Nichola de la Haye, England’s Forgotten Heroine

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View, from the castle. of Lincoln Cathedral

Nichola de la Haye is one of those very rare women in English history. She is renowned for her abilities, rather than her family and connections. In a time when men fought and women stayed home, Nichola de la Haye held Lincoln Castle against all-comers.

The eldest daughter and co-heiress of Richard de la Haye and his wife, Matilda de Verdun, she was probably  born in the early 1150s. Richard de la Haye was a minor Lincolnshire lord; in 1166 he was recorded as owing 20 knights’ fees, which had been reduced to 16 by 1172. When he died in 1169, Nichola inherited her father’s land in Lincolnshire and his position as castellan of Lincoln Castle, a position she would hold for over 30 years.

Nichola was married twice, her first husband, William Fitz Erneis, died in 1178. Before 1185 she married Gerard de Camville, son of Richard de Camville, admiral of Richard I’s crusading fleet during the 3rd Crusade. Although her first marriage was probably childless, Nichola and Gerard had at least 3 children; Richard, Thomas and Matilda.

Nichola’s husbands each claimed the position of castellan of Lincoln Castle by right of his wife; but Nichola seems to have been far from the normal subservient wife. When her husband was not in the castle, she was left in charge rather than an alternative, male deputy.

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Lincoln castle walls

Nichola first comes to the attention of the chroniclers in 1191, when Prince John made a play for his brother Richard’s throne. Gerard de Camville was a supporter of John and joined him at Nottingham Castle, leaving Nichola to hold Lincoln. Richard I’s Chancellor, William Longchamps had headed north to halt John’s coup and laid siege to Lincoln Castle.

The formidable Nichola refused to yield, holding out for 40 days before Longchamps raised the siege following the fall of the castles at Tickhill and Nottingham. Amusingly, Richard of Devizes said of this defence of Lincoln Castle, that she did it ‘without thinking of anything womanly’.

In 1194, on the king’s return, Camville was stripped of his positions as Sheriff of Lincolnshire and Castellan of the castle; only having it returned to him on the accession of King John in 1199.

Gerard de Camville died around 1215 and, although now a widow, it seems the castle remained in Nichola’s hands. On one of King John’s visits to inspect the castle’s defences in either 1215 or 1216 there was a rather dramatic display of fealty from Nichola :

And once it happened that after the war King John came to Lincoln and the said Lady Nichola 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

As we all know, King John’s reign wasn’t exactly smooth sailing. He lost his French lands and was held to account by the barons of England for  numerous examples of maladministration, corruption and  outright murder. In 1215 he had been forced to seal the Magna Carta in order to avoid war. Although it eventually came to be considered a fundamental statement of English liberties, as a peace treaty Magna Carta failed miserably. Within months John had written to Pope Innocent III and the charter had been declared null and void; the barons were up in arms.

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The postern gate, through which William Marshal, and his relieving force, entered Lincoln Castle

The rebels invited the king of France to take the throne of England; instead Philip II’s son, Louis (the future Louis VIII), accepted the offer and was hailed as King of England in London in June of 1216.

As Louis consolidated his position in the south, John made an inspection of Lincoln castle in September 1216. During the visit Nichola 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.

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.

Meanwhile, Louis’ forces, under the Comte du Perche, headed north and, in early 1217, took the City of lincoln and laid siege to the castle with a small force. Now in her 60s Nichola de la Haye took charge of the defences. Prince Louis  personally travelled up to Lincoln to ask for her surrender, assuring her no one would be hurt, but Nichola refused.

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The Battle of Lincoln, 1217

When the small force proved insufficient to force a surrender, the French had to send for reinforcements. For almost 3 months – from March to mid-May – siege machinery bombarded the south and east walls of the castle. On the 20th May William Marshal arrived, from the north-west, with a relieving force. Having taken the North Gate of the city walls, his army proceeded to attack the besieging forces and routed the enemy; the enemy’s commander, the Comte du Perche, was killed in the fighting.

The city, which had supported the rebels and welcomed the French, was sacked and looted by the victorious army; the battle becoming known as the Lincoln Fair, as a result.

