“The Lincoln Fair” – the Battle that Saved England

Magna Carta

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.

The Observatory Tower, Lincoln Castle

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.

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Nicholaa de la Haye, Lincoln Castle

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.

Coronation of Louis VIII and Blanche of Castile. Louis’ claim to England was through his wife, a granddaughter of Henry II

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. Perche was also related to William Marshal, both were descended from sisters of Patrick, 1st earl of Salisbury. 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.

Coat of arms of William Marshal

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.

The West Gate of Lincoln Castle

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.

Lincoln Cathedral viewed from the Castle. The fiercest fighting was between the 2 great buildings

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.

The Exchequer Gate, which lies between the Castle and Cathedral

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.

Lincoln Cathedral

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.

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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

The stories of Nicholaa de la Haye, William Marshal and the Battle of Lincoln all feature in my forthcoming book, Ladies of Magna Carta: Women of Influence in Thirteenth Century England.

All photos from Lincoln – Castle, Cathedral, Nicholaa de la Haye and Magna Carta, © Sharon Bennett Connolly 2015. All other pictures are courtesy of Wikipedia.

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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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My Books

Coming soon! 

Ladies of Magna Carta: Women of Influence in Thirteenth Century England will be released in the UK on 30 May 2020 and is now available for pre-order from Pen & SwordAmazon UK and from Book Depository worldwide. It will be released in the US on 2 September and is available for pre-order from Amazon US.

Also by Sharon Bennett Connolly:

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 UK,  Amberley Publishing, Book Depository and Amazon US.

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 UK, Amazon US and Book Depository.

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You can be the first to read new articles by clicking the ‘Follow’ button, liking our Facebook page or joining me on Twitter and Instagram.

©2017 Sharon Bennett Connolly

The Kidnapped Countess

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Denbigh Castle

The story of Alice de Lacey is like something straight from a novel, with rebellion, kidnappings and love all wrapped up in the life of this one was born Countess. Alice was born at Denbigh Castle on 25th December 1281. She was the daughter of Henry de Lacey, 5th Earl of Lincoln and, through her mother Margaret, granddaughter of William (II) Longspee, Earl of Salisbury.

Alice was one of 3 children. With 2 brothers, Edmund and John, she was, of course, not  expected to inherit her father’s earldom. However, 2 family tragedies made Alice one of the richest heiresses in England. Young Edmund, it appears, drowned in a well at Denbigh Castle and John fell to his death from the parapet at Pontefract Castle, leaving Alice as her parents’ sole heir.

In 1294 Alice’s marriage was arranged by no-less than the king – Edward I – who saw her as a suitable bride for his nephew Thomas, Earl of Lancaster and son of the king’s brother Edmund Crouchback. Alice and Thomas were married on or before 28th October 1294; he was about 16 years old and Alice was not yet 13.

Edward I had shown his unscrupulous nature in the marriage settlement in that Thomas was given part of the Lacey inheritance on the marriage, with the rest to pass to Thomas on Henry de Lacey’s death. The settlement further stipulated that the de Lacey lands would pass to Lancaster in the event of Alice’s dying without issue; thus excluding all collateral heirs to the earldoms of Salisbury and Lincoln.

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Seal of Henry de Lacey

Alice’s mother Margaret, Countess of Salisbury in her own right, died in 1309 and by June 1310 her father had remarried; probably in the hope of securing an heir for his earldom. In the event, it wasn’t to be and the Earl of Lincoln died in 1311, with his estates passing through his daughter, to Thomas Earl of Lancaster and Leicester.

With 5 earldoms to his name, Thomas now became one of the richest and most powerful men in the kingdom. Although he was initially a supporter of the new king, his cousin Edward II, he would soon turn against him and his favourites, making enemies along the way.

Poor Alice got caught in the middle of one of Thomas’s feuds.

According to the chronicler Walsingham:

The Countess of Lancaster … was seized at Canford, in Dorset, by a certain knight of the house and family of john, Earl Warenne, with many English retainers called together for the detestable deed, as it is said, with the royal assent. … With them was a certain man of a miserable stature, lame and hunchbacked, called Richard de St Martin, exhibiting and declaring constantly his evil intentions towards the lady, so miserably led away.

