy saved her inheritance and her power assured, Mabel behaved as very powerful people often do. Badly.
Miffed by Monks
Mabel resented the power and wealth of the Abbeys. She could not openly attack them as her husband Roger loved and protected the church. So Mabel went visiting, often. During one expedition she arrived at St Evroul monastery accompanied by a huge retinue of 100 knights (for the monk’s protection of course) her ladies, servants and her many children.
Convention demanded the monks feed their visitors and find them and their horses adequate accommodation. The monks, who struggled to care for themselves with little land and many prayers, were soon forced into near starvation by their important guests.
Abbot Thierry, who usually could influence Mabel, questioned why she must come with her ‘worldly pomp’ to their poor monastery and warned her to curb her vanity. Furious, Mabel replied ‘next time I will bring even more knights with me’.
The wise and very fed-up Thierry is reported to have replied ‘Believe me, unless you depart from this wickedness, you will suffer for it!’ and for once she did.
By coincidence that evening Mabel began to feel rather unwell. Soon she was in agony. Scared for her life she commanded her attendants pack and they left that night. While still on monastery land they passed the home of Roger Suisnar. Mabel demanded his infant child suckle at the nipple causing her the most pain. The child did, and died. Mabel feeling much better returned home.
Mabel lived another 15 years but having felt the hand of god never went near St Evroul, or the Abbeys of Normandy, again.
Your land or your life
Mabel’s favourite thing was land. When Arnold de Echauffour, son of William Giroie and enemy of Mabel’s father, returned from making a fortune in Apulia, Italy he presented himself to Roger Montgomerie.
The families of Giroie and Montgomerie were old enemies but Arnold wished for a truce. He presented a fine cloak to Roger and asked that his inheritance be restored to him. Roger, always in need of loyal knights to repel attacks from Maine and Brittany made promises to do so and gave Arnold the gift of free travel across Montgomerie land.
Incandescent with rage Mabel acted quickly. She prepared a special celebratory drink for Arnold and sent her prettiest ladies to entice him to take refreshment before his long journey. However Arnold had heard rumours of Mabel’s wickedness and distrustfully refused their kindness.
Unfortunately Gilbert, Roger’s only brother grabbed a cup and while sitting astride his horse gulped the lot down. Fortunately for Mabel, Gilbert was some miles away when after three days of agony he died. Gilbert had been a chivalrous much loved knight and was mourned deeply by his brother while Mabel stopped any comment about his death with a terrible look.
Thwarted in her poisonous plans, Mabel had no intention of giving up. Using her powerful position as Roger’s wife, quite a lot of bribery and some generous promises, she made friends with Arnold’s Chamberlain the fickle knight Roger Goulafre.
She convinced him to arrange ‘special’ refreshments for Arnold, his lord Giroie of Courville and William Gouet of Montmirail while they met at Courville. Mabel was delighted when reports quickly came back of their sudden ill health.
However Giroie and Gouet were taken back to their own castles by loyal servants and slowly made a recovery. Arnold de Echauffour, son of William Giroie was not so fortunate.
Arnold died on 1 January 1064. His lands stayed with Montgomerie and the Giroie family soon fell on difficult times. Arnold’s infant children were sent to live as poor relations within the households of disinterested lords across Normandy. Their mother took refuge with her wealthy brother Eudo, steward to the Duke of Normandy but the Giroie family would never be powerful again.
Beware ambitious friends
Roger Montgomerie’s influence with the Duke of Normandy combined with his and Mabel’s desire for power was a dangerous combination. The Duke was passionate and paranoid, constantly fearing rebellion from his vassals. When Roger indicated his neighbours were planning dissent, the Duke listened. And this is how Roger and Mabel seized the lands of Eodolph de Toni, Hugh de Grant-mesnil and Arnold d’Eschafuour, amongst many others.
More land for Mabel
When Mabel’s brother, Bishop of Seez, died in 1070 she and her husband inherited his land. She had already inherited more from her father William I Talvas in 1052 as he had decided her brothers were disloyal and unacceptable heirs. This was a great inheritance which included all the lands of Bellême as well as Alençon, Domfront, and Saosmois.
