A New Battlefield
There were many contingent parts to the war in England between 1215 and 1217: militarily the role of castles, foreign mercenaries and generalship were vital; politically and diplomatically, the role of patronage, finance, the handling of great lords and relations with the Papacy were central. But an overarching, dominating theme was personality; and now, with John’s death, an overarching dominant personality disappeared from the cast. Even the majority of those who fought for John had little respect for the arbitrary, unstable despot; they were bound to him more by vested interest and fear than by honour and loyalty. His death was not greeted in the chronicles with a sense of respectful sympathy. The Barnwell writer offers this judicious epitaph to John: ‘He was generous and liberal to foreigners but a despoiler of his own people. Since he trusted more in foreigners than in them, he was abandoned before the end by his own people, and in his own end he was little mourned’; while Matthew Paris’s unsparing verdict reflected the feelings of many: ‘With John’s foul deeds all England is stinking / As does hell, to which he is now sinking.’484 Speaking ill of the dead did not trouble Matthew. Over in France, William the Breton was no more sympathetic in his Philippidos, declaring that John’s sins had caught up with him before highlighting his family values: ‘condemned by the just judgment of the clergy and the people for he had been the cause of the death of his father, traitor against his brother and murderer of his nephew’; then adding, to further chasten the King’s departed soul, ‘O Louis, the English nation wanted to raise you on his throne.’485
In the days before his death, John had ordered his affairs carefully. He named his nine-year-old son Henry as his heir and made his intimate household members around him swear their allegiance to him. He had letters dispatched under his seal to all the sheriffs and castellans of England ordering them to recognise Henry as their new lord. In his testament, transcribed onto a single sheet of vellum, John leaves his affairs in the hands of the arbiters of the will, to see to ‘making satisfaction to God and holy church for damages and injuries done to them’.486 These arbiters, most of whom were present, were the legate Guala; Peter des Roches, Bishop of Winchester; Richard Bishop of Chichester; Silvester Bishop of Worcester; Brother Aimery de St Maur; Ranulf Earl of Chester; William Earl Ferrers; Walter de Lacy; John of Monmouth; Savary de Mauléon; Falkes de Bréauté; and William Marshal, Earl of Pembroke who, at nearly 70 years of age, was elected regent (humbly and reluctantly, according to his biographer). This was, in effect, John’s minority council for Henry.
Stephen Church’s article on John’s last few days shows the King concerned for the military situation his son would inherit. One of the John’s actions on the last day of his life was the supply of extra funds to Hubert de Burgh in order that he could maintain the defence of Dover Castle; if Dover fell, it was likely that Louis, not Henry, would rule England.487 Nichola de Haye was rewarded for her defence of Lincoln with the custody of the city, thus tying her even closer to the royalist cause. The powerful mercenary commander Falkes de Bréauté received the Luton estates of Baldwin of Béthune, Count of Aumale who had died in 1212; this reinforced Falkes’s position as castellan of Bedford Castle and strengthened the chain of his other crucial midlands strongholds of Hertford, Northampton, Buckingham, Cambridge and Oxford. Eager to reach out on his deathbed to rebel lords and the vacillating vassals who were forever changing sides as new opportunities arose, John offered safe conducts to those who reconciled themselves to the crown through Savary de Mauléon. He also placed Savary in charge of his 300 Welsh archers, who presumably had been with the King at the skirmish at Windsor. Savary’s role, however, was to be limited, for by December he had returned home to Poitou.
The dominant figures of the new royalist leadership were William Marshal, Peter des Roches, Ranulf of Chester and Guala. The first three were all experienced, supremely competent military commanders. They were supported, at John’s direction, by Falkes, Savary and William Brewer. As Church has noted, this was a clear indication of John’s determination not to compromise with the rebel leadership: these were ‘the hard men of John’s regime … Each of these men had the taint of his master about him and no doubt there were many in the baronial camp who had suffered at their hands.’ John had assembled a regency and military council for his son of men either ‘of natural authority’ or ‘whose “lack of squeamishness” made them ideal royal servants’.488 Of course, these men had been advising the King and fighting for him all along; but John was no longer there to overrule them or to dictate political or military strategy.
The implications of this were huge for royalists, rebels, the uncertain and the French. The French had lost their greatest political and military asset. The baronial tide turned as anti-Johaninne rebels quickly understood the implications of the sudden transformation and became pro-Henricians. John’s death was ultimately a game changer.
The council had inherited a military situation that had certainly improved since the summer of 1216. Of the King’s final campaign, Holt has judged that John’s ‘last convulsive actions showed a sound strategic grasp’: he had strengthened royal garrisons, threatened northern baronial estates and prevented the ‘danger of united action between King Alexander and Prince Louis and of the concentration of all the rebel forces against the royalist garrisons in the south’.489 There is something to be said for this assessment, but it is too definite. John’s swift decline and death distortedly preserves in aspic the successes of his last campaign. It had been energetic and with some purpose, but also frenetic, indecisive and limited in tangible gains. The French and rebels were still entrenched in a third of the country with major areas contested elsewhere.
The new council were able to build on the successes, but had John lived how much would these successes have meant in real terms? Would he have been able to keep them? Probably not. Incursions from King Alexander in Scotland and the activities of the northern rebels would in all likelihood simply have won the lands and castles back again in another round of advances and retreats. But the real issue, and the one that made John’s final military successes more lasting, was the political impact of his death. The political momentum was now firmly on the loyalists’ side. This is what shifted the balance.
On the morning following the King’s death, a monk called John de Savigny came to the town of Newark. On entering he encountered members of John’s household scurrying out of the castle laden down with all manner of goods and booty. The dead monarch was suffering the final indignity of having all his moveable valuables stolen; there was not even enough cloth left to afford his corpse a decent covering. Holt has made the intriguing suggestion that the rumours of the loss of the King’s treasure at the Wash may have been started at this time, a clever diversion by those in John’s household ‘to cover their own acquisitive misdeeds’.490 This is a very cynical observation and therefore a convincing one. The monk kept vigil over John’s body and offered a mass for the king, who had been embalmed by the Abbot of Croxton, the Abbot having already cut out John’s heart, a gift, it would seem, to his abbey. The body was transported to Worcester Cathedral in solemn procession under a mercenary guard and there, in accordance with the dead King’s wishes, buried by Bishop Silvester.
On 28 October, at nearby Gloucester Cathedral, his nine-year-old son was crowned Henry III of England in an emotive ceremony led by Guala. On John’s death the council members at Gloucester had sent for Henry from Devizes, William Marshal eagerly going out to meet him near Malmesbury. The first words we hear from the young King, ‘the well-brought-up child’, are: ‘Welcome. I wish to tell you truly, that I give myself to God and yourself, so that in God’s name you may take charge of me.’491 At this, the little boy burst out crying, causing those around him to weep, too. A hasty discussion came to the rapid conclusion that Henry should be crowned as soon as possible. First Henry was knighted by William, in a scene that captures the pathos of the moment: ‘they straight away dressed him in his child-sized robes of state; he was a fine little knight.’492 From Rome, Pope Honorius III sent out reams of letters in support of Henry, and also to Philip Augustus, Louis, King Alexander and the barons to cease their hostilities and for the English to submit to the new King.