Alice was kidnapped in 1317 from her manor in Canford, Dorset, by John de Warenne’s man, Sir Richard de St Martin, supposedly with the king’s knowledge. Several reasons for the abduction have been put forward; one is, of course, that Alice and St Martin were having an affair while another is that the affair was between Alice and John de Warenne, Earl of Surrey, himself.

Given the king’s involvement, a more likely explanation is that the kidnapping was organised by de Warenne in retaliation for Lancaster’s objections to de Warenne’s attempts to divorce his wife, Joan of Bar, in 1315/16. Joan was a cousin of Thomas of Lancaster and niece of King Edward II, but her marriage to John de Warenne was a disaster and John openly lived with his mistress, Maud Nerford. When he attempted to divorce Joan, Lancaster was one of his most vocal opponents; the divorce was eventually refused and de Warenne was even excommunicated for a time.

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Arms of Thomas and his father as Earls of Lancaster and Leicester

Alice was held at Reigate Castle, Surrey. Her abduction set off a private war between the 2 magnates, with Lancaster targeting Warenne’s Yorkshire estates and successfully besieging the Earl’s castle at Conisbrough in retaliation. Although he seems to have made little effort to actually rescue his wife and there is no record of how and when she was eventually released.

Alice and Thomas’s marriage does not appear to have been a happy one and there is some evidence that they were actually divorced in 1318, with Thomas retaining Alice’s earldoms after enforcing the marriage contract. The divorce was supposedly on account of her adultery with the Earl of Surrey’s squire, Sir Eubolo Lestrange (although this may be a confusion of facts from her abduction and her later marriage). It has also been claimed that Alice and her abductor, Richard de St Martin, were pre-contracted before her marriage to Thomas of Lancaster. However, although this is not impossible, it does seem unlikely, given Alice’s tender age on her wedding day.

Whether or not Alice and Thomas did divorce is still open to debate. If the divorce occurred, it did not protect her from the reprisals meted out after her husband’s failed rebellion and defeat at the Battle of Boroughbridge on 16th March 1322. While Thomas was executed Alice, along with her step-mother, Joan, was imprisoned in York Castle.

It must have been a truly terrifying time for the 2 women; with no protectors they were at the mercy of the king’s favourites, the Despensers, father and son. Threatened with execution by burning they were forced to turn over the majority of their estates. Having paid an enormous ransom of £20,000 Alice was finally released, securing her titles, a small number of estates and the right to remarry.

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Lincoln Castle

Her step-mother, Joan, died in October 1322; we can only surmise as to whether or not her demise was as a consequence of her imprisonment.

Alice would eventually recover Lincoln Castle and the Earldom of Lincoln, but many of her estates were given to her erstwhile abductor, John de Warenne, and only returned to her by Edward III, many years later.

By November 1324 Alice had married again, this time to a minor baron from the Welsh Marches, Sir Ebule, or Eubolo, Lestrange of Shropshire. The  marriage demonstrated that Alice had managed to come out of the disaster of her first husband’s downfall with enough income and  property to make her an attractive proposition as a wife. Although, it does seem possible that this marriage was a love-match.

This marriage appears to have been a happier one, given that Lestrange moved over to Lincolnshire to look after his wife’s interests, and that it was with Sir Eubolo that Alice chose to be buried, when the time came. Alice and Sir Eubolo were married for over 10 years, although towards the latter part Lestrange was away campaigning in Scotland, where he died in September 1335. Alice was named as one of his executors and he was buried in Barlings Abbey, Lincolnshire.

Following his death, Alice took a vow of chastity and looked determined to settle into a life of quiet retirement. However, her adventures were not quite at an end. In 1335, or early 1336, Alice was kidnapped for a 2nd time; she was abducted from her castle at Bolingbroke and raped, by Sir Hugh de Freyne. Freyne was a Herefordshire knight and royal keeper of the town and castle of Cardigan.

There appears some suggestion that Alice was in collusion with Sir Hugh, with the theory being that her abduction was a way for her to escape her vow of chastity. It seems more likely that Alice acquiesced to a situation over which she had little control. Edward III was furious and ordered the imprisonment of the couple, but they were reconciled with the king 1336 and allowed to marry. The marriage did much to improve Freyne’s status and brought him a summons to Parliament in November 1336.

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Barlings Abbey

However, such success was short-lived as he died at Perth in December 1336 or January 1337.

