Friday, 2 June 2017

1217: The Battle of Lincoln - a big reason why we don't all speak French today

The Battle of Lincoln recently celebrated its 800th anniversary but, unlike some other major battles such as Agincourt, Waterloo, Hastings, The Somme, I'd wager that very few people outside the eclectic world of the history nerd are even aware of it. And yet, for all that, it had the potential to be a massive game-changer in the history of this island.

Perhaps it is overshadowed by the event that most school children know which took place two years earlier close to the banks of the Thames and not far from Windsor, namely the signing of the Magna Carta by King John at Runnymede. It is from here, and the earlier events of John's reign, that we can see the causes of the battle that came a year after John's death in 1216.

As an aside, to continue what seems to be a fairly common theme of this blog, John died a horrible, bottom-related death. He contracted dysentery whilst on campaign and suffered what must have been a humiliating and painful demise by, quite literally, shitting himself to death at Newark Castle in October 1216. However bad a king he may have been, you wouldn't wish that on your worst enemy.

Anyway, back to the story. What had once been a vast domain stretching across England and France under his predecessors, had - as a result of John's mismanagement and ill-advised policies - dwindled to control over largely just England. Almost the last overseas possessions, Normandy - the original ducal lands from which our Norman dynasty had hailed - had been lost in 1204. Understandably many of John's barons were particularly dischuffed by this turn of events, not least because they had held considerable estates on both sides of the channel and had thus lost significant income and wealth, not to mention the loss of prestige, which resulted in King John acquiring the nickname, Lackland (those medieval comedians at it again there).

Due to this and John's own cruel and vindictive personality, a good two-thirds of the barons had turned against their King. Matters were temporarily patched up by the issuing of the Magna Carta in 1215. (In this context I always tend to see this great bastion of English civil law as actually being for the barons in the first instance rather than being an early Bill of Rights for the common man. That there were clauses in there which protected Johnny Farmer is all well and good, but the fact is - for me - protecting the people who made money for the Barons was also going to benefit them. That you could not take away a man's plough or convict him without trial meant that the workers were safe from false accusations and could carry on working for their lord until proven guilty in a court of law. A huge simplification - but you get the point).

Oops - I have digressed again. So Magna Carta gets issued and is rescinded soon after (something else that might not be widely known). Indeed one of the main reasons the Carta is so well known today is largely due to it being re-issued several times, firstly by John's son - Henry III - in 1217. Anyway, John' reneging on the deal tips the Barons over the edge and so we have civil war.

Into this mess steps Louis, the heir to the French throne. The Capetian dynasty of France was the arch-rival of the Angevin (i.e. from Anjou) rulers of England. However, alliances sealed by marriages in the 12th century had resulted in Louis having a claim (albeit a weak one) to the English throne. The disaffection of a sizeable proportion of the English barons gave him the opportunity to cause mischief; an opportunity that he was not going to pass up. So it was that Louis landed in Kent in May 1216 at the head of a significant French invasion force.

Things went well for Louis and, by the time of John's death five months later, it looked as if there was a very good chance that England could fall to him. John's successor, Henry, was only 9 years old when he became king which made him extremely vulnerable and almost wholly dependent on the men that were charged with his care by his father. It was here, however, that John did something right for once. The men he set around his son were both capable and effective, and it is largely down to them that Henry not only survived, but went on to rule for over 50 years.

Key among these men was William Marshal, Earl of Pembroke, often described, with some justification, as the greatest knight who ever lived. Alongside him were Peter des Roches, the bishop of Winchester who was not scared of a good dust-up and Faulkes de Breaute who - as one of John's cronies - had a reputation for brutality but who was, nonetheless, a capable military commander. In addition, Henry had the backing of the Pope as he was seen to be the legitimate ruler of England and because John - in another all-to-rare sensible move - had submitted to the Pope's authority in 1213.

The new government began to take steps to establish its presence: a new centre of government was established in Bristol (much of the east and north of the country, including London, was lost to the crown at this time) and the Magna Carta (revised in places) was reissued. On its own, however, his was not enough. a quick and decisive victory was needed against Louis and his rebel supporters. The crown did not have the finances or manpower to wage a protracted campaign. The opportunity for such a victory came in May 1217 at Lincoln.

The city stood as one of the few royalist strongholds to resist the invader in the east of the country. A force comprising French troops and northern rebels had been besieging it for some time but had only managed to breach the outer city walls; the castle itself stood firm under the control of Lady Nicholaa de la Haye. Louis then decided to make a bold move to sweep up any remaining resistance in the eastern half of England before pushing west to take the rest of the country. To achieve this he divided his force in two, sending half to take Dover and the other half to Lincoln.

Whilst this was a grave threat to the royalist cause, William Marshal also saw it as a great opportunity to land a significant blow for Henry against a weakened rebel force. The knight - who was around 70 years old - used all of his knowledge and experience to good effect. Rather than take the direct route from Newark to Lincoln, he looped around from the west to approach the city from the north. This was key as the main southern approach to the city would have resulted in the royal forces having to fight their way across a defended bridge and then up a steep hill to the castle. If you have been to Lincoln you will be aware of this hill that divides the upper and lower town; I think the road that leads up to the castle is even called 'Steep Hill Road' - short and to the point.

Coming from the north, however, meant that Marshal's forces were able to fight on level ground. Nevertheless, there still remained the challenge of finding a way into the city. A scouting party, commanded by Peter des Roches, found a  gate that was undefended as it was blocked with rubble. Setting off two diversionary attacks to distract attention from the gate, William cleared the rubble and launched his assault. The old knight led the charge himself, his white hair flowing behind him as he went.

Whilst the surprise appearance of the royalist knights was a huge blow for the rebels, they did not immediately crack. A vicious melee broke out in front of the cathedral in which men of both sides were slaughtered without mercy.

However the turning point seems to have been the death of the French leader - Count Thomnas of Perche - from a sword thrust through the visor of his helmet that pierced his eye and skewered his brain, The sight of their leader being killed got the better of the rebels, and they began a panicked retreat through the city and across the river Witham, during which many more were butchered. The royalists, under the world's greatest knight, had their stunning victory.

The defeat at Lincoln was the beginning of the end for Louis's attempt to take the English throne. Many of the remaining rebel barons began to come over to the royalist side and Louis's last throw of the dice - a fleet of reinforcements - was beaten off in a naval engagement just off the port of Sandwich in Kent. Whilst England had stood on the brink of a new French rule, the reality was that the outcome of the war saw England actually began to find a new identity - one that was far more English than French. Who knows how things might have turned out were it not for a 70 year old knight who decided to put his remaining energies into protecting the birth right of a 9 year old boy, rather than putting his feet up and letting them all get on with it.

Finally, one should spare a thought for poor Nicholaa de la Haye. Her reward for her staunch resistance and loyalty to the crown was to be removed from her position as Sheriff of Lincolnshire four days later and replaced by Henry III's uncle the earl of Salisbury. Yeah - thanks for that!

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