It’s a real delight to welcome Sharon Bennett Connolly to The History Jar as my first guest blogger. I love her blog, History the Interesting Bits and her books. Those of you who have attended my medieval classes will probably have at least one of her books on your own shelves including Heroines of the Medieval World and Ladies of the Magna Carta. I recently posted on History the Interesting Bits (https://historytheinterestingbits.com/2023/10/07/guest-post-the-kingmakers-women-by-julia-a-hickey/) and it turns out that we may have a bit of a mutual appreciation society going on which leaves me feeling very honoured as really do admire the way that Sharon has drawn women previously left to languish in the footnotes into the limelight. So without further ado over to Sharon…
Well, it has been quite a journey, but King John’s Right Hand Lady, my biography of Nicholaa de la Haye is now out in the world. My journey with Nicholaa started with a blog post in 2015, shortly after a day trip to Lincoln Castle with my son. Nicholaa’s story really caught my attention. From that day on, I devoured everything I could find on Nicholaa, scouring the internet for details of her life and the events in which she was involved. I bought a copy of Louise Wilkinson’s excellent study, Women in Thirteenth Century Lincolnshire, which included Nicholaa’s story. And when I started thinking about writing a book, Nicholaa came to mind. In 2016, I entered a competition with a publisher, to have my first book published and Nicholaa was one of the inspirations.
In Heroines of the Medieval World, I wanted to tell the stories of the most incredible women in medieval history and Nicholaa was certainly in my Top 10. And from that book, I started thinking that there was more scope to examine the women related to the Magna Carta story, especially Nicholaa and her contemporary, Matilda de Braose. The conflicting lives and experiences of these two women inspired Ladies of Magna Carta: Women of Influence in Thirteenth Century England; while Matilda became King John’s bitter enemy and ultimate victim, Nicholaa was a loyal ally, trusted to hold Lincoln Castle against the rebel barons, despite being a woman.
As I was researching Nicholaa’s story for Ladies of Magna Carta, I got very excited as I realised that I may have enough material for a full biography. I contacted my editor, expecting her to shut me down and say ‘no thanks, no one will be interested.’ But, instead, she said ‘go for it!’ And the project was born.
Nicholaa’s career spanned sixty years, four kings and two husbands and, in a time when men fought and women stayed home, Nicholaa de la Haye held Lincoln Castle against all-comers. In 1191, 1216 and 1217, it was Nicholaa who defended the besieged castle, earning herself the ironic praise that she acted ‘manfully’. Nicholaa gained prominence in the First Baron’s War, the civil war that followed the sealing of Magna Carta in 1215.
On one of King John’s visits to inspect Lincoln’s defences in 1216, a recently-widowed Nicholaa met him at the gates and presented the king with the keys to the castle, claiming she was too old and weary to continue in her duties. John refused to accept her resignation, instructing Nicholaa to keep hold of the castle until he ordered otherwise. Whether Nicholaa ever intended to give up Lincoln, or the event was staged so that John could demonstrate his continued trust in Nicholaa, is open to debate. I suspect it was the latter. John was in the midst of civil war and running short of allies. Nicholaa had already demonstrated her abilities at defending Lincoln, and her loyalty to John – he would have been hard put to replace her. However, the event gave John the opportunity to reinforce his trust in Nicholaa in front of his barons.
Intent on continuing the civil war, the rebel barons invited the king of France to take the throne of England. The king refused, but his son, Louis (the future Louis VIII), accepted the offer and was hailed as King of England in London in June 1216.
That summer, Nicholaa prevented another siege of Lincoln Castle by paying off a rebel army, led by Gilbert de Gant, who remained in occupation of the city of Lincoln but lifted the siege of the castle. As Louis consolidated his position in the south, John fell desperately ill, probably from dysentery and halted at Newark Castle, where he died on the night of 18/19 October 1216. King John valued her so much that, from his deathbed, he appointed her sheriff of Lincolnshire; Nicholaa was the first woman ever to be appointed as a county sheriff.
Shortly after John’s death, the rebels returned to Lincoln.
Although now her 60s, Nicholaa endured a siege that lasted close to seven months, resisting the English rebel barons and their French allies with all she had, and giving the regents for the new king, nine-year-old Henry III, time to gather their forces and come to her aid.
