Women's Museum of Ireland

Roesia de Verdun

Norman femme sole

Tomb of Roesia de Verdun in St. John’s Church, Belton, Leicestershire (courtesy of Peter & Eileen Crichton)

Roesia de Verdun was born circa 1204, the granddaughter of Betram de Verdun, who was granted substantial lands in Louth after the Anglo-Norman invasion of 1169. He was, by the later twelfth century, a trusted lieutenant of Henry II and his son John, and also owned extensive property in Belton, Leicestershire and Alton, Staffordshire. By 1185, he had erected a manor house at Castletown Mount, Dundalk and subsequently obtained the town’s charter in 1189. His son, Nicholas de Verdun, had one surviving child to leave this great inheritance to – Roesia de Verdun.

Nothing is known of Roesia’s life until she first appeared as a bride in 1225, marrying Theobald Butler, heir to the Ormond lands in Munster. It is worth noting that after her marriage to Theobald she retained her maiden name and, quite unusually, her male children kept their mother’s surname rather than their father’s. This was probably because they were not heirs to the Ormond inheritance (as sons of his second wife) but were de Verdun heirs. Rose seems to have borne a child almost every year during her short marriage. Theobald died at Poitou in 1230 and she became a widow and thus, legally speaking, a femme sole – no longer under the stewardship of a man.

In 1231, shortly after she was widowed, her father died and, in that year, she applied for seisin (ownership) of her inheritance.1 The king authorised the Justiciar (his principal officer in Ireland), Maurice FitzGerald, to grant Rose her lands in April 1233. She was now the legal owner of all her family lands as well as of her dower lands from Theobald (these were lands usually amounting to one third of a dead husband’s holdings, which were granted to his wife for the rest of her life if he died before her). It appears that Rose was in no hurry to remarry as her first act was to pay the fine of 700 marks both for her inheritance and to ensure that she would not have to marry again.2 Rose came into her own as a landholder and proved to be a very capable woman at maintaining not only her husband’s lands but her own inheritance. In 1236 she successfully erected a castle, Castleroche, to defend her lands against Irish raiders: a feat which none of her ancestors had been able to do. This castle, which stands on a rocky outcrop seven miles northwest of Dundalk, was practically impregnable thanks to its position and design. It was a frontier castle between the Gaelic Irish and the ‘English’ of Ireland and would have been viewed by the local population as a blatant display of power. Having successfully built Castleroche, Rose proposed raising another castle, to which the king agreed. 3

Castleroche is the focus of several legends concerning Rose that demonstrate how her actions merged into local folklore. One locally-recounted story centres around a castle window, subsequently called the ‘murder window’, that Rose purportedly ordered a workman thrown from. Another tale describes Rose riding at the head of her men against her Gaelic enemies, the O’ Hanlons. According to the story she was a ferocious fighter and wore body armour. She is largely portrayed as a powerful and sometimes malicious figure, who often behaved like a man and had few scruples. There can be no doubt that in order to successfully erect and maintain castles in thirteenth century Ireland required a woman of remarkable vision and perhaps ruthlessness. The legends reflect a woman of unusual drive and determination.

Not all of Rose’s activities were warlike and she was also extremely pious. In 1239 –1240 she founded the Augustinian priory of Grace Dieu in Leicestershire. As she approached middle age, Rose was beginning to feel pressure to remarry and decided to become a nun by 1242, retiring to her foundation at Grace Dieu. This paved the way for the smooth transition of power to her son, who gained seisin of his lands in 1247 after Rose died. She was buried at Grace Dieu. At the dissolution of the Monasteries, the villagers of Belton removed her body and re-buried it in the parish church there.

Gillian Kenny

1 C.D.I., vol. I., 1171-1251, no. 1923.

2 C.D.I., vol. I., 1171-1251, no. 1923.

3 Close Rolls, 20 Hen. III, m. 9.