Historian Sharon Bennett Connolly writes about the women whose lives influenced Magna Carta, or who used Magna Carta to defend their rights; the inspiration for her latest book, Ladies of Magna Carta: Women of Influence in Thirteenth Century England.
When writing my first book, Heroines of the Medieval World, two women in particular stood out for me: they were Matilda de Braose and Nicholaa de la Haye. Their stories – and stories like theirs – were the reason I started my blog, History… the Interesting Bits.
Technically, Matilda and Nicholaa were on the opposing sides of the First Barons’ War – though Matilda was dead before the war began. Matilda was a victim of the dastardly King John and Nicholaa was one of his staunchest allies. However, the women were not polar opposites – both were strong and not afraid to speak their minds – it was their circumstances that led them on diverse paths, eventually.
Born in the 1050s, both women were of a similar age and station in life, as daughters of minor Anglo-Norman nobles. They made good marriages and performed the primary duty of any wife in medieval times, each producing a nursery full of children and at least two male heirs. Their husbands were both loyal supporters of John, both as prince and king. John’s accession to the throne is where their stories begin to alter course.
Nicholaa de la Haye was hereditary castellan of Lincoln Castle, a position held consecutively by her two husbands, in Nicholaa’s name. In 1191 she had held Lincoln Castle during a 40-day siege by William Longchamps, Richard I’s over-zealous justiciar. Longchamps had eventually given up after “Nicholaa, not thinking of anything womanly, defended the castle manfully” (Richard of Devizes).
For their support of Prince John, Nicholaa and her second husband, Gerard de Canville, were relieved of their possessions when Richard arrived home. They were only fully restored to favour when John succeeded to the throne in 1199.
Even after Gerard’s death, early in 1216, Nicholaa continued in her role as castellan of Lincoln Castle, defending it again in the spring of 1216, this time against rebel northern barons. Ever practical, Nicholaa paid the barons to abandon the siege and go home, only for King John to come north and pursue the rebels into the Isle of Axeholme “with fire and sword”.
When John returned to Lincoln, Nicholaa attempted to resign the castle, citing her great age – she was in her 60s – but John refused to accept. Just hours before he died, in October 1216, John appointed Nicholaa as Sheriff of Lincolnshire; she was the first ever female sheriff in England.
In 1217, Nicholaa would go on to endure another siege at Lincoln Castle, her third, this time against a joint force of rebel barons and their French allies. It was to last six weeks and ended with the battle of Lincoln, in which William Marshal, regent for King Henry III, rode to the relief of the castle, stating it would be “dishonourable not to help so brave a lady” (L’Histoire de Guillaume le Marechale). With Marshal’s victory at Lincoln, Nicholaa de la Haye’s unwavering support for the crown had helped to halt and – eventually – throw back the French invasion that had seen Prince Louis try to claim the throne.
Matilda de Braose’s story had started in a similar fashion. She, too, had successfully defended a siege, at Painscastle. Her husband, William de Braose, campaigned with John in Normandy and France, and was with the king when John’s nephew, Arthur of Brittany, allied with King Philip of France and then besieged his grandmother, John’s mother, Eleanor of Aquitaine.
Braose was among the contingent of troops that made a lightning-quick march on Mirebeau to relieve the siege and rescue John’s mother. Falling on the besiegers whilst they were still having their breakfast, Braose himself is credited with capturing Arthur and handing him over to the king.
Imprisoned at Rouen, Arthur disappeared at Easter 1203, during a visit by King John. Chroniclers reported that he had been murdered, even hinted that it was by John’s own hand. Arthur’s body was said to have been thrown in the River Seine, to be retrieved later by monks who secretly buried him.
The secret of what happened to Arthur had to be maintained, to prevent the Bretons from siding, wholeheartedly, with King Philip. As long as they thought their duke was alive, they would try to keep John onside.
William de Braose knew what had happened to Arthur and for several years afterwards enjoyed great favours from King John, including receiving the honour of Limerick, though at a cost of 5,000 marks. Braose was to pay back 500 marks annually; in 1210 he still owed £2,865.
It was under the pretext of trying to recover some of the outstanding debt that John turned against Braose. In an account written by the king himself, John claimed that he was only trying to recover money that he was owed.
Events turned truly sour when John sent messengers to demand Braose give up two of his sons, as hostages to his continued obedience to the crown. Matilda is said to have refused the crown officials with the words: “I will not deliver my sons to your lord, King John, for he foully murdered his nephew Arthur, whom he should have cared for honourably.”
From that moment on, events spiralled out of control for the Braose family, who fled to Ireland to escape the king’s wrath, only for him to follow them there, leading an invasion force. John’s relentless pursuit eventually saw William de Braose fleeing to die in French exile, and his wife cruelly starved to death in John’s dungeons.
The stories of Matilda de Braose and Nicholaa de la Haye led to many questions. Why did Nicholaa continue to support John when she knew what he was capable of? How did Matilda’s life – and death – influence what is, arguably, the greatest charter of civil liberties in history – Magna Carta? Were there more women whose lives influenced Magna Carta, or for whom Magna Carta would be an instrument to defend their rights?
And as I looked deeper, there were so many stories that came to the surface, such as the countess who used Magna Carta to recover land wrongfully taken by the king; the Scottish princesses, hostages, who are mentioned in one of the clauses; and the daughter of King John who would continue the struggle with her husband, Simon de Montfort.
Ladies of Magna Carta was inspired by their stories.
Ladies of Magna Carta: Women of Influence in Thirteenth Century England by Sharon Bennett Connolly is published on 30 May, 2020.
Sharon Bennett Connolly has been fascinated by history her whole life. She has studied history academically and just for fun – and even worked as a tour guide at historical sites. Her particular interest is in medieval women.
Ladies of Magna Carta: Women of Influence in Thirteenth Century England is her third non-fiction book. She is also the author of Heroines of the Medieval World and Silk and the Sword: The Women of the Norman Conquest. Sharon regularly gives talks on women’s history.
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Ladies watching a melee, Codex Manesse, c1305-1315: via Wikimedia
Tree trunk carving of Nicolaa de la Haye by Helena Stylianides, Lincoln Castle: author’s own
Second Battle of Lincoln, Lincoln Castle, 20 May, 1217, from the Chronica Majora by Matthew Paris: via Wikimedia
King John with the Cistercian Abbey of Beaulieu from the Historia Anglorum by Matthew Paris (British Library, MS Royal 14 C VII f.9): via Wikimedia
Corfe Castle, where Matilda de Braose is said to have been starved to death: via Wikimedia