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!




  • I thoroughly enjoyed reading this insightful and dramatic rendition of this historic event. My grandmother’s middle name was Marshall, and I always wondered why her parents gave her such an odd one. What a grand thought – perhaps William Marshall is an ancestor! (Time for more research.) And Nicolaa de la Haye – what a name! – what an achievement! I’m so proud to have 38% of my DNA from Great Britain!

    • Thanks, Mary – and great to hear from you! The story of the Battle of Lincoln fascinated me so I went to Lincoln again last week to check the details in their castle and museum displays. To my surprise and delight, the castle was displaying (under guard!) not only Lincoln’s copies of Magna Carta and the Charter of the Forest, but also the Great Domesday Book, which is being exhibited outside London for the first time – they think – in 500 years. I was astonished by its state of preservation. After 930 years, the ink hasn’t faded and the parchment looks as good as new.

      After I’d checked my facts about William and Nicolaa I went to “The Collection”, a brilliant museum of local archaeology and history, and found they too had a quite remarkable display of ancient, rare and in some cases unique documents: William I’s order for the construction of Lincoln Castle (1068), Henry IV’s Great Bible (early 1400s), the sole extant copy of the Life of William Marshall written during the 1220s by order of his sons, the missal carried by Richard III to his fatal encounter at Bosworth in 1485… and much more. After two hours in that extraordinary company my head was spinning!

      Wouldn’t it be wonderful to discover you were descended from William Marshall? I’d love to imagine Nicolaa as my many-times-removed grandmother but I don’t suppose it’s likely!

  • I, too, enjoyed this! I love history, though my memory of it from my school days is greatly faded.

    Nice write. 🙂


  • I don’t think I’ve ever heard about any of that — and I minored in history in college… Our history sucks in America, but you Europeans just have so bloody much of it! And just how many civil wars did you have in Britain anyway?! (Of course, we’ve just had the one so far — but another seems to be brewing… if WW3 doesn’t happen first…) It’s easy to forget that “stability” is an illusion of the moment (if you’re lucky) — but over the continuum of time chaos reigns… nothing lasts forever. A most enjoyable and enlightening read, Mark!

    • “Stability is an illusion of the moment (if you’re lucky)” – a depressing but accurate summary of human history, Mishka. And as you say, we have a bloody load of history (and a load of bloody history) to demonstrate the point.

      Your question “How many civil wars did we have in Britain?” is a real challenge. I suspect a random selection of N historians would offer (2N + 1) answers. There’s a problem of definition to begin with. Wars between Scotland and England weren’t civil wars until the two countries’ parliaments were combined in 1707, but the Jacobite rising of 1745, which was rooted in Scotland, could reasonably be counted as a civil war – though it isn’t given that title. Similarly, battles between or among the separate English kingdoms before the 9th century can’t be classed as civil wars.

      If you ask most British people your question they’ll tell you (unless they’re ignorant of history, as many are today) that THE Civil War took place during the 1640s. It was between king and parliament, parliament won, the king was executed, and for a decade or so Britain was a republic. This was premature; no European country was geared up to manage without a king at that stage in history. During the 1680s there was another flare-up, again with religious motivation, again resulting in the removal (this time by effective abdication) of a king and his replacement with a different one, but this is known as the “Glorious Revolution”, not a civil war – which it was, albeit a brief one. The 12th century civil war between King Stephen and the Empress Matilda is known as “The Anarchy” (a fair description), the struggle with Prince Louis and the rebel barons that culminated in the Battle of Lincoln isn’t classed as a war at all, and the protracted civil war of the 15th century between the houses of Lancaster and York, each vying for the crown in a series of isolated but often bloody skirmishes, is known as “The Wars of the Roses”. So the answer to your question is “Rather a lot, but it’s a matter of definition; and (wars of the) roses by any other name…”

  • John Parker 15.08.2017 - 23:45pm

    Mark, Again another fascinating glimpse of little-know history. Most interesting and let’s hear it for us old people!

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