Catherine Hanley on the 800th anniversary of the Battle of Lincoln.
In May 1217 the realm of England was in chaos. A year previously Louis, heir to the throne of France and a renowned warrior, had invaded; he had been invited by English nobles unhappy with King John’s broken promises. He declared that the crown was his and set about obtaining it by force. Now, twelve months after setting foot on English soil, Louis was in a very favourable position: he was firmly in control of about a third of the country, he enjoyed the support of most of the powerful earls and barons, and John was dead.
In the spring of 1217 Louis split his army in two: he commanded the southern half, which set out to besiege Dover castle, while his northern forces succeeded in capturing the city of Lincoln. It was a moment of pivotal importance for England – all the French had to do was subdue the castle, which was still holding out separately within the city, and the last remaining stronghold in the region would be theirs, entrenching Louis’s superior position. The castle was in the hands of a little old lady, and she would be a pushover, right?
Dame Nicola de la Haye, the hereditary castellan of Lincoln and the sheriff of the county – an unprecedented appointment for a woman at this time – was in her late sixties, no great age now but firmly in ‘crone’ territory in the thirteenth century. She was a widow whose only son had recently died, and she could perhaps have been forgiven for submitting to the French when they surrounded her castle and made violent threats. But she did no such thing: instead she marshalled her defences with bravery and efficiency, holding out against a merciless bombardment all through March, April and early May, and resisting all attempts to force her to surrender.
But by the middle of May the food was running out and the walls were in danger of falling. She needed help.
William Marshal was even older than Nicola, around seventy years of age. He was the leader of the English royalist party, which supported the claims to the throne of the nine-year-old Henry, son of King John, over those of Louis. Through the spring of 1217 he had improved his party’s position by both fair means and foul, cajoling some of the rebel barons back to his side on the grounds that they had only supported Louis because they did not like John, and could not make the same complaints about little Henry; but also breaking several arranged truces despite having given his word to the contrary.
Marshal knew that Nicola was holding out against the siege, but he was also aware that the walls could not stand forever; so when he heard that a large party of French and rebel reinforcements was on its way to join the assault, led by the count of Perche and the earl of Winchester, he knew he had to act.
In 1217 Lincoln was one of the largest cities in England; it was walled and built on a hill, with the castle at the top (north) end, and the river at the bottom. The castle was in a prime position: to the south the defenders could command the steep descent through the town towards the river, and to the west they could look out over the valley of the Trent and the highway. The castle walls were surrounded by a deep ditch and there were two principal gateways: one in the east wall (which is still in use) leading into the city, and the other to the west, giving access to the open country.
The royalists mustered at Newark before marching to Lincoln via Torksey, to avoid using the main road which would have brought them directly into the path of the French (and would mean that they entered the city via the south gate and would have to fight uphill in the narrow streets in order to reach the castle). They arrived early in the morning of Saturday 20 May and split into four divisions of knights and infantry; these would be led by Marshal himself, the earl of Chester, the earl of Salisbury and the bishop of Winchester. There was also a separate group of some 300 crossbowmen under the command of the mercenary Falkes de Breauté.
Meanwhile, a reconnaissance party of French and rebels left the city to assess the oncoming army, but after apparently miscounting the number of knights decided not to attack them out on the open ground – where they might actually have been at their most vulnerable. Instead the French elected to remain within the city; one part of their force was set to defending the city gates, while the rest continued their attack on the castle.
The royalist army split: Chester’s division attacked the north gate, drawing the French that way; meanwhile the crossbowmen slipped into the castle via a postern which opened outside the city walls, and the Marshal himself attacked the west gate. There was some fierce fighting in the narrow streets, close-quarter hacking and stabbing with men on horseback too packed together to mount a proper charge. The royalist crossbowmen stationed themselves on the castle ramparts, raining their bolts down on the men operating the siege machinery and shooting the horses of the French and rebels, which clogged the streets up further. Falkes and his men then took advantage of the chaos and made a sortie into the city to join the hand-to-hand fighting.
The History of William Marshal, one of the principal contemporary sources, provides a flavour of the combat:
Had you been there, you would have seen great blows dealt,
Heard helmets clanging and resounding,
Seen lances fly in splinters in the air,
Saddles vacated by riders, knights taken prisoner.
You would have heard, from place to place,
Great blows delivered by swords and maces
On helmets and on arms,
And seen knives and daggers drawn
For the purpose of stabbing horses.
Slowly the French were forced east and south, down the hill. The count of Perche was killed during an encounter outside the cathedral, apparently due to a lance thrust through the eyehole of his helmet, and this caused the French to hasten their retreat. The royalists now had the significant advantage of fighting downhill in the steep streets, and the French and rebels were forced back and out of the city via the south gate. This gate was very narrow and the congestion caused a last stand – an opportunity not for slaughter, but for the victorious royalists to capture the rebel noblemen for ransom.
After the battle, the city was looted by the victorious army on the somewhat thin pretext that the citizens had collaborated with the enemy; even the cathedral was plundered. So much booty was gained by the royalist army that the battle is sometimes called “Lincoln Fair”. Roger of Wendover, another contemporary chronicler, recounts a sad addendum:
Many of the women of the city were drowned in the river, for, to avoid insult, they took to small boats with their children, their female servants, and household property […] the boats were overloaded, and the women not knowing how to manage the boats, all perished.
It might be nice to think that the veterans Nicola de la Haye and William Marshal greeted each other like old friends and shared a handshake across the broken walls of the castle, congratulating each other on their mutual success, but in fact the opposite happened. In one of the most astonishing acts of ingratitude imaginable, Nicola was removed from the office of sheriff just four days after the battle, and replaced with the earl of Salisbury. This entitled him to have charge of the county; however, he seized the city and the castle as well. Nicola had spent months defending it against enemies only to lose it to an ally. It must have been a crushing blow.
She did not give up. She fought on – judicially, if not militarily – and eventually took control of her entire inheritance after outliving both Marshal and Salisbury, who died in 1219 and 1226 respectively. She continued to run her estates peaceably and efficiently well into her seventies.
The legacy of the battle of Lincoln was considerable, a devastating loss for Louis and his allies. Virtually all his leading barons and knights were captured, and, although the war did not end until after a naval engagement at Sandwich in August and a subsequent treaty, Lincoln proved to be a decisive turning point. The bravery and resistance of Nicola and her allies went a long way towards ensuring that the throne of England passed to King Henry III rather than King Louis I.
Dr Catherine Hanley is a historian specialising in warfare during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. She is the author of Louis: the French prince who invaded England (Yale University Press, 2016), and also a series of novels set during the time of the conflict. The battle of Lincoln forms the backdrop to the second book in the series, The Bloody City (The History Press, 2013).
Find out more about William Marshal, the ‘greatest knight’.
- The Observatory Tower, Lincoln Castle © DncnH, Wiki Commons
- Mediaeval woman in battle © British Library
- William Marshal effigy in Temple Church, London © Kjetilbjørnsrud from no