Mastodon The Writing Desk: Special Guest Post by Sharon Bennett Connolly, Author of King John's Right Hand Lady: The Story of Nicholaa de la Haye

27 May 2023

Special Guest Post by Sharon Bennett Connolly, Author of King John's Right Hand Lady: The Story of Nicholaa de la Haye

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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 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.

Nicholaa de la Haye: Lincoln’s Formidable Constable

On 18 October 1216, as he lay dying, King John appointed Nicholaa de la Haye as sheriff of Lincolnshire. Nicholaa was the first woman to ever be appointed sheriff, and truly deserving of the honour. Nicholaa was a stalwart supporter of King John and held Lincoln Castle against all-comers. She was King John’s ‘beloved and faithful Nicholaa de la Haye.’ But who was she?

The Baroness of Brattleby in Lincolnshire, Nicholaa de la Haye was hereditary constable of Lincoln Castle, just like her father and grandfather before her. Unlike many Normans, Nicholaa could trace her Lincolnshire roots, through her grandmother, to before the Norman Conquest; her grandmother’s grandfather was Colswein of Lincoln, an English lord who had found favour with William the Conqueror in the years after the Conquest. 

Nicholaa’s father was Richard de la Haye, whose family originated from La Haye-du-Puits in Normandy, and was distantly related, through marriage, to William the Conqueror. Nicholaa’s mother was Matilda de Vernon, a niece of Baldwin de Redvers, Earl of Devon, the first magnate to rebel against King Stephen when he stole the throne from Empress Matilda. As the eldest of Richard de la Haye’s three daughters, Nicholaa inherited his position as constable of Lincoln Castle on Richard’s death in 1169.

Nicholaa was born in the 1150s and married, firstly, to William Fitz Erneis, but he died in 1178, leaving Nicholaa a young widow with a daughter – and a castle to command. But women could not command castles and so Nicholaa was soon remarried. Her second husband, Gerard de Camville, held Lincoln Castle by right of his wife, and was also sheriff of Lincolnshire for Richard I.

Nicholaa first comes to the attention of the chroniclers in 1191, when Prince John led the opposition to his brother’s chancellor, William Longchamp. Longchamp wanted Lincoln Castle for one of his friends and determined to take it. Gerard sought the help of Prince John swearing fealty to him at Nottingham, leaving to Nicholaa to hold the castle. William Longchamp hired a force of mercenaries and laid siege to the castle in Gerard’s absence. The formidable Nicholaa refused to yield, holding out for 40 days before Longchamp gave up and went home. Amusingly, Richard of Devizes said of this defence of Lincoln Castle, that she did it ‘without thinking of anything womanly’.

In 1194, on the king’s return, Lincoln Castle was confiscated with Gerard and Nicholaa only having it returned to them on the accession of King John in 1199. Gerard would also be sheriff of Lincolnshire for the next six years. They were in attendance on the king in November 1200, when John met with William I, King of Scots, in Lincoln. William did homage to John outside the city walls. The meeting of the two kings was immediately followed by the funeral in Lincoln Cathedral of Hugh of Avalon, Bishop of Lincoln, who would later be made a saint. King John acted as a pallbearer for the bishop who would be canonised just twenty years after his death.

As we all know, King John’s reign was not exactly smooth sailing. He lost his French lands and was held to account by the barons of England for numerous examples of maladministration, corruption and outright murder. In June 1215 he had been forced to seal the Great Charter, or Magna Carta, in order to avoid war. Although it eventually came to be considered a fundamental statement of English liberties, as a peace treaty Magna Carta failed miserably. Within weeks John had written to the pope, claiming he’d agreed to it under duress, and the charter was declared null and void; the barons were up in arms.

Nicholaa and Gerard remained loyal to King John. Gerard de Camville died at the start of 1215 and, although now a widow, it seems the castle remained in Nicholaa’s capable hands. On one of King John’s visits to inspect Lincoln’s defences in 1216, 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 in 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.

In late 1215, intent on continuing the 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 rebel Lincolnshire baron 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, as he travelled through East Anglia. He moved on to the bishop of Lincoln’s castle at Newark, from where, just hours before his death, John appointed Nicholaa de la Haye as Sheriff of Lincolnshire in her own right. She was the first ever woman to be appointed sheriff in England.

King John died at Newark on the night of 18/19th October 1216, with half his country in the hands of a foreign invader and his throne now occupied by his 9-year-old son, Henry III. The elder statesman and notable soldier William Marshal, Earl of Pembroke was appointed Regent and set out to save the kingdom.
Meanwhile, Gilbert de Gant renewed the siege of Lincoln Castle, receiving reinforcements from Louis’ forces, under the Comte de Perche, in early 1217. Now in her 60s Nicholaa de la Haye took charge of the castle’s defences. 

For almost seven months, Nicholaa was surrounded, as siege machinery bombarded the south and east walls of the castle. On 20 May 1217, William Marshal arrived, from the north-west, with a relieving force. His army forced their way into Lincoln and attacked the besieging forces and, after about six hours of fighting, routed the enemy; the French commander, the Comte de Perche, was killed in the fighting, and the rebel leaders captured. Marshal had gambled everything on one big battle and had succeeded. It was the beginning of the end for the rebels.

In a magnificent demonstration of ingratitude, four days later, Nicholaa’s was relieved of her position as Sheriff of Lincolnshire, which was given to the king’s uncle William Longspée, Earl of Salisbury. Salisbury’s son was married to Nicholaa’s granddaughter and so the earl believed he had a right to administer the inheritance that would – one day – be his son’s. He took control of the city and seized the castle. Not one to give up easily Nicholaa travelled to court to remind the king’s regents of her services, and request her rights be restored to her. She was not reinstated as sheriff, but Nicholaa did, at least, get her castle back.

Salisbury would spend the rest of his life trying to get his hands on Lincoln Castle, to no avail.
A most able adversary for some of the greatest military minds of the time, and a loyal supporter of King John, Nicholaa de la Haye was unique among her peers. One cannot fail to feel admiration for a woman who managed to hold her own in a man’s world, who fought for her castle and her home in a time when women had so little say over their own lives – and at such an advanced age. Her bravery and tenacity saved Henry III’s throne.

Sharon Bennett Connolly

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About the Author

Sharon Bennett Connolly FRHistS is the best-selling author of 4 non-fiction history books, including Heroines of the Medieval World, Silk and the Sword: The Women of the Norman Conquest, Ladies of Magna Carta: Women of Influence in Thirteenth Century England, and Defenders of the Norman Crown: Rise and Fall of the Warenne Earls of Surrey. 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 also writes the popular history blog, Sharon regularly gives talks on women's history; she is a feature writer for All About History magazine and her TV work includes Australian Television's 'Who Do You Think You Are?' Find out more from Sharon's Blog: and find her on Facebook and Twitter @Thehistorybits

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