Rarely has a king of England ascended to the throne in less propitious circumstances. The royalist party were acutely aware of their precarious position. Willliam Marshal is recorded as saying: ‘If all the world deserted the young boy, except me, do you know what I would do? I would carry him on my shoulders and walk with him thus, with legs astride, I would be with him and never let him down, from island to island, from land to land.’493 Hardly had the new King changed out of his coronation robes when news came that Goodrich Castle, only eighteen miles away, was besieged that morning and already in peril of falling. Nearly three-quarters of England’s 133 barons were with the rebels at the time of John’s death, including nineteen of the 27 most powerful ones. Louis was secure in the south-east and most of the eastern half of the country. In the north and west, Alexander of Scotland and Prince Llewelyn harassed his enemies on the Scottish and Welsh borders. And of course there was London. Nor was there much left in the royal coffers to finance the war. On the King’s death, the Earl of Salisbury advised Hubert de Burgh to give up Dover as the cause was lost and in the royalist camp a council considered that a retreat to Ireland might be necessary.494
The royalists looked for support from Ireland, which materialised more in the form of passive quiescence than anything else; from the still large mercenary force, if payments could be kept flowing; and, in the south-east, from Willikin of the Weald and the almost surreptitious, but still real, help of the Cinque ports. But most of all they looked to the system of royal castles. These protected the now largely subdued west while giving bases for offensives eastwards. The Anonymous offers a long list of some of these and their castellans.495 In the north were Philip of Oldcoates at Bamburgh, Hugh de Balliol at Newcastle and Brian de Lsile at Knaresborough; stretching over the midlands were Robert de Gaugi at Newark, Philip Mark at Nottingham, Nichola de Hay at Lincoln, Falkes de Bréauté’s string of castles mentioned discussed above (Bedford, Northampton, Oxford, Buckingham, Cambridge and Hertford); and in the south were Dover under Hubert de Burgh, Windsor under Engelard de Cigogné,and Peter de Maulay at Corfe (where the constable had care of Richard Fitzroy, the King’s younger, illegitimate son, and the main hoard of royal treasure). The west was by now largely secure from Louis; Gloucester, Worcester and Bristol kept a check on incursions from Llewelyn; while William Marshal, as Earl of Pembroke, was a powerful force in south Wales. For all his advantages, Louis still knew that ‘the royal castles were many and well fortified.’496
And the royalists also had Henry. The boy king’s great merit was that he was not his father. Through long years of oppression, financial exactions, arbitrary justice, cruelty mistreatment of his great barons, military failures and ineptitude, John had forged the alliance against him. He united the rebels in being not just for something, but against something – against someone. There were few to defend John’s odious rule for reasons other than he was King and for his followers’ self interest. John’s death was therefore a disaster for Louis: ‘Even a child king presented a more formidable opponent than John had done.’497 The sins of he father could not be visited on the son, especially when the son was an innocent nine-year-old. As David Carpenter has memorably expressed it: ‘Henry shrugged and the weight of John’s crimes fell from his shoulders.’498
The War Enters a New Phase
John’s death came suddenly and caught all the protagonists off balance. Initially, at least, there was a stalemate, something already perhaps on the horizon indicated by the truce agreed at Dover just four days before he died.499 The royalist council quickly tried to adapt to the new situation and set about winning back nearly half of England. The members of the council were boosted by the pope’s actions and by the ecclesiastical establishment in England outside of London lining up on the new monarch’s side. In November the council met in Bristol. Hubert de Burgh was there, the truce at Dover enabling him to travel. There was some friction between him and the marshal for, as justiciar, Hubert was the highest official in the kingdom after the monarch himself. William’s role was clarified as rector of the kingdom. The council’s first actions were political. Letters were sent to barons commonly offering pardons and restitutions of land for those who came back into the royalist fold. William d’Albini, captured at Rochester Castle, paid a ransom of 6000 marks and paid homage to Henry; in return he received Sleaford Castle. Then, on 12 November, in a highly significant act, Magna Carta was reissued. This ‘cut the ground from beneath the feet of the rebels who had called in Louis of France’ and ‘removed the young King from faction and set him firmly and squarely on a legal relation with his subjects’.500 Some changes were made to the original, for example, clause 50 was quietly dropped, as it would not do to repeat the call for removal of such alien officers such as Engelard de Cigogné while they were performing such sterling work defending royal castles at Windsor and elsewhere.
But in the medieval world the sword was mightier than the pen, and a far more significant act had already occurred at Dover. When Louis heard the news of John’s death he called Hubert de Burgh to a parley, telling him that without a protector he could not hold the castle long; he promised Hubert rewards and a leading position among his advisers should he submit. Hubert took the proposition back to the garrison but they refused the offer, wishing instead to honour the rightful heir to the crown and to avoid the opprobrium of treachery and cowardice. On hearing their reply, Louis made a fateful decision: he lifted the siege. As Wendover reports, the French ‘determined to subjugate the smaller castles throughout England so that, having taken these, they could attack the larger ones’.501Louis was making the same mistake that John had in failing to take London; he was allowing a major stronghold to exist in the heart of his territory. Louis has been much criticised for his new strategy but his actions are easily explicable: with John gone and the situation radically transformed, Louis needed to gather momentum again and to ensure that his absence did not hand that momentum to the royalists. In effect, he needed to combine itinerant kingship and military successes to reassure his own side. Nonetheless, it proved a disastrous mistake. He went quickly to London with his army to reassess the situation. As soon as they had left, the Dover garrison sortied out and burned the buildings Louis had erected before the castle. They followed this up by ravaging the countryside, pillaging and destroying it to deny the French supplies later, while stocking up the cellars in the castle to enable the garrison to survive a renewed siege for many months.
At first, it appeared that Louis’s change of direction was vindicated. While the regency council was in Bristol, Louis was besieging Hertford Castle. He was here on 12 November with his engines of war arrayed around the walls, battering at them for 25 days. The garrison, under the command of Walter de Godardville, one of Falkes de Bréauté’s captains, caused heavy casualties before surrendering on 6 December. Under the rules of war, the garrison were allowed to march free with their horses and arms. This arrangement appears to be part of a truce which was meant to give Berkhamstead up to Louis at the same time. But again the success was marred by squabbling over the rewards for Louis’s followers. The Anonymous claims the castle was handed over to Robert Fitzwalter, to whom it had previously belonged; but Wendover says that the French complained that the castle should not be given to a baron who had betrayed his monarch – in other words, it should be given to the French. Louis procrastinated, intending to wait until after the conquest was completed.502
Louis moved immediately to Berkhamstead where its captain, Waleran the German, renounced the truce agreement made at Hertford. This powerful castle had recently been fortified and repaired with timbers from the local forest, so Waleran, a veteran warrior, was feeling confident. He made his intentions clear from the start. As the English barons were setting up their siege camp, knights and sergeants erupted from the castle and caused havoc, seizing supply-carts and baggage, and even snatching the standard of William de Mandeville, a major loss of face for the leading rebel commander. The garrison attempted to use the standard to confuse the besiegers in a later sortie, but the enemy had expected such a move and drove them back into the castle. The besiegers suffered many dead before Waleran was ordered to surrender the castle on 20 December under a new general Christmas truce that lasted until either 13 or 20 January.
Louis placed Raoul Plancöet in charge of the castle and made for St Albans on 21 December, extorting money from the local populace along the way. He tried to make William of Trumpington, abbot of the rich and famous abbey, pay homage to him. William refused, declaring that he would only do so if he were released from his homage to the King. At this, an enraged Louis threatened to torch the town and its abbey. Saer de Quincy, the Earl of Winchester, granted William some leeway and the fearfully intimidated abbot paid 80 silver marks to escape destruction. Such exactions were common; the Dunstable annalist reporting his home town having to pay Louis 200 marks for protection. Louis then returned to his stronghold of London.503
Other gains were made. The cities – but not the castles – of Ely and Lincoln were taken before the truce. Cambridge and Pleshey Castles also fell to Louis. Now, on the expiration of the first truce, a further one was under negotiation between William Marshal and Louis, the former at Oxford, the latter at Cambridge. This one, to last until 23 April, cost the royalists more castles: Hedingham, under siege, and Colchester, Norwich and Orford. Hedingham was returned to Robert de Vere while Gillon de Melun received Orford, Simon de Poissy Cambridge and William de Mandeville Pleshey.504 The Dunstable annalist reports that all the castles of Essex and Suffolk were now in Louis’s hands. Thus, by the end of January, Louis had actually strengthened his position, even though over three months had elapsed since John’s death. With little effort, he now had most of the eastern half of England secured. Thus Louis had indeed regained his momentum, and the hope was that this would place greater pressure on strongholds such as Dover to appreciate the futility of further resistance.
