Lincoln: the battle that gave birth to medieval England

England in 1217 was a poor, rudderless kingdom at the mercy of a marauding French invasion force. But then a motley band of royalists decided to take a stand at the fortress city of Lincoln. What they did next, writes Thomas Asbridge, would change the face of their nation for good...

Entrance to Lincoln Castle. (Dreamstime)

This article was first published in the May 2017 issue of BBC History Magazine.

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As dawn broke on Saturday 20 May 1217, a small force of 900 troops marched to war, hoping to save England from ruination. Their commander, William Marshal – a man feted as the “greatest knight in all the world” – sought to stiffen their resolve on that sun-lit morning, exhorting them to seize this “chance to free our land” and thereby earn “eternal glory”.

In truth, their prospects were bleak. They would be heavily outnumbered by the enemy, perhaps by as much as two-to-one, and though Marshal was the finest warrior of the age, at 70 he was entering his dotage. Nonetheless, the fate of the realm rested on their shoulders that day. The battle they fought would be the most significant waged on English soil since 1066, and its outcome would reshape the kingdom’s history.

Eight hundred years ago, England stood on the brink of collapse. The once-mighty realm governed by England’s Angevin rulers had fractured during King John’s ill-fated reign. Where his forebears held sway over a vast domain – stretching from the borders of Scotland, south across the Channel and through western France to the Pyrenean foothills – John’s misguided policies led to a desperate haemorrhaging of territory, costing him almost all of his continental lands.

At the same time, England itself spiralled into civil war. Goaded by John’s cruel and predatory tendencies, two-thirds of the realm’s barons and nobles turned against the crown. A short-lived peace, ushered in by the issuing of Magna Carta in June 1215, broke down, leaving most of the north and east of the kingdom, including London, in rebel hands.

William Marshal, 1st Earl of Pembroke
William Marshal, 1st Earl of Pembroke. Illustration of his tomb in Temple Church, London. (Photo by Culture Club/Getty Images)

Inevitable demise

To top it all, the Angevin dynasty’s arch enemies – the Capetian rulers of France – also entered the fray. Marriage alliances forged in the 12th century lent the Capetian prince Louis a tenuous claim to the English throne, and he elected to make cause with the baronial rebels and press his rights to the crown, landing in Kent in May 1216 at the head of a sizeable French invasion force. By the time of John’s death in October 1216, the demise of the Angevin royal line seemed all but assured. John’s son and successor, Henry III, was just nine years old. Once he was toppled, a new era of Capetian French rule over England would begin.

Only a few royalist supporters stood in the way of this seismic dynastic upheaval, seeking to shepherd the boy-king Henry III’s meagre resources and to rejuvenate his fortunes. The elder statesman and veteran campaigner William Marshal, Earl of Pembroke, stood at their head. He had already served at the right hand of three Angevin kings and was now appointed as Henry III’s regent.

Marshal’s somewhat motley band of allies in England included Peter des Roches, the unscrupulous battling bishop of Winchester, and Faulkes de Bréauté, one of King John’s ‘new men’, who had earned a reputation for sadistic brutality, but was at least an effective military commander. Elsewhere, the royalist camp also enjoyed the backing of the pope, because John had submitted to the authority of Rome in 1213. The Italian papal envoy, Guala Bicchieri, was dispatched to work alongside William Marshal, and proved to be an influential presence.

Early steps towards reasserting young Henry III’s authority included the establishment of a new centre of government in Bristol and the re-issuing of a revised version of Magna Carta in November 1216. Nonetheless, Marshal recognised that the royalists had neither the manpower nor the financial resources to wage a protracted campaign. They needed a decisive victory to turn the tide of the conflict, and in May 1217 the regent found his battleground.

The medieval town of Lincoln, on the banks of the river Witham, was enclosed within a circuit of ancient Roman walls.

The upper town boasted a formidable 11th-century Norman castle and an imposing cathedral. In 1217, Lincoln stood as one of the few fortified settlements in the east of England to still support the royalist cause.

