Finding my 24th great-grandmother, Ada de Warenne
My journey to know Countess Ada de Warenne began several years ago when my good friend Charlene, a professional genealogist, agreed to my request and took my old box of family history to her home to put it into some reasonable order. She returned several weeks later, having done extensive research into my family line. With additional data she located on www.ancestory.com and other websites, she turned my old box of notes into ten notebooks of family genealogy.
With great wonder, I followed one of those direct lines from myself down the centuries to my 24th great-grandmother, Ada De Warenne. When I saw her name on the paper, I cried. What reasonable person cries at the name of an ancestor? It was an emotion I could not explain, but it was an instant love for her, as well as a deep longing to learn everything about her life.
Those feelings propelled me to go on my first trip across the pond—accompanied by four of my daughters. My enthusiasm was great as I arrived in Scotland, as you can see in excerpts from my journal.
Why do I feel so excited, I thought, as the cab rounded the curve of Bridge Street, but there it was. . . the Nungate Bridge. I had heard that Countess Ada had built the bridge during her residence in the burgh in Haddington. I later learned that the current bridge was built in the 1300’s. That’s how it is over there. So many homes, buildings, statues, walls, etc. are very old and may I say, very beautiful.
My four daughters, Krista, Becky, Rachel, Anna and I traveled to the British Isles the summer of 2014 on a two-week vacation. We planned to see sites in London, then on to Edinburgh, Haddington, and round the trip out with the highlands of Scotland.
The trip to Haddington had been the main focus of my visit to Scotland, but traveling with four daughters was described best by our Edinburgh bed and breakfast owner as we noisily burst through his door for our three-day stay, “You are traveling with four daughters! Is that kind of like herding cats?” he huffed.
“Yes,” I responded with frustration while shushing my girls. “Exactly!”
We had missed the 1:10pm bus from Edinburgh to Haddington, and at first, I thought all was lost. The trip to Haddington and back to Edinburgh would be 100 pounds. “But who cares,” I quickly decided. “I am so close. I have to see Haddington, if only for an hour or two.”
We flagged down a cab, and we were on our way!
On the ride from Edinburgh to Haddington, I told the cab driver the story of my grandmother Ada. I told him that she was family from long ago who walked the earth in a land that was mysterious to me, and yet somewhere deep within me, she and this land were incredibly familiar. It was like I knew her. Who was this lady? I had to know. I had to walk her land with hope that I would feel her spirit there.
By the time we arrived in Haddington, the poor cab driver must have been exhausted with my constant chatter.
“Go and see your grandmother’s bridge,” he said in his broken English, as he pulled off to the side of the road. “I will do you a favor and turn off my meter.” “Go!”
And now, as I walked across the Nungate Bridge and looked out at the idyllic scene of the Tyne River with the swans and their babies gliding effortlessly, seagulls flying overhead, cawing and diving for food, weeping willows hanging wild and untrimmed in the river, I felt emotions I had not expected.
I was home.
Strong emotions of love and wonder I had rarely experienced completely enveloped me as I stood on the Nungate Bridge and gazed on the gentle waters of the Tyne River. This must be euphoria, I thought.
I supposed that I was connecting to some part of my heart and soul through my ancestral line that had previously been unknown to me. The spiritual energy of Haddington and my Grandmother Ada was as much a part of me as my Tennessee and North Carolina roots and other ancestors who had traveled in dreadful ships from England and Scotland to America in the 1600’s. I think that even my DNA was tingling!
As special as that first trip to Haddington was, I was surprised that I learned very little about Ada while there. Very few people had ever heard of her, and there were no books dedicated to her life.
There was something here in Haddington and from Grandmother Ada that I needed to learn, and there was a story here to share. I knew that, somehow, she would be involved in helping me tell her story.
In the summer of 2015, I encouraged my husband Brent to join me in returning to the British Isles. He agreed.
After a few weeks in London, we flew to Inverness, Scotland, located so far north in the Scottish Highlands that it was not yet fully dark when we landed at 11PM. We were picked up by friends, David and Jane Gardiner whom my daughter Becky and I had met briefly the previous year at church. David, a student of British family history and Jane, a gourmet chef, treated us like royalty. Over the next two months the Gardeners kindly took us on several one and two-day outings where we saw parts of beautiful Scotland the average tourist never encounters. Not only did we learn much history of the island nation, but we also admittedly gained a few pounds (and I don’t mean Scottish Sterling Pounds) from Jane’s nightly five to seven-course meals.
Near the end of our two months, David, Brent and I had signed up for a family history conference being held at the John Gray Library Centre in Haddington. All hotels and bed-and-breakfasts were booked, but we managed to rent a little cottage outside of town for a week.
