Medieval > First Barons' War
SECOND BATTLE OF LINCOLN (1217)
Looking for a different Battle of Lincoln? Try the First Battle of Lincoln (1141).
When King John died in October 1216 he left his country in a state of civil war with many of his barons actively supporting Prince Louis of France who had come to England to depose him. William Marshal, Earl of Pembroke assumed the role of Regent for the King's heir, the young Henry III, and at the Battle of Lincoln (1217) he defeated the French force and stabilised the new regime.
Skip to >
King John came to the throne in 1199 and inherited a vast continental empire that stretched from Scotland to the Pyrenees. However, in the decade that followed all continental possessions other than the Channel Islands were lost to King Phillip II of France. For the leading magnates of England - many of whom styled themselves as Anglo-Normans and owned property on both sides of the Channel - this was intolerable. This friction was compounded by King John's style of rule. He exploited every opportunity to tax or fine his magnates and brazenly committed infidelity with their wives and daughters. Furthermore he was cruel - most infamously starving to death the wife and eldest son of William de Braose. By 1215 the situation had reached a tipping point and the country teetered on the brink of civil war.
On the 15 June 1215, John was compelled to seal Magna Carta – a document intended to keep the peace. However, within weeks of the document being agreed, John had successfully sought Papal authority to revoke it. Outraged, the King’s opponents took up arms and started the First Barons' War. After some uncharacteristically successful opening moves by the King, the Barons invited Prince Louis of France to invade and take the English Crown. Louis arrived in England in May 1216 and quickly overran much of south eastern England including London where he was proclaimed King. For a short while it looked like the Angevin dynasty was on the cusp of being destroyed.
In October 1216 John died at Newark Castle leaving his nine year old son, Henry III, as his successor. With much of the country under the control of Louis, the new King's prospects seemed bleak. However, in his dying moments, John had made an inspired choice and had nominated William Marshal, Earl of Pembroke as Guardian of England. Although nearly seventy years old, Marshal had loyally served the Angevin dynasty and was widely respected for his political and military skills. Under Marshal's guidance, Henry III re-issued Magna Carta and adopted a policy of reconciliation. His efforts were aided by the church when the Papal Legate, Guala of Bicchieri, excommunicated the French army and their allies whilst the Royalists were allowed to sew the white cross of the crusader onto their surcoats. Slowly but surely, many of the rebel Barons were drawn back into the Royalist fold and by the start of the 1217 campaigning season, Marshal had mustered a large army at Northampton ready to counter Prince Louis.
By early 1217 it was clear that the Royalist faction was gaining traction and Prince Louis sought to take action to counter this. He divided his forces into two with one half allocated to maintaining a siege of Dover Castle, where Hubert de Burgh was maintaining a spirited defence for the King. The other half was placed under the command of Thomas, Count of Perche who was sent north to capture Lincoln Castle. This strategically important fortress was the last major stronghold holding out for Henry III in the East Midlands and its capture would be a massive blow to the King's cause. The town had been assaulted months earlier by the rebels and the remaining Royalists were bottled up in the castle.
When Marshal became aware of the movements of the Anglo-French forces, he decided to gamble everything on a decisive engagement at Lincoln. He marched his forces north to Newark-upon-Trent, a mere 15 miles from Lincoln, and gathered as many men as he possibly could to augment his force. Local knowledge was provided by Peter des Roches, Bishop of Winchester who had served at Lincoln Cathedral earlier in his career. He advised against a direct advance on Lincoln as the Royalists would need to cross the bridge over the River Witham, a significant bottleneck, and then would face a steep uphill battle through the town to reach the castle. Accordingly, Marshal flanked around the town to the west and advanced on Lincoln from the north-west; a much flatter approach that placed him in direct proximity to the West Gate of Lincoln Castle.
The Royalist forces were led by William Marshal, Earl of Pembroke. He was an experienced Knight with over five decades of military experience. He had spent his youth touring the tournament circuit with Henry the Young King and later fought for Henry II where, in one encounter, he de-horsed Richard the Lionheart. He later fought with Richard in his continental campaigns and, although marginalised for much of King John's reign, had fought in Ireland to secure his estates there. Marshal was also supported by a number of other experienced military commanders including Ranulf, Earl of Chester and Faulkes of Breaute, a Norman Knight who had become one of King John's key enforcers. Lincoln Castle itself was held by Nicola de la Haye, a loyal supporter of the King.
The Anglo-French forces were led by Thomas, Count of Perch. He was supported by a number of key English magnates including Robert FitzWalter and Saer of Quincy, both experienced military commanders. His army also included 500 English and almost 70 French Knights.
The battle was fought in and around the castle and walled town on 20 May 1217.
- Stage 1: Royalist Advance
Although Count Thomas was aware of the advance of the Royalists, he did not have intelligence as to the size of their force. Furthermore, he saw no reason to risk an open confrontation when he could just retreat behind Lincoln Town Walls. Thomas knew time was on his side as, once news of the Royalist movements reached Prince Louis, Anglo-French reinforcements could be expected. This defensive posture presented a significant problem for Marshal as he had no siege machinery nor time to conduct a protracted blockade. He sent his scouts to assess the defences of the town and they identified that a minor gate had been blocked with rubble but could possibly be cleared if a diversion could be arranged.
