This piece originally appeared on the excellent thirteenth-century site Sarah’s History blog.
In May 1217 the realm of England was in chaos. Louis, heir to the throne of France, had invaded in 1216 at the behest of many of the English nobles and had declared himself king. He was firmly in control of about a third of the country and enjoyed the support of many of the most powerful earls. His army had captured the city of Lincoln, then one of the largest in England, and was now encamped around the castle, the last remaining loyalist stronghold in the region; if it fell to him he might become unstoppable. But he had underestimated his foe, and one woman was about to cause his downfall.
Nicola de la Haye was born sometime between 1150 and 1156, probably towards the earlier end of that range – in those days, many nobles did not take the trouble to record formally the birth of their daughters, as they were more interested in sons and heirs. But Nicola was followed only by sisters, so when her father died in 1169 she found herself co-heiress to his estates and hereditary castellan of Lincoln castle. This made her a great marriage prize, and she was soon married to a William fitz Erneis, by whom she may or may not have had a daughter before he died in 1178.
Still young, Nicola married again to Gerard de Camville, and they had a son, Richard. Effectively, she had now done her duty – she’d had the misfortune to be born female, but she had ensured the future of her father’s lands by marrying and producing a male heir. Legally, the lordship of her lands and the office of castellan belonged to Gerard, but Nicola played a very active role in the management of their estates. Looking back from 800 years in the future it is difficult to work out why this might have been the case. Did Gerard feel she was owed this as he had gained the estates from her? Or was she simply so strong-willed that he had no choice?
In 1191 Gerard became involved in a dispute between William Longchamp, Richard I’s chancellor, and Prince (later King) John. He left Lincoln to support John and, unusually for the time, made it clear that Nicola would be in charge of Lincoln castle in his absence, rather than naming a male deputy. He could not have done better: while he was away the chancellor’s forces attacked, and Nicola had to hold the fort – literally. She withstood the siege for over a month before a truce was arranged.
Gerard died in 1215, at which point Nicola would have been in her early to mid sixties. This time she did not marry again, but instead claimed her inheritance in her own right as a widow. She took the office of castellan of Lincoln castle just in time for the French invasion and in the summer of 1216 she staved off the first approach by the invaders by purchasing a truce from Gilbert de Gant when he attempted to occupy the city.
Later in 1216 King John visited Lincoln. Nicola is said to have approached him and offered him the keys to the castle, explaining that she was too old and could not endure the burden any longer. John responded by entreating her to keep the castle. How much of this was show? It must have been evident that Nicola was perfectly capable of holding the castle, but perhaps she and the king felt that some public display was necessary to confirm this to the local landholders. Maybe they both winked knowingly as they acted out their ceremony, jangling the keys for show. Female or not, Nicola was one of John’s most loyal and formidable supporters.
John died in October 1216, and one of his last acts was to appoint Nicola to the position of Sheriff of Lincolnshire. The appointment of a woman to a shrievalty was unprecedented and shows the high regard which John had for her capabilities in a time of war. It is true to say that many of the male candidates who might have been eligible for the position were actually siding with the French against him, but no doubt he could have found a man to act as sheriff if he’d really wanted to. Indeed, Nicola’s son Richard had by now reached adulthood, but it was his mother and not he who was appointed. He died in March 1217 but this huge blow did not stop the bereaved Nicola from carrying out her duties. Her finest hour was yet to come.
In early 1217 Gilbert de Gant returned, and this time he was not to be bought off with a truce. The French attacked the city and took it quickly, the citizens being unprepared and untrained to defend it. But the castle, with its separate defences and garrison, managed to hold out. Louis's army arrived, bringing with it siege machinery and reinforcements; it was commanded by the French Comte de Perche and his English ally the Earl of Winchester. Louis himself remained at Dover, where he was besieging the castle there. He wouldn't be needed at Lincoln: after all, the castle was being commanded by a little old lady. Victory was assured, right?
The castle was bombarded from the south and east by the siege machinery all through March, April and early May. During all this time Nicola, assisted by her second-in-command Sir Geoffrey de Serland, marshalled her forces and defended the walls. Alas, the exact details of what happened day by day have not come down to us, but if the siege followed a typical pattern then those inside would have worked in shifts to patrol the battlements, looking out for surprise attacks, shooting arrows or crossbow bolts when the attackers showed themselves, and trying to avoid being hit by missiles themselves. Food would have become increasingly scarce, hunger and illness common; huge boulders, volleys of smaller stones and burning material would have been catapulted at them at all hours of the day and night; the confines of the castle precincts would have become claustrophobic. The danger of death or hideous injury from missiles or flying pieces of shattered wall would have been ever-present. Sleep would have been difficult to come by as assaults or fires could have happened at any moment, and the stress must have been unbearable – perhaps even comparable to life in the trenches in the First World War.
