The Battle of Lincoln 1217

Here is the text of an article I wrote about the Battle of Lincoln in 1217. It first appeared in the Autumn 2012 edition of Battlefield, the journal of the Battlefields Trust. If you get the chance to check out the original printed version then please do, as it looks very nice with photos and illustrations.

Towards the end of King John’s reign the nobility of England rebelled against him, inviting Louis, son and heir of the king of France and married to John’s niece, to invade and take the crown. During this invasion John died, leaving his nine-year-old son Henry III on the throne; this caused many of the barons to undergo a change of heart, and by early in 1217 many of them had defected back to the royalist party, led by the regent William Marshal. However, Louis still had the support of a number of English nobles as well as the French lords who had invaded with him, and his army was in control of most of eastern England, where one of the most important strongholds was Lincoln.
In 1217 Lincoln was one of the largest cities in England; it was built on a hill, with the castle at the top and the river at the bottom. The castle consisted of two fortified mounds with a large bailey encircled by walls, and was in a prime position: to the south the defenders could command the steep descent towards the river, and to the west they could look out over the valley of the Trent and the highway. The castle was surrounded by a deep ditch and had two principal gateways: one in the east wall (which is still in use) leading into the city, and the other to the west, giving access to the open country. In 1217 it was under the stewardship of Dame Nicola de la Haye, the hereditary castellan, who was then in her late sixties.
The city of Lincoln was not prepared for the large-scale attack which fell upon it in the spring of that year, and it capitulated quickly to the invading army. The castle, however, with its separate defences, managed to hold out. The French brought in siege machinery which they used to bombard the castle walls from the south and east throughout late March, April and early May. Louis himself was besieging Dover, so the combined French and rebel forces were commanded by the Comte de Perche and by Saer de Quincey, Earl of Winchester.
William Marshal knew that such a strategically important stronghold could not be left to fall into the hands of the invaders, so he gathered a force which mustered at Newark before marching to the city via Torksey, to avoid using the main road which would have brought them directly into the path of the French. They arrived early in the morning of Saturday 20 May and the regent divided his army: four divisions of knights and foot sergeants to be led by himself, the Earl of Chester, the Earl of Salisbury and the Bishop of Winchester, and a group of some 300 crossbowmen led by the mercenary Falkes de Breauté.
Meanwhile, a reconnaissance party of French and rebels left the city to assess the oncoming army, but after apparently miscounting the number of knights decided not to attack them out on the open ground, where they might actually have been at their most vulnerable. Instead the French elected to remain within the city; one part of their force was set to defending the city gates, while the rest continued their attack on the castle.
The regent’s army split: Chester’s division attacked the north gate, drawing the French that way; meanwhile the crossbowmen slipped into the castle via a postern gate which opened outside the city walls, and the Marshal himself attacked the west gate. There was some fierce fighting in the narrow streets, with men on horseback too close together to mount a proper charge. The royalist crossbowmen stationed themselves on the castle ramparts, raining their bolts down on the men operating the siege machinery and shooting the horses of the French and rebels, which clogged the streets up further. Falkes and his men then took advantage of the chaos and made a sortie into the city to join the hand-to-hand fighting.

The History of William Marshal, one of the principal contemporary sources, provides a flavour of the combat: 

“Had you been there, you would have seen great blows dealt,

Heard helmets clanging and resounding,

Seen lances fly in splinters in the air,

Saddles vacated by riders, knights taken prisoner.

You would have heard, from place to place,

Great blows delivered by swords and maces

On helmets and on arms,

And seen knives and daggers drawn

For the purpose of stabbing horses.”

Slowly the French were forced east and south, down the hill. The Comte de Perche was killed during an encounter outside the cathedral, apparently due to a lance thrust through the eyehole of his helmet, and this caused the French to hasten their retreat. The royalists now had the significant advantage of fighting downhill in the steep streets, and the French and rebels were forced back and out of the city via the south gate. This gate was very narrow and the congestion caused a last stand – an opportunity not for slaughter, but for the victorious royalists to capture the rebel noblemen for ransom.

After the battle, the city was looted by the victorious army on the pretext that the citizens had collaborated with the enemy; the papal legate excommunicated the entire clergy of Lincoln, and the cathedral, too, was plundered. So much booty was gained by the royalist army that the battle is sometimes called “Lincoln Fair”.

Roger of Wendover, another contemporary chronicler, recounts a sad addendum to the combat:

“Many of the women of the city were drowned in the river, for, to avoid insult, 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.”

The battle was a devastating loss for Louis and his allies. Virtually all the leading barons and knights were captured, and, although the war did not end until after the Battle of Sandwich and the subsequent treaty in August, Lincoln proved to be a decisive turning point.