Saturday 20th May, 2017, marked the 800th anniversary of one of Medieval England’s most decisive battles. The Second Battle of Lincoln, also known as “The Lincoln Fair”, rescued England from the clutches of Louis, Dauphin of France and future King Louis VIII.
England had been in turmoil during the last years of the reign of King John, with the barons trying to curtail the worst of his excesses. It had been hoped that he 1215 issuing of Magna Carta would prevent war, but when John reneged on the Great Charter, war was inevitable. England’s disgruntled barons even went so far as to write to Philip II, King of France, and invite his son, Louis, to come and claim the throne. Louis had jumped at the chance and landed on England’s shores in 1216.
Strategically placed in the centre of the country, Lincoln was a target for the rebel barons and their French allies. An important Royalist stronghold, it was held by the redoubtable hereditary castellan, Lady Nicholaa de la Haye; it had already been under siege in both 1215 and 1216. In 1215, the northern rebels had been paid to go away, while the 1216 besiegers – including the King of Scotland – fled as John’s army advanced on the city. It was probably after the 1216 siege that Nicholaa made a show of relinquishing her post as castellan; however, John had other ideas:
And once it happened that after the war King John came to Lincoln and the said Lady Nicholaa went out of the eastern gate of the castle carrying the keys of the castle in her hand and met the king and offered the keys to him as her lord and said she was a woman of great age and was unable to bear such fatigue any longer and he besought her saying, “My beloved Nicholaa, I will that you keep the castle as hitherto until I shall order otherwise”.¹
John went even further to show his trust in Nicholaa, who was a long-time supporter of the unpopular king. As Louis consolidated his position in the south, John made an inspection of Lincoln castle in September 1216. During the visit Nicholaa de la Haye, who held the castle for John, even though the city supported the rebels, was appointed Sheriff of Lincolnshire in her own right, a very unusual move in a male-dominated world.
Moving south, just 2 weeks later, the king’s baggage train was lost as he crossed the Wash estuary and within a few more days John was desperately ill. King John died at Newark on 19th October 1216, with half his country occupied by a foreign invader and his throne now occupied by his 9-year-old son, Henry III. The elder statesman and notable soldier William Marshal, Earl of Pembroke was appointed Regent and set out to save the kingdom.
Following the coronation of young Henry, Magna Carta was reissued and some of the rebel barons returned to the fold, not wanting to make war on a 9-year-old king. However, Louis still had powerful supporters and did not seem keen to give up on his dream to rule England.
Louis’ forces, under the Comte de Perche, marched north intending to relieve Mountsorel Castle, which was being besieged by the Earl of Chester. Chester had withdrawn as the French arrived and Perche’s forces diverted to Lincoln. In early 1217, they took the city and laid siege to the castle with a small force. Now in her 60s, Nicholaa de la Haye took charge of the defences, with the help of her lieutenant, Sir Geoffrey de Serlant. Shortly afterwards, Prince Louis personally travelled up to Lincoln to ask for her surrender, assuring her no one would be hurt, but Nicholaa refused to yield.
For almost 3 months – from March to mid-May – siege machinery bombarded the south and east walls of the castle. When the small force proved insufficient to force a surrender, the French had to send for reinforcements. This meant that half of Louis’ entire army was now outside the gates of Lincoln Castle and provided William Marshal with an opportunity; one decisive battle against Louis’ forces at Lincoln could destroy the hopes of Louis and the rebel barons, once and for all.
Risking all on one battle was a gamble, but one that Marshal was determined to take. Spurred on by the chivalrous need to rescue a lady in distress – the formidable Lady Nicholaa – Marshal ordered his forces to muster at Newark by 17th May. While the young king, Henry III, waited at Nottingham, Marshal’s forces prepared for war. The papal legate, Guala, absolved the Royalist army of all their sins – of all the sins they had committed since their birth – and excommunicated the French forces, before riding to join the king at Nottingham.
While at Newark, Marshal set out the order of battle, although not without some argument. The Norman contingent and Ranulf, earl of Chester, both claimed the right to lead the vanguard. However, when Ranulf threatened to withdraw his men, it was decided to acquiesce to his demands.
Lincoln is an unusual city; its castle and cathedral sit at the top of a hill, with the rest of the city to the south, at the hill’s base. In the 12th century it was enclosed in a rectangular wall, which had stood since Roman times, with 5 gates, and the castle abutting the wall at the north-west corner. William Marshal decided not to attack Lincoln from the south, which would have meant heading up the Fosse Way (the old Roman road) and forcing a crossing of the River Witham, before climbing the steep slope to the castle and cathedral (so steep, the road going up is called Steep Hill to this day). Instead he chose to take a circuitous route, so he could come at the city from the north-west and attack close to the castle and cathedral, directly where the enemy troops were concentrated.
