The first in a series of blogs about ancestors,
the past and the truth
Ever notice the media tends to be harder on women than men? They critique their hair, what they wear. If a women is strong she is portrayed as being hateful, mean or—excuse the slur—a bitch. Men are not subjected to such criticisms. You cannot go anywhere that you won’t see this in action: she’s too fat, too short, too skinny, her nose is too long, eyes close together, omg—she wore a pantsuit! There is Miss America, Miss Universe, Mrs. America, Miss Black America—but where is the Mr. America or Mr. Universe? Just stop and try to think of a platform that subjects men to those same demoralizing nitpicking. Tapping my nails on the table, waiting. Fashion throughout history was a means to see women conform. Whatever the era the dress, customs, protocols and positions in life, all were dictated by men’s critical eye and control. Along with the male point of view on the woman’s role in life, they have also managed what we know of how women lived, survived and dealt with their roles in a man’s world.
Now extend that throughout history. There were a few matriarchal societies through the ages, the belief being you cannot tell a man’s true father at birth, but you knew who the mother was. Those societies were stamped out, or consumed by male dominance. This is not a rant of hating men, for I find them endlessly fascinating, only I am humbugged that women’s pasts are increasingly lost to our knowledge due to being relegated to “unknown mother”. There were women over the centuries that seized life and molded the course of their destiny, their fortunes, such as Eleanor of Aquitaine (my 24th great-grandmother). Only rarely have historians portrayed these women in the light of admiration. Randall Wallace, in the screenplay for Braveheart, opens the movie with the line “...history is written by those who have hanged heroes”. Women had often been portrayed as little more than servants to their husbands, a brood mare to bear heirs, and a piece of property easily discarded, once they have worn themselves out birthing babies one after another. They were set aside, locked away in some nunnery— or sometimes died in highly suspect circumstances i.e. murdered— to make way for another younger, richer wife.
I had to wonder about this slant against women as I looked at my first ancestor in this series of blogs about unusual women: Mabel Montgomerie. She has been called many unflattering things, murderess, "l'Empoisonneuse", evil, greedy, wicked—and she paid the price for her deeds—real or rumored slander. However, with history turning a blind eye to granting women their true recognition, it’s very hard to find the facts to refute these claims. I can only ponder and try to be impartial in judging my ancestor, especially since some of the writings about her come from Orderic Vitalis, who was only two years old at the time of her death.
My 31st great-grandmother on my mother’s side, Mabel Montgomerie was born Mabel Talvas dame de Bellême et d'Alençon in Alençon, Orne, Basse-Normandie, France, sometimes around 1030. As often the case for females, the exact date was not noted. Neither was the name of her mother recorded, only singled out as “Hildegard, daughter of Raoul V de Beaumont”. Even in death, Mabel is not allowed to rest in peace, as her tomb has been destroyed due to the hatred of her. She was a wealthy Norman noblewoman. She inherited the lordship of Bellême from her father, Guillaume II "Talvas" de Bellême, seigneur d'Alenço. Mabel was a loyal woman, but that loyalty cost her when her brother exiled their father for various offences—his cruelty was legendary, they say—including killing their mother for daring to disagree with him on the way to church. Being a loving daughter, favorite of her father over her brothers, she accompanied him in his exile, thus earning the amenity of everyone, automatically believing she was “cut from the same cloth”.
Mabel and Guillaume sought the protection of Roger II "The Great" de Montgomerie, 1st earl of Shropshire, earl of Arundel & earl of Shrewsbury. He was one of William the Conqueror’s counselors, but stayed behind for the 1066 invasion of England, actually left in power to run the whole of Normandy. For that, William rewarded him with holdings of two powerful positions in England, and immediately he began building the massive Ludlow Castle. Besides this, he eventually built his honours to number eight-three, over half of England and Normandy. Small wonder, people called him Roger “The Great”.
