In 1228, the monk, Hereticus, talks to Lady Nicholaa de Haye, one of the staunchest defenders of the king and his kingdom, at her manor at Swaton in Lincolnshire, as he gathers information for his forthcoming blockbuster chronicle: The Last days of King John…
Lady Nicholaa, you’ve lived a very long life during a most turbulent period of our history, but when you inherited your father’s estates and became castellan of Lincoln castle in 1169, did you ever imagine what you would be required to do to keep your inheritance?
Well no, of course not. I assumed that I would marry, and the husband would do all the duties of the castellan, with me at the hearth, raising the children – and maybe overseeing the management of our own estates. That’s how it is for most women. I never expected to have to defend the castle once, let alone three times! But, needs must, as you know. Just because Gerard – my husband, Gerard de Canville – was away didn’t mean I was going to give up – Gerard left the castle in my care and I wasn’t about to let him down.
Was it your own decision to marry Gerard de Canville? Were you content with the choice?
I took some advice on the matter, of course. If I wanted to keep hold of Lincoln Castle, I knew I would have to marry. Gerard was a sensible choice; good family, good connections. His family had a history of serving the crown, just as mine did and his family lands in Normandy were close to our own de la Haye lands. And, as he was a younger son, he did not have many estates of his own to distract him, so he could concentrate his energies on securing and administering my own inheritance. He was a good choice – we made a good team.
What was going through your mind in 1191 when William Longchamp turned up to lay siege to Lincoln Castle?
That he was not getting MY castle. It had been my father’s and grandfather’s before me and the man was definitely outreaching himself by laying siege to me! I’m not saying I wasn’t nervous – I had never actually been in a siege before, let alone in charge of the castle’s defences, but I wasn’t going to shirk my responsibilities just because that horrible justiciar wanted to give Lincoln to his own man. After six weeks of getting nowhere with the siege, he got the message and left.
One observer has commented that you defended the castle “manfully” – do you see that as a compliment or an insult?
Well, in my day and age, it is definitely a compliment. These chronicler monks have little to do with women, so have very few comparisons to draw on. In fact, it is a compliment that they mention me at all – the monks do have a tendency to ignore the accomplishments of women.
Er, yes, I suppose… Anyway, in 1193, Richard was your anointed king. Why then did you and your husband support John in his rebellion against his absent brother?
Gerard had no choice. We were sworn to John, you see; we had given him our oath and that meant something to us. And many were forced to choose between their divided loyalties, not just us. In the long term, it proved to be the right decision. Even then, many expected John to be the next king, no one wanted to get on his wrong side.
No, I suppose not and your support of John almost brought about your ruin when Richard returned. That must have been a low point – did you ever expect to regain your lands and responsibilities again?
That was a difficult time, yes. Kicked out of my beloved Lincoln Castle, spending six years in the ‘wilderness’, but we remained philosophical about it, fortunes rise and fall. We did manage to keep our other lands, though it cost us a fortune (2,000 marks!). I always lived in hope that I would one day be allowed to go home.
Why did you remain steadfastly loyal to John throughout his reign, despite his reputation as a cruel king?
Ah, THE question! I know it is something Sharon has thought long and hard about whilst writing my story. But, honestly, John was always good to me and my family. He stood by us, restored Lincoln Castle to us almost as soon as he came to the throne. I know his reputation, and some of the things he has done, but he has always remained steadfast towards me and I had no reason to betray him.
Though you are a woman, King John placed immense trust in you – why do you think that was?
Well, I did hold Lincoln Castle against all-comers – several times! I am a practical person, and I think John appreciated that. He knew I would get the job done – and I have proven that I don’t flinch when it comes to a fight.
Why do you think so many of your fellow barons rose in rebellion against John and invited Louis to rule England?
Ah, that old saying, ‘the grass is always greener’. I’m sure they all believed it. And many of them – such as Salisbury and Warenne – only went over to the French once they believed there was no way back for John. I’m sure they thought it better to be on the winning side, for the sakes of their family and lands. Now, don’t get me wrong, John made mistakes and something needed to be done, but inviting the French over? Honestly!
Were you disappointed that John gave William Longespée, Earl of Salisbury the right to arrange the marriage of your granddaughter, Idonea?
Disappointed but not surprised. Salisbury is John’s half-brother after all, and John needed to keep him sweet. Politics is all about favours and position these days.
Were you surprised when King John appointed you as Sheriff of Lincoln – surely only a man should hold such a high position?
I think I have proved many times that I am just as capable as any man! John was short of loyal supporters in 1216. The French held London. And there was I, reliable Nicholaa. Seeing as I already held the castle, making me sheriff was a sensible decision, to be honest, and I believe I carried out my duties efficiently.