Insecure neighbours and those bullied out of their lands by Roger and Mabel were horrified. All the Duke could see was that power in the southeast of his Duchy was stable.
Mabel’s husband was one of Duke William’s principle counsellors and later chosen to co-regent with the Duke’s wife Matilda while he conquered England. He contributed 60 ships to the invasion, joined the King in 1067 and was handsomely rewarded with the Earldom of Shropshire and so much land he became one of the largest landowners in the Domesday Book.
Mabel’s future seemed assured but she had annoyed one knight too many.
Death of a despot
Even for those violent medieval times Mabel was a challenge. She caused many nobles to lose their lands and become destitute either by force or influence. Hugh Brunel (or de la roche) had lost everything to her Machiavellian ways in 1077. Unable to accept this humiliation, some months later during the night of 2 December 1079 Hugh led his three brothers and forced their way into Mabel’s Château at Bures-sur-Dives. They found Mabel in her chamber relaxing after a bath and cut off her head. The murderers were pursued but escaped by destroying a bridge behind them and leaving Normandy. Mabel’s mangled corpse was buried three days later at Troarn Abbey.
Her epitaph is notable as an example of monks bowing more to “the partiality of her friends than to her own merits” and with restraint states
Sprung from the noble and the brave,
Here Mabel finds a narrow grave.
But, above all woman’s glory,
Fills a page in famous story.
Commanding, eloquent, and wise,
And prompt to daring enterprise;
Though slight her form, her soul was great,
And, proudly swelling in her state,
Rich dress, and pomp, and retinue,
Lent it their grace and honours due.
The border’s guard, the country’s shield,
Both love and fear her might revealed,
Till Hugh, revengeful, gained her bower,
In dark December’s midnight hour.
Then saw the Dive’s o’erflowing stream
The ruthless murderer’s poignard gleam.
Now friends, some moments kindly spare,
For her soul’s rest to breathe a prayer.
Mabel’s tomb survived into the early 18th century, but by 1752 it no longer existed.
Mabel’s son, Robert de Bellême, seigneur de Bellême (or Belèsme), seigneur de Montgomery, viscount of the Hiémois, 3rd Earl of Shrewsbury and Count of Ponthieu, carried on the family tradition. Orderic described him “Grasping and cruel, an implacable persecutor of the Church of God and the poor… unequalled for his iniquity in the whole Christian era’. The legend of Robert the Devil, fathered by Satan himself is based on him. Mabel would have been proud.
Our source for Mabel’s story
Orderic Vitalis, born 1075 is the source of many Mabel tales. As a monk and historian living in the Abbey at St Evroul on the frontiers of Bellême land he reported her wickedness enthusiastically.
The Bellême family were the hereditary enemies of the Giroie family, who were founders of Orderic’s monastery of St Evroul and during this time there was a very uneasy truce.
Mabel was a strong woman with no love for the monks whose self-confidence was an anathema to their ideals of feminine modesty and generosity. Was he unfair in his reports? Orderic was raised in the Montgomerie household and his father served with Roger II de Montgomery so the tales would be quite fresh in the telling.
A fellow monk was Rainald, son of murdered Arnold which may have had an influence the tale but Orderic has a reputation for honesty, if occasional drama.
He did record that Mabel and Roger ‘establish or restore several monasteries like that of Almenêches and St. Martin of Sees …’ if only for their own family interests.
Nearly a thousand years later Mabel’s reputation for being unusually tough in what were already difficult times has survived. Was she wicked? Or were the Norman vassals jealous of a woman with so much power? We will probably never know.
A second wife for Roger de Montgomerie
After Mabel’s murder Roger de Montgomerie married Adelais, a sweet, gentle woman. She encouraged him to make up for his past ill treatment of the monastery of St Everoul with a generous bequest, which he agreed to. Apart from this very little is known about Adelais. We suspect Roger found her rather restful.