England Invaded (6): End Game
By Nils Visser
After his ignominious departure from England by way of Winchelsea, Prince Louis of France returned to England around May 1217. He only brought limited reinforcements, for the Pope was becoming increasingly opposed to Louis’ invasion (even excommunicating Louis and his followers not much later), and Louis’ father King Phillip Augustus wasn’t about to risk the Pope’s wrath. Therefore, Phillip Augustus withdrew his support from the venture, supposedly saying “….we have nothing to gain in England. The land is lost for Louis and in a short time he and his supporters will be chased out of it, as the Marshal has taken the matter in hand.”
Louis, however, wasn’t prepared to give up so easily, and he found a pillar of support in his wife, Blanche of Castille, who set about organising troop and funds in her own domains in Artois. When Louis went back to England he had 120 knights with him, many of them from Picardy, Artois and Ponthieu, the areas where he and his wife had influence. The numbers were a far cry from what he had hoped for, but better than nothing. After Louis left, Blanche continued her activities, setting up headquarters in Calais, organizing another army, two relief fleets and badgering Phillip Augustus into releasing some funds.
When Louis returned to England things were rapidly changing. As Phillip Augustus had noted William Marshal was now in control and things would be different. John had fought his war by raiding the lands which had declared loyalty to Louis. When the rebels and French had taken control of Norfolk and Suffolk John showed shortly thereafter up to punish the population. Effectively this meant that the poor people of East Anglia were first robbed and ravaged by the French and rebel forces, after which they were robbed and savaged by King John’s troops.
One can imagine that for an Anglo-Saxon farmer with a limited overview of –and interest in- the grand scale of geo-politics it didn’t really matter who the soldier fought for. Whether the intruder was a Flemish or Brabançon mercenary, a French royal retainer or an Anglo-Norman: When the soldiers showed up there was trouble. You would be accused of treachery because the last passing army had raped your wife and daughters, enslaved your sons and burned your farm –a clear sign of your dubious loyalty- and therefore you needed to be punished some more. If you happened to be a rebellious landowner, you would have noted how King John wasn’t keen on meeting you in open battle, but preferred to visit the source of your wealth while you weren’t there and lay waste to it. It is little wonder that King John still has a reputation for cowardly cruelty today, we barely know why, but our collective memory has instilled a strong conviction that he was bad news.
William Marshal’s approach was different. Offering rebels amnesty rather than vindictive revenge and also promising to honour the Magna Carta is typical of the superb political game Marshal played. So was the recognition of Willikin’s efforts, to ensure him a ranking position on the royalist side, Willikin was given the title Warden of the Weald after Louis’s defeat at Lewes and in the Weald. By promoting him such, the Regent also recognized the contribution made by the common men of Sussex and Kent.
Furthermore, Louis’s chaotic departure from England described in the last chapter showed signs of effective organisation and communication. Rather than just a column of vicious and brutal soldiers sent out to burn and maim, we see evidence of military thinking, manoeuvre and counter-manoeuvre, careful planning and acting in accordance with other movements on the board. We know that Philip d’Aubigné had been sent to Kent to co-ordinate royalist efforts and that Willikin of the Weald had been instructed to liaise with d’Aubigné. That Willikin did that becomes clear when former rebels who had switched allegiance to Henry III and needed to lay low were sent into the Weald to be hidden by Willikin’s men. An even clearer sign of Marshal’s organisational talents was the humiliating French flight to Winchelsea and subsequent encirclement there. The fact that the French were being harried by the men of the Weald while Philip d’Aubigné and William Marshal carried out pincer movements is unlikely to have been a coincidence, but a sign of Marhal’s knowhow.
During Louis’s absence, Marhal had retaken many castles in the south, including Winchester. This meant that Louis no longer had access to the channel ports there, instead, his fleet made towards Dover. Several contemporary sources confirm that an attack occurred at Dover in sight of the approaching French, namely Willikin of the Weald and Oliver, a bastard son of King John, attacking the French encampment outside the castle. This camp had been unmolested so far because it had been part of the truce arrangement between Louis and Hubert de Burgh in October 1216. Now however, the men of the Weald destroyed the camp and siege engines. It is interesting to note that there is no mention of the Dover Garrison participating in this attack. One the one hand, it is quite uncharacteristic of Hubert de Burgh to do naught while others fight, so perhaps the attack on the French camp was the moment where Willikin and Hubert fight side by side. On the other hand, there was a truce still in place, and generally honouring one’s word was something held in high regard by medieval nobility. In that case, it is difficult to suppress a grin, as this means Hubert communicated to fellow royalists that he couldn’t attack the French camp, but no such deal had been made with Willikin, who was therefore free to do as he pleased.
