I’d like to start this post by saying that there are a couple different spellings of Nicola’s name, but I’ve gone with least complex. Lady Nicola de la Haye was castellan of Lincoln Castle in her own right, and was actually appointed as sherif for the region which is very unusual. This post is not going to cover the entirety of Nicola’s life, it is more intended as an introduction to a remarkable woman. I have a list of references at the end for more information.
Lincoln castle is actually quite hard to take photographs of, as the majority of the medieval remains are the walls and towers which means you can’t quite get the scale of the structure. But the walls are significant and command a spectacular view over Lincoln itself and the cathedral.
Nicola de la Haye’s birthdate is uncertain but it was most likely in the 1150s. She died in 1230 and in her lifetime saw the reigns of three or four kings, depending on when in the 1150s she was born. She inherited the right to be castellan of Lincoln and other land in Lincolnshire on the death of her father Richard de la Haye in 1169 making her an important heiress. I’ve written about the role heiresses played in the medieval hierarchy before and you can see the post here
Nicola de la Haye married twice, firstly to William FitzErneis and secondly to Gerard de Camville. While married to de Camville, she had two children, but was very much involved in running her inheritance. In 1191, while Richard I was on crusade, de Camville undertook homage to Prince John for Lincoln. The chronicler Richard of Devizes, makes the note that de Camville only had custody of the castle by right of Nichola. He goes on to say that when the chancellor gave orders to besiege Lincoln that Nicola “proposing to herself nothing effeminate, defended the castle like a man.”
Nicola comes most to the fore, after de Camville’s death in 1215. She secures control of all her inheritance in her own right. She held for King John, even in the face of civil war, and Lincoln and Nicola would go on the have a key role in the minority of Henry III. In 1216 Nicola held Lincoln for John in the face of a siege from rebel barons, who were attempting to oust John from the throne in favour of Prince Louis of France. In mid 1216 John marched to relieve the siege of Lincoln. Nicola met him and offered John the keys to the castle telling him “that she was a woman of great age and had endured many labours and anxieties in the said castle and was not able to endure such [burdens] any longer” John apparently, replied sweetly that Nicola should keep the castle. In one of his last acts before he died John appointed Nicola sheriff of Lincolnshire in her own right, she held the position with Philip Mark. This was not a token appointment, it held real responsibilities and power. She took control of local affairs, including confiscating land from rebels. She was a viable candidate for the role due to her experience, and the lands she held personally in Lincoln. The volatile political situation was another reason for the unprecedented step, most of the men who could have been appointed were either actively in rebellion against the king, or had been recently.
During her time as sherif she was forced to defend Lincoln castle again. She held Lincoln for the young King Henry III. In May 1217 Lincoln was under siege by Prince Louis’ forces, Louis had gone back to London. They had occupied the town and were besieging the castle. The French who were trying to get into Lincoln Castle referred to her as a very cunning bad hearted and vigorous old woman. Where as the relief force described her as a good dame whom God preserve in both in body and soul.
The Battle of Lincoln was a key turning point in British history and Nicola was right at the heart of it. On the 20th of May the Regent William Marshal led a force to relieve Lincoln. There are several contemporary accounts of the battle, some more hyperbolic than others. Nicola is not mentioned in all of them. History of William Marshal, a near contemporary account of the life of Regent William Marshal, described Marshal’s nephew John going to the castle’s western gate and meeting Geoffrey de Serland on the way there who had been sent by Lady Nicola to find him and show him the castle postern gate where troops could be brought in. This account seems to be accepted by other contemporary chroniclers. The History also mentions Peter de Roches Bishop of Winchester sneaking into the castle to meet with Nicola de la Haye, this is much less likely as the castle was under bombardment and there was no real purpose for de Roches to sneak in. Regardless of how true the second story is, it does make clear that Nicola was considered in charge of the castle. The battle itself was a decisive victory for the King’s forces and the beginning of the end for Louis who would be back in France by the end of the year.
It wasn’t the end for Nicola though. She was removed as sheriff only four days after the Battle of Lincoln and the office went to the Earl of Salisbury who was Henry III’s uncle. Her grand daughter, who was also her heir, was married to the Earl’s son and Salisbury tried to claim the castle from Nicola. She held on and outlived the earl by four years dying peacefully in 1230 at her manor in Swaton.
There is only one surviving visual representation of Nicola. It’s an oval seal that was attached to one of her original charters (unfortunately I don’t have a photo) but you can apparently make out the outline of a woman who has her right hand on her hip and a hawk on her left hand, symbolising her role as a woman of power. The evidence in the charters illustrates this clearly with religious benefaction that would have been expected of a lord of Lincoln. Nicola was a remarkable woman who used the turbulent circumstances to carve a position of authority for herself in medieval society.
Women In Thirteenth Century Lincolnshire / Louise J. Wilkinson
Blood Cries Afar: The forgotten invasion of England 1216 / Sean McGlynn
The Lady in Medieval England 1000-1500 / Peter Coss
The Struggle For Mastery: The Penguin history of Britain 1066-1284 / David Carpenter
The photos are all mine