Some writers have commented that they occasionally feel a special influence guiding them. Such was the case at the conference. Brent had gone in early to save me a seat at a presentation. However, I had heard bagpipes playing outside and could not resist running out to listen to them playing in the town square for the weekly Farmers’ Market celebration.
Finally, I forced myself to go back into the conference. By the time I arrived (late) at the lecture, there was only one seat left in the entire room. I didn’t know it at the time but it was next to Helen Robinson, an outstanding historian of both Haddington, Scotland, and my 24th great grandmother, Ada de Warenne. I had not met Helen at the time, so I had no idea who she was. Helen was soon to become an important part of our life and my new quest to gain information on this newly found ancestor.
Some days earlier, I had inquired at the same library regarding books and papers on Ada. We had found little material that even mentioned her name. Then the librarian brought me a paper by Helen, “The ‘King’s’ Palace: A Medieval Royal Palace Revealed,”along with Helen’s email address. Her well-written paper was a timely find for me. Helen and I emailed each other and then spoke briefly on the phone, hoping to find a time we could get together.
Within a day or two, Helen, Brent, and I met up again at the John Gray Library in Haddington. Upon hearing my goals to learn more about Ada, Helen offered to drive Brent and me to various sites. During the next few days, we were on our way and in research heaven as we traveled throughout the area to see many locations important to Ada almost nine-hundred years earlier.
All too soon, it was time for us to catch our ten-hour flight back to Arizona. We bid adieu to Scotland, confident that lasting friendships had been born. My life had changed forever and I knew I would never be the same, having walked the land of my beloved ancestor.
Many more helpful “coincidences” happened this year. Here I sit writing this introduction near Surrey, England, the very area where history indicates Ada was born and raised. Since leaving the British Isles last year, we have corresponded frequently with Helen, David, and Jane. An opportunity came up for us to work on family history near Surrey, England, for six months, with a flat provided. We jumped at the chance, arriving August 10.th
In September, there was a two week break, so we flew to Edinburgh where our incredulous friend Helen picked us up and drove us to a bed and breakfast in Gifford, near Haddington, called “Goblin Ha.” (Legend has it that underneath the building is a great hall once haunted by Halloween goblins.)
The next morning, we caught the bus in front of our hotel and took the short ride through the East Lothian countryside to Haddington. From the window of the bus, I saw beech trees full of green leaves, with hedges of holly and hawthorn, along with beautiful farmland — a place truly rewarding to anyone who loves beauty. Soon the bus stopped and let us off on High Street.
“Bye-bye,” I said to Brent as he stopped to browse at a charity shop. “I’m going to the bridge. I am home now,” I said breathlessly. “Okay,” Brent said. “I will catch up with you later. I know where to find you,” he winked.
Off I went, passing by the old shops I had grown to love the previous year. I walked with a smile on my face while tears filled my eyes. I felt like a little child, with growing excitement that I would soon connect to someone I loved deeply. Sensing that a tender experience would be waiting for me at the bridge, I rounded the curve and there it was–the Nungate Bridge. The sight of it filled my heart with joy — like I was back with an old friend. I was back on the land I loved, the very land and the very place where I feel my beloved ancestor, Ada de Warenne with me. The emotions of it all brought me to tears and immense gratitude.
From my journal September 6, 2016
I am sitting here on my favorite bench by the Nungate Bridge at the River Tyne. A year ago, I went to the river to say good-bye to Haddington. My tears fell freely. My friends, the swans, brought their babies to the bank where I sat—to comfort me.
It was like they spoke to me in my mind, “Don’t cry. You will be back. We will be here. We will watch for you and greet you again. God will bring you back to this place that you love.”
The blessings of heaven and the desires of my heart have brought me again to this place I cherish. I am back on the land where Grandmother Ada walked. Beneath the bridge there is a small island with trees and native bushes where the swans nestle together. It is September and the babies are growing in maturity. I gaze upon the large swans, the parents of these cygnets, reflecting on my visit here last year.
As surreal as I ever imagined, I stand and gaze upon my beloved swans as they swim to me again. The parents show their impressive wingspread as they come to me at the shore, while their young ones follow, as if to greet me with their royal essence. The swans and I, we jointly love this place with a depth that is indescribable. For me, it is a depth of love that is almost painful to bear, both when I am here and when I am away.
And now, with the swans near, I feel Ada’s presence with me here beside the Tyne River. I believe that she lives here in spirit, with her family and those she loves. I can almost see her in my mind as she was in her life, walking as a young mother along the banks of the river, her little ones all around as they run along the stone wall nearby where autumn leaves, gathered by the wind, crunch beneath their little feet. The skirts of Ada’s long dress kiss the ground as she calls lovingly to them.
Suddenly, Brent appeared above me like a sentinel on the bridge. Calling my name, he waved, and then came down to me by the river.