A force of northern rebels and French troops had already subjected the town to a prolonged siege and succeeded in breaching the outer circuit of walls, but its stronghold remained in the hands of the crown’s loyal servant, Lady Nicholaa de la Haye.

The highest stakes

In May, Prince Louis of France and his baronial allies launched a bold offensive, aiming to sweep up the remaining pockets of royalist resistance in eastern England before driving westwards. With this objective in mind, Louis divided his army in two, leading a force to besiege Dover Castle, while a second contingent was sent north. This second host contained many prominent rebels, including the leading baron Robert Fitzwalter, and a sizeable Capetian contingent under the French commander Count Thomas of Perche. Together, the allies marched on Lincoln, where they joined up with the existing besiegers to create a force that must have included well in excess of 600 knights and at least a thousand infantry. These troops stationed themselves inside Lincoln, striving to break through the castle’s inner defences. Thus they could rely on the town’s outer circuit of walls for protection.

The renewed assault on Lincoln posed a grave threat, but William Marshal also saw it as an opportunity to confront, and hopefully defeat, the allies when their army was not at full strength. Assembling every available ounce of fighting manpower, William mustered the royalist forces at Newark, 20 miles south-west of Lincoln. In the words of one contemporary, he was ready to “play for the highest stakes”.

To bolster the royalists’ spirits, Guala, the papal envoy, presented the coming campaign as akin to a holy war on English soil – permitting Marshal and his troops to bear the white cross of a crusader on their clothes, and promising them a remission of their sins in return for fighting. On the battle’s eve, Marshal was said to have declared that: “If we die, God will place us today in paradise.”

William Marshal brought the full weight of his military expertise and strategic acumen – earned through years of campaigning alongside the likes of Richard the Lionheart – to bear when planning his approach to the battle of Lincoln. Rather than march directly on the town from Newark, he elected to circle around from the west in a wide arc and then approach Lincoln from the north-west, thus avoiding the dangers of confronting the enemy across the bridge spanning the river Witham and the prospect of fighting an exhausting uphill battle to reach the upper town.

Once he drew up his forces to the north of Lincoln, early in the morning of 20 May, Marshal had to find a way into the town, so he dispatched reconnaissance parties to search out potential points of access. One of these, led by Peter des Roches, made a crucial discovery: a sizeable gate in the north-western quadrant that had been blocked by masonry and rubble, but otherwise stood undefended.

Marshal created diversions by ordering one party of troops to assault the main north gate and another group of crossbowmen, under the command of Faulkes de Bréauté, to enter the castle and begin peppering the Anglo-French troops inside Lincoln from the walls facing into the town. At the same time, a furious effort was made to clear the north-west gate without alerting the enemy. By around noon the way stood open and the royalists’ elite force of heavily armoured, mounted knights were ready to launch their main attack.

The excitement of the moment nearly got the better of William Marshal, as he almost charged into the fray before donning his helmet, but a young squire rushed forward to hold him back and politely pointed out this potentially lethal oversight.

Arrows wreak havoc

The royalists poured through the north-west gate, raced down Westgate Street and then turned right (to the south), to suddenly emerge in front of the castle. Here Faulkes de Bréauté’s crossbowmen were still wreaking havoc among the enemy – one chronicler noting that the horses of the rebel barons were being “mown down and slaughtered like pigs”. Not surprisingly, Marshal’s knights, seemingly appearing from nowhere and driving apace into the midst of the Anglo-French, caused devastation. But the day was far from done. The fighting inside Lincoln quickly dissolved into a frenzied melee.

As the fracas raged in the area between the castle and the cathedral, the battle’s outcome hung in the balance. Men on both sides were said to have been “wounded and maimed, trampled on and beaten”. Count Thomas of Perche rallied his troops in the courtyard in front of Lincoln Cathedral and made a stand. It was here that one of Faulkes de Bréauté’s knights – Reginald Croc – delivered a sword lunge that pierced Count Thomas’s eye and drove straight into his brain.

