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Lincoln Castle. Image by Lenora.

In 1215 King John journeyed to Lincoln intending to inspect the castle’s defences and visit its castellan, his faithful subject, Nicholaa de Lay Haye. As John made his final farewell, Nicholaa who was then at least 60 years of age was reported to have asked the king his permission for her to step down from the governorship of the castle citing her old age and weariness. The king was said to have refused to allow her to retire and answered her sweetly saying “I will that you keep the castle as hitherto until I shall order otherwise[1]. The trust that John had in her was not misguided. John as a person found it exceedingly difficult to trust the people surrounding him[2] but Nicholaa was an exception. She had already proven her loyalty to him on numerous occasions and in the not so distant future she would have to draw again on her reserve of strength, courage and sheer bloody-mindedness in support of her king.

The Early Years


Medieval Lady. Source unknown.

Nicholaa was born in the 1150s but the exact year of her birth is unknown. She was the eldest daughter and co-heiress of Richard de la Haye, a minor Lincolnshire baron. On his death in 1169, Nichola inherited the office of castellan of Lincoln castle.

At some point, although the details of the marriage are obscure, Nicholaa wed William Fitz Ernes and had one child. He died in 1178 and shortly afterwards she married her second husband, Gerald de Camville, the son of Richard de Camville with whom she had four children. When present her husbands carried out the castellan duties on her behalf but when absent (which happened frequently) the burden of responsibility lay firmly and squarely on Nicholaa’s shoulders (indeed many contemporaries viewed Nicholaa as much more capable than her husband, Gerald).

Under Richard I reign

Even during Richard’s reign it was clear where Nicholaa and Gerald’s loyalties lay. In 1191 during another one of the King’s absences, the Lord Chancellor and acting regent William de Longchamp issued a demand that the supporters of the king’s younger brother change their allegiance. The bitter dispute between the two men intensified and Gerald to show his support joined John in Nottingham. Whilst Gerald was away, the chancellor ordered a retaliatory attack on Lincoln. For 40 days Nicholaa bravely defended the castle against a contingent comprising of 30 knights, 20 mounted men and a 300 strong infantry[3]. The chronicler Richard of Devizes wrote of that time that Nicholaa acted manfully “not thinking about anything womanly”. On his return in 1194, Richard punished Gerald and Nicholaa for their disloyalty. In 1199 Richard died and John took the throne. In all likelihood the new king would have rewarded those who had remained loyal to him, including of course, Nicholaa and Gerald.


Female Medieval fighter.  Source unknown.

The First Baron War

Nicholaa became a widow for the second time in January 1215 and it was from this point on she truly flourished and showed England what she was made of. That summer witnessed the outbreak of the First Baron War. The cause of the conflict was the king’s refusal to abide by the terms of the Magna Carta which had been signed on the 15 June 1215 at Runnymede. The barons led by Robert Fitzwalter declared openly their opposition to the King and called on Louis, the Dauphin of France for assistance, inviting him to invade England and challenge for the throne. In May 1216 Louis landed on the coast of Kent. John seeing Louis’ advance escaped to Winchester. Louis entered London and was proclaimed but not crowned king. Many of the John’s followers seeing the support that Louis was amassing changed sides. By the 14th June 1216, Louis controlled large areas of England including Lincoln.


Magna Carta.  British Museum Collection.

England’s First Female Sheriff

Throughout this period Nicholaa remained firmly in King John’s camp. In early October 1216 John in recognition of Nicholaa’s long standing loyalty and fully aware of how little support he commanded among his subjects appointed her as co-sheriff of Lincolnshire, along with his infamous and feared henchman, Philip Mark[4]. Shortly after his appointment Philip was relieved of his position possible due to John’s death from dysentery at Newark Castle on the 18 of that month. This left Nicholaa as the Sheriff of Lincolnshire, one of only two women (the other being Ela Longespee) ever to be appointed to the role of sheriff. This powerful position gave Nicholaa the chance to increase her influence and wealth.

Nicholaa De La Haye’s seal. Dutch of Lancaster Collection.