Why was the impact of John’s death so muted? Why had the royalists not reaped far greater rewards from this heaven-sent opportunity? The biographer of William Marshal was confused by the situation, believing, unpersuasively, that the ‘fine, magnificent, well fortified’ castles of Norwich and Orford had been handed over without the Marshal’s agreement, ‘and that was a wrong thing to do’.505 (The History of William Marshal makes a reappearance as a valuable source with the onset of the new reign, disassociation with the failures of John now replaced by the accolade of the Marshal’s greatest role as leader of the nation. The lengthy poem compensates for Ralph of Coggeshall’s cursory treatment of just one-and-a-half pages from the coronation of Henry III to the end of the war.) One explanation for the royalists’ sluggish start was simply a matter of time: many were waiting to see how the regency council responded to Louis and waiting to see if it would – or could – reverse the situation. There was the real possibility that the council would come to terms with Louis at any moment. Many barons were still sitting opportunistically on the fence. Louis’s initial flurry of triumphs kept them there longer than they might otherwise have been, underlining the intent of his post-Dover strategy. The royalist camp, like the Franco-baronial one, had its own divisions, although these proved less damaging. Hubert de Burgh had some friction with the Marshal (the latter refusing to provide more material aid to Dover), but also a real competitive hostility with Peter des Roches that later grew into a feud. Brian de Lisle, Philip Mark and the Earl of Derby were also at loggerheads over castle ownership. Perhaps the mightiest baron of all, Earl Ranulf of Chester, threatened to leave on crusade, while Savary de Mauléon was back in Poitou after Christmas and actually did embark on crusade. In fact, Ranulf did not have to go far to become a crusader: although the exact date is uncertain, probably sometime between Henry’s coronation and late January, the pope decreed the royalist cause as a crusade and Guala instructed Henry’s men to wear a white cross on their chests. (In the Holy Land, crusaders wore the cross on their shoulders.) More practical spiritual help followed: with John gone, the episcopacy reformed as eleven out of the twelve bishops who had abandoned John returned to the crown’s service.
But there were other specific reasons, too, for caution and patience. One, proposed by David Carpenter, was simply that the Marshal was not yet in a position to counter-attack.506 He had spent November and December in Gloucester and Bristol and waited until the new year before heading to Nottingham and offering assistance to Lincoln. It should also be noted that Louis did not make inroads into the west either, so both sides may have been using the opportunity to consolidate their positions, something that Louis achieved far more successfully. The Marshal may have feared incursions by Llewelyn and Reginald de Braose from the west, which would have left the rear of William’s forces in danger; the Welsh had a tradition of attempting to exploit the moments of political uncertainty at a time of succession. The other, perennial, problem was money. The system of government had all but broken down, with revenues being collected more from local military activity, ransoming, extortions, tenseries and ravaging than bureaucracy. The Marshal’s biographer reveals that ‘the King has hardly any resources’ and that ‘the child has no wealth’.507 Hard cash was in short supply and payment of royalist troops and mercenaries often had to be made in jewellery and silks. This forced the royalists to adapt the same measures as we have just seen Louis taking. Thus William Marshal threatened to torch Worcester unless it handed over £100 it had pledged to pay John. Poor old Abbot William Trumpington of St Albans was again raided on 22 January, this time by royalists. Wendover reports that Falkes de Bréauté descended on the abbey that evening with ‘knights and robbers’ from his garrisons and pillaged the town. Even children were taken prisoner, and someone was slain at the door of the church where he had been running to take sanctuary. These ‘agents of the devil’ then demanded £100 from the Abbot or else they would ‘immediately burn the whole town with the monastery and other buildings’.508 Falkes took his booty back to his stronghold at Bedford before setting out again to take some 60 clergy and noncombatants prisoner elsewhere.
This explanation may complement rather than overturn another one: that the royalist council had undertaken a deliberate strategy adopted at this time. This suggests that the royalists wanted to spread out Louis’s forces and to catch them exposed beyond their bases.509 This entailed the deliberate withdrawal of isolated and exposed garrisons in Essex, East Anglia and elsewhere, hence the swift capitulations to Louis. The men and materiel from these might be better deployed elsewhere; thus Norwich and Orford Castles, the loss of which so exercised William Marshal’s biographer, had their stores transferred to Dover. The royalists may have been anxious of attack from their western flank; it is also worth considering whether a motivation for their consolidation was the fear of a co-ordinated attack from the Welsh in the west and Louis in the east. But as we have seen, Louis’s focus was very much on expanding his authority through the east. In this he largely succeeded, but a visit to Lincoln failed to persuade Nichola de Haye to give up the royal castle there. Whatever the reasons behind royalist strategy – consolidation for defence, consolidation for offence, restraints of money, or a developing combination of all three – their counter-attack began in the new year.
The Battle of Rye and the Royalist Resurgence
Truces were easier to break than to maintain. Both sides accused the other of breaking the terms of the truce, and in February a bloody and bruising encounter took place at the neighbouring south-eastern ports of Rye and Winchelsea, between Hastings and Dover. The royalists moved fast to gain the initial advantage when a changing situation presented itself. The change was brought about dramatically by Louis’s decision to return to France. This was a risky move necessitated by the need for men and money. We have seen how his forces were being depleted by continental troops returning home; and now with Henry on the throne, there was a well-founded fear that many barons would at best not support him and at worst desert him. The Barnwell chronicler believes Louis was summoned urgently home by his father to a council, while Wendover believes Louis was deeply anxious over the weight of religious opinion against him: an anathema with the threat of a renewed excommunication following; the English episocopate back on the royalists’ side; and a crusade pronounced against him. It is possible that in addition to tangible material support, Louis might have been looking for diplomatic allies in France, too, even if his father made a pretence of not talking with him. But William the Breton, the best placed to know but least consulted on this, reports that Louis lacked money to pay his soldiers and in France found both reinforcements and funds from his friends.510 Either way, the barons were greatly dismayed by Louis’s intended departure and, uncertain about the near future, they made Louis swear to return before the truce expired. Their vulnerability was increased by a setback at Mountsorrel on 20 January. From here, the baronial garrison went on a raid to procure plunder and provisions, but the royalist garrison at Nottingham, heaving learned of this from their scouts, intercepted them; they killed three rebels and captured ten knights and 24 sergeants.511
From London Louis set out for the south coast to sail to France. He had heard that his castle at Rye had been lost through subterfuge. It had been taken by Philip d’Albini’s flotilla. Hubert de Burgh was also operating along the coasts of Kent and Essex. Louis’s grasp on the southern ports was not assured, and the Cinque ports were slipping away from even nominal obedience. From Ireland the royalists had collected a flotilla at Winchelsea, next to Rye, where they were joined by more vessels to blockade the ports. Powerful forces made for the area from both sides. The vernacular sources provide a remarkable and detailed account of what happened there.512
Just before reaching Winchelsea, Louis stayed in the safety of the Earl of Warenne’s castle at Lewes where he fretted over supplies through the Weald. This suggests that his plan was to base himself at Winchelsea to recapture Rye before leaving for France. He may also have been making the dash to Winchelsea in the hope that he would be able to embark before royalist reinforcements made this impossible by taking this town along with Rye. His entry into the town was unresisted. The burghers burned their mills, thus hindering Louis’s provisioning of his men, and took to the strong royalist ships off Rye which blockaded the ports. These were now under the command of Philip d’Albini, governor of the Channel Islands and sparring partner of Eustace the Monk. Both the Anonymous and the biographer of William Marshal confirm that these ships had strong complements of armed men and supplies. Louis’s land route back to London was also blocked; Willikin of the Weald and his guerrilla force had seen to that by destroying the bridges and guarding the travel ways. The History of William Marshal says that Willikin was in ‘no mind to play games’; many French stragglers and prisoners were beheaded. Willikin’s force also had the great advantage of knowing the area intimately and they used this knowledge to great effect. As the biographer comments, the French Prince ‘did not know which way to turn … Louis was harried so that he felt himself in desperate straits.’ It seems to have been a classic luring to a siege to ensnare the enemy. Louis was caught in a well-made trap.
