With the release of King John’s Right Hand Lady: The Story of Nicholaa de la Haye, I just wanted to share a short extract from the short story I wrote, which was inspired by Nicholaa‘s relationship with King John. The story culminates at the 1217 Battle of Lincoln but it opens as John has arrived at Newark Castle in October 1216, when he should have died…
Long Live the King…
During one of his visits to Lincoln in 1216, either in February or September, King John made a public demonstration of his support for Nicholaa de la Haye, hereditary constable of Lincoln Castle – and a woman! The dramatic scenes as related in the Hundred Rolls, commissioned by Edward I and written down about 60 years after the event, were played out. Nicholaa is said to have met the king at the eastern gate of the castle. A widow since the death of her husband, Gerard de Camville, in January 1215, Nicholaa met King John at the gates of her mighty fortress, Lincoln Castle.
She offered the keys of the castle to the king, the Hundred Rolls told the story:
‘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.” And she retained it as long as King John lived and after his decease she still kept it under King Henry, father of the king that now is.’
When Nicholaa spoke of her ‘great age’ she was not exaggerating. She was probably approaching sixty years of age at the time, a good age for anyone in those days, but John still had great confidence in her. Whether Nicholaa ever intended to resign Lincoln Castle at this point is open to debate. It is just as likely that the event was orchestrated as a public demonstration of John’s continuing trust in Nicholaa’s ability to hold and command the royal stronghold. John had been at war with his barons since the summer of 1215 and the failure of Magna Carta in its aim to ward off war. He had few allies left and those he did have, he needed to hold on to. Nicholaa had held Lincoln Castle for him before, in 1191, when John had led the rebellion against Richard I’s hated justiciar, William Longchamp.
In 1216, she had held it again, against the rebel forces led by her fellow Lincolnshire baron, Gilbert de Gant – that time, she paid Gant to lift the siege of the castle while allowing him to hold the city. King John had then raced to Lincoln, chased the rebels from the city and into the marshes of the Isle of Axholme, with ‘fire and sword,’ before returning to Lincoln and Nicholaa. During the visit to Lincoln, the business of government proceeded apace, with John sending out orders throughout the realm.
There was no rest for the wicked – literally in John’s case – and he was soon back in the field. It was as John was campaigning in the south of Lindsey (Lincolnshire) that ‘grim misfortune struck him, for it was in those parts that the grievous sickness of which he died took hold, gripping him so dreadfully that he was incapable of moving.’ Moving south, just two weeks after leaving Lincoln, the king’s baggage train was lost as he crossed the Wash estuary and within a few more days John was desperately ill.
John was at Lynn when, on the evening of 9 October, John suffered an attack of dysentery. His health deteriorated as he made his way west until he reached Newark on 16 October, from where ‘he could go no further and that was that.’ He died at Newark Castle on the night of 18–19 October 1216 and was buried at Worcester Cathedral, ‘not because he had asked to be buried there but because that place at that time seemed a safe one where his supporters could gather to deliberate on what was to be done next.’
And this is where my short story for Alternate Endings starts:
23 October 1216
John awoke to hear mumbling around him. He turned his head to the right to see three white-clad monks. Cistercians from Swineshead Abbey, John assumed. He had stayed there briefly a few days after falling ill and could vaguely recall the abbot insisting the monks accompany the king to tend to his spiritual needs. John had scoffed at the idea, but the monks had ignored him and attached themselves to his entourage. Now, the three of them were stood side by side, hovering over the bed, praying. He tried to make sense of the Latin words, but his mind seemed to be shrouded in fog. Even listening took a great deal of effort.
John tried once more. Was that the Pater Noster? Yes, and now they have moved on to more prayers. For his soul? Or his eternal damnation?
He had always had a rather fractious relationship with the Church, so either possibility carried weight. John’s mind wandered back to his childhood at Fontevraud, the great abbey so loved by his mother. He had been sent there with his sister, Joanna, to gain an education. He couldn’t recall enjoying being forced to study, but he remembered fondly running through the fields with Joanna, or riding abroad in their free time. Had his parents really thought him suitable for the church? He tried to laugh, but only a weak groan emitted from his dry, cracked lips.
Instantly, all conversation in the room ceased. The monks looked at him expectantly. What exactly they were expecting, John could not surmise. When he made no further sounds, the three tonsured clerics resumed their prayers.