Shortly after her 3rd husband’s death, the Bishop of Lincoln issued a demand that Alice keep her prior vow and chastity. As there were no further marriages – or abductions – we can probably assume that she did. Alice died on the 2nd October 1348 at the grand age of 66. She was buried with her 2nd husband at the Premonstratensian House of Barlings, in Lincolnshire.

Having had no children from any of her 3 marriages, Alice’s lands and titles, as according to her marriage settlement 54 years earlier, passed to the house of Lancaster and her husband’s nephew, Henry of Grosmont, 1st Duke of Lancaster and father of Blanche of Lancaster, John of Gaunt’s 1st wife.

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Pictures courtesy of Wikipedia, except Lincoln Castle © 2015 Sharon Bennett Connolly.

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Sources: The Oxford Companion to British History Edited by John Cannon; The Plantagenets, the Kings who Made England by Dan Jones; History Today Companion to British History Edited by Juliet Gardiner and Neil Wenborn;  Brewer’s British Royalty by David Williamson; Britain’s Royal Families, the Complete Genealogy by Alison Weir; Conisbrough Castle by Steven Brindle and Agnieszka Sadraei; The Mammoth Book of British Kings and Queens by Mike Ashley; The Plantagenets, the Kings that made Britain by Derek Wilson;  findagrave.com; oxforddnb.com; royaldescent.net.

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My Books

Coming soon! 

Ladies of Magna Carta: Women of Influence in Thirteenth Century England will be released in the UK on 30 May 2020 and is now available for pre-order from Pen & SwordAmazon UK and from Book Depository worldwide. It will be released in the US on 2 September and is available for pre-order from Amazon US.

Also by Sharon Bennett Connolly:

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 UK,  Amberley Publishing, Book Depository and Amazon US.

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 UK, Amazon US and Book Depository.

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You can be the first to read new articles by clicking the ‘Follow’ button, liking our Facebook page or joining me on Twitter and Instagram.

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©2016 Sharon Bennett Connolly

The Eternal Legacy of Magna Carta

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Lincoln Cathedral’s Magna Carta

June 15th 2015 was the 800th anniversary of the signing of Magna Carta.

On 1 April 2015 Lincoln Castle reopened its doors after an extensive refurbishment. The renovations included a new purpose-built, state-of-the-art, underground vault for its most prized possession: one of only four surviving copies of the original 1215 Great Charter – the Magna Carta.

The Magna Carta’s new home cannot fail to emphasise the importance of this charter in the history of not only England, but also the rest of the world. Two films – Magna Carta: Challenging the Power of the King and Magna Carta: Meaning and Myth – reconstruct the events leading up to Magna Carta and chart its significance through the centuries, respectively.

But what is Magna Carta? And what makes it so important?

n many ways, the reign of King John had been a continuation of that of his father, Henry II, and of his brother, Richard I, with one significant difference. Early in his reign John had lost the French part of the great Angevin empire: Normandy and Aquitaine were now held by France. In 1214 King John returned to England following his defeat by the French at the Battle of Bouvines. The battle ended the king’s hopes of regaining the lost empire.

Added to this catastrophe was the character and personality of John himself. By nature John was paranoid, secretive and distrustful. John’s cruelty is widely known. He is accused of killing his nephew and rival claimant to the English throne, Arthur of Brittany; he hanged 28 Welsh hostages (sons of rebel chieftains) and he hounded William de Braose and his family all the way to Ireland and back. De Braose’s wife and son died in one of John’s prisons, probably from starvation.

The History of William Marshal, a biography of the great knight and statesman, states of John: ‘He kept his prisoners in such a horrible manner, and in such abject confinement that it seemed an indignity and a disgrace to all those with him who witnessed such cruelty’.

Although John faced the fallout of Magna Carta, many of the injustices targeted by the barons can be seen in the reigns of his predecessors. Heavy taxes, arbitrary fines and the exploitation of wardships were long-established royal revenue earners. However, where Henry and Richard had a whole empire to exploit, John’s need for money had to be met by England alone.

Even John’s disagreement with the Church can see parallels in the reign of Henry II and his clashes with Thomas Becket. John opposed the election of Stephen Langton as Archbishop of Canterbury, and refused to allow his consecration. Pope Innocent III went so far as to excommunicate John and place England under interdict; in 1213 Philip II of France was even invited to depose him.

John finally came to an agreement with the Church in May 1213, swearing that the liberties established under Henry I would be strictly observed and allowing Langton to take up his post as archbishop. However, John broke his oath almost immediately and Langton became one of the leaders of the opposition to the king.