Louis’s fears over supplies manifested themselves starkly, as the Anonymous tells us as he takes up the rest of the story. His men had wheat but, with the mills gone, no easy way to grind it, so they attempted to do so by hand. They were unable to catch fish and relied on large nuts found in the town for some sustenance. Truces with the enemy meant little, and the English sailors (presumably augmented by crews from Ireland and the continent) would come ashore to shoot and hurl their missiles at the weakening French. All the while Louis’s losses mounted. William Marshal’s biographer claims, with exaggeration, that Louis lost thousands of his troops, ‘men who had been overconfident about having England in their hands’. The biographer has no sympathy for the French, whom he labels ‘mercenaries’. Earlier in his poem he seems to gloat over French deaths:
Many a barrel and cask of fine wine the French mercenaries drank, and they were so full of arrogance that they said England was theirs, and that the English should vacate the land, for they had no right to it; the French, they say, would have it for their own profit. That arrogance was of no avail whatever: subsequently I saw a hundred of them eaten by dogs, men whom the English had killed between Winchester and Romsey. That was the only land they managed to keep.513
Louis sent out men on foot to sneak through the enemy lines to seek help from London. Some obviously broke through the enemy lines and the terrifying bands of Willikin’s decapitating guerrillas to reach the capital. Here they announced Louis’s orders ‘to help them because they were in great trouble and the English were making things wretched for them’. A relief force was dispatched as French knights went to the assistance of their lord. This force, comprising Guillaume, castellan de St Omer, Raoul Plancöet, Hugh Tacon, Jean de Beaumont and others not named, was only a small one and thus feared to go the direct route through the Weald. Instead they made for Canterbury and thence struck southwest to Romney. We can see how Willikin’s forces dominated the Weald by the relief plan hatched: help was to come from the sea, not the land. From Romney they sent instructions to Louis’s governor in Boulogne, a Cistercian monk, to send all the ships they could ‘because their lord Louis was in very grave trouble at Winchelsea’. The governor sent some 200, all but one sailing to Dover, the exception braving the blockade to boost the flagging morale of the French trapped in Wincheslea with news of the relief operation. This ship may well have been captained by Eustace, for a few lines further on the Anonymous says that he was with Louis. French knights began embarkation at Dover but the winter weather conditions and lack of prevailing winds prevented their departure for Winchelsea for a fortnight. It was a long fourteen days for Louis and his men; they ‘suffered greatly because their supplies were running out’.
Louis, Eustace and his advisers held a council of war to discuss what could be done to alleviate their predicament until reinforcements arrived. The ever resourceful Eustace came up with a plan. He proposed adapting one of his large galleys by building a castle-like structure upon it, presumably a large fighting platform. When completed, it was so huge it spread over the sides of the ship and caused amazement amongst all those who saw it. Other ships the French had taken from the English in their combats guarded it from attack. Behind this heavy ship followed another carrying a petraria to hurl stones at the English vessels. On shore, Louis had two other petrarias erected that caused the English flotilla great problems. But the plan came to nothing. In a pre-emptive strike, the English launched a bold night attack that saw them capture the large galley. They taunted their enemy with their victory by destroying it piece-by-piece ‘before the eyes of the French’. Feeling the strain of the last few weeks, Louis lashed out at the Viscount of Melun and blamed him for the disaster, for the Viscount had been charged with the watch that night. ‘But my leader!’ he responded. ‘Your men are so starved I cannot find anyone willing to perform guard duty’, then adding that Louis himself would not be able to find four knights to do so. Louis retorted that he would go on guard. A heated argument broke out. Eustace de Noeville joined in, somewhat obsequiously telling Louis that ‘the viscount does not know what he is saying’ and that ‘forty’ knights could be found. The Viscount and Eustace then went for each other, going back and forth with their contradictions of the other’s statement. Eustace had he last word: he did indeed find 40 guards to man the watch.
The following day brought more intense military activity. The relief squadron from Dover appeared on the scene under the command of Raoul Plancöet, Hugh Tacon and Jean de Beaumont. The English flotilla prepared to engage with them with great bluster and display. A cog bore down on the French to attack but pulled away at the last moment; this evasive manoeuvre was so precipitous that the cog veered disastrously into one of its own ships, sinking it with the loss of its entire crew. The biographer of William Marshal believes the defeat was far greater, and that the French ‘destroyed our navy’. The blockade had largely been broken. The rest of the English ships followed behind for a short while as the French squadron entered Wincheslea. Louis’s army was impressively reinforced and now stood at 3000-strong. The garrison at Rye realised that they could not hold against such odds and deserted the castle; Louis found it ‘full of wine and meat for which his men had great need’. Louis placed it under the command of Baldwin de Corbeil, who had just come over with the fleet from Boulogne.
The royalists put into operation either an urgent attempt to retake Rye or to relieve it. William Marshal had left Gloucester on 17 February, passed through Oxford and Reading, and met with his council at Dorking where an impressive muster of their troops was arranged, a significant statement of intent and indeed of confidence. On 28 February the council sent a letter from here to the people of Rye forbidding them from giving any hostages to Louis or entering into terms with him, promising them immediate help. And what help it was: the army comprised the Earls of Chester and Ferrers, the Count of Aumale, Richard Fitzroy, Walter de Lacy, Falkes de Bréauté, Engelard de Cigogné, and an appropriately large army of knights, sergeants, crossbowmen and Welsh archers. Even the King and legate were to follow.514 The intent was surely for a decisive showdown with Louis. But by the time this huge host arrived at Rye, Louis had flown. He had gone to Dover and set sail for home on 27 or 28 February.
Louis had left his nephew Enguerrand de Coucy to represent him in England, ordering him to make for London and ‘on no account leave it’.515 This hints that Louis saw the royal resurgence as a real threat and that it was time to revert to the baronial plan that placed London at the heart of its strategy. However, Louis was probably hopeful that some minor trouble in Ireland around this time would escalate into a serious diversion for the Marshal.
Louis was absent for eight weeks and he was sorely missed: the Anonymous says ‘the need for him in England grew acutely.’516 Without his reassuring presence as a sign of commitment to the cause, some who had wavered crossed into the royalist camp. Within the week following Louis’s departure, William Longsword, Earl of Salisbury, and William Marshal the Younger deserted the barons and Louis, a move long in the making; these close comrades had clearly been waiting for the opportune moment for further opportunism. This was a serious blow to the anti-royalist party and it played a part in a string of some 115 defections, mainly from Wiltshire, Somerset, Dorset and Berkshire.
There is no doubt that the status of crusade enhanced the royalist cause. The Barnwell annalist believes it was important as it eased the way back to the King for the Earl of Salisbury and others who were now ‘fighting against pagans’ as ‘crusaders’ in ‘the army of Christ’.517 The barons had long ceased to derive any benefit from their branding moniker as ‘The Army of God’, not that there was much in the first place. Historians have arguably placed too much emphasis on this positive development for the king’s men: Christopher Tyerman, who has made a study of England and the crusades, judges that ‘the crusade made a definite, though not precisely definable, contribution’ to the royalists’ cause, adding that it remained very much a second-class crusade.518 If the tangible, practical effects were real but limited, taking up the cross could only have boosted the morale, cohesion and psychological outlook of the royalist camp. But as David Carpenter has wryly and accurately noted: ‘The defections in March and April were highly regional and it is difficult to believe that the men of Berkshire and Wiltshire were simply more pious than those in the north.’519
As I am forever telling my students, to understand the truth of the situation we have to pick up the stone and see what is underneath. There we will nearly always find self-interest scurrying or wriggling busily about in pursuit of its ends. Castles; patronage; money; office; all were strong motivating forces. When knights felt they were only receiving crumbs from Louis’s French table they looked elsewhere for their dinner. Wendover captures this well: ‘There was great deal of wavering amongst the barons over which King to commit to, the young Henry or the lord Louis.’ He gives as the reason for their agonising the way in which many had been so ‘contemptuously treated by the French’. Louis, he says, had ignored his oath and the barons’ complaints to keep possession for himself the lands and castles won in the war, despite baronial help, and handed these out to his own French followers. But against this the barons did not want to face the disgrace of returning to allegiance to the King ‘like dogs returning to their vomit’.520 We have seen the divisions in the anti-royalist camp over the spoils of war, as when William Marshal the Younger complained and successfully contested the leadership of the army from Adam de Beaumont and resented Louis putting Marlborough Castle in the hands of Robert de Dreux instead of his. The Earl of Salisbury lacked castles for his power base, and so was on the look-out for some. He contested the ownership of Trowbridge Castle with the rebel Earl of Hereford, Henry de Bohun, who had Louis’s favour (and who, in turn, was a partisan of Louis for the same, castle-seeking motives). William Marshal, however, could offer Longsword the castles of Salisbury and Sherborne, and the office of Sheriff of Wilthsire and also Somerset and Devon. The regent was keen to buy Longsword over, not least because he valued the Earl’s military ability.521 A notable character of these reversi, as they are called in the records, was that many of the men now changed sides for the last time and so Wendover believes that ‘thus Louis’s party was in large measure broken up.’522 However, the original core of rebelling barons stayed largely constant to their cause. The desertions were serious, but not decisive.
