Many people still hold to the idea that all medieval women were quiet, timid, and downtrodden, unable to defend themselves and at the mercy of others. Clearly they have never heard of Mabel de Belleme!
Mabel was a Norman noblewoman, born sometime in the 1030’s to William Talvas de Belleme and his first wife, Haburga. William himself had something of a reputation, hence his nickname ‘Talvas’, or ‘hard shield’, implying his fierceness. He was known for ravaging his enemies’ lands and for punishing them with blinding. Daddy’s little girl, Mabel, was a real chip off the old chopping block, and when William murdered Haberga (supposedly for being too religious), Mabel remained supportive of her father. Not so her brother Arnulf, who drove William from his lands into exile. Mabel loyally departed with her father.
Eventually William weasled his way in with the Beaumont family and married one of the women. The wedding seems like a real happy affair, with William blinding one of his old adversaries that very night. He soon had another son, Oliver, with his second wife, but he made Mabel heiress to all the Belleme lands rather than his new son.
Mabel herself soon found a husband, the up and coming Roger de Montgomery, who was friend to the young, new Duke of Normandy, William (who would of course eventually become ‘the Conqueror). Roger did not fight at Hastings but remained to help William’s Duchess, Matilda (later Queen Consort Matilda) with the regency. He gave William sixty ships and was rewarded with the earldom of Shrewsbury. He also began Arundel Castle in Sussex.
With Roger, Mabel had ten children, nine of whom lived till adulthood. You would think that would have kept her out of trouble but apparently not. She would ride around in great state, taking advantage of local monks’ hospitality by eating them out of house and home. She also continued her father’s feud against the Giroie family, attempting to poison the eldest son, Arnold. She failed when her own husband’s younger brother, Gilbert, picked up the poisoned goblet and drank it instead. (Roger’s feelings on this mistake were not recorded!) Not one to give up, Mabel convinced Arnold de Giroie’s chamberlain to poison his master–and this time her plot succeeded.
Mabel continued on her merry way, filching other people’s lands and castles. However, she finally went too far when she took the castle of Hugh Bunel, who was a distant relative of the Giroies. He was now out for revenge himself…and one night, after Mabel was relaxing after a nice hot bath in Bure Castle, he broke in with his brothers and a party of men, burst into her chamber, and hastily beheaded her.
She was buried at Troarn a few days later. Her effigy survived long enough to be drawn but has now unfortunately disappeared. Of Mabel, the chronicler Orderic wrote she was “small, very talkative, ready enough to do evil, shrewd and jocular, extremely cruel and daring.” Monks were generally not complimentary to ‘strong’ women, but in this case, he appears to be bang on the money.
Mabel’s son Robert de Belleme went on in the family tradition to be a cruel man who imprisoned his own wife (who later managed to escape his clutches.) His favourite stronghold when he inherited the earldom of Shrewsbury was Bridgnorth castle, famous today for its leaning tower. He was sometimes nicknamed ‘the Devil’ and was the inspiration for the sorcerer Simon de Belleme in HTV’s 80’s TV series ‘Robin of Sherwood.’
From her many children, Mabel has millions of descendants, including notable medieval figures and royalty. One granddaughter Adela or Ela married Patrick of Salisbury, whose son, William, was father of the impressive Ela of Salisbury, cathedral founder and female sheriff (and herself ancestor to Edward IV, Richard III and the Nevilles.) Another descendant, William Talvas IV, Count of Ponthieu, married the French Princess, Alys, daughter of Louis VII, and had a daughter Marie, who was in turn grandmother of Eleanor of Castile, the wife of Edward I, so Mabel de Belleme is an ancestor of all English royalty from that time forward.
A new novel on the murderous but rather intriguing Mabel, POISONED CHALICE by J.P. Reedman, is now available in print/kindle.