LINCOLN, 20 May 1217

William Marshal’s victory prevented a foreign prince from ruling England, but Lincoln’s citizens had little cause for celebration.

Perviously the French were unable to capture Lincoln Castle, governed by the formidable Nichola de la Haye.

The rebels invited the king of France to take the throne of England; instead Philip II’s son, Louis (the future Louis VIII), accepted the offer and was hailed as King of England in London in June of 1216. In the same year Nichola 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. During the visit Nichola de la Haye, who held the castle for John, even though the city supported the rebels, was appointed Sheriff of Lincolnshire in her own right.

Moving south, just 2 weeks later, the king’s baggage train was lost as he crossed the Wash estuary and within a few more days John was desperately ill.

King John died at Newark on 19th October 1216.

BATTLE MAP: 1. Position of the former West Gate, where William Marshal entered the city 2. Lincoln’s North Gate, which was assaulted by the Earl of Chester 3. The Cathedral, which was looted by Henry III’s forces 4. Castle Square, where the French were held up by Marshal’s crossbowmen and where the main battle action took place 5. The lower town, where the French and the rebels were chased south. The town was ransacked by Marshal’s troops, giving the battle the name `the Battle of Lincoln Fair.

While most people have heard of Hastings, Crécy, Agincourt and Bosworth, few have heard of the Battle of Lincoln, and even fewer know that had it not been for that battle, England might well have been ruled by a King Louis the First.

Towards the end of King John’s reign, the barons of England rebelled at what they saw as his arbitrary and vindictive rule. In June 1215, John temporarily appeased them by agreeing to what would later be called Magna Carta, a document addressing the perceived abuses of his reign. But when Magna Carta was withdrawn less than three months later, many English barons concluded that there was no doing business with John and invited Louis, the son of Philip Augustus of France, to replace him as the king of England.

Louis duly invaded, and with the support of the rebel barons, he overran much of southeast England and East Anglia, although the castles at Windsor and Dover stubbornly held out against him. Then, in October 1216, John did what has been described as the best thing he ever did for his country. He died. Much of the baronial support for Louis had been motivated by a hatred of John, and now that he was no longer on the scene, many barons switched sides in favour of his successor, the nine-year-old Henry III, especially when his advisors re-issued Magna Carta. Even so, Louis didn’t abandon his attempts to conquer England, and while half his army continued to besiege Dover Castle, he sent the rest north to capture Lincoln.

At the time, Lincoln was one of the largest and most important cities in the country. Perched on the top of a steep hill, it was surrounded by stone walls and defended by a powerful castle. The castle had two fortified mounds and two main gates, one leading into the city and the square opposite Lincoln’s cathedral, and the other westward into the countryside. In 1217, the castle’s constable was a woman in her 60s, Nichola de la Haye.

Although the castle would prove a tough nut to crack, the city itself wasn’t prepared to resist a full-scale attack and quickly surrendered to the forces of Louis, who arrived in March under the command of the young Comte du Perche and Saer de Quincy, the Earl of Winchester and a leader of the baronial rebellion. But, with the redoubtable Nichola in command, the castle held out even though the French brought up siege engines – probably trebuchets – to bombard its walls.

William Marshal, the regent of England and commander of the forces loyal to Henry III, was determined not to let such an important stronghold fall into the hands of Louis. He gathered together a relief force, which assembled at Newark before heading for Lincoln. They realised that although the main road entered the city from the south, an approach from that direction was highly undesirable. Before they could get to the castle, they would have to fight their way through the town and up a precipitous road that even today is known as `Steep Hill’. So they marched on Lincoln via Torksey, approaching the city from the north-west on Saturday 20 May.