Another thing medieval folks had a great deal of faith in were signs and omens. In that regard attacking and destroying the French camp at the actual moment the French fleet came into sight of Dover Castle, was quite ingenious, watching their destination go up in smoke could hardly have been conducive to French morale. Those on the ships had no way of knowing who had attacked their camp, all they knew was that Dover had become a hostile environment, definitely not a safe place to land an army. As such, it is quite possible that the attack by Willikin and Oliver was part of a carefully thought out and meticulously staged plan.
With the town and port of Dover denied to him, Louis set course for Sandwich, and there extracted revenge for the welcome proffered at Dover by sacking Sandwich.
Dover continued to be a thorn in his side, and with the south coast either in royalist hands or of dubious loyalty and the Weald a place of ominous threat, Louis required a different avenue to France. With his wife in Calais, visible from the white cliffs on a clear day, Dover was the ideal candidate. As long as the castle remained in royalists hands, the danger of communication and supplies from France being severed entirely was considerable and Louis couldn’t afford this. Therefore he split his forces. He himself would lead part of his army to Dover and initiate the second siege of the castle. The Count of Nevers would secure Winchester, and Thomas Comte Du Perche would lead 600 knights and 1,000 foot soldiers north to relieve the occupants of Mountsorel Castle.
Hardened as chroniclers were by the fortunes of war Du Perche’s march to the north still merited especial mention with regard to the behaviour of his troops, who were pillaging with great cruelty. This wasn't a normal passage, this was a chevauchée, blazing a trail of destruction across the landscape. Roger of Wendover, living at St. Albans, on the route of this advance, remarked that the French pillaged “in their usual custom all the cemeteries and churches on their march” and “there everything fell into the hands of these robbers, because the soldiers of the French kingdom being as it were the refuse and scum of that country, left nothing at all untouched.”
It is perhaps typical of the times that these commentators appear to be especially agitated by the theft from churches. The less than wholesome supporters of King John, such as Falkes de Breauté, were notorious pillagers, but tended to leave the church’s treasures be, or, in the case of Falkes, ransom their safety as he did at Ely and St. Albans. That Du Perche’s troops did not do so seems to vex our commentators a great deal more than the misery of the populace who, as Wendover –likely to have encountered refugees from Du Perche’s outing- reminds us, were left in a situation in which “their poverty and wretchedness was so great, that they had not enough bodily clothing to cover their nakedness.”
When the considerable French force approached Mountsorel the besiegers prudently withdrew to Nottingham. The Comte Du Perche decided to re-direct his force to the city of Lincoln where rebels under Gilbert de Gant had been in possession of the city but had failed to reduce the Castle of Lincoln. When Du Perche’s army arrived at Lincoln Wendover says “the barons then made fierce assaults on the castle, whilst the besieged returned their showers of stones and missiles with stones and deadly weapons with great courage.”
The defences of Lincoln Castle were directed by an intrepid elderly lady named Nicola de la Haye. Holinshed informs us that the 67 year old Castellan of Lincoln Castle “demeaned hirself so valiãtly in resisting all assaults and enterprises, which the enimies that besieged hir coulde attempte by anye meanes agaynst hir, that they rather loste than wanne honour…. at hir handes dayly”, suggesting that Lady Nicola was rather good at her job.
At this point I have to admit a rather embarrassing shortcoming. I’ve spent a considerable amount of time searching for medieval chroniclers who remarked on Lady Nicola’s efforts defending Lincoln Castle, for surely they must have expressed some astonishment at a female senior citizen actively engaged in warfare. However, I’ve had to conclude that this is highly subjective, it is I who am genuinely surprised, the medieval chroniclers certainly describe the martial activities of women like Nicola de la Haye and Blanche of Castille but do so in a matter of fact tone. As Catherine Hanley points out in her excellent book War and Combat 1150-1270: The Evidence from Old French Literature, there is a long list of sieges where women play a very active part, but as contemporary chroniclers don’t show any degree of marvel at the fulfilment of highly masculine roles by the fairer sex we may have to reassess the stereotypical damsel in distress.