- Stage 2: Crossbowmen Enter Castle
With all of the French forces having withdrawn into Lincoln, William Marshal was free to access Lincoln Castle via its West Gate. He sent his crossbowmen, under the command of Faulkes of Breaute, into the fortress and they started attacking the besiegers in the town from the castle ramparts. Their attack caused significant casualties amongst the Anglo-French besiegers and, more importantly, created a significant distraction. With the ongoing commotion, forces under Ranulf, Earl of Chester crept forward and started clearing the rubble from the blocked gate.
- Stage 3: Royalists Storm Lincoln
After a few hours the Royalists had created an access in the Lincoln defences and stormed into the town. They captured the North Gate (now called Newport Arch) and swept into Lincoln in force. The Anglo-French army fell back in disarray to the Cathedral Close where Count Thomas rallied his troops. For a while the battle hung in the balance but a Royalist Knight, Reginald Croc, surged forward and delivered a fatal blow to the Count. This caused shock on both sides - high status magnates, who were protected by their armour, were not supposed to die in such engagements. With the leader dead, the Anglo-French forces started to retreat and this quickly turned into a rout. Many were killed as they were caught in a double bottleneck caused by the South Gate and the bridge over the River Witham. Numerous rebel barons were captured including Robert FitzWalter and Saer of Quincy but around 200 Knights escaped and fled south to London. In the immediate aftermath Lincoln was extensively looted by the Royalists and accordingly the battle became popularly known as “Lincoln’s Fair”.
The Second Battle of Lincoln is arguably one of the most decisive battles in English history as the defeat of the Baronial-French forces marked the beginning of the end for Prince Louis’s campaign for the Crown. A belated attempt was made to bring in additional French reinforcements, under the command of Eustace the Monk, but he was defeated by Hubert de Burgh at the Battle of Sandwich on 24 August 1217. Prince Louis returned to France and the subsequent Treaty of Lambeth (1217) ended the First Barons’ War.
Asbridge, T (2015). The Greatest Knight. Simon and Schuster, London.
Barrett, C.R.B (1896). Battles and Battlefields in England. London.
Beresford, M.W and St Joseph, J.K.S (1979). Medieval England - An Aerial Study. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
Cyprien, M and Fairbairn, N (1983). A Traveller's Guide to the Battlefields of Britain. Evans Brothers Ltd, London.
Dodds, G.L (1996). Battles in Britain 1066-1746. Arms & Armour, London.
Douglas, D.C and Rothwell, H (ed) (1975). English Historical Documents Vol 3 (1189-1327). Routledge, London.
Green, H (1973). Guide to the Battlefields of Britain and Ireland. Constable, London.
Guest, K (1996). British battles: the front lines of history in colour. Harper Collins, London.
Jones, D (2012). The Plantagenets. William Collins, London.
Jones, D (2014). Magna Carta. Zeus, London.
Jones, D (2015). Realm Divided. Zeus, London.
Kinross, J (1979). The Battlefields of Britain. London.
Lancaster, J.H.D (2014). Lincoln: Battlefield visit notes and observations. CastlesFortsBattles.co.uk.
Morris, M (2015). King John. Penguin, London.
Ordnance Survey (2015). Lincoln. 1:1250. Southampton.
Ramsay, J.H (1903). The Angevin Empire: the three reigns of Henry II, Richard I and John (AD 1154-1216). London.
Smurthwaite, D (1993). The Complete Guide to the Battlefields of Britain. Michael Joseph, London.
Lincoln Castle is a major tourist attraction with an excellent wall walk, a Magna Carta exhibition and Victorian prison. Nearby are ruins of the Roman East Gate, Newport Arch (where the Royalists stormed into the town) and the medieval entrance to the Cathedral Close at Pottergate. The hinterland of the walled town, the scene of the initial Royalist movements, has been buried under the urban sprawl of the modern city. However, the steep climb up to the castle, can be appreciated leaving no doubt as to why Marshall flanked around to attack Lincoln from the north.
Lincoln Defences. Lincoln's town defences dated from the Roman era although the Normans had built the castle and cathedral in the eleventh century. The castle had entrances on both the east (into the town) and west (out of town) sides. Prior to the Royalist arrival, both castle gates were blockaded by the rebels but, as Marshal approached, the forces guarding the castle's West gate drew back into the town.
Lincoln Castle West Gate. The West Gate provided access into the castle from outside the town. The rebels besieging the gate withdrew as Marshal approached and accordingly the Royalists were able to send their crossbowmen into the castle. From the ramparts of the fortification they fired down upon the rebels in the town causing significant confusion.
Lincoln Castle East Gate. Marshal thought about storming out of the castle's East Gate directly into the town but decided against it due to the extensive defences that had been erected by the rebels directly outside.
Lucy Tower. The castle's Keep gave the Royalists a clear view of movements throughout the town.
Newport Arch. The Royalists gained access into Lincoln through a gate that had been blocked up by rubble but was cleared whilst the town's defenders were distracted by the crossbowmen attacking from the castle. It is uncertain which gate this was, it may have been one of numerous small accesses into the Cathedral Close, but it allowed the Royalists to take control of the town's North Gate (now called Newport Arch). Having secured that access, the Royalist forces stormed into the town in force.
Lincoln Cathedral. The French-Baronial forces made their last stand in the Cathedral Close. For a short while the battle hung in the balance but, when Count Thomas of Perche was killed in the fighting, the Royalists' prevailed.