The barons’ objections to John were almost beyond number. He had failed to face the French and had lost not only his family’s Continental possessions, but also those of his barons. Few had forgotten his treachery against his brother – his attempt on the throne whilst Richard was away on Crusade. His barons even complained that he forced himself on their wives and daughters.

The barons had had enough.

Lincoln Cathedral Sharon's pic
Lincoln Cathedral

The rebels were ready to fight. After occupying London they made one final attempt to prevent war, presenting the king with a list of their demands.

Following further negotiations a long detailed document was produced, dealing with particular grievances of the time and with injustices in general. It touched on the whole system of royal government. And it was granted to ‘all free men of the realm and their heirs forever’.

Magna Carta

Of its 63 clauses, some terms were asking for immediate remedies, such as the removal of corrupt administrators and the sending home of foreign mercenaries. The clause stating that fighting outside of the kingdom could not be imposed by the king was a reaction to John’s recent attempts to force his English barons to help him recover his Continental domains.

Others had long-term aims. The document sought to guarantee the privileges of the Church and the City of London. Restrictions were placed on the powers of regional officials, such as sheriffs, to prevent abuses. The royal court was fixed at Westminster, for justice to be obtainable by all, and royal judges were to visit each county regularly. Taxes could no longer be levied without the consent of the Church and the barons.

Clauses included the fixing of inheritance charges and protection from exploitation for under-age heirs; the king was to take only what was reasonable from an estate (although ‘reasonable’ remained undefined). From henceforth a widow was to be free to choose whether or not to remarry and her marriage portion (dowry) would be made available to her immediately on her husband’s death. Another clause sought to prevent the seizure of land from Jews and the king’s debtors.

Magna Carta even went so far as to regulate weights and measures. It also reduced the size of the king’s forests and limited the powers of forest justices.

Although most of the 63 clauses of Magna Carta are now defunct, three still remain as major tenets of British law, including ‘to no one will we sell, to no one will we deny or delay right or justice’. That no person could be imprisoned, outlawed or deprived of his lands except by judgement of his peers and the law of the land has remained the cornerstone of the English legal system ever since.

Magna Carta was sealed at Runnymede, Berkshire, on 15 June 1215. John ordered that the charter be circulated around the towns and villages.

As a peace agreement between King John and his rebellious barons, however, it failed miserably. By July John was appealing to the Pope for help. Pope Innocent III’s response arrived in England in September. The treaty was declared null and void; it was ‘not only shameful and demeaning but also illegal and unjust’. By the time the letter arrived in England, the dispute had already erupted into the Barons’ War.

Deciding they could no longer deal with John’s perfidy, the rebel barons invited the King of France, Philip II, to claim the throne. Philip’s son and heir, the future Louis VIII, accepted the offer. Having landed on the south coast, he marched for London, where he was proclaimed King of England on 2 June 1216.

John’s fortuitous death at Newark in October 1216 turned the tide against Louis and the rebels. The highly respected knight and statesman, William Marshal, Earl of Pembroke, was appointed regent for John’s nine-year-old son, Henry III. Marshal’s staunch loyalty was renowned throughout Europe; he was the embodiment of the chivalric code. Many barons who had previously sided with Louis saw the opportunity to come back from the brink, and rally around the young king. Marshal reissued Magna Carta and faced and defeated the joint French and rebel army at Lincoln on 20 May 1217.

Afterwards, the English were able to dictate peace terms to Louis, and the French went home. Magna Carta was issued a third time, along with a new Forest Charter (also on display at Lincoln Castle). Its reissue in 1225, on Henry III attaining his majority, is the one that made it onto the statute books.

The Legacy of Magna Carta

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Lincoln Castle

It is hard to overstate the enduring significance of Magna Carta. Although it was initially a document conceived by rebel barons, the regents of Henry III exploited Magna Carta as a royalist device to recover the loyalty of the rebel barons. However, once it was issued it was used as a curb to all regal excesses. In 1265 it was invoked to create the first parliament.

By the late 1200s Magna Carta was regarded as a fundamental statement of English liberties.

Magna Carta set the precedent for future reform programmes, such as the Provisions of Oxford of 1258, the Ordinances of 1311, the Petition of Right of 1628 and the Grand Remonstrance of 1641.

