Nicholaa de la Haye, England’s Forgotten Heroine

Seal of Nicholaa de la Haye, 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 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.

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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. 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 :

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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

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 East Gate of Lincoln Castle

‘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.

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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 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.

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Magna Carta

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.

Land grant with Nicholaa de la Haye’s seal attached

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 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.

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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. Image of the land grant from the National Archives.

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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:

Signed, dedicated copies of all my books are available, please get in touch by completing the contact me form.

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 BooksAmazon in the UK and US, Bookshop.org and Book Depository.

1 family. 8 earls. 300 years of English history!

Also by Sharon Bennett Connolly:

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,  AmazonBookshop.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 Book Depository.

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

Hamelin de Warenne, the King’s Brother

A short while ago I wrote about Isabel de Warenne, Countess of Surrey and then her first husband, William of Blois (youngest son of King Stephen). So, I think it’s about time I finished the story by looking at Isabel’s second husband, Hamelin Plantagenet, the other 4th Earl of Surrey.

The illegitimate son of Geoffrey, Count of Anjou, Hamelin was born sometime around 1130, when Geoffrey was estranged from his wife, Empress Matilda. His mother was, possibly, Adelaide of Angers, though this is by no means certain. Geoffrey had a second illegitimate child, Emma, who was possibly Hamelin’s full sister. Emma married the Welsh prince, Davydd ap Owain of Gwynedd. Geoffrey of Anjou was the second husband to Empress Matilda, daughter of Henry I of England and would be the mother of the future Henry II, Hamelin’s half-brother.

The de Warenne arms, Trinity Church, Southover

Hamelin was incredibly loyal to Henry and his marriage to an heiress was reward for his support, whilst at the same time giving him position and influence within England. Hamelin and Isabel married in April 1164, Hamelin even taking the de Warenne surname after the marriage; Isabel’s trousseau cost an impressive £41 10s 8d.

Hamelin became Earl of Surrey by right of his wife, though was more habitually called Earl Warenne. In some references, he is named as the 5th Earl of Surrey and in others the 4th: this confusion arises from the fact that the earldom belonged to his wife, Isabel, and her two husbands both held the earldom, sometimes being numbered the 4th and 5th earls to avoid confusion. They were, in fact, both, the 4th Earl of Surrey.

Hamelin supported his brother the king in the contest of wills that Henry was engaged in with his archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Becket. When Henry called for the archbishop to appear at a great council at Northampton Castle on 12 October 1164, to answer to the charges laid against him, Hamelin was at the trial and spoke in support of his brother. Indeed, the new earl and the archbishop appear to have started a war of words; Hamelin defended Henry’s dignity and called Becket a traitor. The archbishop’s retort was ‘Were I a knight instead of a priest, my fist would prove you a liar!’ Ironically, it is thought that Hamelin’s denunciation of Becket was motivated by the injury caused to the royal family in Becket’s refusal to allow Henry’s brother, William – Hamelin’s half-brother – to marry Isabel de Warenne; who was now Hamelin’s wife.

Hamelin’s animosity to Becket was not to survive the archbishop’s martyrdom and he actively participated in the cult that grew up around Thomas Becket after his violent death. In later life, the earl claimed that the cloth covering Becket’s tomb had cured his blindness, caused by a cataract, in one eye.

Hamelin was an influential and active member of the English barony. He supported Henry against his sons’ rebellion in 1173, and formed part of the entourage which escorted Princess Joanna (daughter of Henry and Eleanor of Aquitaine) to Sicily for her marriage to King William. Joanna’s escort was ordered not to return home until they had seen ‘the King of Sicily and Joanna crowned in wedlock’.

Hamelin remained close to the crown even after Henry’s death, supporting his nephew, Richard I. Hamelin was among the earls present at Richard’s first coronation in September 1189; and carried one of the three swords at his second coronation in April 1194.

Conisbrough Castle

During Richard’s absence on Crusade, Hamelin sided with the Regent, William Longchamp, against the intrigues of Richard’s brother John. Hamelin held great store in the rule of law, attested by the legend on his seal, ‘pro lege, per lege’. This adherence to the law explains Hamelin’s support for Longchamp against that of his own nephew, John, and even as the justiciar’s overzealous actions alienated others. Hamelin was one of only two magnates entrusted with the collection and storage of the king’s ransom, when he was held captive by Duke Leopold of  Austria, appointed by Eleanor of Aquitaine; ; the other was William d’Aubigny, Earl of Arundel.