On the 19th May Marshal’s forces crossed the River Trent and set up camp at Torksey, about 8 miles to the north of Lincoln, with some troops possibly camped 3 miles closer to the city, at Stowe.
The English commanders included William Marshal, earl of Pembroke, his son, Young William Marshal, and nephew, John Marshal, in addition to Ranulph, Earl of Chester, William Longspée, earl of Salisbury, Peter des Roches, bishop of Winchester, and Faulkes de Breauté. They led 406 knights, 317 crossbowmen and a large number of sergeants-at-arms, foot soldiers and camp followers.
Although Louis was in charge of the French forces in England, those in Lincoln were led by Thomas, Comte de Perche, himself a grandson of Henry II’s daughter Matilda, and therefore a cousin of King Henry III; the commanders, of the English rebels in the city included Robert FitzWalter and Saer de Quincey. They led over 600 knights and several thousand infantry.
At various points in the lead up to the battle, William Marshal is known to have made some stirring speeches. When battle was imminent, he made one more;
Now listen, my lords! There is honour and glory to be won here, and my opinion is that we have the chance to free our land. It is true that you can win this battle. Our lands and our possessions those men have taken and seized by force. Shame be upon the man who does not strive, this very day, to put up a challenge, and may the Lord our God take care of the matter. You see them here in your power. So much do I fully guarantee, that they are ours for the taking, whatever happens. if courage and bravery are not found wanting.
And, if we die …, God, who knows who are his loyal servants, will place us today in paradise, of that I am completely certain. And, if we beat them, it is no lie to say that we will have won eternal glory for the rest of our lives and for our kin. And I shall tell you another fact which works very badly against them: they are excommunicated and for that reason all the more trapped. I can tell you that they will come to a sticky end as they descend into hell. There you see men who have started a war on God and the Holy Church. I can fully guarantee you this, that God has surrendered them into our hands.
Let us make haste and attack them, for it is truly time to do so!²
As with all battles, the information gets confusing as battle commences, timings get distorted and facts mixed. No two sources give exactly the same information. So the story of a battle is a matter of putting the pieces together and making sense of various snippets of information – much as it would have been for the commanders on the day.
In the dawn of 20th May the English Royalist army marched south towards Lincoln. Marshal had hoped that, on reaching the plain in front of the city walls, the French would come out and meet him and a pitched battle would be fought outside of the city. Marshal was resting everything – the very future of England – on the outcome of that one battle. However, it seems that, although the French leaders did come out and take a look at the forces arrayed before them, they then chose to stay inside the city walls and wait for the Royalists to come to them.
William Marshal’s nephew, John Marshal was sent to the castle, to ascertain the situation within the city, but as he approached, Nicholaa’s deputy, Geoffrey de Serlant, was making his way out to report to the English commanders that the castle was still in Nocholaa’s hands. It is not hard to imagine Nicholaa or her deputy climbing the tallest towers of the castle, to watch out for an approaching relief force. Seeing the Marshal’s banners appearing in the north must have been an amazing feeling.
The castle itself had 2 main gates, one in the eastern wall and one in the west, with postern gates were in the Lucy Tower to the south-east of the castle and the Cobb Hall to the north-east corner. On ascertaining that the castle still held, Peter des Roches then made his way inside, probably by the postern gate in Cobb Hall. Having met with Nicholaa de la Haye in the Lucy Tower, it seems he then made his way into the town via the postern, to check the defences and try to find a way into the city.
Des Roches’ reconnaissance proved successful and he reported to Marshal that there was a gate within the north-west wall of the city, which, although blockaded, could be cleared. As Marshal set men to clearing the blockaded gate, the earl of Chester was sent to attack the North Gate as a diversion and Faulkes de Breauté took his crossbowmen into the castle via the West Gate and set them on the ramparts above the East Gate, so their bolts could fire down on the besiegers.
De Breauté fell into disgrace in 1224 and so the major source for the Battle of Lincoln – the Histoire de Guillaume le Maréschale – plays down his role in the battle. However, his crossbowmen managed to keep the French forces focussed on the castle, rather than Marshal’s forces outside the city. De Breauté did make a sortie out of the East Gate, to attack the besiegers, but was taken prisoner and had to be rescued by his own men; although at what stage of the battle this happened is uncertain.
It took several hours, it seems, for Marshal’s men to break through the gate; but when they did, the 70-year-old William Marshal was so eager to lead the charge that he had to be reminded to don his helmet. Once safely helmeted, he led his men down West Gate, turning right to approach the castle from the north, his men spilling into the space between castle and cathedral, where the main force of the besiegers were still firing missiles at the castle.