Shaken by the sight of their mortally wounded commander tumbling from his horse, the Anglo-French forces began a panicked retreat south, down the steep hill into the lower town. With the royalists hounding at their heels, they were soon thrown into a full-scale rout. Many were caught in the bottleneck of the southern gate and the bridge over the Witham; others were pursued for miles to the south of Lincoln. Some were butchered, especially among the infantry, but most were taken as prisoners, including Robert Fitzwalter. Against all the odds, a mixture of canny generalship, unbending determination and simple good fortune enabled the royalists to score a stunning victory.

The game is up

The battle of Lincoln broke the back of the baronial rebellion and the Capetian invasion. Prince Louis vainly sought to maintain a foothold in England through the summer of 1217, but when a fleet carrying much-needed French reinforcements was driven off during a hard-fought naval engagement near Sandwich, it became clear that the game was up. Terms of surrender and withdrawal were agreed, and by late September Marshal was able to escort Louis to Dover and watch with satisfaction as the Capetian invader set sail for France.

The events of 1217 preserved the course of English royal ancestry as we know it. William Marshal held the post of regent until his death in 1219, and Henry III went on to rule in his own right for the next 50 years, as the Angevin line morphed into the enduring Plantagenet dynasty. But the victory at Lincoln was to have a deeper and more lasting impact upon medieval English history.

Ever since the Norman Conquest of 1066, England had been governed by an Anglo-Norman, and then Angevin, aristocracy – a ruling elite who held lands on both sides of the Channel, and whose first language was medieval French. Though this group, ranging all the way from anointed kings to minor nobles, clasped the reins of power in England, in terms of culture and identity they could never simply have been defined as English. By the early 13th century, however, a change seemed to be in the air.

The course of time and effects of intermarriage had already gone some way to blunting the alien nature of those who had once been Norman invaders. But when King John lost the majority of his continental lands including the duchy of Normandy early in his reign, nobles with cross-Channel estates had to decide where their loyalties lay. They began to reshape their identities. Those opting to retain estates in England were forced to relinquish territories in France and sever their ties with the continent.

When the Capetian prince Louis stood on the brink of claiming the English crown, the bridge across the Channel seemed set to be re-established. The royalist victories in 1217 presaged a decisive shift in orientation and culture. The decades that followed witnessed the emergence of a far more pronounced and pervasive English identity. It is no accident that by 1271 the first history of England written in Old English, rather than Latin or French, had been penned. The days of the hybrid, cross-channel society were done.

Thomas Asbridge is reader of medieval history at Queen Mary, University of London. You can hear him at BBC History Magazine’s History Weekends in York and Winchester this autumn – see historyweekend.com

Lincoln’s leading lights

Five characters who shaped the clash between rebels and royalists 800 years ago

The greatest knight

William Marshal  (died 1219)

Born the landless younger son of a minor Anglo-Norman noble, Marshal rose through the ranks to become one of the Angevin dynasty’s leading servants. The mastermind of the royalist victory at Lincoln made his name as a tournament champion and fought as a crusader in the Holy Land.

The battling bishop

Peter des Roches (d1238)

Originally from the Touraine in north-western France, Peter was consecrated as a bishop in 1205. However his propensity for battle saw him nicknamed the ‘warrior of Winchester’ – and his discovery of a weakness in Lincoln’s defences was critical to the royalist victory in 1217.

John’s evil ally

Faulkes de Bréaute (d1226)

Accused of murder in his youth, Faulkes was lifted to prominence in England by King John’s patronage, and led an attack by royalist crossbowmen at Lincoln. His ruthless approach to war made him a figure of hate and saw chroniclers branding him as the “scourge of the earth”.

Lincoln’s guardian

Nicholaa de la Haye (d1230)

Nicholaa assumed the role of castellan of Lincoln Castle after the death of her husband and son, and was then appointed as joint sheriff of Lincolnshire at the end of King John’s reign. In spite of her notable efforts in support of the royalist cause, she was deprived of the office of sheriff soon after the battle of Lincoln.

God’s rebel baron

Robert Fitzwalter  (d1235)

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A leading member of the baronial rebellion, Robert adopted the title of ‘Marshal of the Army of God’ during the civil war and was named as one of the 25 guarantors of Magna Carta. He was captured at the battle of Lincoln.