It would have been very easy for Nicola to look at the haggard faces around her, the injuries and deaths, the gradual destruction of the walls, and to give in and ask the attackers for terms. But she did not. Week by week, month by month, she rallied her troops. She had little or no communication with the outside world but would have known that the regent (acting for the nine-year-old Henry III, John’s son) would recognise that Lincoln was an important stronghold for the royalist cause, and would surely send help. Her determination was rewarded on 20 May 1217, when the regent led an army in person to the relief of Lincoln. There was fierce fighting in the narrow streets of the city, the siege machinery was destroyed and the castle liberated. Many of the French and rebel forces were captured, and Louis lost half his army. Lincoln turned the tide of the war.
And that should have been the end of the story, but the eventful life of Nicola de la Haye was about to take another twist. In one of the most astonishing acts of ingratitude imaginable, Nicola was removed from the office of sheriff just four days after the battle, and replaced with the king’s uncle the Earl of Salisbury. This entitled him to have charge of the county; however, he seized the city and the castle as well. Nicola had spent months defending it against enemies only to lose it to an ally. It must have been a crushing blow.
Did she give up and retire into obscurity? She did not. She travelled – an arduous undertaking for someone her age, and hazardous with the country still at war – to the king’s court to remind him in person of her faithful service and demand that her rights be restored to her. Initially Salisbury was ordered to give everything back, but later a compromise was reached whereby he had the county, as the regent had envisaged, but Nicola kept the city and the castle. Nicola’s granddaughter and heiress Idonea (only child of her late son Richard) was betrothed to Salisbury’s son. Salisbury was still not satisfied and the wrangling to and fro continued until his death in 1226.
Nicola finally had control of her entire inheritance, and peacetime in which to enjoy her responsibilities. She had always been an able and energetic administrator, and some records survive to prove it: 25 charters, all issued in her name alone. Among other activities she secured a royal grant for a market each week on one of her manors, which both boosted the local economy and increased her own income; she made donations and grants to religious houses and to the cathedral of Lincoln. She continued to run her estates peaceably and efficiently until she died in her late seventies in 1230.
The fact that we know so much about Nicola’s life, living as she did during a time when many women were invisible in official records, gives us an idea of how extraordinary she was. Yes, she was an heiress, which put her in a favourable position to start with, but plenty of others in the same situation contented themselves with (or were forced into) a life of domesticity, childbearing and service to their husbands. Nicola’s determination set her apart.
One of the most remarkable aspects of Nicola’s legacy is that contemporary chroniclers were very positive in their depictions of her. Generally women who ‘overstepped the mark’ and encroached on male affairs were subject to harsh words, but other than the Anonymous of Bethune (who was ferociously pro-Louis and who called Nicola all sorts of names) the others, unusually, sang her praises. Interestingly, they struggled with having the vocabulary to do so, as they were not used to praising women in this way. Positive feminine portrayals in thirteenth-century works are usually limited to comments on beauty or noble birth; the writers had no frame of reference for a bellicose woman. Writing of her defence of the castle during the 1191 siege, Richard of Devizes said that she did it ‘without thinking of anything womanly’ (nichil femineum cogitans), and the Dunstable annals refer to her as a ‘noble woman’ (nobilis mulier) who acted ‘manfully’ (viriliter).
Perhaps the most striking evidence for her character was that during her long dispute with the Earl of Salisbury, King Henry III (no doubt grateful for the fact that she had virtually saved his kingdom at Lincoln in 1217, and possibly guilty at his regent’s treatment of her immediately afterwards) sent a letter to Salisbury – his own uncle – ordering him to protect and defend
“our beloved and faithful Nicola de la Haye”.
D.A. Carpenter, The Minority of Henry III (Methuen, 1990)
J.W.F. Hill, Medieval Lincoln (Cambridge University Press, 1948)
Louise Wilkinson, Women in Thirteenth-Century Lincolnshire (Boydell, 2007)