Mabel saw him as a husband worthy of her goals. The Talvas convinced Roger they were the aggrieved party, and that her brothers were plotting to get rid of her, since Guillaume had named her as his heir. Well, the brothers were plotting, so we have that much truth. Her dowry was worth a king's ransom—if they could get his oldest son off their backs. Mabel came with massive lands, endless wealth and a shrewdness that attracted Roger. He was as ambitious as Mabel, if not more so, thus they seemed a perfect match. Theirs was not only a brilliant political bond, it must have been a marriage of love, since she bore him eleven children! Thus, Mabel became Countess Shrewsbury, Shropshire, Arundel—and eighty other titles—through her marriage to the eminently pious, Roger Montgomerie. Through the ages, Montgomerie men have proved time and again to warm to intelligent wife, relishing the challenge of women willing to step outside of the normal roles afforded females. Following that tradition, Mabel was given free rein to be an equal partner to Roger.
But not in one matter—religion. Montgomerie supported many churches and abbeys, and even built several abbeys on his different fiefs. The biggest thorn in her side was the Abbey of St Evroul. Religious views likely was one their first clashes of wills. She was determined he curtail the huge fortunes he was placing in the hands of these monks and priests. Roger was very devout, and the religious sects ran their monastery on his largess, frequently prevailing upon him to give more than the general tithing. Tithing was required in ancient times—everyone was to give ten percent of their income to the church. Since he inherited control of her lands through the marriage, coin from her holding of Bellême, in northwest France, was going into the hands of these ever-needy monks without a bye your leave. That didn’t sit well with Mabel. Most of this tale comes from writings of the monks, especially the head of the order—Abbot Thierry. He was Roger’s confessor, so in spite of Montgomerie’s ever growing greed, the abbot proved adept at bending his lord’s will on concerns of the monastery. Thierry heard the man’s confessions. It was reasonable he likely knew Montgomerie’s nature, as well as Mabel’s. Since the strong-willed Mabel’s attempt to curtail their monies, we have to take their reporting of incidents with a thimble full of salt.
No matter what, Mabel could not influence her husband on this issue, especially this tug of war with Abbot Thierry. Being a cunning woman, she devised an end run. She began visiting the monasteries, with her full entourage. Castles and the monasteries, in medieval times, were basically required to serve as hotels for traveling lords and ladies. Mabel created a win-win situation. She would go traveling the countryside on the excuse of checking on her husband’s vast holdings, along with her one hundred knights and ladies, and various servants. These abbeys dare not offer insult to the countess, or run the risk of Roger withdrawing his support. They were forced to open their gates and all Mabel and her retinue in, to stay as long as they liked. They would have to feed them—and all the horses. Mabel saved money by not feeding the lot at the Montgomerie honours, and she was draining away the supplies bought with her husband’s monies.
The Abbot tried to reason with her, that they were a poor monastery (which was not the truth and she knew it) and it would drain them completely to support her entourage. Mabel was unmoved by his appeals. When he said feeding one hundred knights, and providing for her “worldly pomp” was simply too much, Mabel said fine, she would leave. But—she would return the next week with one thousand knights! Thierry was furious—a mere woman daring to best him. Likely, he knew he was losing this battle of the wills, so he countered, “Believe me, unless you depart from this wickedness, you will suffer for it!” Much to no surprise, a few hours later at supper, Mabel suddenly was seized by stomach pains. She retired for the evening and the queasiness turned to agony. From this distance, we can assume one of the learned monks put something in her supper, and you can bet the incisively smart Mabel knew it, too. Ceding the battle for the moment, she took her troops and left the monastery. The monks were not content with that bit of mischief. On the way home, Mabel stopped at the holding of Roger Suisnar. Still feeling ill—according to the Abbot—Mabel demanded Suisnar he give her his infant child to suckle at her breast. The child drew the poison from Mabel, who instantly recovered. Only the small child died doing it. Mabel knew the monks had poisoned her, but instead of demanding her husband punish them, she wisely never went to the abbey again.
The next big black mark history sees against Mabel was endlessly hunger for more land—and vengeance against those who had opposed her, her father and her husband. Arnold de Echauffour, the son of Lord William Giroie, presented himself to Roger, seeking his aid. William was an old enemy of Mabel’s father, and there was a long running blood feud between the Montgomeries and the Giroies. Arnold was making his way back from Italy, and stopped to present himself to Earl Roger, hoping to gain favor. Arnold sought to barter a truce between his family and the Montgomeries. He even presented a fine fur cloak to Roger as a gift. He wanted Roger to throw his might behind him, so he could see his ancestral lands restored to his father. As Roger’s holdings were so widespread, he was always in the need of loyal knights, so having one less enemy was worth putting aside old grievances. Arnold swore homage to Roger, who gave him a writ for Arnold and his father to travel across Montgomerie lands without bother, and agreed the Giroies lands in Montgomerie’s hands would be returned to them.