The English forces took the enemy so totally by surprise that one man – according to the Histoire he was the enemy’s ‘most expert stonethrower’² – thought they were allies and continued loading the siege machinery, only to head struck from his shoulders.
Almost simultaneously, it seems, the earl of Chester had broken through the North Gate and battle was joined on all sides. Vicious, close-quarter combat had erupted in the narrow streets, but the fiercest fighting was in front of the cathedral. In the midst of the melee, William Longspée took a blow from Robert of Roppesley, whose lance broke against the earl. The aged Marshal dealt a blow to Roppesley that had the knight who, having crawled to a nearby house ‘out of fear, [he] went to hide in an upper room as quickly as he could’.³
The Comte de Perche made his stand in front of the cathedral, rallying his troops; and it was there he took a blow from Reginald Croc which breached the eye slit of his helmet. Croc himself was badly wounded and died the same day. The Comte continued to fight, striking several blows to the Marshal’s helmet (the one he had almost forgotten to don), before falling from his horse. It was thought the Comte was merely stunned until someone tried to remove his helmet and it was discovered that the point of Croc’s sword had pierced the count’s eye and continued into his brain, killing him.
With the death of their leader, the French and rebel barons lost heart and started pulling back. They fled downhill, to the south of the city. Although they briefly rallied, making an uphill assault, but the battle was lost and there was a bottleneck at the South Gate and the bridge across the Witham as the enemy forces fled. The rebel leaders, Saer de Quincey and Robert FitzWalter were both taken prisoner, as were many others. In total, about half of the enemy knights surrendered.
A sad story is related that, after the battle, women took to the river with their children, in small boats, to escape the attentions of the victorious army. However, not knowing how to control the overloaded craft, many capsized and the women and children drowned.
The city, which had supported the rebels, was sacked, churches included; the excommunication seen as permission that everything was fair game. The battle earned the name ‘The Lincoln Fair’, probably because of the amount of plunder gained by the victorious English army.
Immediately the battle was won, William Marshal, earl of Pembroke, rode to Nottingham to inform the king of the victory. The Battle of Lincoln turned the tide of the war. On hearing of the battle, Louis immediately lifted his siege of Dover Castle and withdrew to London. His situation became desperate, his English allies were bristling against the idea of Louis giving English land as reward to his French commanders and were beginning to see the young Henry III as rightful king – after all, the son couldn’t be blamed for the actions of the father. In August of the same year Louis was soundly defeated at sea in the Battle of Sandwich, off the Kent coast. By September he had sued for peace and returned to France.
In an incredible demonstration of ingratitude, within 4 days of the relief of the Castle, Nicholaa de la Haye’s position of Sheriff of Lincolnshire was given to the king’s uncle William Longspée, Earl of Salisbury, who took control of the city and seized the castle. However, not one to give up easily Nicholaa travelled to court to remind the king’s regents of her services, and request her rights be restored to her. A compromise was reached whereby Salisbury remained as Sheriff of the County, while Nicholaa held the city and the castle.
The battle had been a magnificent victory for the 70-year-old regent, William Marshal, Earl of Pembroke, and is a testament to his claim to the title ‘The Greatest Knight’. He staked the fate of the country on this one battle and pulled off a decisive victory, saving his king and country.
Footnotes: ¹Irene Gladwin: The Sheriff; The Man and His Office; ²Histoire de Guillaume le Maréschal translated by Stewart Gregory; ³ Quoted in Thomas Asbridge’s The greatest Knight
All photos from Lincoln – Castle, Cathedral and Magna Carta, © Sharon Bennett Connolly 2015. All other pictures are courtesy of Wikipedia.
Sources: King John by Marc Morris; Henry III The Son of Magna Carta by Matthew Lewis; The Demon’s Brood by Desmond Seward; The Greatest Knight by Thomas Asbridge; The Knight Who Saved England by Richard Brooks; The Plantagenet Chronicles edited by Elizabeth Hallam; Brassey’s Battles by John Laffin; 1215 The Year of Magna Carta by Danny Danziger & John Gillingham; The Life and times of King John by Maurice Ashley; The Story of Britain by Roy Strong; The Plantagenets, the Kings Who Made England by Dan Jones; England Under the Norman and Angevin Kings by Robert Bartlett; lincolnshirelife.co.uk; catherinehanley.co.uk; magnacarta800th.com; lothene.org; lincolncastle.com; Nick Buckingham; The Sheriff: The Man and His Office by Irene Gladwin; Elizabeth Chadwick; swaton.org.uk; Histoire de Guillaume le Mareschal translated by Stewart Gregory, usna.edu.
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©2017 Sharon Bennett Connolly