Almost forgotten by history, Nicholaa was not some fresh-faced beauty in need of rescue, when the French came knocking at the door. She was a mature woman in her 60s and the highly experienced castellan of Lincoln Castle. A formidable matriarch if ever there was one.
|Observatory Tower, Lincoln Castle|
And it wasn’t even her first siege. Nicholaa was probably born sometime in the early 1150s, she was the eldest daughter of Richard de la Haye, a minor Lincolnshire lord, and his wife, Matilda de Verdun. When her father died in 1169, Nicholaa inherited his lands in Lincolnshire and his position as castellan of Lincoln Castle, a position she would hold for over 30 years.
Nicholaa was married twice, her husbands successively holding the position of Castellan at Lincoln by right of Nicholaa. Her first husband was William Fitz Erneis, who died in 1178. However, before 1185 she was married again, this time Gerard de Camville, son of Richard de Camville, admiral of Richard I’s crusading fleet during the Third Crusade. Although her first marriage was probably childless, Nicholaa and Gerard had at least 3 children; Richard, Thomas and Matilda.
Nicholaa first comes to the attention of the chroniclers in 1191, when Prince John made a play for his brother Richard’s throne. Gerard de Camville was a supporter of John and joined him at Nottingham Castle, leaving Nicholaa to hold Lincoln. Richard I’s Chancellor, William Longchamps, had headed north to halt John’s coup and laid siege to Lincoln Castle. The formidable Nicholaa refused to yield, successfully holding out for 40 days before Longchamps gave up the siege following the fall of the castles at Tickhill and Nottingham. In 1194, on King Richard’s return to England, Camville was stripped of his positions as Sheriff of Lincolnshire and Castellan of the castle; only having it returned to him on the accession of King John in 1199.
|Tree carving of Nicholaa de la Haye, Lincoln Castle|
Nicholaa was widowed for a second time when Gerard de Camville died around 1215. It seems, however, that the castle remained in her more-than-capable hands.
On one of King John’s visits to inspect the castle’s defences in either 1215 or 1216 there was a rather dramatic display of fealty from Nicholaa:
And once it happened that after the war King John came to Lincoln and the said Lady Nicholaa went out of the eastern gate of the castle carrying the keys of the castle in her hand and met the king and offered the keys to him as her lord and said she was a woman of great age and was unable to bear such fatigue any longer and he besought her saying, “My beloved Nicholaa, I will that you keep the castle as hitherto until I shall order otherwise”. Nicholaa’s greatest hour came shortly after the death of King John, but as a result of the late king’s tyrannical actions. As we all know, King John’s reign wasn’t exactly smooth sailing. He lost his French lands and was held to account by the barons of England for numerous examples of maladministration, corruption and outright murder. In 1215 he had been forced to seal the Magna Carta in order to avoid war. However, within months John had written to Pope Innocent III and the charter had been declared null and void; the barons were up in arms.
The rebel barons invited the king of France to take the throne of England; Philip II wasn’t interested but his son, Louis (the future Louis VIII), accepted the offer and was hailed as King of England in London in June of 1216.
As Louis consolidated his position in the south, John made an inspection of Lincoln castle in September 1216. During the visit Nicholaa de la Haye, who held the castle for John, even though the city supported the rebels, was appointed Sheriff of Lincolnshire in her own right. Moving south, just 2 weeks later, the king’s baggage train was lost as he crossed the Wash estuary and within a few more days John was desperately ill. He died at Newark on 19th October 1216, with half his country occupied by a foreign invader and his throne now occupied by his 9-year-old son, Henry III.
The elder statesman and notable soldier William Marshal, Earl of Pembroke was appointed Regent and set out to save the kingdom.
Meanwhile, Louis’ forces, under the Comte du Perche, headed north and, in early 1217, took the City of Lincoln and surrounded the castle, laying siege to it with a small force. Although in her 60s, Nicholaa de la Haye took charge of the defences and refused to be daunted by her position. When Prince Louis personally travelled north to Lincoln to ask for her surrender, he assured her no one would be hurt, but Nicholaa refused to yield. When the small force proved insufficient to force a surrender, the French had to send for reinforcements. For almost 3 months – from March to mid-May – siege machinery bombarded the south and east walls of the castle.
|West Gate, Lincoln Castle|
However, the loyal English forces were not going to leave a woman to the mercy of a siege for long and the regent, William Marshal, organised a force to march to Nicholaa’s relief. The English commanders included William Marshal, earl of Pembroke, his son, Young William Marshal, and nephew, John Marshal, in addition to Ranulph, Earl of Chester, Wiliam Longspee, earl of Salisbury, Peter des Roches, bishop of Winchester, and Faulkes de Breauté. They led 406 knights, 317 crossbowmen and a large number of sergeants-at-arms, foot soldiers and camp followers. The enemy forces in Lincoln were led by Thomas, Comte de Perche, himself a grandson of Henry II’s daughter Matilda and therefore a cousin of King Henry III; the commanders, of the English rebels in the city included Robert FitzWalter and Saer de Quincey. They led over 600 knights and several thousand infantry.