It is reported that Mabel was less than happy with this turn of events. She decided to avenge her father on her own, so it is written. Here is where it’s murky, more rumors than fact, but history seemed determined to paint Mabel as a monster. Tales say she prepared a celebratory drink to seal the pact, and had one of her prettiest ladies take the potion to him, before he left the holding. Whatever the circumstances, Arnold did not trust the daughter of his old enemy, and refused her kindness. Unfortunately, Gilbert Montgomerie, Roger’s only brother, was showing off, grabbed the goblet and gulped it down. Gilbert was some miles away, when he fell ill. Three days later he died in anguish. Roger’s brother had been a valiant knight, and was much loved by all. Roger adored his brother and grieved deeply.
Some time later, Arnold did fall gravely ill. Rumors swirled Mabel had poisoned him by sending some “special” refreshments to him. It seems rather unlikely, if Arnold did not trust her, and proved that by refusing the drink she offered before, why would he accept another such beverage sent from her? Arnold, Lord Grioie, and his chamberlain, Roger Goulafre, all fell ill, and had to be carried back to their castle. Both Goulafre and Lord Grioie recovered with good care. Arnold did not. He died on the first of January 1064. The lands he sought to claim stayed with Roger Montgomerie's possession. After those events, the Giroie family fell on hard times. Arnold’s infant children were sent to live as poor relations within the households of various lords across Normandy. His wife sought refuge with her wealthy brother, Eudo, steward to the Duke of Normandy. The Giroie family would never be powerful again. Who poisoned Arnold? There were several possibilities, but all fault fell on Mabel’s shoulders. Few point at Roger Montgomerie, who gained as much as she did. It’s just too easy to blame a female—just like they blame Helen of Troy for causing the Trojan War.
Roger held great influence with the duke of Normandy, who was paranoid about his vassals rebelling. When Roger hinted this his neighbors were planning just this thing, the duke listened, and was only too happy to have Roger put down the so-called rebellion by striking first and seizing the lands of Eodolph de Toni, Hugh de Grant-Mesnil and Arnold d’Eschafuour, amongst many others. So it was clear, Roger was as devious as Mabel, maybe more so. When Mabel’s brother died in 1070, she finally seized control of that part of the lands of her father. Between Roger and Mabel, they owned so many honours in three countries, that he was as powerful and wealthy as any king.
That sort of influence, and sway with the kings of two nations, naturally fermented jealousy and enemies. Hugh Brunel de la roche was one of the knights who lost everything to Roger and Mabel. Unable to accept the humiliation of losing his ancestral holding, he plotted to take his revenge. During the long night of December 2, 1079, Hugh led his three brothers to force their way into Mabel’s quarters at Château at Bures-sur-Dives. Mabel was relaxing in her chamber, enjoying a bath, when Hugh and his brothers burst in. Before she could raise a cry, Hugh lopped off Mabel’s head with his great sword. Her son, Hugh de Montgomerie gave chase to the murdering brothers; they evaded pursuers by destroying a bridge, knowing those following could not cross the small river due to wintertide flooding. They left Normandy, never to return.
Mabel’s decapitated body was buried three days later at Troarn Abbey. Her tomb was marked by an epitaph.
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. No one knows what became of her body.
History, written by men, painted her as a monster, a poisoner. But you have to wonder how much was really her machinations, and how much was blamed on her because she was an easy target. She was beautiful, smart, aggressive, and dared to take a place in a man’s world. I have to wonder if she is guilty more of those thoughts, than the supposed deeds attributed to her.
Her son carried the mantle of her animosity. Robert de Belême de Montgomerie, comte de Phonthieu, 3rd earl Shrewsbury and Arundel, was known as "Robert the Devil."
Thank you for taking time to stop by and learn about Mabel, a woman ahead of her times. I hope you will continue to join me on the second Saturday of each month, to learn of another colorful ancestor.