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 Venon, Nicholaa was probably born in the early 1150s. Her father, Richard de la Haye was Baron of Brattleby. His father was a Norman and his mother was a Lincolnshire heiress, the granddaughter of Colswein of Lincoln. In 1166 Richard 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 Nicholaa 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 Third Crusade. Nicholaa and Gerard had at least 2 children together; Richard and Thomas. Richard was heir to both Nicholaa and Gerard. Nothing is known of Thomas beyond his name.
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.
Nicholaa first comes to the attention of the chroniclers in 1191, when Prince John led the opposition to his brother’s chancellor, William Longchamp. Longchamp demanded that Gerard de Camville relinquish Lincoln Castle to one of his own supporters. Gerard refused, and swore fealty to John, joining him at Nottingham Castle. Leaving Nicholaa to hold Lincoln. Richard I’s Chancellor, William Longchamp, headed north 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 to John. 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.
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.
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 1216, there was a rather dramatic display of fealty from Nicholaa :
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
Whether Nicholaa ever intended to give up Lincoln, or the event was staged so that John could demonstrate his continued trust in Nicholaa, is open to debate. I suspect it was the latter. John in the midst of civil war and running short of allies. Nicholaa had already demonstrated her abilities at defending Lincoln, and her loyalty to John – he would have been hard put to replace her. However, the event gave John the opportunity to reinforce his trust in Nicholaa in front of his barons.
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 remained in occupation of the city of Lincoln but lifted the siege of the castle. After Nicholaa paid off the 1216 besiegers, John came north and he chased the rebels into the Isle of Axholme ‘with fire and sword’.
As Louis consolidated his position in the south, John then made an inspection of Lincoln castle in September. 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, probably from dysentery. 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:
‘The King to the archbishops, bishops, earls, barons, knights, freeholders and others of the county of Lincoln etc.. Know that we have granted to our trusty and well-beloved, the lady Nicholaa de Haye and Philip Marc, the county of Lincoln with all its appurtenances, to be in their custody for so long as it may please us. We therefore command that you do heed and obey the said Nicholaa and Philip in all things as the bailiffs of the said county. And in testimony etc.. Witness myself, at Newark, the eighteenth day of October, in the eighteenth year of our reign.’From King John’s Letters and Papers, translated by Rich Price
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, Gilbert de Gant renewed the siege of Lincoln Castle, receiving reinforcements from Louis’ forces, under the Comte de Perche, in early 1217. Now in her 60s Nicholaa de la Haye took charge of the defences.
When the small force proved insufficient to force a surrender, the French had to send for reinforcements and siege engines. For almost 7 months, Nicholaa was besieged, with the circle tightening from March to mid-May as 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. Attacking from the north of Lincoln, his army proceeded to attack the besieging forces and, after about 6 hours of fighting, routed the enemy; the French commander, the Comte de Perche, was killed in the fighting, and the rebel leaders captured.
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. After a further defeat in the naval Battle of Sandwich in the summer, 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.
Nicholaa’s granddaughter and heiress, Idonea – the 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.
On the death of her second husband, Gerard de Camville, Nicholaa had declared herself femme sole, meaning she would be able to control her own lands. 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.
Footnote: ¹Irene Gladwin: The Sheriff; The Man and His Office
Nicholaa’s story was the inspiration behind my third book, Ladies of Magna Carta: Women of Influence in Thirteenth Century England. I am currently working on a full-length biography of Nicholaa, King John’s Right-Hand Lady: the Story of Nicholaa de la Haye, which will be published in May, 2023.
Photos of Lincoln Castle and Nicholaa’s seal, © Sharon Bennett Connolly 2015. Picture of the Battle of Lincoln and Magna Carta are courtesy of Wikipedia. Image of the land grant from the National Archives.
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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Coming 30 May 2023!
King John’s Right-Hand Lady: The Story of Nicholaa de la Haye is now available for pre-order from Pen & Sword Books and Amazon UK. (I will hopefully have a US release date shortly)
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, Bookshop.org and Book Depository.
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, Bookshop.org and from Book Depository worldwide.
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, Bookshop.org and from Book Depository worldwide.
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, Bookshop.org and Book Depository.
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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©2015 Sharon Bennett Connolly FRHistS