As Stefan Ingstrand points out in his essay Éowyn under Siege: Female Warriors During the Middle Ages, the “surprising number of martially inclined women during the tenth, eleventh, twelfth, and thirteenth centuries” doesn’t mean that “female warriors were ever common, or that they were anything like their counterparts in much of today's fantasy art (a brass bikini is rarely a good choice for battle).”
Ingstrand points out that “quite a few women may have fought only briefly during a time of crisis, standing in for absent men and returning to their normal lives as soon as possible” and this does fit the stories of both Nicola and Blanche. When Nicola’s husbands were around they carried out the duties associated with the title Castellan of Lincoln which she inherited from her father. It was only when the men weren’t around that Nicola stepped up and assumed the duties of Castellan. Similarly, in supporting Louis’s need for aid from France, Blanche is taking on a role which would become familiar to her. When Louis VIII died, his son, Louis IX (Saint Louis) was still very young and some French barons were actively opposing his succession. It was Blanche who stepped in as Regent and led an army to Brittany to suppress said rebellion, setting an example for her cold and tired troops by personally gathering firewood for them. Similarly when Louis IX set off on his disastrous crusade (which Blanche opposed) it was Blanche who once again became Regent and ran the country in his absence as well as raising the ransom required when he was captured by the Saracens.
I should have known really, taking any Medieval encampment over the last summer as a cue. In archery I’ve been far outmatched by the likes of Linda the Sharpshooter, Inge the Determined, Cindy the Clever, Indari the Eager and Anne the Awesome. If ever the likes of Willeke the Warlike or Rosalin the Ruthless were to suggest hand-to-hand combat with swords you’ll find me fleeing the camp at high speed, probably uttering shrill screams that I’m about to be murdered. So, I stand corrected and offer my humble apologies for daring to assume that it is remarkable that a senior citizen and/or a woman can defend a castle against a horde of bloodthirsty French knights. Shame about the brass bikinis though.
Yeah, I know, author intrusion. Very poor writing, but the opportunity to insert “bikinis” into the list of tag words is too good to resist. Can you imagine the looks of utter confusion on the faces of the poor sods who wander into this tale of Medieval mayhem drawn here by the promise of bikinis?
Anyhow, back to our story, which leads us to another starring role for a senior citizen, namely William Marshal, Regent of England, over seventy years old and rapidly becoming the saviour of his country. Upon assessment of the military situation: Prince Louis in his new siege camp at Dover, effectively besieged himself with the indomitable Hubert de Burgh on one side, and wily Willikin on the other; the Count of Nevers having reasserted Louis’s claim on Winchester but being powerless in the surrounding countryside (Willikin again); and Du Perche, brave but not encumbered by an excess of cranial content (i.e. high born but as thick as two planks) in the north. Seeing that both Louis and the Count of Nevers were effectively contained, the one unable to get into a castle, the other only able to get out of a castle at great risk, Marshal decided to move against Du Perche’s army at Lincoln.
According to his squire, John de Erley, Marshal said: “A portion of our enemies have gone to Lincoln to besiege our castle, but they are not all there, and Louis is elsewhere. His supporters have acted like fools in coming here. We should indeed be soft if we did not take vengeance upon those who have come from France to rob us of our heritage….their host is divided; we shall overcome it more easily than if it were united. You all see that we must open the way with iron and steel.”
Marshal assembled an army at Newark in order to relieve Lincoln. According to Wendover this army consisted of “four hundred knights, nearly two hundred and fifty crossbow men, and such an innumerable host of followers and horsemen were present, who could on emergency fulfil the duties of soldiers. The chiefs of this army were William Marshall and William his son, Peter bishop of Winchester…, Ralph earl of Chester, William earl of Salisbury, William earl of Ferrars, and William earl of Albemarle; there were also there the barons, William d'Albiney, John Marshall, William de Cantelo, and William his son, the renowned Falkes de Breaute, Thomas Basset, Robert de Viport, Brian de L'Isle, Geoffrey de Lucy, and Philip d'Albiney, with many castellans of experience in war” (quite possibly Wendover is mistaken about Philip d'Albiney, if this is Philip d’Aubigné, then he would have stayed in the Southeast where his duties were to be found).