On the military front, the royalists were now also making strong gains. The Anonymous says that the English ‘chevauchéed across the land and took many castles’.523 The sources lack detailed accounts of this military activity, leaving the historian to stitch together a rather scratchy narrative lacking in meaty details of combat and drama, in contrast to the full-bloodied descriptions they give for the end of the war. The Earl of Salisbury and William Marshal the Younger wished to prove themselves to their new lord. They quickly took Knepp Castle in Sussex, probably on 4 March, which fell immediately; it was in the hands of Roland Bloet, a brother to one of the Marshal’s knights. The defecting duo then set up camp in Hyde Abbey and laid siege to the castles of Winchester on 6 March while the regent went to take Farnham during the week of 7–13 March. Its constable, Ponces de Beaumeis, was thrown into prison by des Roches and suffered there for many months, says the Anonymous; the garrison were luckier, being granted safe conduct to London. On the first day of the siege of Winchester, little was achieved, but an attack was made on the second day. The main castle was under the command of Peter Letart, one of the Count of Nevers’s men. When moving about, the besiegers ensured that they maintained tight formation in case of a surprise attack. At one stage of the siege when the royalists were called away, Letart commanded some of the garrison to sortie into the town which they plundered and burned: ‘They were angry, because the townsfolk had harboured their enemies and given them assistance … The townsfolk paid a heavy price.’ The sudden return of the royalist troops pushed the raiding party back into the city’s two castles. The Earl of Salisbury was investing Wolvesesy, the smaller of the city’s two castles and the one belonging to Peter des Roches. Wolvesesy was assailed for eight days, its defenders given no rest either by day or by night until it surrendered on 12 March. The Earl then went to assist his great friend William who was besieging the royal castle. The barrage of arrows and projectiles made the garrison ‘greatly dismayed and afraid’, says the Marshal’s biographer, but the strong fortifications, recently repaired and improved by Louis, withstood it all. At this point the Marshal turned up with his great army, filling the whole area. They expected the castle’s surrender, but still it held out. In mid-March, William Marshal the Younger and William Longsword were directed by the regent away from Winchester to Southampton, one of the most important ports in the country, which was comprehensively plundered: ‘such was the booty taken in the town that the poor folk who wished to take advantage and had their minds on profit were all made rich by the wealth they took from their enemies.’ Having installed their own governor and constable, they returned to Winchester. At the end of the second week of March they were before Portchester where a month-long siege began. The History of William Marshal says Rochester was taken at this point while not mentioning Portchester; this may be the result of some confusion or a reference to the operations of King John’s bastard son Oliver in Kent in the third week of April or to the vaguer movements of Philip d’Albini. The siege of Portchester falls in a pattern that suggests the royalists’ strategy was to advance along the coast to disrupt communications with France and deny safe ports to the French.524 In accordance with this strategy, d’Albini took Chichester before 16 April and Portchester by the 27th; both castles had their defences destroyed. The confusing movements of troops to and from sieges continued. At the end of March, the younger Marshal went to besiege his coveted prize of Marlborough, which he took after an ardous siege of about three weeks. Winchester finally surrendered and its garrison was offered a safe conduct back to London. Odiham was also taken in the south. In the midlands, Falkes de Bréauté raided and retook Ely, where he took prisoner Adam de Nulli, a soldier greatly favoured by Louis for his steadfast service. When Louis heard the news of these setbacks in France he felt the blow of the royalist resurgence, the Anonymous announcing rather obviously that ‘he was not all happy’. The Barnwell annalist paints a gloomy picture for the French Prince: ‘little indeed would have remained for Louis in England had he put off his return beyond the promised time.’525 He was back in England on 22 April. The war was about to enter its most dramatic and epic phase that would bring about its end.
The French Counter-attack
For all the defeats his army had suffered, there was nothing that could not, in theory, be won back by Louis – as he immediately set about demonstrating. William Marshal seems to have recognised this by the destruction of the castles he had retaken, excepting Farnham and Marlborough (which his son would not have countenanced anyway) when he learned of the French Prince’s return. Louis still had the hardcore baronial faction that had begun the war in the first place. It is likely that the Earl of Surrey, William de Warenne, had been contemplating defecting back to the royalist cause, but Louis’s return kept him in the fold. Louis had been active in France both in attending to his domestic concerns there and in building up reinforcements. He could not expect any overt help from his father. On 21 April Philip had received a letter from Honorious III thanking him for his behaviour in the whole affair; the pope would have been aware of Louis’s presence back in his father’s country. Louis’s force comprised ‘few knights’ according to the Anonymous, but we are not told how much treasure he had with him to fund the war.526 The chronicler Robert of Auxerre depicts a more substantial force with many mercenaries and infantry and the biographer of William Marshal says Louis came to England ‘with his large, warlike contingent of men’.527 Unlike Louis’s first arrival in England, the Anonymous does not provide detailed numbers, rather giving an overall figure of just over 140 knights, a still sizeable force, with some powerful figures. He announces only that ‘I will name the greatest men who travelled with him.’ There are a number of familiar figures and some new ones: the Count of Brittany and his brother Robert de Dreux, Raoul Ploncöet, the Viscount of Melun, the Count of Perche, the Count of Guînes, the Lord of Béthune, the Seneschal of Flanders called Hellin de Waverin, the castellan of Beaumeis, Guillaume de Fiennes, Adam de Beaumont, Jean d’Osny and others ‘all of whom I cannot name’. They brought with them a powerful new siege machine: the trebuchet. This was at the cutting edge of weapons technology and it provoked much discussion, ‘since few had been seen in France’.528 Louis wanted this machine to finally break the resistance of Dover. At Calais on the evening of the Friday before Easter, Louis had the horses put on board his ships; he and his men embarked the next day before sunrise. They had a good wind and a calm sea. But they raised a storm in England.
Louis arrived to a fluid situation that had put his men on the defensive. William Marshal hoped to maintain the royalist momentum by sending a force to Mountsorrel near Leicester to besiege Saer de Quincy’s castle. This was an impressive force, which included the Earls of Chester, Ferrers and Aumale, Brian de Lisle, Robert de Viuexpont, William de Cantelupe and the ubiquitous Falkes de Bréauté; with them was a large force, many from the abandoned castles of the Easter truce; they were augmented along the way north by garrisons from royal castles. The regent stayed at Winchester and accepted the castle’s surrender just before Louis landed; the garrison that had capitulated at Marlborough ‘felt ashamed and dejected’ because they had not held out longer for their lord.529 Louis’s nephew, Enguerrand de Coucy, had, in early March, sent troops from London to the siege of Lincoln. But before the opposing armies clashed in major engagements in the decisive arena of the northern midlands, Louis went on the warpath in the south.530
At first the omens were not good. As his fleet came into view of Dover, Louis could clearly see the buildings of the siege camp – and the smoke coming from them. King John’s son Oliver and the ever reliable William of Kensham and his men had just attacked Dover, firing the camp and killing the soldiers guarding it. In so doing, they succeeded in preventing Louis from joining up with his forces there; Louis’s ships diverted to Sandwich as they feared a barrage of arrows and projectiles from the cliffs at Dover. He landed at Sandwich, despite the attempts of some royal galleys to block him, and took lodging in the town before going to the priory at Dover, as before. Here, having been joined by the Count of Nevers and the few men he brought over the day after the Prince’s arrival, he learned about the sieges of the Earl of Winchester’s castles at Marlborough, Southampton, Winchester and Mountsorrel. He rapidly arranged another truce with Hubert de Burgh, back in command of Dover Castle, and headed for Winchester ‘with a great contingent of carters, soldiers and crossbowmen, mercenaries and riffraff’, says the History of William Marshal.531 But before he left, he took his revenge on Sandwich for having broken its oath to him and reverting back to the royalist cause: he burned the town. He also sent some of his troops back to France with orders to return later. On Monday 24 April he was in Canterbury; on Tuesday 25th he was at Malling, near Lewes, staying at the convent there and meeting with the Earl of Winchester, Simon Langton and some others of his English supporters. On the Wednesday he made a full day’s march to Guildford, but his baggage train, presumably falling behind due to Louis’s speed, only made it as far as Reigate, where it was protected by the rearguard under Gérard le Truie. At Guildford, Louis was reinforced by soldiers from the London garrison led by Enguerrand de Coucy. He was mustering his forces to strike at the royalists and retake what had been lost to him. They went into action the next day.