Other conversations in the room were taken up again. Few seemed too concerned with the state of the patient. With great effort, John rolled his head to the other side. The slight movement caused a wave of pain through his head. He closed his eyes briefly, waiting for the worst of the discomfort to recede. As he opened them again, he perceived William Marshal standing by the window, talking to a knight whose back was turned to him. The knight said something to Marshal, turning briefly to the bed to indicate John. They were talking about him. Not such a surprise, given he was the king and even he could sense the spectre of death lurking about the room.
John was startled when the knight looked straight at him, and the king realised he was staring into the eyes of his cousin and enemy, the Earl of Surrey, William de Warenne. The man had sworn allegiance to Louis of France at Winchester, months ago. So, what was he doing here? Now? Was he here to ensure John breathed his last? To take the news back to Louis, so there would be no room for doubt for the French invader. Or were John’s eyes and mind deceiving him, was he still in a pain induced delirium?
The man turned back to Marshal, his face now obscured, and the shape of his back gave John no clues as to the man’s identity. Maybe he had been wrong? The light in the room was fading. Was the night drawing in? No, he just could not keep his eyes open any longer. Merely observing the room had exhausted him and he drifted into a deep, dreamless sleep.
What would have happened if King John had not died in October 1216…?
Would England have been lost?
Find out in ‘Long Live the King…‘
I was not sure about trying my hand at fiction, but there are so many ‘What ifs’ in history that it was hard to resist. Having spent the last two years writing Nicholaa de la Haye’s biography – which will be published in May 2023, I thought it would be quite fun to take one event in Nicholaa’s life and see what might change if that event didn’t happen.
About the Book:
Alternate Endings is a compilation of short stories published by the Historical Writers Forum.
We all know the past is the past, but what if you could change history?We asked eight historical authors to set aside the facts and rewrite the history they love. The results couldn’t be more tantalizing.
- What if Julius Caesar never conquered Gaul?
- What if Arthur Tudor lived and his little brother never became King Henry VIII?
- What if Abigail Adams persuaded the Continental Congress in 1776 to give women the right to vote and to own property?
Dive into our collection of eight short stories as we explore the alternate endings of events set in ancient Rome, Britain, the United States, and France.
Alternate Endings is now available worldwide from Amazon.
Signed, dedicated copies of all my books are available, please get in touch by completing the contact me form.
King John’s Right-Hand Lady: The Story of Nicholaa de la Haye is now available for pre-order as a hardback and Kindle from Pen & Sword Books, bookshop.org and Amazon (UK and US).
In a time when men fought and women stayed home, Nicholaa de la Haye held Lincoln Castle against all-comers. Not once, but three times, earning herself the ironic praise that she acted ‘manfully’. Nicholaa gained prominence in the First Baron’s War, the civil war that followed the sealing of Magna Carta in 1215.
A truly remarkable lady, Nicholaa was the first woman to be appointed sheriff in her own right. Her strength and tenacity saved England at one of the lowest points in its history. Nicholaa de la Haye is one woman in English history whose story needs to be told…
Also by Sharon Bennett Connolly:
Defenders of the Norman Crown: The Rise and Fall of the Warenne Earls of Surrey tells the fascinating story of the Warenne dynasty, of the successes and failures of one of the most powerful families in England, from its origins in Normandy, through the Conquest, Magna Carta, the wars and marriages that led to its ultimate demise in the reign of Edward III. Defenders of the Norman Crown: Rise and Fall of the Warenne Earls of Surrey is now available from Pen & Sword Books, Amazon in the UK and US, and Bookshop.org.
Ladies of Magna Carta: Women of Influence in Thirteenth Century England looks into the relationships of the various noble families of the 13th century, and how they were affected by the Barons’ Wars, Magna Carta and its aftermath; the bonds that were formed and those that were broken. It is now available in paperback and hardback from Pen & Sword, Amazon, and Bookshop.org.
Heroines of the Medieval World tells the stories of some of the most remarkable women from Medieval history, from Eleanor of Aquitaine to Julian of Norwich. Available now from Amberley Publishing and Amazon, and Bookshop.org.
Silk and the Sword: The Women of the Norman Conquest traces the fortunes of the women who had a significant role to play in the momentous events of 1066. Available now from Amazon, Amberley Publishing, and Bookshop.org.
Alternate Endings: An anthology of historical fiction short stories including Long Live the King… which is my take what might have happened had King John not died in October 1216. Available in paperback and kindle from Amazon.
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©2023 Sharon Bennett Connolly FRHistS