The siege ended in the Battle of Lincoln, also known as the Lincoln Fair, when 70-year-old William Marshal, known to history the Greatest Knight, spurred on by the chivalrous need to rescue a lady in distress – and to send the French packing – marched on Lincoln. The six-hour battle, fought in the tightly packed medieval streets of the city of Lincoln, was the turning point in the war. Within months of Marshal’s victory, the French had gone home, and the English rebels were swearing allegiance to Henry III.
The French chronicler Anonymous of Bethune described Nicholaa as ‘a very cunning, bad-hearted and vigorous old woman.’ Perhaps they were sore losers!
And how was Nicholaa thanked for such a stalwart defence of Lincoln Castle? Within four days of the battle her office as sheriff of Lincolnshire was given to William Longspée, Earl of Salisbury – the king’s uncle. Salisbury then seized the castle, evicting Nicholaa. Why? Because Salisbury’s son was married to Nicholaa’s granddaughter and the earl thought he should control the young couple’s inheritance. Did he really think Nicholaa would give up without a fight? Did he think seven months of siege had taken the fight out of her?
He should have known better.
Nicholaa appealed to the king and the privy council and got herself reinstated as constable of Lincoln Castle. She never got to be sheriff of Lincolnshire again, but at least she got her castle back. Not that Salisbury was one to give up either and there are various instances throughout the early 1220s of Salisbury trying to take the castle, through siege, subterfuge and persuasion. He tried everything! But Nicholaa would not give up – Salisbury would die first, which he did! And three months after Salisbury’s death, Nicholaa finally retired, resigning her custody of Lincoln Castle and settling on her manor at Swaton, Lincolnshire, where she died in 1230. She was buried in the local church, St Michael’s, where her tomb can still be seen today.
Nicholaa de la Haye was a staunch supporter of King John, remaining loyal to the very end, even after most of his knights and barons had deserted him. And I wanted to know why. Why did Nicholaa support John? Why did she not rebel like the rest of them? She must have known how heavy-handed and brutal John could be. She must have known the dreadful fate of Matilda de Braose – starved to death in one of John’s dungeons. So, what made her stay loyal?
To both King John and Henry III, she was ‘our beloved and faithful Nicholaa de la Haye.’
A truly remarkable lady, Nicholaa was the first woman to be appointed sheriff in her own right. Her strength and tenacity saved England at one of the lowest points in its history.
It is often said that the best thing John ever did was die when he did.
The best thing he ever did was appoint Nicholaa as sheriff!
Nicholaa de la Haye is one woman in English history whose story needs to be told…
About the book:
King John’s Right Hand Lady: The Story of Nicholaa de la Haye by Sharon Bennett Connolly
In a time when men fought and women stayed home, Nicholaa de la Haye held Lincoln Castle against all-comers. Not once, but three times, earning herself the ironic praise that she acted ‘manfully’. Nicholaa gained prominence in the First Baron’s War, the civil war that followed the sealing of Magna Carta in 1215. Although recently widowed, and in her 60s, in 1217 Nicholaa endured a siege that lasted over three months, resisting the English rebel barons and their French allies. The siege ended in the battle known as the Lincoln Fair, when 70-year-old William Marshal, the Greatest Knight in Christendom, spurred on by the chivalrous need to rescue a lady in distress, came to Nicholaa’s aid. Nicholaa de la Haye was a staunch supporter of King John, remaining loyal to the very end, even after most of his knights and barons had deserted him. A truly remarkable lady, Nicholaa was the first woman to be appointed sheriff in her own right. Her strength and tenacity saved England at one of the lowest points in its history. Nicholaa de la Haye is one woman in English history whose story needs to be told…
Sharon Bennett Connolly FRHistS is the best-selling author of 4 non-fiction history books, including Heroines of the Medieval World and Ladies of Magna Carta: Women of Influence in Thirteenth Century England. Her latest book, a biography, King John’s Right-Hand Lady: The Story of Nicholaa de la Haye, was published in May 2023. A Fellow of the Royal Historical Society, Sharon has studied history academically and just for fun – and has even worked as a tour guide at a castle. She writes the popular history blog, www.historytheinterestingbits.com and regularly gives talks on women’s history. Sharon is a feature writer for All About History magazine and her TV work includes Australian Television’s ‘Who Do You Think You Are?‘
Podcast: A Slice of Medieval (https://soundcloud.com/user-142525904)