“I found a small carry-on suitcase for you at a charity shop. I’ll get it for you, if you like.” Knowing my penchant for charity shops, he continued with a wink, “Undoubtedly you will find more treasures here in Haddidngton that you will want…need?”
Gratefully, I reflected, “This man supports me and loves me, a woman who is madly in love with her 24th great grandmother….”
After two days of riding the bus from Gifford to Haddington, where we were told, “No rooms available,” Brent found a room in the Golf Tavern near downtown Haddington, just steps from the Nungate Bridge. We jumped at the chance. I could awaken each morning and, in a minute, walk to my happy place. I was so thankful to Brent. It meant so much to me to be near the bridge, with everything around me that I loved.
Daily from the bridge we watched the swans swimming with their little ones.
The swans have taken their morning nap on the little island, and now most of them are up again and back on the river. The mother swan stays nestled at the little island, her head in her feathers, as her little ones swim freely. They swim under the bridge, gather together, turn and swim back, connected to her it seems by an invisible cord of love.
Within a five-minute walk is St. Mary’s Church. History bears account that it is built on a site where a much smaller church was built in 1139, the year of Ada’s marriage to Prince Henry. That early church was most likely built by her father- in- law King David I. St. Mary’s Church is an impressively large stone structure with stained-glass windows, originally completed in 1486 , and restored in the 1970’s. Upon entering the west end of the church, Brent and I gaze upon an imposing vista of the largest parish church in Scotland. The Gothic style of the building is apparent. I attended services both Sundays we were there, and both Brent and I were moved to tears during the services. The message and the music was heavenly.
From my journal September 7-
I am at St. Mary’s Church this morning with Brent. Immediately upon entering, the tears began to flow. Emotions of joy fill my heart! This happens to me so often when I am around Ada’s history. Her spirit is here and is so strong with me at times. I hope that no one notices me as I sit here hunkering down, patting my eyes with tissue and blowing my nose. These are tears of joy filling me with love and wonder!
I imagine that Ada loved her little church that stood on these grounds, and now it is still a living, breathing edifice of worship after all of these years.
I know that, for many years, part of the church was roofless and open to the elements after a siege of Haddington in 1547-1548. But over many years it has been restored to become a grand old edifice, full of history and charm. That must make you proud, as you built the first edifice here, however small or large, we do not know for sure.
Ada must have loved it here. I imagine she loved to worship God and give your alms to the poor. You chose to give your money and your means to the people, churches, and lands of Scotland, although it was your parent’s tradition to give to the people of England. You were somewhat like Ruth of the Bible who followed her husband’s mother and served her. You followed your husband and his family, who became your family. This land of Scotland became your land, and the people of Scotland became your people.
Here in the church, I am reminded of the scripture in the Bible from the Book of Ruth, Ruth 1: 16 “Your people will be my people. Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay.”
The minister today is a lovely woman,tender, wise and well spoken.
“Shepherd God,” she speaks. “Thank you for creating for us, the green pastures and this wondrous earth”.
The choir sings:
Beauty for brokenness,
Bread for the children
Justice and Peace, land for the disposed.
God of the poor, friend of the weak,
Give us compassion, melt our cold hearts.
Pure worship and tender reflection here at St. Mary’s!
Meanwhile, our friend Helen drove us to additional sites which involved Ada, providing historical details along the way.
For eight days in October, 2016, Helen continued to enlighten us on the history of Scotland and Ada’s role in it, which we share throughout this book. On our last day in Haddington, Helen picked us up with our luggage and drove us to her beautiful country home for lunch before taking us to the Edinburgh airport. Her home is surrounded by abundant trees, both evergreen and deciduous, that Helen planted herself years ago. Wildlife often visits her backyard. During those final hours together, we often talked about Ada, her life, and her family. Sadly, way too soon, our two-week stay in Scotland came to a close, and we were on our way back to Surrey, England.
Near the middle of January 2017, we were coming to the close of our work assignment. We took 8-10 days off before we flew home to Arizona searching out more of Ada’s life in the local Surrey libraries and museums.
On our first day, we arrived at the East Grinstead Library around 11am. Brent started pulling books off the bookshelves and piling them up on our table. We proceeded to go through them, one by one. After about an hour, Brent found it — the missing piece of the puzzle to answer the question, where was Ada born? Where did she live when she married Henry, the Prince of Scotland, at age sixteen? It was in the book, A History of Surrey, by Peter Branden, page 134, which showed the connection to William de Warenne, Ada’s father and Reigate Priory. Reigate was less than 22 miles from our flat near Surrey.
That very day, we contacted our friends at work who had developed an interest in my quest, and planned a day that they could drive us to Reigate. Two days later, we were on our way! Piled in their little car, we were bundled up with coats, hats and gloves, preparing as best we could for a cold and windy January morning. Driving through narrow country roads such as Bones Lane, Plough Road, and finally a roundabout onto Weatherhill Road—a few more turns and we were in the town of Reigate.