The Battle of Lincoln turned the tide of the war. The French were forced to seek peace and returned home. Magna Carta was reissued and Henry III’s regents could set about healing the country.

In a magnificent demonstration of ingratitude, within 4 days of the relief of the Castle, Nichola’s position of Sheriff of Lincolnshire was given to the king’s uncle William Longspee, Earl of Salisbury, who took control of the city and seized the castle.

Not one to give up easily Nichola 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 Nichola held the city and the castle.

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Magna Carta

Nichola’s granddaughter and heiress, Idonea – daughter of Nichola’s eldest son Richard – was married to Salisbury’s son, William II Longspee; the couple inherited the de la Haye and Camville lands on Nichola’s death. The settlement was not ideal, however, and some wrangling seems to have continued until Salisbury’s death in 1226.

A staunchly independent woman, she issued some 25 surviving charters in her name. She made grants to various religious houses, including Lincoln Cathedral, and even secured a royal grant for a weekly market on one of her properties.

A most able adversary for some of the greatest military minds of the time, and a loyal supporter of King John, she was unique among her peers. Although praised by the chroniclers, they seemd to find difficulty in describing a woman who acted in such a fashion;  the Dunstable annals refer to her as a ‘noble woman’, saying she acted ‘manfully’. One cannot fail to feel admiration for a woman who managed to hold her own in a man’s world, who fought for her castle and her home in a time when women had so little say over their own lives – and at such an advanced age. Her bravery and tenacity saved Henry III’s throne.

Not surprisingly, Henry III referred to her as ‘our beloved and faithful Nichola de la Haye’.

Nichola de la Haye, the woman who saved England, lived well into her 70s. By late 1226 she had retired to her manor at Swaton, dying there in 1230. She was buried in St Michael’s Church, Swaton in Lincolnshire.

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Footnote: ¹Irene Gladwin: The Sheriff; The Man and His Office

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Photos of Lincoln Castle, copyright Sharon Bennett Connolly 2015.

Picture of the Battle of Lincoln and Magna Carta are courtesy of Wikipedia.

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Sources: 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; The Sheriff: The Man and His Office by Irene Gladwin; Elizabeth Chadwick; Nick Buckingham; swaton.org.uk.

Edmund Crouchback, Edward I’s Loyal Brother

Arms_of_Edmund_Crouchback,_Earl_of_Leicester_and_Lancaster.svgThe fourth child and second son of Henry III and his Queen, Eleanor of Provence,  and named to honour the Old English royal saint, Edmund was born in London on 16th January 1245.

From an early age, Edmund was involved in his father’s schemes to extend Angevin influence across Europe; in 1254 Henry accepted the crown of Sicily from the Pope for the 9-year-old Edmund, but this came to nought and he was to be officially deprived of the kingdom in 1266, when the Pope handed Sicily to Henry’s brother-in-law, Charles of Anjou.

Henry and Eleanor are known to have been devoted parents and had a very close relationship with all their children. However, Edmund grew up in a time of great upheaval in the kingdom. Henry was locked in a power struggle with his barons, led by his brother-in-law, Simon de Montfort, Earl of Leicester. The barons were against expensive entanglements in Europe – such as Edmund’s claim to the Sicilian crown – and what they saw as Henry’s inept and ineffective rule in general.

BodleianDouce231Fol1rEdCrouchbackAndStGeorgeThe conflict known as the Barons’ War would lead to what is now seen as the first recognisable English parliament, and to the eventual defeat and destruction of Simon de Montfort at the Battle of Evesham in 1265.

Although Edmund’s youth during the war years meant he took no major part in the conflict, following de Montfort’s death, Edmund was given his lands and titles, including the castle at Kenilworth, which was still holding out against the king. Edmund commanded the Siege of Kenilworth, which held out for 6 months, until starvation forced the garrison’s capitulation.

A less-than-chivalric move in 1269 saw Edmund and his older brother, Edward, conspiring against Robert de Ferrers, Earl of Derby, a former Montfort supporter, depriving him of his titles and lands – all of which were passed to Edmund.