“A worthy lady”

Louis probably in an attempt to arrest control of Lincoln from John’s supporters made one of his own, Gilbert de Gant of Folkingham, Earl of Lincoln. Shortly after the start of the war de Grant headed the first attempted siege of Lincoln Castle by a combined force of the French and the rebel barons. Again Nicholaa led the defence against a city now in the hands of the enemy. She held out and eventually the siege was abandoned after Nicholaa arranged the purchase of a truce. John and his supporters praised her success calling her a “worthy lady”. His opponents were less chivalrous deriding her as “a very cunning, bad hearted and vigorous old woman[5]. A number of attacks on the castle followed all of which Nicholaa staved off successfully (unlike many other castles controlled by men which fell). Surrounded by enemies which included the religious men of the city she must have faced a daily battle for survival. Knowing how near Lincoln castle and the cathedral are to each other they would have been able to observe each other’s movements closely.

John’s death changed the direction of the war. His nine year old son Henry III was declared the rightful successor and crowned at Gloucester Abbey. Persuaded by the powerful, respected and shrewd William Marshal, the king’s guardian and the country’s regent many of those who had welcomed Louis began to have second thoughts. Marshal’s argument rested on the view that a child should not be held accountable for the faults of its’ parent “he was innocent, and a stranger to sin, whom his enemies were endeavouring in their pride to disinherit[6].

The Battle of Lincoln Fair

The Second Battle of Lincoln known as the ‘Fair’ occurred on the 20th May 1217. Roger of Wendover a monk at St Alban’s monastery wrote a first-hand account of the battle. He describes how the French mercenaries trudged to Lincoln, dressed only in rags and how when they arrived were welcomed by the majority of the city’s residents and the clergy who still supported Louis. On arrival they began an assault on the castle but were met by a “shower of stones and deadly weapons” which were thrown in an act of “great courage[7]. William Marshal on hearing of the attack gathered together an army of castellans and knights at Newark and proceeded to Lincoln.

300px-BitvaLincoln1217ortho_Matthew Paris

The Battle of Lincoln Fair from a manuscript by Matthew Paris.

Robert Fitz-Walter and the Earl of Winchester on learning of the enemies approach left to check their numbers. On returning they convinced the French to join them in their attack on the Marshal’s incoming troops but the French only seeing the first section of the Royalist’s army decided to focus their efforts on the assault on the castle, confident that the barons had overestimated the numbers. Marshal sent a contingent of his men led by Falkes de Breaute to force open the north gate of the city. Unseen by the French and their allies they entered the city and positioned themselves on the castle walls, raining down a shower of arrows on their enemies, killing many of the horses from under their riders. They then went to meet their opponents and a violent battle ensued. The Count of Perche, heading the French army refused to surrender and was eventually killed. Seeing their leader’s death the French fled leaving the Royalists in control of the city[8]. Over 300 men were captured but only a few were killed besides the Count, these included the Earl of Winchester, the Earl of Hereford and de Gant.

Inside the Walls


Walls of Lincoln Castle.  Image by Lenora.

The account of what happened outside the castle’s walls is well documented but we have fewer exact details about what was happening inside the castle. Nicholaa moved to the tower as she was too important to be placed anywhere where her life would be in jeopardy. The physical running of the castle was left in the hands of her deputy, Geoffrey de Serland. De Serland was tasked with showing the Marshal’s nephew the secret entrance to the castle and escorting the Bishop of Winchester to a meeting with Nicholaa[9]. Despite this Nicholaa would have controlled the overall plan for protecting the castle. Even if the castle’s inhabitants were afraid I am sure that they would have been reassured and lifted by the iron spirit of their brave, formidable and determined leader, the Sheriff of Lincolnshire. It was Nicholaa’s courage in holding the castle during a dire and tumultuous time that changed the tide of the war leading to the eventually defeat of the barons and the French[10].

After the Siege

Four days later Nicholaa was replaced as Sheriff by Henry III’s uncle, the Earl of Salisbury. On the surface it seems a harsh move after all she had done and achieved but maybe it was her choice or possibly she was glad to no longer shoulder the responsibility, not a far-fetched scenario since only two years earlier she had tried to give up her role as castellan. Initially she may have been relieved but it did not last long as she spent her last years engaged in a power struggle with the Earl.

web-C66-18-m11r-crop_removal_reinstatement NDH_NA

The removal and restoration of Nicola de la Haye as constable of Lincoln Castle and sheriff of Lincolnshire, October 1217.  National Archives Collection.

Nicholaa’s granddaughter and her heiress, Idonea had married Salisbury’s son and Salisbury was determined to wrest control of the castle from Nicholaa’s hands. His means were entirely underhand. Initially he used force and then took hostages in order to convince her to leave. Eventually Nicholaa had had enough and handed him the castle in June 1226[11]. She did have the last laugh though. Dying at her Lincolnshire manor of Swaton in 1230, she had managed to outlive the Earl by four years!