Louis was before Farnham by Thursday 27 April. The regent, alarmed at the advance of the French, ordered Winchester to be slighted and hurried to Marlborough with the young King on the Thursday. They feared the possibility that Louis hoped to capture the King, as Petit-Dutaillis suggests; but if this had been the case, Louis would surely have made straight for Winchester, bypassing Farnham (as, indeed, the biographer of William Marshal says he does; the Anonymous’s chronology is followed here). By this time the losses of Marlborough, Southampton and Winchester had been confirmed to Louis, but his very presence had now chased the garrison out of Winchester Castle before it had time to settle in there. The Anonymous relates that Louis attacked the castle and quickly took its outer bailey, but the keep held out against him. On Friday 28 April, the baggage train and a large force of English knights turned up with Saer de Quincy. The Earl of Winchester asked Louis for a force with which to relieve the garrison at Mountsorrel in Leicestershire. Louis agreed to this. It was a fateful decision to which we will return soon.
Louis left for Winchester on the Saturday. In his rearguard with la Truie were Hugh Tacon, Florent de Hangest, the Seneschal of Flanders and Robert Lord of Béthune with three named knights. There was a real risk of harassment from the Windsor garrison who were trailing them, but the garrison was not looking for an engagement and feared even to be seen by the rearguard. Their purpose was to track the movement of the French and also possibly to capture stragglers and prevent foraging. Louis’s scouts, reconnoitring ahead of the vanguard of the column and looking for lodgings for their Prince, discovered a handful of royalists still in Winchester; these fled as soon as they saw the scouts. Louis remained inWinchester from 30 April to 4 May. The fortifications were in a bad way: they had been damaged by the French assault and miners, then partially destroyed by the regent’s men before they evacuated the place. Louis oversaw the initial repairs of the castle and ditch and he made such a good job of it even William Marshal’s biographer was impressed: ‘within a period of a very few days he had rebuilt the tower and the high walls magnificently, with stone and lime, and had restored all the fallen masonry and repaired the damage to the walls to the point they were fine and solid, just as if they were completely new.’ Before he left he placed Hervé de Donzy, the powerful and faithful Count of Nevers, in charge of the city with a large force. The biographer of William Marshal calls the Count ‘an arrogant and vicious man’ who ‘subsequently committed many a crime which was regarded as shameful on his part’, disappointingly adding ‘but I have no wish to go into that at this point.’ Doubtless the Count conformed to the usual pattern of the conflict and oppressed the area extorting money and seizing supplies for the war effort. Louis returned to London after a remarkably successful short and sharp campaign. The south had been regained and with it greater security for communications with France. The royalist resurgence had achieved very little military advantage in terms of castles and towns; as Nicholas Vincent summarises it: ‘In a matter of only a week, the royalist achievements of the spring were wiped clean away.’532 In essence, Louis had repeated the initial success of his first arrival back in May 1216. With the exception of the defection of some barons and some more rebel places under siege, the military position was not so very different from then. But that was about to change.
Louis’s stay in London was a short one of only two nights. Here news came to him that Hubert de Burgh and Gerard de Sotteghem had broken the truce at Dover in a bloody surprise assault.533 A group of Louis’s men arriving at Dover had been attacked by the garrison and many who could not escape were killed; one of the Count of Nevers’s senior offices only narrowly escaped death by the personal intervention of Hubert de Burgh himself, recognising the value of a high-ranking prisoner. Louis hurried down there, not least because more of his reinforcements were due to arrive, some as instructed nearly a fortnight earlier; these would be endangered by Dover’s formidable garrison. On Friday 12 May Louis set up his prized trebuchet in front of the castle and once again tried to take the key to England.
The siege camp destroyed by the garrison at the previous siege was now rebuilt and the trebuchet performed its duty well in causing considerable damage to the fabric of the castle. The following day, Louis’s reinforcements appeared in the Channel in 40 ships. They attempted to dock in the harbour but high seas and a strong wind prevented all but five from doing so. The others swiftly returned to Calais to reappear two days later, on the 15th. The intervening two days gave the royalist forces the time to prepare for them. The French squadron was met by an English one over twice its size. Around 80 ships had sailed from Romney under Nicholas Haringot and the increasingly important leadership of Philip d’Albini. The ships were of all sizes, but twenty of them were ‘great ships armed for battle’. The smaller French ships had been ambushed: ‘they did not dare wait’ for the English so those that could turned about and made for Calais again. However, this option was not open to the 27 ships in front; these formed a tight formation and hoped that thus grouped they might chance getting through to the harbour. Fortune was with the nineteen that made it; their comrades were not so lucky. The sailors and sergeants aboard the other eight ships were seized and ‘immediately killed’; the knights were thrown into the holds of the English ships in a state of terror. The squadron then sat menacingly out at sea: they ‘weighed anchor before the castle and there they remained silently on guard, so that neither food nor aid could reach Louis from the sea’. Louis wrought his vengeance on Hythe and Romney just as he had done with Sandwich, by burning the towns for siding with the royalists. Willikin and his men, emboldened by the victory at sea, attacked the French on their grim mission in the towns, but were beaten off. The bloody events at Dover point to a darker turn of events; the casualties on land were high enough to be noted, but naval warfare did not accommodate safe conducts as land warfare did, as the poor French sailors and sergeants who were caught discovered. Philip d’Albini’s increasingly signifiant contribution to the royalist war effort points to the substantial emphasis the royalists were placing on maritime defence. They were cutting off Louis’s supply lines and they showed that they had the ships and crew to do it. This was a substantial strategic advantage which they were to exploit later. But the next engagement was to be on land in a decisive battle.
Decision by Battle
We now return to Louis’s siege camp at Farnham where, it will be remembered, Saer de Quincy, the Earl of Winchester, had his request granted for a large force to relieve his Castle of Mountsorrel, besieged by the Earl of Chester who was pursuing his quarrel with Saer. This was in response to the regent’s earlier dispatch at the end of April from Winchester of a powerful force to besiege the Earl’s castle and raise the rebel siege of Lincoln. Earl Ranulf of Chester, Earl William of Aumale, Earl William of Ferrers (Ferrières or Derby), Robert de Vieuxpont, Brian de Lisle, William de Cantelupe, Philip Mark, Robert de Gaugi and Falkes de Bréauté led a large army collected from royalist garrisons and invested Mountsorrel with carefully positioned siege machines.534 The Earl of Winchester’s garrison comprised ten knights and some sergeants under Henry de Braybrooke. Wendover, geographically close to events, reports how they ‘bravely retuned stone for stone and missile for missile against their enemy’ for several days before sending to the Earl for help; they feared they had insufficient means to withstand such a concentrated force for any length of time. Louis could not refuse the Earl’s request and ordered that an army, predominantly drawn from the London garrison, should follow Saer into Leicestershire to raise the siege and subdue the whole region. The Earl shared joint command of the expedition with the young Count Thomas of Perche and Robert Fitzwalter; with them were a large army and 70 French knights, including Simon de Poissy, Guillaume de Fiennes and others named by the Anonymous. Interestingly, in a sign of the exertions suffered from the intense campaign in the south, some of the French in Louis’s camp refused the Prince’s request to accompany Saer. Robert de Béthune and Gilbert de Copegni expressed a willingness to go, but also their inability to do so owing to the exhaustion of their men who had not had any time to recover. Hugh Tacon, a naval captain who had been a major player in the operation to save Louis at Rye, also cited exhaustion as a reason not to go. Tacon and Béthune instead joined the rearguard of Louis’s army heading for Winchester, which was hardly restful as the Windsor garrison were trailing Louis. Thus Louis had, the biographer of William Marshal observes, ‘divided his mighty army into two large contingents’. While the French Prince had his troubles at Dover, on Monday 30 April the main theatre of operations moved northwards.
