written by Expert Contributor, Sharon Bennett Connolly
Nicholaa de la Haye is one of those very rare women in English history. She is renowned for her abilities, rather than her family and connections. In a time when men fought and women stayed home, Nicholaa de la Haye held Lincoln Castle against all-comers. Her strength and tenacity saved England at one of its lowest points in history. The eldest daughter and co-heiress of Richard de la Haye and his wife, Matilda de Verdun, she was probably born in the early 1150s. Richard de la Haye was a minor Lincolnshire lord; in 1166 he was recorded as owing 20 knights’ fees, which had been reduced to 16 by 1172. When he died in 1169, Nicholaa inherited her father’s land in Lincolnshire and his position as castellan of Lincoln Castle, a position she would hold for over 40 years.
Nicholaa was married twice, her first husband, William Fitz Erneis, died in 1178, leaving Nocholaa a young widow with one daughter, Matilda. Before 1185 she married Gerard de Canville, brother of Richard de Canville, admiral of Richard I’s crusading fleet during the 3rd Crusade. Nicholaa and Gerard had at least 2 children; Richard and Thomas. Nicholaa’s husbands each claimed the position of castellan of Lincoln Castle by right of his wife; but Nicholaa seems to have been far from the normal subservient wife. When her husband was not in the castle, she was left in charge rather than an alternative, male deputy.
Nicholaa first comes to the attention of the chroniclers in 1191, when Prince John led the opposition to his brother’s chancellor, William Longchamp. Gerard de Canville was a supporter of John and joined him at Nottingham Castle, leaving Nicholaa to hold Lincoln. Richard I’s Chancellor, William Longchamp, had headed north to halt John’s coup and laid siege to Lincoln Castle. The formidable Nicholaa refused to yield, holding out for 40 days before Longchamp raised the siege following the fall of the castles at Tickhill and Nottingham. Amusingly, Richard of Devizes said of this defence of Lincoln Castle, that she did it ‘without thinking of anything womanly’.
In 1194, on the king’s return, Canville 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. Gerard de Canville probably died in 1215 and, although now a widow, it seems the castle remained in Nicholaa’s hands, despite the fact her son Richard was old enough to take on the responsibility.
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 Great Charter, or Magna Carta, in order to avoid war. Although it eventually came to be considered a fundamental statement of English liberties, as a peace treaty Magna Carta failed miserably. 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 rebels invited the king of France to take the throne of England; instead Philip II’s son, Louis (the future Louis VIII), accepted the offer and was hailed as King of England in London in June 1216. In the same year Nicholaa prevented another siege by paying off a rebel army, led by Gilbert de Gant, who had occupied the city of Lincoln.
As Louis consolidated his position in the south, John came north, spent the summer hunting down the rebels in the Isle of Axholme, with ‘fire and sword,’ before making an inspection of Lincoln Castle in September 1216. It may have been at this visit that 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”. (Irene Gadwin, The Sheriff: The Man and His Office).
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 moved on to the castle at Newark, from where, just hours before his death, John appointed Nicholaa de la Haye as Sheriff of Lincolnshire in her own right.
King John died at Newark on the night of 18/19th October 1216, with half his country in the hands of 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 de Perche, headed north. In early 1217, he took the City of Lincoln and laid siege to the castle with a small force. Now in her 60s Nicholaa de la Haye took charge of the defences. Prince Louis personally travelled up to Lincoln to ask for her surrender, assuring her that no one would be hurt, but Nicholaa refused.
When the small force proved insufficient to compel 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. On 20 May, William Marshal arrived, from the north-west, with a relieving force. Having taken the North Gate of the city walls, his army proceeded to attack the besieging forces and routed the enemy; the enemy’s commander and Marshal’s cousin, the Comte de Perche, was killed in the fighting. 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 Battle of Sandwich, a sea battle fought off the Kent coast in August 1217, ended it. The French were forced to seek peace and returned home. Magna Carta was reissued and Henry III’s regents could set about healing the country.
In a magnificent demonstration of ingratitude, within 4 days of the relief of the Castle, Nicholaa’s position as Sheriff of Lincolnshire was 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 Nicholaa travelled to court to remind the king’s regents of her services, and request her rights be restored to her. A compromise was reached whereby Salisbury remained as Sheriff of the county, while Nicholaa would hold the city and the castle. The settlement was not ideal, however, and some wrangling seems to have continued until Salisbury’s death in 1226.
Nicholaa’s granddaughter and heiress, Idonea – daughter of Nicholaa’s eldest son Richard – was married to Salisbury’s son, William II Longspée; the couple inherited the de la Haye and Canville lands on Nicholaa’s death. 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.
A most able adversary for some of the greatest military minds of the time, and a loyal supporter of King John, Nicholaa de la Haye was unique among her peers. Although praised by the chroniclers, they seemed to find difficulty in describing a woman who acted in such a fashion; the Dunstable annals refer to her as a ‘noble woman’, saying she acted ‘manfully’. 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, both King John and 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 on 20 November 1230. She was buried in St Michael’s Church, Swaton in Lincolnshire.
Sharon Bennett Connnolly
Sharon Bennett Connolly, has been fascinated by history her whole life. She has studied history academically and just for fun – and even worked as a tour guide at historical sites. For Christmas 2014, her husband gave her a blog as a gift – www.historytheinterestingbits.com – and Sharon started researching and writing about the stories that have always fascinated concentrating on medieval women. She has just published Ladies of Magna Carta: Women of Influence in Thirteenth Century England, her third non-fiction book, and is also the author of Heroines of the Medieval World and Silk and the Sword: The Women of the Norman Conquest. Sharon regularly gives talks on women’s history, she is a feature writer for All About History magazine and her TV work includes Australian Television’s ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’