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Fact vs fiction: The Battle of Lincoln explored


The Battle of Lincoln took place on 20 May 1217, pitting an army of baronial rebels and French invaders against forces loyal to the 9-year-old King Henry III and led by his regent, William Marshal.

Historians Dr Sean McGlynn and Dr Catherine Hanley have written about the battle in fact and in fiction respectively, so we asked them for their thoughts on the encounter, a pivotal moment in English history.

So, what happened?

SM: Since the French invasion and occupation of England began a year earlier, the royalists had been on the back foot. At Lincoln, they mustered their largest field army to relieve the castle there, which was being besieged by the allied French and baronial forces. The mercenary captain Falkes de Bréauté sneaked crossbowmen into the castle through a postern; as the main royalist force burst through the city’s northern gate, the crossbowmen popped up on the battlements and let loose a lethal barrage of crossbow bolts on to the enemy below. The combat took place in the narrow and confined streets; the routed Franco-baronial forces fought a retreat, but many rebel leaders were captured.

CH: I think it’s important to emphasise – as you say – that this battle took place inside a city, so lots of civilians got caught up in it through no fault of their own. They hadn’t sided with the French, but their homes were looted by the victorious royalists anyway; many lost their livelihoods and even their lives. We don’t know who they were as individuals, but their stories are just as valid as those of the combatants.

Who were the important figures?

CH: The castle was under the command of Nicola de la Haye, a woman in her sixties who was much tougher than the besiegers had expected her to be. Her life story is remarkable and I hope someone will write that book one day! The French and the barons were outside the castle, besieging it, but inside the city walls. They were nominally led by the count of Perche, the highest-ranking Frenchman present, but he was inexperienced (just 21 years old), so they had a kind of command group that also included a baronial rebel called Robert Fitzwalter and his brother-in-law Saer de Quincy, the earl of Winchester. But leadership by committee is never a good thing in combat, and the results were disastrous. Perche was killed in the battle and the other two were captured.

SM: The Henrician forces were led by England’s regent, William Marshal, who was by now seventy years of age. This famous paragon of chivalry (as his biographer depicts him) was a veteran warrior and wily political operator who took a cautious approach in fighting the rebels and the French. There is a suggestion that he faced criticism for being too guarded in prosecuting the war and that this may have stung him into taking firm action at Lincoln. His biographer depicts William so eager to join in the fray that he charges against the enemy without having put on his helmet. It was William’s last glorious ride into battle.

What are the issues with writing about the battle?

SM: From the historian’s point of view, we are well served by contemporary sources, but we have to be careful. The History of William Marshal, the ‘official’ biography of the regent, is (as might be expected) a bit one-sided, but its detailed information on participants and numbers is valuable, and it provides much colourful drama. Meanwhile, Roger of Wendover’s chronicle has been unfairly dismissed by too many historians as being untrustworthy, but he was a well-informed local source who offers the best account of the battle; he also does not shy away from the atrocity of the sacking of Lincoln. There are a few places where the two texts contradict each other on the details, though…

CH: Ah, well, this is where writers of fiction have a slight advantage – where there’s a gap in the sources, we can just make something up to fill in the blanks! Of course, we have to do it logically and plausibly, but by paying careful attention to the information that is available we can extrapolate and theorise about people’s actions and motivations in a way that just can’t be done in a factual history book. Knowing that person A started off at point X and ended up at point Y, with little information on what they did in between, is a perfect opportunity for a novelist.

What was the legacy of the battle?

CH: It wasn’t the be-all and end-all of the campaign, but it was certainly a major step along the way.

SM: Yes, the military effects were immediate: with the rebel leadership now royalist prisoners, it was left to the rest of the French to continue the fight. They regrouped in London and were joined by Louis, who had been besieging Dover with the other half of his army.

CH: But he didn’t have enough troops left to push for a decisive result, so he had to wait until his wife could organise reinforcements. And she didn’t mess around: Blanche of Castile was a tough woman who faced down Louis’s father, the French King, and then rode around the country in person raising another army. She sent them over in August…

SM: …But the fleet was intercepted off the coast of Sandwich and this time the French suffered a resounding and decisive defeat in a naval battle. They came to generous terms with the English and Louis departed for France the following month. The Articles of the Barons from Runnymede were reissued for a second time as a peace measure, becoming known from then on as Magna Carta.

CH: So, if we were going to summarise, I guess we could say that the Battle of Lincoln was the catalyst for three things. First, that Magna Carta was reissued and not forgotten – as it might well have been otherwise.

SM: Secondly, that the battle encouraged English patriotism in that many of the men there were fighting to defend the realm from foreign invaders.

CH: And finally, that King John was succeeded on the English throne by Henry III, not by Louis I. The history books (and the novels) might all have been so different!

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