Perche and his men saw them coming and, according to one chronicler, a small reconnaissance force of English rebels went out to check out the approaching threat. They reported back that William Marshal’s army was not a particularly large one, and argued that the best course of action was to leave the city and take them on in the open fields, where their own superior numbers could prove decisive. The chronicler says that Perche was unconvinced and sent out a second reconnaissance force, this time made up of French knights. At the time, a quick way of estimating the strength of an enemy army was to count the banners of its knights, but this account claims that the French were unaware of the fact that each English knight carried two banners and therefore concluded that Marshal’s army was twice as strong as it actually was. Whether this actually happened isn’t known Perche’s English troops would have put them right – but in any event, the French decided to remain behind the safety of the city walls, thus handing the initiative over to Marshal.

Meanwhile, Marshal’s men were arguing about who should have the honour of leading the assault, with the powerful Earl of Chester threatening to go home if it wasn’t him. In fact, it didn’t really matter – for Marshal’s plan was to mount a series of simultaneous attacks from a variety of directions. While the Earl of Chester led the assault on the city’s North Gate, drawing the French in that direction, Marshal himself attacked the West Gate. It was said that he was so keen to join the battle that as he was beginning to move his column, a page had to remind him that he had forgotten to put his helmet on. Meanwhile, 300 crossbowmen under Falkes de Breauté, one of Henry III’s most loyal and ruthless commanders, slipped into the castle through a postern gate that opened outside the city walls. They took up position on the castle walls and poured down a deadly shower of crossbow bolts onto the French below them. Marshal and the Earl of Chester both broke into the city and soon Lincoln’s cramped streets were filled with a mass of struggling men. One contemporary described the scene:

“Had you been there you would have seen great blows dealt, heard helmets clanging. seen lances fly in splinters in the air, saddles vacated by riders. great blows delivered by swords and maces on helmets and on arms, and seen knives and daggers drawn for stabbing horses.”

The turning point came when Breauté led the castle’s garrison out of its East Gate and joined in the fray. Initially, they were driven back and Breauté was temporarily taken prisoner before being rescued, but their intervention probably tipped the scales in favour of Marshal, and when the Comte du Perche was killed by a lance thrust through the eye-slit of his helmet, the French lost heart. They were steadily driven back down Lincoln’s steep main street until they reached the gate at the south end of the city, which was so narrow that few could escape. While we have no idea of what happened to their ordinary soldiers – the chroniclers at the time simply weren’t interested in them – many of the knights in the French and rebel army were taken prisoner.

The battle was won but the destruction and bloodshed wasn’t yet over. The victorious English considered that the city had surrendered rather too quickly to the French and, suspecting it of collaboration, meted out a savage punishment. The entire city was thoroughly sacked. Even the cathedral (whose clergy had been excommunicated by the Papal Legate accompanying the English army) was pillaged. As the panic-stricken residents tried to save themselves and their property from Marshal’s marauding soldiers, tragedy struck. According to the chronicler Roger of Wendover:

“Many of the women of the city were drowned in the river for, to avoid shameful offence (ie rape), they took to small boats with their children, their female servants, and household property. the boats were overloaded, and the women not knowing how to manage the boats, all perished.”

As Marshal’s victorious troops left Lincoln, they were so laden with booty and plunder that it looked to onlookers as though they had been on some enormous shopping expedition, with the result that the battle gained its unlikely nickname – Lincoln Fair.

THE MAN WHO WAS NEARLY KING

Prince Louis was the son of Philip Augustus, King of France and Richard the Lionheart’s partner (and rival) during the Third Crusade. He was born in 1187 and in 1200 he married Blanche of Castile, a granddaughter of Henry II. At a time when you didn’t necessarily have to be next in line in order to take the throne, Louis, who did have royal blood after all, seemed an ideal replacement for the tyrannical John. To the English barons who asked him to be their king Louis was all the things John wasn’t – brave, pious, trustworthy and a man who kept his word. After landing in England he was proclaimed king in London, and within months about two thirds of the barons and more than half of the country were under his control. After the failure of his bid to rule England, Louis returned to France where he succeeded to the throne as Louis VIII in 1223 and promptly conquered large amounts of the remaining English territory in the country.

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