Tradition held that this was the tomb of Nicholaa de la Haye, however the dress suggests a slightly later date.  It may be her niece.  British Battlefields website.

A Remarkable Woman


Medieval Manuscript.  Source Unknown.

For me Nicholaa is a remarkable character. For 30 years she held the position of castellan, a rare feat in a time when women wielded their power behind the scenes and were expected as the ‘weaker sex’ to listen and obey their men. Strong, redoubtable and intelligent she stood at the front of the Royalist cause. Equally astonishing her qualities were widely recognised, respected and admired. She even managed to retain the trust and affection of a notoriously fickle and difficult king whose faith in her abilities led him to appoint her as the country’s first female sheriff. Fittingly Lincoln’s link with John continues to this day as the home of one of only four surviving original copies of the Magna Carta.


Side note: For anyone interested in Lincolnshire and women’s roles, the book by Louise J. Wilkinson is highly recommended.


Lincoln Cathedral, opposite the castle.  Image by Lenora.


King John and Richard I: Brothers and Rivals, http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/british/middle_ages/john_01.shtml
Lady Nicholaa de la Haye, http://magnacarta800th.com/schools/biographies/women-of-magna-carta/lady-nicholaa-de-la-haye/
Nicholaa de la Haye, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nicolaa_de_la_Haye
Nicholaa de la Haye, England’s Forgotten Heroine, https://historytheinterestingbits.com/2015/06/13/nichola-de-la-haye-englands-forgotten-heroine/
Nichola de la Haye, castellan of Lincoln Castle, https://www.geni.com/people/Nichola-de-la-Haye-castellan-of-Lincoln-Castle/6000000008630635752
The Monstrous Regiment of Women, http://www.monstrousregimentofwomen.com/2017/05/nicholaa-de-la-haye-defender-of-lincoln.html
Nicola de la Haye, http://www.catherinehanley.co.uk/historical-background/nicola-de-la-haye
Lady Nicholaa de la Haye, Women’s Network, https://womenshistorynetwork.org/tag/lady-nicholaa-de-la-haye/
06 – Sheriff De La Haye, http://www.knightstrail.com/the-knights/sheriff-de-la-haye/
English government in the thirteenth century, Adrian Jobson, 2004
The Sheriff of Lincoln a “very cunning, bad hearted and vigorous old woman”, http://www.theobservationpost.com/blog/?p=874
Women in Thirteenth-Century Lincolnshire, Louise J. Wilkinson, 2015
William Marshal, 1st Earl of Pembroke, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Marshal,_1st_Earl_of_Pembroke
Battle of Lincoln (1217), https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Lincoln_(1217)
The Battle of Lincoln (1217), according to Roger of Wendover, http://deremilitari.org/2014/03/the-battle-of-lincoln-1217-according-to-roger-of-wendover/
History, https://www.lincolncastle.com/content/history
King John: Treachery, Tyranny and the Road to Magna Carta, Marc Morris, 2015
The Greatest Knight: The Remarkable Life of William Marshal, the Power behind Five English Thrones, Thomas Asbridge, 2015


[1] Nicholaa de la Haye, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nicolaa_de_la_Haye
[2] King John and Richard I: Brothers and Rivals, http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/british/middle_ages/john_01.shtml
[3] Nicholaa de la Haye, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nicolaa_de_la_Haye
[4] Lady Nicholaa de la Haye, http://magnacarta800th.com/schools/biographies/women-of-magna-carta/lady-nicholaa-de-la-haye/
[5] ibid
[6] The Battle of Lincoln (1217), according to Roger of Wendover, http://deremilitari.org/2014/03/the-battle-of-lincoln-1217-according-to-roger-of-wendover/
[7] The Battle of Lincoln (1217), according to Roger of Wendover, http://deremilitari.org/2014/03/the-battle-of-lincoln-1217-according-to-roger-of-wendover/
[8] ibid
[9] Women in Thirteenth-Century Lincolnshire, Louise J. Wilkinson, 2015
[10] History, https://www.lincolncastle.com/content/history
[11] Lady Nicholaa de la Haye, http://magnacarta800th.com/schools/biographies/women-of-magna-carta/lady-nicholaa-de-la-haye/