Having mustered at Newark, Marshal’s forces marched on Lincoln, using a roundabout route; crossing the River Trent they came upon the city from the north in the early morning of 20th May. He made a rousing speech before the battle, telling his men: “Now listen, my lords! There is honour and glory to be won here…” 
On seeing the arrival of Marshal’s forces, Nicholaa sent her deputy to the regent, who returned with Peter des Roches, secretly entering the castle by a postern gate, in order to inform Nicholaa of Marshal’s plans, and then sneaked into the city to do a little reconnaissance. Des Roches discovered a heavily barricaded gate in the city wall, which Marshal’s forces proceeded to knock through in a few hours. Splitting his forces, Faulke de Breaute was sent into the castle with his crossbowmen, entering through a postern gate, he positioned his men on the walls and proceeded to rain a fire of bolts on the besiegers. The Earl of Chester was sent to attack the North Gate as William Marshal’s men attacked the newly-cleared gate.
It’s not hard to imagine Nicholaa standing on the castle’s walkway, watching the battle unfold, relieved that help had arrived, but desperate for victory.
The hardest fighting took place in the ground between the castle and cathedral; with the enemy’s commander, the Comte du Perche, killed in front of the cathedral itself. And with the death of their leader, the French and rebel barons lost heart and started pulling back. They fled downhill, to the south of the city. Although they briefly rallied, making an uphill assault, but the battle was lost and there was a bottleneck at the South Gate and the bridge across the Witham as the enemy forces fled. The rebel leaders, Saer de Quincey and Robert FitzWalter were both taken prisoner, as were many others. In total, about half of the enemy knights surrendered.
The city, which had supported the rebels and welcomed the French, was sacked and looted by the victorious army; the battle becoming known as the Lincoln Fair, as a result.
The Battle of Lincoln turned the tide of the war. The French were forced to seek peace and eventually returned home. Magna Carta was reissued and Henry III’s regents could set about healing the country.
In a magnificent demonstration of total ingratitude, within four days of the relief of the Castle, Nicholaa was relieved of her position as Sheriff of Lincolnshire. The post was, instead, given to the king’s uncle William Longspée, Earl of Salisbury, who took control of the city and seized the castle.
Not one to give up easily, however, Nicholaa travelled to court to remind the king’s regents of her services, and request her rights be restored to her. Eventually a compromise was reached whereby Salisbury remained as Sheriff of the County, while Nicholaa held the city and her beloved castle.
A staunchly independent woman, Nicholaa issued some 25 surviving charters in her name. She made grants to various religious houses, including Lincoln Cathedral, and even secured a royal grant for a weekly market on one of her properties.
|Lincoln Knights' Sculpture of Nicolaa, Lincoln East Gate|
A most able adversary for some of the greatest military minds of the time, and a loyal supporter of King John, she was unique among her peers. The chroniclers were full of praise for Nicholaa de la Haye, but seemed to have difficulty in finding the right adjectives for such an incredible; the Dunstable annals refer to her as a ‘noble woman’, saying she acted ‘manfully’. Richard of Devizes said of her first defence of Lincoln Castle, against William Longchamps, that she did it ‘without thinking of anything womanly’.
One cannot fail to feel admiration for a woman who managed to hold her own in a man’s world, who fought for her castle and her home in a time when women had so little say over their own lives – and at such an advanced age. Her bravery and tenacity saved Henry III’s throne.
Not surprisingly, Henry III referred to her as ‘our beloved and faithful Nicholaa de la Haye’.
Nicholaa de la Haye, the woman who saved England, lived well into her 70s. By late 1226 she had retired to her manor at Swaton, dying there in 1230. She was buried in St Michael’s Church, Swaton in Lincolnshire. Nicholaa’s granddaughte, Idonea – daughter of her eldest son Richard and married to Salisbury’s son, William II Longspée - inherited the de la Haye and Camville lands on Nicholaa’s death
Footnotes: ¹Irene Gladwin: The Sheriff; The Man and His Office; ²Histoire de Guillaume le Maréschal translated by Stewart Gregory.
Sharon's book, Heroines of the Medieval World is available now, and features a chapter on my favourite heroine, The Lady of the Mercians, as well as Nicolaa, Eleanor of Aquitaine, and many others.