Exactly eight hundred years ago, two old people saved England
In 1215, King John of England was obliged to sign Magna Carta, now regarded as the prototype of one of our most treasured principles: freedom for all citizens under the rule of law. It’s even been considered the harbinger of modern democracy: it was the inspiration for the Bill of Rights, the American Declaration of Independence, and a host of other landmark political agreements throughout much of the world. But within ten weeks of the signing of this remarkable document at Runnymede, it had become clear that John had no intention of keeping his promises.
Civil war ensued. Furious at the king’s perfidy, the rebel barons invited Prince Louis of France to come to England and take the throne. Louis accepted, and his army together with the rebel barons’ forces soon controlled most of Eastern England, including the three main cities: London, Norwich and Lincoln. John tried to lead his army against them but came badly to grief in the marshes of the fen country and shortly afterwards, in 1216, he died at Newark, leaving his nine year old son Henry to be crowned King Henry III. By 1217 the Angevin dynasty appeared doomed: Prince Louis and his supporters were more or less in charge of the country and the new king was a mere child – with a badly depleted following.
Two important castles held out for the king: Dover and Lincoln. So although the city of Lincoln was pro-Louis and indeed occupied by the French army, its castle was pro-Henry. It had to be defended against the inevitable siege, but its position was strategically and politically important. And it was defended stoutly. The person in charge of the castle, the constable or castellan, was brave, inflexible and inspiring, and although Prince Louis’s forces would have taken the fortress had the leadership been less stalwart, in the event they made no headway. What is so remarkable about this courageous castellan is that she was a woman, Nicolaa de la Haye. And she wasn’t young. She was well over sixty.
Nicolaa was a descendant of Colswaine of Lincolnshire, one of the few Anglo-Saxon landowners to retain his lands after the Norman Conquest, and she inherited the office of castellan. Twice married, she delegated many duties to her husbands, but her military skill and determination became legendary. In 1191, while Richard I was abroad and Nicolaa’s second husband Gerard was with Prince John in Nottingham, she held out against a month-long siege against thirty knights, twenty mounted men-at-arms and 300 infantry. Apparently, forty miners attempted to undermine the castle walls during the siege, but they met more than they’d bargained for. The siege ended. When John became king and visited Lincoln, Nicolaa went out to meet him and handed him the keys of the castle, saying she was now too old to continue as castellan. John refused to accept the keys and commanded her to retain her post. As the events of 1217 were to prove, it was one of the few good decisions he ever made.
Henry’s guardian and chief adviser during his minority, William Marshall, was regarded by many as “the best knight in the world”, a by-word for unswerving loyalty. As a boy during a previous civil war, William had been held hostage by King Stephen. He so impressed Stephen that despite his poor background (younger son of minor gentry) he was trained as a knight and began to make a name for himself at tournaments. After Henry II succeeded Stephen, William was entrusted with the task of bringing Henry’s bride, Eleanor of Aquitaine, to England, a task that involved driving off would-be kidnappers. William became Henry’s most trusted supporter and proved to be not only a magnificent fighter but also a wise and intelligent counsellor. When Richard I succeeded Henry II and went away on Crusade, William was largely responsible for holding the country together in his absence. After Richard died and his brother John succeeded to the English throne, William remained no less loyal to the crown despite John’s serial wrongdoings and blunders, and he seems to have been a voice of reason and moderation during the Magna Carta debate at Runnymede. He was the ideal guardian for the child Henry III; but in 1217, when Louis had almost taken over England, he was about seventy years old.
Age didn’t inhibit William Marshall. Leaving the boy king in safe hands he gathered as much of an army as he could and under a cloak of secrecy attacked Lincoln from the north. He was greatly outnumbered, but such was his tactical and military skill that he routed the occupying army of rebel barons and French invaders and in that one stroke decided the outcome of the war and secured the throne for Henry. But he might not have inflicted such a crushing defeat on Louis and his followers had Louis not been preoccupied with the siege of Lincoln Castle and thwarted by Nicolaa de la Haye.
If these two old people, Nicolaa de la Haye and William Marshall, hadn’t won the Battle of Lincoln in 1217, Magna Carta would have dwindled to a footnote in history, England would have been ruled by French monarchs (Louis and his successors), and the history not only of England but of much of the world would have been very different. The Battle of Lincoln of 1217 isn’t as well known to most people as, say, the Battle of Hastings of 1066, but it was scarcely less epoch-making. Of course, after his victory, William allowed his army to pillage the city as punishment for its support for Louis, but these were mediaeval times and such sequelae of battle were routine.
William was criticised for his generous terms of settlement to Louis, who wasn’t imprisoned or subjected to ruinous fines but allowed to return to France with the remains of his army; but the old knight was giving his king a lesson (which should have been valuable!) in the art of being generous in victory. His good sense more or less quelled any lingering resentment. Then he persuaded young Henry not only to reissue Magna Carta but also to sign the Charter of the Forest, which freed residents in the royal forests from the harshest and most repressive of the Norman forest laws. Lincoln Castle and Cathedral still retain one of the four surviving original copies of Magna Carta and one of the two surviving copies of the Charter of the Forest.
William died in 1219, depriving Henry of an invaluable guiding hand. Some years later the king forgot his promises and there was another baronial rising under the leadership of Simon de Montford, but that’s another story. What William Marshall had achieved, with indispensable help from Nicolaa de la Haye, was not only the victory at Lincoln and the security of the Angevin succession, but also the survival of Magna Carta and the Charter of the Forest. It was a magnificent achievement by a marvellous man.
Nicolaa briefly became sheriff of Lincolnshire and she lived until 1230, by which time she was nearly eighty years old. She spent her final years in quiet retirement, but she remains an inspiration. No matter what cultural constraints they might face, women can achieve at the highest level.
And old people are not to be underestimated!