The influence of Magna Carta has spread far beyond England’s shores. It can be seen in the United States’ 1791 Bill of Rights, in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the 1950 European Convention on Human Rights.

Although a failure in the short term, in the long term, Magna Carta established defined limitations to royal rights, laying down that standard to be observed by the crown and its agents.

It is the closest thing England has to a Constitution.

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Article and Photos © Sharon Bennett Connolly 2015

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Article originally published on The Review in June 2015.

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Sources: Robert Bartlett England Under the Norman and Angevin Kings 1075-1225; Dan Jones The Plantagenets; the Kings who Made England; The Plantagenet Chronicle Edited by Elizabeth Hallam; Maurice Ashley The Life and Times of King John; Roy Strong The Story of Britain; Oxford Companion to British History; Mike Ashley British Kings & Queens; David Williamson Brewer’s British Royalty.

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My Books

Out Now!

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 from Pen & SwordAmazon and from Book Depository worldwide.

Also by Sharon Bennett Connolly:

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, Book Depository.

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 Book Depository.

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©2015 Sharon Bennett Connolly

Nicholaa de la Haye, England’s Forgotten Heroine

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View, from the castle. of Lincoln Cathedral

Nicholaa 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, Nicholaa de la Haye held Lincoln Castle against all-comers. Her strength and tenacity saved England at one of its lowest points in history.

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, Nicholaa inherited her father’s land in Lincolnshire and his position as castellan of Lincoln Castle, a position she would hold for over 40 years.

Nicholaa was married twice, her first husband, William Fitz Erneis, died in 1178, leaving Nocholaa a young widow with one daughter, Matilda. Before 1185 she married Gerard de Camville, brother of Richard de Camville, admiral of Richard I’s crusading fleet during the 3rd Crusade. Nicholaa and Gerard had at least 2 children; Richard and Thomas.

Nicholaa’s husbands each claimed the position of castellan of Lincoln Castle by right of his wife; but Nicholaa 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

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

The formidable Nicholaa refused to yield, holding out for 40 days before Longchamp 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 Nicholaa’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 Nicholaa :

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Nicholaa de la Haye, Lincoln Castle

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

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 Great Charter, or 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 West Gate, through which part of William Marshal’s 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 1216. In the same year Nicholaa prevented another siege by paying off a rebel army, led by Gilbert de Gant, who had occupied the city of Lincoln.

As Louis consolidated his position in the south, John made an inspection of Lincoln castle in September 1216. 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. He moved on to the castle at Newark, from where, just hours before his death, John appointed Nicholaa de la Haye as Sheriff of Lincolnshire in her own right.

King John died at Newark on the night of 18/19th 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 de 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 Nicholaa de la Haye took charge of the defences. Prince Louis  personally travelled up to Lincoln to ask for her surrender, assuring her that no one would be hurt, but Nicholaa 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 de 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, Nicholaa’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.

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 settlement was not ideal, however, and some wrangling seems to have continued until Salisbury’s death in 1226.

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Magna Carta

Nicholaa’s granddaughter and heiress, Idonea – daughter of Nicholaa’s eldest son Richard – was married to Salisbury’s son, William II Longspée; the couple inherited the de la Haye and Camville lands on Nicholaa’s death.

A staunchly independent woman, Nicholaa 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, Nicholaa de la Haye was unique among her peers. Although praised by the chroniclers, they seemed 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, both King John and Henry III referred to her as ‘our beloved and faithful Nicholaa de la Haye’.

Nicholaa 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 on 20 November, 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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Nicholaa’s story appears in my forthcoming book, Ladies of Magna Carta: Women of Influence in Thirteenth Century England.

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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.

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My Books

Coming soon! 

Ladies of Magna Carta: Women of Influence in Thirteenth Century England will be released in the UK on 30 May 2020 and is now available for pre-order from Pen & SwordAmazon UK and from Book Depository worldwide. It will be released in the US on 2 September and is available for pre-order from Amazon US.

Also by Sharon Bennett Connolly:

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 UK,  Amberley Publishing, Book Depository and Amazon US.

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 UK, Amazon US and Book Depository.

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You can be the first to read new articles by clicking the ‘Follow’ button, liking our Facebook page or joining me on Twitter and Instagram.

©2015 Sharon Bennett Connolly

Lincoln Castle, a Journey Through History

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The Observatory Tower

I love the school holidays. My son and I always find something historical to explore. Today, it was Lincoln Castle.

