|Not our Mabel, but I'm sure she'd approve.|
Medieval women are often stereotyped as rather dull creatures: lacking power or influence, constrained by their narrow position in life. Pious, gentle, helpless pawns of their male-dominated world. Utterly harmless.
And then we turn to Mabel, Dame d'Alencon, de Seez, and de Belleme, Countess of Shrewsbury and Lady of Arundel. Most of what we know about her busy and zestful career comes from Orderic Vitalis, who wrote one of the major contemporary histories of 11th and 12th century Normandy and England. Although medieval chronicles can be erroneous, exaggerated, or downright untruthful, Orderic is considered by modern historians to be a generally reliable source. In any case, even if a fraction of what Orderic recorded about our heroine's life is correct, Mabel was a woman well worthy of inclusion in the hallowed pages of Strange Company.
Mabel was born in Normandy circa 1026 to William I Talvas, seigneur of Alencon and his first wife Hildeburg. Her parents' marriage set the tone for Mabel's life. According to Orderic, William came to despise his wife because "she loved God and would not support his wickedness," so he had her strangled as she was on her way to church.
|Victorian era illustration of 11th century Normans|
Mabel grew up as heiress to the estates of the mighty House of Belleme. She inherited further wealth when her uncle the Bishop of Seez died in 1070. However, all this land and power seemed to never be enough for our Mabel. Her career was marked by an insatiable greed for more properties, and she was not at all finicky about how she obtained them. Some time in the early 1050s she was married to Roger de Montgomery, who later became the first Earl of Shrewsbury.
Roger was a great favorite of Duke William of Normandy, who was soon to earn his famous nickname, "the Conqueror." When William made his history-changing invasion of England, Roger stayed in Normandy to serve as co-regent with William's wife Matilda. When he joined William in England in 1067, the new king rewarded him with an earldom and so many estates that Roger was one of the biggest landowners in the Domesday Book.
If Orderic is to be trusted, Mabel used all this wealth and influence to make a thorough menace of herself. Of all the prominent women mentioned in his chronicles, she stands out as by far the worst of the lot. He literally did not have a good word to say about her. Orderic characterized Mabel as "small, very talkative, ready enough to do evil, shrewd and jocular, extremely cruel and daring." Orderic emphasized Mabel's cunning, her ruthlessness, her rapacity, and her treachery. On top of all this, her son, Robert de Belleme, was an even more savage specimen, "unequaled for his iniquity in the whole Christian era."
For some years, Mabel's family had been at feud with a rival clan, the Giroies--a clash she was more than eager to escalate. Her main target was one Arnold de Echauffour. (Arnold's father, William fitz Giroie, had been mutilated and blinded by Mabel's father at a wedding celebration. Don't ask.) Mabel and Roger convinced then-Duke William to confiscate Arnold's lands and give the lion's share to them. However, in 1063, Arnold regained the Duke's favor, as well as a promise to have his lands restored.
Well. Mabel would have none of that. Obviously, she had no choice but to murder Arnold. When Arnold paid a visit to his Castle of Echauffour (at that time in Mabel's possession) she had him served poisoned wine. However--sensing what was in the wind--he declined to drink it. The wine was instead imbibed by Mabel's brother-in-law, who proved the efficacy of her poisons by dying three days later. (One wonders how Mabel broke the news to her husband. Awkward.) Undeterred, Mabel bribed Arnold's chamberlain to make another poisoning attempt. And Arnold de Echauffour was soon no more.
Although she had some regard for Theodoric, abbot of Saint-Evroul, Mabel had an unsurprising hatred for the clergy. She must have felt they really tried to cramp her style. She had a special dislike for Saint-Evroul, as it had been founded by the Giroie family. She obviously could not treat men of God in quite the same brutal fashion that she handled her political enemies, but she still found ways to make trouble for the monks. In 1064, Mabel deliberately put a huge financial burden on Saint-Evroul by making long visits to the abbey with a large entourage. When Theodoric dared to chide her for the "sinful absurdity of coming with such a splendid retinue to the dwelling of poor anchorites," she angrily retorted, "When I come again my followers shall be still more numerous!"
Theodoric warned Mabel that if she did not repent, "you will suffer what will be very painful to you." Well, that very evening, she did indeed suddenly fall painfully ill. She quickly left the abbey, never to return. (It is generally surmised that Mabel's punishment came less from the hand of God and more from the hand of a monk who slipped something nasty into her dinner.) It is said that in her flight, the ailing Mabel passed the cottage of a farmer whose wife had just given birth. She had the baby brought to her to be suckled, hoping that might relieve her pain. We are told that this unconventional treatment worked. By the time Mabel arrived home, she was in perfect health.
Of course, the infant soon died, but what of that?
Mabel was not one to let such minor setbacks get her down. She made herself feared and hated for her habit of plundering the lands of others. Many nobles, we are told, were reduced to destitution thanks to her antics.
In 1077, she made a fatal error when she seized the hereditary lands of one Hugh Bunel. On December 2, 1079, Bunel had his revenge. He and his three brothers snuck into the castle of Bures, where Mabel was then living. The men ambushed her as she was lying in bed, "having just enjoyed the pleasures of a bath," and lopped off her head with a sword. The killers then fled, successfully avoiding capture.
It's good to know Mabel didn't disappoint us by dying peacefully of natural causes.
Orderic closed his account of Mabel's lively career by quoting her epitaph:
Sprung from the noble and the brave,Orderic couldn't resist snorting that this eulogy was "due more to the partiality of her friends than her own merits."
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!