Making for St Albans, the relief army set out in the usual manner, ‘pillaging all the places they passed’, records Wendover. ‘These wicked mercenaries and robbers from France went through the surrounding towns, sparing neither churches nor cemeteries, and made prisoners of all ranks, and, having tortured them severely, forced ransoms from them.’ It was all very reminiscent of John’s northern campaign during the winter of 1215–16. And they continued as they had started. But the measured and purposeful violence of plundering, analysed earlier, is seen again here: at St Albans the army restrained itself and stole only meat and wine; seemingly Abbot William’s earlier payment just before Christmas had satisfied Louis and indemnified the abbey from excessive loss. It is hard to assess the losses inflicted by such depredation. In his massive and magisterial biography of Peter des Roches, Nicholas Vincent has examined the damage done to the Bishop of Winchester’s lands across the south in the early part of the war. The records reinforce general accounts of reactions to ravaging from other sources of the Middle Ages. People, livestock and grain were regularly evacuated to nearby churches and abbeys in the hope of avoiding foraging troops; buildings would be erected to accommodate these. Rents from lands were appropriated by local garrisons. Some of the Bishop’s lands in Oxfordshire and Berkshire were lucky enough to have avoided any touch of war, while Hampshire was hit hard. Here the taking of livestock, grain and rents was extensive: at Merdon, the French ‘made off with 14 of the manor’s 20 plough horses, 4 of its 12 horses, 21 cows and a bull out of a total of 29 cattle, 225 ewes out of a flock of 253 … 26 out of 29 hogs’; seven manors in the county paid ‘rents for both summer and Michaelmas terms to the Count of Nevers’.535 This coercive requisitioning, to put it euphemistically, reinforces John Gillingham’s point that ‘one man’s foraging is another man’s pillaging’;536 the two went hand-in-hand. By this means both sides fed their troops, supplied their garrisons, and, importantly, had the horses and carts needed to move an army about. Wendover is delighted to tell the edifying tale of a robber of the church of St Amphibalus during this campaign: the man has a fit and foams at the mouth, his punishment for his crime is possession by the devil. The army spent the night at Dunstable, and were sufficiently sated by their hoard to refrain from damage there, as the local annalist reports with some relief.537
The army left the next morning and reached Mountsorrel a few days later, pillaging churches and cemeteries along the way. Royalist scouts informed the Earl of Chester of the approach of ‘the mighty army that was making every effort to attack them’.538Seeking to avoid an encounter, the Earl destroyed his siege machines and withdrew his forces to Nottingham, there to wait and monitor the rebels’ progress. Ranulf and his commanders believed that Louis himself was at the head of the force. Mountsorrel relieved, the barons were approached by Hugh d’Arras. Hugh had entered the barons’ camp to urge them to join his forces at Lincoln so that they could win the great prize of the castle which, he believed, was now ripe for taking. A council of war was held where differences were aired; a decision was finally made to respond to the pleas and the baronial host moved east to Lincoln. It was a fateful decision that led to the major land engagement of the whole war.
The march to Lincoln saw yet another major episode of ravaging. Wendover reports the event: ‘the barons therefore passed through the valley of Belvoir, where everything was seized by these robbers, because the French infantry, who were the filth and scum of their country, left nothing untouched.’539 He portrays the footsoldiers as impoverished wretches, forced into plunder by their great need. This is where the war came closest of all to Wendover: his priory lay just below William d’Albini’s Castle of Belvoir with sweeping views across the valley. When the army arrived at Lincoln its leaders lodged in the town. Gilbert de Gant and Hugh d’Arras, now greatly reinforced, renewed their assaults on the castle, which continued to defend itself bravely, as it had done since March, under the redoubtable command of Nichola de Hay.
By Friday 12 May William Marshal was appraised of the precarious situation at Lincoln. Already angered by the retreat of the royalist Mountsorrel force, he held a major war council during which he urged that now was the time for decisive action. His biographer imbues his hero with powerful oratory powers in a stirring, patriotic speech:
Hear me, you noble, loyal knights. In God’s name hear me now. Defend our name, for ourselves and for the sake of our loved ones, our wives and our children; defend our land and win for ourselves the highest honour; safeguard the peace of the Holy Church which our enemies have broken and infringed, and gain redemption and pardon for all our sins. Now that we have taken on the burden of armed combat, let us make sure there is no coward amongst us! We shall be a lily-livered lot if we do not now take revenge on those who have come from France to take for themselves the lands of our men.540
He told his captains that with Louis’s force split, there was a great opportunity to engage with the enemy. Battles were risky and could be conclusive, and so William had advised an eagerly agreeable John against this course at Louis’s landing exactly a year before – but now was the time to ‘play for the highest stakes’. ‘These words,’ says his biographer, ‘put hope in their hearts, cheered, strengthened and emboldened them.’ He ordered his army to launch an attack on the large Anglo-French forces at Lincoln; his men ‘did not hesitate to advance’. The time had come for battle.541
The regent along with Guala, Peter des Roches and other members of his council, organised a muster of royalist forces fifteen miles south-west of Lincoln at Newark on 15 May. On the command of the king, royalist castles emptied of soldiers leaving only skeleton garrisons behind as their forces converged on Newark, keen, says Wendover, to fight for their country (pro patria). He gives the royalist army size as 400 knights, nearly 250 crossbowmen and innumerable army auxiliaries; the History of William Marshalcorroborates the number of knights with ‘405 knights’ (he later says 406) but reckons there were many more crossbowmen at ‘only 317’, unconvincingly trying to portray the army as a small one (and hence magnifying the enemy). The muster was a major event in itself: gathered there were William Marshal, Guala and Peter des Roches, the Earl of Salisbury, John Marshal, Robert de Vieuxpont, the Earl of Derby, Brian de Lisle, Philip Mark, Robet de Gaugi, William d’Albini, Philip d’Albini and, of course, Falkes de Bréauté; representing the episcopate were the Bishops of Hertford, Bath, Exeter, Salisbury, Worcester, and Lincoln; and, the very symbol of the reinvigorated royalist cause, the young King himself. The holiness of their crusade, minor as it was, was emphasised over three days during which the clergy heard confession, administered communion and solemnly excommunicated the rebels yet again, specifically those in Lincoln. Ominously, the anathema also extended to the inhabitants of this populous city. The royalist soldiers marked themselves with their white crosses. If a soldier fell his spiritual armour thus fortified by absolution and blessings would guarantee his salvation on Judgment Day. All was not harmony, however, and, as usual, squabbles and disagreements broke out. The Earl of Chester, who had previously complained that William Marshal was too old to be in command, insisted that he had the honour of leading the front rank of the army or else he would quit the army. He was too powerful, and with too strong a contingent, to be denied. David Crouch has suggested that the habitually cautious Marshal may have been stung into a battle-seeking policy by the Earl of Chester’s insults.542 The army refreshed, armoured and prepared itself for the coming clash. On Friday 19 May, while Guala and King Henry went to Nottingham, the army set out for Lincoln and battle.
It did not take the direct route. The castle and neighbouring cathedral sit solidly atop a ridge on the original Roman site (see map in picture section). The walled city spread south from here, dropping steeply to the River Whitham, losing 175 feet of height over 700 yards. An assault over the south wall or through its gate would entail passing through marshy ground and crossing the river; this would be difficult enough, but the long slog uphill – onerous enough under normal walking conditions, never mind fighting every inch of the way encumbered by heavy armour and wielding weaponry – was impracticable to the point of being impossible. Another practical consideration, somewhat overlooked, was that the royalists would want to establish swift communications with the besieged garrisons so as to co-ordinate movements. Therefore the royalists headed to the north to arrive before the city on the gradual, sloping ridge that extended over a few miles. This was the site of the First Battle of Lincoln in 1141, when King Stephen was captured after a valiant lone stand wielding a battle-axe. The upper city was walled internally and the castle surrounded by a deep ditch.543 During John’s reign, 300 marks had been spent on reinforcing its defences. The besieging forces were within the city, attacking the castle from its north and south and its gate from the east; the west gate, opening to the plain and open countryside (and hence to communication with royalist forces), appears not to have been secured externally, possibly because the rebels would have felt exposed outside the walls and more prone to a relief attack. The royalists therefore approached the city via a detour through Torksey. The biographer of William Marshal says that the army spent the night here; Wendover, our local guide, says they encamped at Stow, about eight miles from the city and just off a Roman road. With an army of this size there may well have been more than one encampment spread between the two places. Most of the soldiers trying to settle down for the night would have anticipated that this was the eve of battle.
That the Battle of Lincoln is an important episode in the history of the time is clear from the space afforded it in contemporary accounts. The terse and to the point Barnwell and Dunstable annalists devote two-and-a-half pages to it between them. The informative factual account by Wendover takes up over eight pages; the twenty pages of more heroic and dramatic retelling in the History of William the Marshal, being in verse, amounts to about the same, although its tendency towards grandiose and unlikely speeches by the combatants tends to reduce its utility. These two main sources differ in some details, but overall they corroborate each other strongly. (The Anonymous of Béthune, distant from events in the south, has only a few short lines on Lincoln.) The battle can therefore be reconstructed in considerable detail.