De Erley reports that the French “numbered 611 knights with a thousand foot soldiers, not to mention the English who were on their side.”
In other words, there was a significant numerical advantage for Du Perche. Common sense would have been for Du Perche to array his forces on the open ground outside the city where he could meet Marshal in open battle and use the French superiority to his full advantage. This is more or less what English rebels Robert Fitz-Walter and Saer de Quincy, Earl of Winchester, advised Du Perche to do. They had ridden out to spy on Marshal’s approaching army and according to Wendover gave the following report: “The enemy are coming against us in good order, but we are much more numerous than they are; therefore, our advice is that we sally forth to the ascent of the hill to meet them, for, if we do, we shall catch them like larks."
Illustrative of the level of trust between the English rebels and the French invaders, Du Perche answered “You have reckoned them according to your own opinion we also will now go out and count them in the French fashion.”
This is precisely what Marshal, knowing Du Perche to be relatively inexperienced and not too smart, had been hoping for. His smaller army approached in battle order rather than marching order, giving the impression of larger numbers. Besides this, Marshal had ordered every spare banner, flag and pennant out of the baggage, and equipped all the army servants and followers with said items, thus ‘creating’ whole new squadrons and companies where none had existed before. In the eyes of Du Perche, there was quite a large relief army heading towards Lincoln, and he and his companions returned in a state of uncertainty to their companions. On their return into the city they proposed this plan to their companions….namely, to divide the nobles that the gates might be guarded and the enemy prevented from entering by some, until the others had taken the castle, the capture of which would soon be effected.
De Erley supports Wendover: In accordance with the report that was made to them, the French barricaded themselves within the town and said that the royalists were not in a state to challenge them there….and that they would have to beat a retreat.
Marshal probably would have laughed at the idea of a retreat. The French had cast aside their advantage and he had the initiative. He sent his nephew John Marshal to go to the castle and contact the besieged royalists. John Marshal succeeded in meeting with sir Geoffrey de Serland, who showed him an unguarded postern (small side gate, usually concealed). When John Marshal made his way back to the royalist camp he was set upon by a small French patrol. Taking the initiative, John attacked the patrol singlehandedly and the patrol fled. John then found his uncle and reported his news.
On the 19th of May 1217 the royalists sent Falkes de Breauté, his followers and most of the crossbowmen to the postern. Once inside Lincoln de Breauté directed the crossbowmen onto the castle walls, onto part of the city walls and on the rooftops of the houses. They managed to carry out this deployment without detection, the French only realized the threat when the crossbowmen started shooting, showering the streets below with crossbow quarrels. According to Wendover, the “horses of the barons were mown down and killed like pigs” and great confusion arose as wounded horses panicked, riders were forcibly dismounted and the French attempted to organize counterattacks against a highly mobile enemy that moved from rooftop to rooftop and continued their deadly barrage.
In the midst of this mayhem, charged Falkes de Breauté ahead of his men-at-arms, so far ahead in fact, that he became isolated and was captured. However, this inspired a surge amongst his men-at-arms and the crossbowmen who entered the fray bellowing and baying until they had effected a rescue of Falkes. One of de Breauté’s knights, Reginald Crocus, was not so lucky and perished in the fight.
Whilst De Breauté’s men bled and killed in a bloody brawl in the eastern part of the city and the French had their hands full with these intruders, the main part of the royalist army assaulted and took the North Gate. As they poured through the gate, William Marshal resplendent on his charger and leading from the very front, the French were driven back towards the cathedral square, assaulted from all sides by De Breauté and his men, Lady Nicola’s garrison which had sallied and William Marshal leading the main army. Then sparks of fire were seen to dart, and the sounds of dreadful thunder were heard to burst forth from the blows of swords against helmeted heads, Wendover reported.
Called upon to surrender Comte Du Perche stubbornly declined and was then slain when a royalist thrust his sword through the eyehole of Du Perche’s helmet, piercing first eye and then brain and killing him. The first Frenchmen and rebels now tried to flee the stricken city, but bottlenecks at the gates and crossbowmen still on the rooftops created yet more chaos. Others, chased into the lower town, managed to rally and even counterattack, but in vain, Marshal’s army had gained the upper hand and won the battle of Lincoln. Many of the rebels were captured at this battle, including Saer de Quincy Earl of Winchester, Hendry de Bobun Earl of Hereford, Comte Gilbert de Gant Earl of Lincoln as well as the barons Robert Fitz Walter, Richard de Montfitchet, William de Mowbray, William de Beauchamp, William Maudut, Oliver d’Haencurt, Roger de Creisi, William de Coleville, William de Roos, Robert de Ropelle and Ralph Chainedut.
