The Battle of Lincoln 1217: The Greatest Knight Saves England?

By Joe Broderick

Level 3 History student

The Second Battle of Lincoln (the first occurring in 1141) took place outside Lincoln Castle on 20 May 1217 during the First Barons’ War (1215-17), pitting the forces of the future King Louis VIII of France against the army of King Henry III of England. Louis had been laying siege to the castle when his armies were attacked by a relief force commanded by William Marshal, Earl of Pembroke, and regent to the young King Henry. Marshal’s forces routed Louis’ army, forcing a retreat south in the face of a defeat from which he would never recover. The city of Lincoln was loyal to Louis, so it was sacked and looted in what the chronicler, Roger of Wendover, called the ‘Lincoln Fair’. When we think of these events, a few important questions present themselves. What was the heir to the French throne doing in England? Why did the English barons ally themselves with him? And, finally, what consequences did this battle have in the tale of England’s history?

When King John ascended the throne in 1199, he inherited a vast empire, stretching from Scotland to the Pyrenees. However, over the course of the next decade, all continental territories except the Channel Islands were lost to Philip II of France. This, combined with John’s reputation for cruelty and heavy taxation, brought England to the brink of civil war. In June 1215, John was compelled to issue the Magna Carta, which acted as a contract between royalty and nobility, protecting certain rights. Historian, Dan Jones, describes the Magna Carta as nothing more than a flimsy peace treaty, only becoming something more tangible later. This is seen by the fact that John successfully had Magna Carta nullified by Pope Innocent III just two months after its issue, immediately reneging on his promise to the barons. Civil war was now fully upon England, but more serious measures were to follow. Philip II declared John’s crown forfeit for the killing of Arthur of Brittany (John’s nephew) and, upon the invitation of the rebel barons, his son Louis landed in England on 14 May 1216, to depose the tyrant king.

In October 1216, however, John fell ill and died, leaving his nine-year-old son Henry as king. Rarely had a monarch inherited the crown of England in less auspicious circumstances. Henry faced an enemy that occupied the richest third of his realm, encompassing London, Winchester and the majority of East Anglia. His father, John, had made many mistakes during his reign, yet one of his final decisions as king turned out to be a stroke of genius. John appointed William Marshal as regent to his son Henry. Eulogised by Stephen Langton as ‘the best knight that ever lived’, Marshal had been a successful tourney competitor, finding favour with kings and other influential members of the Plantagenet court, before joining the Crusades and finally becoming Earl of Pembroke, making him a rich and powerful member of the realm. Upon John’s death, Marshal must have realised that some of the rebellious nobles might be willing to change sides, as the primary cause of the rebellion, the old king, was now dead. So, in true knightly fashion, he called the English castle-holding nobles to a muster at Newark, which lies just outside of Lincoln. Of those answering the call there were 400 knights, 250 crossbowmen and a larger force of both mounted and foot soldiers. The events that transpired pose some interesting potential consequences. If John had not died when he did, leaving Marshal as his son’s regent, it is doubtful if any of the rebel barons would have changed sides. William Marshal would also likely not have been able to create a significant force to break the siege. All this points to the likely outcome of Louis emerging victorious and taking the throne, with England become absorbed as a French vassal.

A portion of Marshal’s forces attacked Lincoln Castle’s West Gate, killing several of the enemy and creating a much-needed distraction for the rubble to be cleared from a side gate. Once this had been done, the rest of Marshal’s forces swept into Lincoln, capturing the North Gate (now the Newport Arch) and driving the invading forces back. As the two sides fought, the French commander, Count Thomas of Perche, was killed in front of Lincoln Cathedral, precipitating a French retreat, which quickly turned into a rout. Many were killed as they were caught in a double bottleneck caused by the South Gate and the bridge that lay over the River Witham. Numerous rebel barons were captured, including Robert FitzWalter and Saer of Quincy.

Without a doubt, the Battle of Lincoln was the turning point in the First Barons’ War. Many of Henry’s enemies were killed or captured at the battle, including important suppliers, organisers and commanders. The French were dealt a further blow when their reinforcements, under the command of Eustace the Monk, were defeated at Dover by Hubert de Burgh. This facilitated the departure of Louis and his forces from English soil and, in September 1217, led to the signing of the Treaty of Lambeth which forced Louis to renounce his claim to the English throne and ejected Eustace’s brothers from the Channel Islands. The ultimate consequence of the Battle of Lincoln was the ending of the First Barons’ War which ensured that the Angevin dynasty remained on the throne of England. It was the Plantagenet family who ruled England, not the Capets. The royal line could have ended right there, meaning that later monarchs such as Edward I (so no Braveheart!) and Henry V would not have ascended the throne, and that the famous battles at Crecy, Poitiers, and Agincourt would not have taken place . Indeed, there would most likely have been no Anglo-French tensions for the next few hundred years, only French supremacy.

A 13th Century Depiction of the Second Battle of Lincoln, 1217. Matthew Paris [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Further reading

‘1217: William Marshal Saves England at Lincoln’

Asbridge, Thomas (May 2017). “The Battle of Lincoln”. BBC History Magazine.  pp. 22–26.

Jones, Dan. The Plantagenets: The Kings who Made England (London, 2012).