Hamelin’s involvement with the court continued into the reign of King John; he was present at John’s coronation and at Lincoln when William, King of Scots, gave his oath of homage in November 1200.

Away from court, Hamelin appears to have been an avid builder; he built a cylindrical keep at his manor of Mortemer in Normandy. He then constructed a larger and improved version, using all the latest techniques of castle design, at his manor of Conisbrough, South Yorkshire. He may also have been the one to build Peel Castle at Thorne, a hunting lodge which had a 3-sided donjon that was of smaller, but similar, design to Conisbrough.

He was also involved in a famous dispute with Hugh, abbot of Cluny, over the appointment of a new prior to Lewes priory. Abbot Hugh was known as a man of great piety and honour; he had been prior of Lewes but was elected as abbot of Reading in 1186 and became abbot of Cluny in 1199. In 1200, Abbot Hugh appointed one Alexander to the vacant position of prior of Lewes but Hamelin refused to accept the nomination. In establishing the priory at Lewes, the abbots of Cluny had apparently reserved the right to appoint the prior, and to admit all monks seeking entry into the order; however, Hamelin claimed that the patronage of the priory belonged to him, and it was his right to appoint the prior.

The dispute dragged on. It was only after intervention from King John that agreement was eventually reached whereby, should the position of prior become vacant, the earl and the monks should send representatives to the abbot, who would nominate two candidates, of whom the earl’s proctors should choose one to be appointed prior.

Hamelin and Isabel had four surviving children. Their son and heir, William, would become the 5th Earl of Surrey and married Matilda, daughter of the great William Marshal, Earl of Pembroke and regent of England during the minority of Henry III. There were also three daughters, Ela, Isabel and Matilda.

Lewes priory, Sussex

Ela married twice, firstly to a Robert de Newburn, of whom nothing else is known, and secondly to William Fitzwilliam of Sprotborough, a village just a few miles from Conisbrough. Isabel was married, firstly, to Robert de Lascy, who died in 1193, and secondly, no later than the spring of 1196, to Gilbert de Laigle, Lord of Pevensey.

Matilda, or Maud, married Henry, Count of Eu, who died around 1190; by Henry, she was the mother of Alice de Lusignan, who struggled to maintain her inheritance during the reign of King John. Matilda then married Henry d’Estouteville, a Norman lord. However, it was once thought that Matilda was the daughter of Hamelin by an earlier relationship, due to the supposed death date of Matilda’s husband, Henry, Count of Eu. This was due to the mistaken belief that Henry had died in 1172, which would mean that Matilda could not have been a daughter of the marriage of Isabel and Hamelin, who were married in 1164, as she would have been too young to have married and borne children with Henry. The Chronicle of the Counts of Eu records Henry’s death as 1183, which also appears to be an error as Henry was assessed for scutage for Wales at Michaelmas 1190; with this later death date it was entirely possible, and indeed likely, that Matilda was the legitimate daughter of both Hamelin and Countess Isabel.

One of the daughters  – although it is not clear which – bore an illegitimate son, Richard Fitzroy, Baron Chilham, who was born, possibly, around 1190, by her cousin, John (the future King John).

The motte of Peel Castle, Thorne

Hamelin spent a lot of time and money on Conisbrough Castle, which took almost 10 years to complete, and it appears to have been a favourite family residence. King John visited him there in 1201, and two of Hamelin’s daughters married landowners from the nearby manors of Tickhill and Sprotborough. His son, William de Wareene, the 5th earl, would complete the castle rebuilding the curtain wall in stone.

Hamelin died on 7th May 1202, in his early 70s and was buried in the chapter house at Lewes Priory, in Sussex; Isabel died the following year and was buried alongside him.

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Further reading: East Yorkshire Charters Volume 8: The Honour of Warenne, edited by William Farrer & Charles Travis Clay; Britain’s Royal Families and Eleanor of Aquitaine by Alison Weir; The Plantagenets: the Kings who Made England by Dan Jones.

Photos: The de Warenne arms, Conisbrough Castle, Peel Castle and Lewes Priory ©Sharon Bennett Connolly.

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My Books

Signed, dedicated copies of all my books are available, please get in touch by completing the contact me form.

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 BooksAmazon in the UK and US, Bookshop.org and Book Depository.

1 family. 8 earls. 300 years of English history!

Also by Sharon Bennett Connolly:

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,  AmazonBookshop.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 Book Depository.

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.

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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