I’m sure you did! But how do you think King John’s death in October 1216 changed things both for you and the kingdom?
Very little at first. Louis was still in England and still gaining ground. It wasn’t until 1217 that he came to Lincoln to demand I relinquish the castle to him – you can imagine my response! However, it gave the rebels a way to come back into the king’s peace without losing face, didn’t it? Gave them the chance to say, ‘we were against John, not England’. Although, for some, it did take them a little time… Maybe they needed to be sure which way the wind was blowing …
You held Lincoln Castle against several besieging forces over the years – how was Louis’ siege in 1217 different?
Well, with the 1216 siege I could just pay off the rebels and they went home – I don’t think their hearts were really in it. Louis was more determined – he brought up heavy siege machinery to bombard the castle walls. He came and asked me personally to surrender the castle, promising no one would be hurt. I refused, of course. Having seen off two sieging armies already, I knew I could hold out. I also knew I had to – the French could not get their hands on Lincoln Castle, it was one of the few remaining bastions in England. It was hard, though, especially knowing that the city was against us – I had lived among these people my whole life and they supported the rebels.
Why do you think William Marshal was so determined to come to your aid and how did you feel when you saw his banners advancing from the north?
We had been under siege for 6 weeks by that point and the besiegers had kept up a steady pounding of the castle walls for all that time. The city had allied with the rebels. My men were determined, but I was beginning to wonder how long I would have to hold out. I must admit, it was quite a relief to see Marshal’s army on the horizon. I believe he said something in his speech before the battle, about it being dishonourable not to help so brave a lady. He was a chivalrous man, one of the best I have known.
How did you feel about the terrible slaughter and destruction meted out during and after the battle of Lincoln?
I should say that the citizens brought it on themselves – they sided with the rebels against myself and my garrison. However, it was such a dreadful tragedy, especially for those women and children drowned in the river as they were trying to get away.
Though you seemed happy enough to relinquish Lincoln Castle to John in 1216, when it was taken from you in 1217 you contested the decision. Why?
In 1216 I was grieving, had just lost my husband and knew that if I relinquished the castle, John would just hand it over to my son, Richard, keeping it in the family, so-to-speak. By 1217 I had my old fight back. Lincoln Castle was mine by right! And I wasn’t going to let that knave Salisbury get his hands on everything that was mine, just because my granddaughter was married to his son.
When you faced your darkest hours, what motivated you to hold on, despite the difficulties and dangers you faced?
Duty and family. Lincoln Castle had been my father’s before me and his father’s before him. And was determined to pass it to my son, Richard, or my granddaughter after Richard’s death. I was never going to give it up without a fight – what kind of de la Haye would I be if I did that?
Of all you have achieved in your long life, what gives you the most pride?
Knowing that no one captured Lincoln Castle while it was in my charge. I have a better record of defending against sieges than most men!
Thank you, Lady Nicholaa, for your honest and – dare I say – robust answers to my irksome questions. You may be sure that I – though a monk who might be ‘inclined to ignore the accomplishments of women’ – will do all I can to ensure that your bravery will be remembered for a very long time to come.
Nicholaa de Haye is just one of numerous medieval women given a new stage in the non-fiction history books written by Sharon Bennett Connolly.
Sharon is very generously offering a Giveaway Competition prize of a signed paperback of Heroines of the Medieval World – worldwide offer!
All you have to do to have a chance of winning this great book – believe me I’ve read it! – is to leave a comment either below on this blog or on my Facebook Author page. Competition closes: 5pm UK time on Wednesday, 26th June.
About the author:
Sharon Bennett Connolly, has been fascinated by history for over 30 years now. She has studied history academically and just for fun – and even worked as a tour guide at historical sites, including Conisbrough Castle.
Born in Yorkshire, she studied at University in Northampton before working in Customer Service roles at Disneyland in Paris and Eurostar in London.
She is now having great fun, passing on her love of the past to her son, hunting dragons through Medieval castles or exploring the hidden alcoves of Tudor Manor Houses.
For Christmas 2014, her husband gave her a blog as a gift – History … the Interesting Bits (www.historytheinterestingbits.com), allowing her to indulge in that love of history.
Sharon started researching and writing about the lesser-known stories and people from European history, the stories that have always fascinated. Quite by accident, she started focusing on medieval women. And in 2016 she was given the opportunity to write her first non-fiction book, Heroines of the Medieval World, which was published by Amberley in September 2017.
She has just published her second non-fiction book, Silk and the Sword: The Women of the Norman Conquest, and is now working on Ladies of Magna Carta, which will be published by Pen & Sword in May 2020.
Buy the books: Amazon UK: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Sharon-Bennett-Connolly/e/B072156Z8V/
There are more character interviews coming up too…
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