We decided to stop and ask a few people strolling through the town about the location of a previous castle. They seemed to not be surprised of our inquiry and pointed the way to the museum where a priory was located now. We began our walk to the park and soon found ourselves at the back of a very large gray building. I led the way around to the front of a building that looked to me like a royal palace, with vast manicured land to accompany it.
It was not a royal palace but a private school. The original part of the building was built around 1200 for those people who made their pilgrimage to Canterbury Cathedral. They would stop there during their long journey for rest and refreshment. It was originally built by Ada’s descendants, the de Warenne family, who were known for their humanitarian aid to the poor and for their support of religious worship.
We learned that her father, William de Warenne II, had built a castle less than a half a mile away from the priory. He was given the land in Surrey from William the Conqueror as a reward for his valiancy at the Battle of Hastings. Recent archeological evidence points to the location of the castle and other wooden homes nearby that were built around 900 years ago. Evidence clearly indicates that Ada was born in the town now known as Reigate! Check out the photos of Reigate.
Developing—more to come! 2017-2019. . .
Check out your own ancestors on www.ancestory.com . Maybe there is an adventure waiting for you as you discover who they are!
Reigate, Surrey, England: Ada de Warenne’s Birthplace
There is nothing left of the castle in Reigate, Surrey, England, that was the birthplace of Ada de Warenne (cir. 1120.) But now a beautiful garden and memorial marks the spot.
The medieval village’s original name was Churchefelle, the castle being Reigate, but today the town claims the castle’s name. Beautiful modern-day Reigate is rated among the highest real estate values in the UK.
Ada’s father, William de Warenne II, was the Earl of Surrey until his death in 1138, and his son, William, inherited the earldom. The castle stood on a hill, and looked over the village below. There are no ruins, but a memorial stands, and gardens now fills the space–an inviting spot to come and reminisce as times gone past.
To get to the castle yard, find the stairs to the right of Boots Pharmacy in downtown Reigate. They will take you to this delightful memorial arch built in 1777 by Richard Barnes.
The plaque reads:
“To save the memory of William Earl Warren “who in old days dwelt here, and was a loyal champion of our liberties from perishing like his own castle by the ravages of time.”
The gardens at the top are as peaceful as one would imagine the Garden of Eden
There is also a cave beneath where the castle stood, known as Baron’s Cave, and is open on certain days to the public. Here is the website telling the details.
Crail, Fife, Scotland, UK – Once Home to Ada de Warenne
The medieval royal family of Scotland never had a shortage of castles. Crail, in County Fife, was proclaimed a royal burgh by William the Lion and once was the setting of a castle believed to be often visited by Ada de Warenne. Today there is no castle, only a privately owned tower on the spot where it is thought it stood.
Crail is distinctive with its stone wall that creates a safe harbor. A beautiful town, quaint and clean.
Historical 17th and 18th century buildings are homes and shops of all
kinds, including restaurants, ice cream and souvenir shops, and lobster stands.
The cobblestone streets are well maintained.
Eads Hall, Whitfield, Scotland
In A Pawn for a King, Ada de Warenne, Eads Hall is Ada de Warenne’s first home after she married Henry, Prince of Scotland. The Hall is in Whitfield, Northumberland.
The mansion was originally a hunting lodge, and when Waltheof, the Prince’s maternal grandfather, bought it, he fortified it and added more buildings, making it a proper palace. Waltheof had a sad ending, suffering beheading at the command of William the Conquerer for his part in the Revolt of the Earls.
Prince Henry, who inherited the Earldom of Huntington, took over Eads Hall in the late 1130s. The nearby medieval church, Chapel of St. John, served Eads Hall in those days, and still stands across the brook from where the mansion was located.
After Henry’s death, Ada de Warenne made her home in Haddington, Scotland, and gave the Hall to her chaplain, Robert.
She also gave her land in Whitfield to the nuns at Hexham Abbey.
The chaplain and his family took on the name of Whitfield, and it is said that those who go by the surname today are his descendants.
There is nothing left of Eads Hall today, only the field where once it stood. The trees on the right in the photo line the brook, and St. John’s church stands just beyond them, surrounded by its impressive old graveyard.
The area known as Whitfield is a very small village now. Just an elementary school and scattered homes through the valley.
It is a beautiful drive to the spot, through the moors from the south, and a lovely walk through the church cemetery. But beware of the pretty, Scottish thistles. A serene place to remember Ada de Warenne and her love, Henry, Prince of Scotland.
Have you driven through this area of England/Northumbria? What were your impressions of it?
Edinburg in Medievel Times
Edinburgh in the 1400s, 300 years after Ada’s time, and then it was still only a village with a castle– a fraction of what the city is today.
Where is your favorite place to visit in Edinburgh?