In short the baronial rebellion had effectively lost their leadership at a single stroke. A total of three hundred knights were taken prisoner, about a hundred had been slain and two hundred were now in full flight towards London. Little mention is made about the fate of the 1,000 common soldiers, though being less well armoured, they would have suffered even heavier casualties, and for many the nightmare was far from over, as we shall soon see.
John Marshal, whose initial brave derring-do had revealed the existence of the postern, was to become rich in this battle, capturing no less than seven barons and many of the knights in their retinues.
Logic would have dictated pursuit of the fleeing remnants of the Comte Du Perche’s army. However, there was a city to loot. According to the rules of war the inhabitants of city occupied by the French, even the ones at hand to help guide the initial attacks through the maze of the narrow streets, were traitors to young King Henry III and deserved to be punished. Moreover, the excommunication order issued by the Pope didn’t only apply to French troops, but any and all in their service. In Lincoln that meant all the inhabitants, including the clergy. Thus it was not only patriotic, but also very Christian to stave in the head of a priest at the church door, steal his silver candlesticks and drag his screaming parishioners into corners of the church and there rip off their gowns and rape them. Amen.
Some patriotic accounts of the battle have explained the battle’s nickname “The Battle of Lincoln Fair” as originating from the fact that it was a fair victory. Others, taking into account the aftermath, have suggested that the name isn’t an adjective but a noun, because the aftermath resembled a market at which anything the victors desired was up for grabs: gold, silver, goods and women.
According to Wendover, the royalists first plundered the French and rebel baggage trains with the sumpter-horses, loaded with baggage, silver vessels and various kinds of furniture and utensils. Next came the churches and houses, they broke open the chests and storerooms with axes and hammers, seizing on the gold and silver in them, clothes of all colours, women’s ornaments, gold rings, goblets and jewels.
Many of the city’s women, in a desperate bid to bring their children and possessions to safety, had loaded small boats with their families and belongings and tried to flee on the river. However, Wendover reports the boats were overloaded, and the women not knowing how to manage the boats, all perished. To this he dryly adds the moral of the story: for business done in haste is always badly done.
When the city had been well and truly plucked, the King’s peace was declared and the soldiers each returned to their lords as rich men…they ate and drank amidst mirth and festivity.
Montsorel fell with the city of Lincoln, for when Louis’s men heard of the outcome of the Battle of Lincoln Fair, they fled south post haste and William Marshal ordered the Sheriff of Nottingham to raze the nest of the Devil and den of thieves and robbers to the ground.
In the meantime, the desperate survivors of the battle fled towards London. It was reported that they replaced the broken Holland bridge with the corpses of their own horses, slaughtered on the spot, so desperate were they to flee. This was with good reason for the populace rose and, many of them, and namely the footmen were slayne by the coũtrey people where they passed, and that in great numbers: for the husbandmen fell vpon them with clubbes and swords, not sparing those whome they got at aduauntage.
When Louis heard of the disastrous conclusion to the Battle of Lincoln Fair he terminated the second siege of Dover, and hurried towards London, for he could not afford to lose London. He was furious with the survivors of the battle, according to Wendover he suggested that it was owing to their flight that their companions had been made prisoners, because if they had remained to fight, they would perhaps have saved themselves as well as their companions from capture and death.
Realizing that his position was dire, Louis sent urgent pleas to France. France responded in his hour of need, Blanche of Castille had been busy, raising an army and a fleet to transport the army, and Phillip Augustus too was prepared to spare troops and funds to save his son from total defeat. Once more the might of France prepared to cross the English Channel, as we all know, it isn’t over till the fat lady sings.
Find out if the tide is about to turn again, in the next and last episode of England Invaded: Checkmate.
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- England Invaded (7): Checkmate
The last part of an exploration of the narrability of the First Baron's War, featuring treacherous villains, brave heroes and remarkable damsels.