In April of the same year, Edmund married Avelina de Forz, daughter of the Earl of Devon and Aumale. The marriage produced no children and Avelina died in 1274.

In 1268 Edward and Edmund had both taken the cross, promising to take part in Crusade to the Holy Land. Although logistics meant they didn’t leave immediately, the brothers travelled separately and Edmund arrived in the Holy Land in September 1271. It is likely that his soubriquet of ‘Crouchback’ comes from him wearing a cross on his back during the Crusades, as there is no evidence of any physical deformity.

After some minor victories, but realising their force wasn’t big enough to retake the Holy Land, and reinforcements from Europe were not forthcoming, Edward signed a 10 year truce with the Muslim leader, Baibars. The following month, May 1272, Edmund sailed for home.

150px-BlancheArtoisHenry III died in November 1272 and Edmund’s older brother ascended the throne as Edward I. Edmund was loyal to his brother, throughout his reign, playing a supporting role, both militarily and diplomatically. In 1276, Edmund married again; to Blanche of Artois, the widowed Countess of Champagne, whose daughter, Jeanne of Navarre, would marry Philip IV of France in 1284, making Edmund step-father to the French Queen.

Blanche would outlive Edmund, dying in Paris in 1302. They had 4 children together. Thomas was born before 1280 and was executed on the orders of Edward II, following a failed rebellion and his defeat at the Battle of Boroughbridge. Their second son, Henry would eventually succeed to his brothers titles of Earl of Lancaster and Leicester. Born around 1281, he married Matilda, daughter of Sir Patrick de Chaworth, and they had 7 children together; their eldest son being Henry of Grosmont, 1st Duke of Lancaster. A third son, John, Lord of Beaufort and Nogent, was born before May 1286 and died around 1317, leaving no children. Their only daughter, Mary, died young in France.

In Edward’s 1277 Welsh campaign Edmund, the biggest landowner in south Wales, was given the command of the southern army. This second, smaller contingent of the invasion of Wales provided support to Edward’s main army. Having set out shortly after 10th July, Edmund’s force drove deep into Wales, facing little opposition compared to Edward’s army. The main landholders of the south had already capitulated, or had fled to join the Welsh prince, Llewellyn, in the north. Edmund’s army had reached their objective of Aberystwyth by 25th July and, at the start of August, began the construction of the castle there. By September the war was over, Edmund disbanded his army on the 20th – leaving a small contingent to garrison the castle – and returned to England.

Edmond1In 1294 Edmund used his familial connections with the French crown to broker a peace deal with France; an agreement intended to foster a long-lasting peace and to see his widowed brother Edward married to Margaret, Philip IV’s sister. Edmund agreed to hand over several cities, including Bordeaux, in Gascony, on the understanding they would be returned to Edward on his marriage.

The French had no intention of returning the Gascon lands, and in April 1294, Edmund realised he had been duped; the French ejected the English Seneschal of Gascony and Edward prepared an invasion force, ordered to muster on 1st September.

However, rebellion in Wales meant the postponement of the Gascon expedition and Edmund and his forces were ordered to Worcester. The Welsh having been subdued and Edmund having recovered from unspeicifed illness that struck him at the end of 1295, Edmund and his army finally set sail for Gascony in January 1296.

It was to be Edmund’s last campaign. The French were well entrenched and the English failed to retake Bordeaux, or any of the towns along the Garonne. His money running out, Edmund was forced to retire to Bayonne, where he fell sick, dying there on 5th June 1296.

A devastated Edward I called on his churchmen to pray for ‘our dearest and only brother, who was always devoted and faithful to us…and in whom valour and many gifts of grace shone forth’.

He was buried in Westminster Abbey, recently completed by his father, Henry III.

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Pictures of Edmund’s coat of arms, seal and Edmund with St George, and of Blanche of Artois, courtesy of Wikipedia.

Further reading: Marc Morris A Great and terrible King; Sara Cockerill Eleanor of Castile: Shadow Queen; Roy Strong The Story of Britain; Mike Ashley The Mammoth Book of British Kings & Queens; Derek Wilson The Plantagenets; Alison Weir Britain’s Royal Families.