The Castle only reopened on the 1st April, 2015, after an extensive revamp. And it was teeming with visitors (apparently it was the quietest day since they reopened, so the last week must have been incredibly hectic for the staff).

Lincoln Castle was started by William the Conqueror in 1068 and has been in constant use ever since. You can follow its history, just by looking at the buildings that occupy the Inner Bailey. In its time, it has been a military fortification, a Victorian prison and is now home to Lincoln’s Crown Court – and the Magna Carta!

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Magna Carta

Lincoln Cathedral’s Magna Carta is one of only four surviving originals. It is now on display in an impressive purpose-built, underground vault. The Magna Carta is accompanied by an original copy of the 1217 Charter of the Forest.

There is a 20-minute video, with a very believable King John and the great William Marshal, discussing the Magna Carta and explaining its inception and significance through the centuries.

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Prison Chapel

The Magna Carta Vault is a modern addition, adjoining the imposing Victorian prison. In its day, the prison was an innovation in the harshness punishment; the prisoners were held in solitary confinement for 24 hours a day.

There was no relief from the solitude, even when attending church services; the prison chapel was constructed in a way that each prisoner could see the priest, but could have no contact with his fellow prisoners. The chapel gives me the creeps everytime I visit it. I have a thing about dummies, but it’s also the thought of all those prisoners only able to see the one person, in the pulpit; cut off from society and each other.

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Inside the male prison

The prison included some wonderful interactive displays, with the opportunity to read the diaries of the priest, the wardens and prisoners. Kids can dress-up as prisoners or wardens, explore the separate male and female prisons, and watch videos of the inmates, explaining their crimes – and pleading their innocence!

The Castle grounds give you the sense of the thousand years of history its walls have witnessed.

It was at Lincoln that King Stephen was captured by forces loyal to the Empress Matilda, during the civil war – the Anarchy – that followed the death of Henry I (when Matilda and Stephen both claimed the throne).

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From the battlements: Lincoln Cathedral

Henry VIII and Catherine Howard had visited Lincoln Castle during their northern progress of 1541, shortly before Catherine’s infidelities were uncovered.

You can now walk the whole length of the walls – a third of a mile, though it can feel longer, with all the steps. You can climb the narrow spiral staircase to the top of the Observatory Tower – and take in the whole view of Lincoln, its Cathedral and the Fens.

The Lucy Tower contains within its walls a small cemetery, where executed prisoners, and those who died of disease, were buried.

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The West Gate

The West Gate is a little piece of history in itself; opened to William Marshal’s troops during the Second Battle of Lincoln, by the castle’s castellan, Nicholaa de la Haye, whilst the castle was under siege from the army of Louis of France, who had been invited to take England by King John’s disaffected barons. The Dauphin was defeated shortly after, outside the Castle’s walls, and returned to France.

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Remnant of the Eleanor Cross

Another memento from history, within the Inner Bailey, is the remnant of Lincoln’s Eleanor Cross. Eleanor of Castile was just 7 miles from Lincoln when she died in 1290 and Lincoln’s Eleanor Cross is the first marker of her funeral procession, which ended at Westminster Abbey. Eleanor’s viscera (her intestines) were buried in Lincoln Cathedral, while her embalmed body was transported to London, an elaborate cross being erected at each stopping place along the way.

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Inside the Victorian Kitchen

The Castle has not forgotten its younger visitors, with a little treasure trail and quiz, based on King John’s loss of the Crown Jewels in the Wash.

The prize was well worth winning – chocolate coins from the Victorian Kitchen. And ‘thank you’ to the Victorian lady, who insisted all children pay a 1 coin tax to their parents out of their winnings – very tasty!

Whether you choose to explore by yourself, take the guided tour or simply bask in the sun of the Bailey, Lincoln Castle is a wonderful day out – for the young and old alike – I can highly recommend it.

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The exercise yard and facade of the Victorian prison

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My book, Heroines of the Medieval World,  is now available in hardback in the UK from both Amberley Publishing and Amazon UK and worldwide from Book Depository. It is also available on Kindle in both the UK and USA and will be available in Hardback from Amazon US from 1 May 2018.

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All pictures and article are copyright to Sharon Bennett Connolly, 2015, except the Magna Carta, which is courtesy of Wikipedia.

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For further information, visit http://www.lincolncastle.com

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The Crown Court building

©2015 Sharon Bennett Connolly