On the sunny morning of 20 May, the royalist army advanced on Lincoln in close battle order and with their standards and shields glistening in the sun; these ‘struck terror into all who saw them’, says Wendover. According to the Marshal’s biographer, leading the way was Ranulf Earl of Chester, ‘a brave and highly experienced knight’. Following him was the Marshal with his son, and in the third formation was William Longsword, Earl of Salisbury. In the rear was the division commanded by Peter des Roches. Wendover says that there were seven dense and well-formed battalions. He convincingly reports that crossbowmen made up the vanguard a mile to the front of the column: this was an important defensive measure against a frontal attack or ambush. In the rear was the baggage train. It is clear from the sources that the morale of the army was very high. Wendover says the men ‘flew to arms, mounted their horses quickly and struck camp rejoicing’; they were ‘all determined to conquer or die’ for their just cause. A royalist poem written just after the battle, devoid of detail but brimful of righteous religious hyperbole, relishes their advance on Lincoln in similar terms: ‘The royal standards glitter, and the formations under oath follow, when clear faith draws out their faces, the bright signs of the cross paint the excelling chests of the youth, a common will strengthens their hearts; there was one sole hope of conquering.’544
It was in this way the royalists came within sight of the walls of Lincoln before 6 am. Their first action was to establish contact with the castle garrison, who must have been tingling with anticipation at the prospect of relief. William Marshal sent his nephew John to the castle’s west gate. On his way there he met Geoffrey de Serland, sent by Lady Nicola to meet with him. Geoffrey showed John the castle postern gate on the western side from which sorties could be made and, crucially, troops brought in. As John hurried back at about 6:30 am to relay this important information he was set on by some French knights. A small combat ensued but John fought off his attackers and made his way back to his own lines.
The royalist army drew itself up in a new formation in case of a sortie from the city. The Marshal dispatched the 317 crossbowmen under Peter des Roches’ command to his right flank and ordered them to spread out in a long line ready to shoot down the warhorses of the enemy, should they charge. The experienced warrior bishop does not seem to have been perturbed by an edict of the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215 that expressly forbade clerics from commanding crossbow contingents. William Marshal then instructed 200 cavalry to be prepared to kill their own horses with their knives ‘so as to be able,’ says his biographer, ‘to take shelter behind them, if necessary, in an emergency’. The subtext is that it would also make flight from the battlefield less likely. At the Battle of Towton in 1461, Edward IV slew his horse to raise the morale of his troops and a sign of his commitment to remain on the battlefield.545
A reconnoitring party under Robert Fitzwalter and the Earl of Winchester was sent out from the city to assess the power of the enemy. It is likely that it was this group that had the encounter with John Marshal. There followed some confused intelligence gathering on the rebel side, which may have cost them dear. Wendover tells of how the party reported back positively after estimating the royalist numbers and said that the Anglo-French force should ride out to meet them: ‘The enemy come against us in good order, but we are many more than they; therefore our counsel is that we should sortie to the top of the hill and meet them; if we do, we shall catch them like larks.’ The Marshal’s biographer, who does not record this reconnoitring mission, gives the number of French knights as 611 and infantry as 1000, a figure that excludes the English barons with them; Wendover had given the size of the Anglo-French relief force to Mountsorrel as 600 knights in total, to which must be added those of Gilbert de Gant and the rebel forces at Lincoln. With over 400 knights recorded in the royalist army, we are talking about very large armies. Both the poet biographer and Wendover say that the French then made their own scouting party to gather intelligence. According to Wendover, Thomas, the Count of Perche, responded to the plan with the perplexing: ‘You have estimated them according to your knowledge; and now we shall go out and estimate them the French way.’ He and Simon de Poissy, appointed captain of the Cambridge garrison by Louis in February before Simon led his men to Lincoln, rode out beyond the city walls and on to the plain to make their own assessment of the army drawn up before them. The Marshal’s biographer has them make a different judgment on the army, saying it was ‘better equipped for war and more resolute to wage it’ than anybody ‘had ever seen in any land’. Wendover corroborates this but offers far more telling detail for the discrepancy of the two reports. The French made the mistake of counting the standards of the nobles twice, not realising that each nobleman had two standards: one with the troops – ‘so that they might been known in battle’ – and another in the rear with the baggage. The result was a major overestimation – doubling the size of the royalist army. On their return they held a counsel with the other leading figures – Gilbert de Gant, the Count of Hertford, William de Mowbray and the initial scouting party – and proposed a more defensive plan: while one part of their force guarded the gates to prevent a royalist irruption, the other should concentrate on taking the castle. Their siege operations had continued and even increased in urgency in the knowledge of the royalist advance: the sooner they took the castle the safer they would be. There was disagreement over this plan, probably from Robert Fitzwalter and Saer de Quincy, but a majority decision prevailed. The gates were secured and guarded and the Franco-baronial force prepared for a defence.
The Marshal’s biographer says they thereby felt reasonably secure, as ‘the King’s men had not the power to attack them inside the city, whatever the pretence they put up.’ They also believed that the rigours of the march and the prospect of a long siege (of the besiegers) would take its toll on a weary royalist army. But, as his biographer relates, the Marshal used the withdrawal to exhort his troops further: ‘My lords, my friends, look how those mustered with a view to riding to attack you have already shown their true colours and retreated behind their walls; that is what God promised us. God gives us great glory!’ The Marshal sent a herald to the rebels to discuss terms; he was met, a contemporary poem tells us, with insults and threats.546
The Bishop of Winchester, as much a wielder of weapons as of crosiers, took the initiative at this stage. At the end of his account, the biographer of the Marshal declares that ‘the worthy Bishop of Winchester, Peter des Roches, who was in charge that day of advising our side, was not slow or slothful, and he knew how to make use of his arms.’ This does not mean that the biographer is contradicting himself when he initially depicts William Marshal as giving battle orders. Rather, it can be read either that des Roches was, as stated, simply the chief tactician, or that while Marshal was in charge of the overall operation, des Roches was in command in the field. The biographer of the Marshal tells the story of how the Bishop rode near to the walls with his contingent of crossbowmen and there, telling them to wait, took just one soldier with him through the postern gate into the castle. He wanted to see for himself the situation within the city walls and what would be the best way to proceed with action. The castle’s defences had been seriously compromised by constant bombardment from the mangonels and catapults ‘which were breaking everything in sight’ and which threatened the Bishop’s safety. He met with Nichola de Hay before, the biographer says, leaving by another postern gate on the town side to actually enter the city. Surveying the scene, he noticed the old western gate to the upper city and close to the castle that had been blocked up with stone and cement. He gave orders for it to be knocked down so that the army outside could enter and engage the rebels within the confines of the walls. He returned to his men in high spirits and with great expectations, both militarily and politically, joking (half in jest but with earnest intent) that he should claim the Bishop’s palace as his residence for ‘I have arranged that entrance for the safe and valorous entry of our men.’
There are, however, problems with parts of this account. Des Roches would already have been aware of the gate on his approach from the city and from the garrison; he could have seen the gate easily from the castle battlements; it would have been problematic to say the least to tear down the wall amidst the Anglo-French troops besieging the castle; and it would have been all but impossible to wander through besieging forces around the castle at will. The last difficulty has been met with the suggestion that des Roches disguised himself as an ordinary townsperson about his everyday business – highly unlikely in the midst of a full-scale military engagement in a confined area.547 The biographer then reports that Falkes’s men attempted to storm their way through the opened gate but were repelled savagely and had to retreat to their own lines. The Bishop reported disappointedly to the Marshal: ‘Upon my soul, these men of ours did badly,’ claiming that they had not found the ‘right gate’ he had made ready for them. But as the poet admirably admits here: ‘those who have given me my subject matter do not agree unanimously, and I cannot follow all of them.’
Wendover is less ambiguous, omitting the des Roches story altogether, and provides a clearer account. The biographer of William Marshal may have confused the role of Falkes’s men with the more likely events described here. As the royalist army launched their main assault on the northern gate (while still applying pressure elsewhere around the walls), the rebels and French fought them off while behind them the besiegers pounded away at the castle. With this intense action taking place, Falkes and a company of his troops, including crossbowmen, were able to enter surreptitiously on foot into the castle via its western postern gate; it is possible that des Roches went with them. At a stroke, the garrison was greatly inflated in size. Falkes positioned his crossbowmen on the ramparts and roofs of the buildings. ‘In the twinkling of an eye’, the battlements were suddenly bristling with fresh soldiers. Suddenly, the rebel forces prosecuting the siege and defending the north gate came under a hail of heavy, concentrated missiles raining down on them. (It is possible, if unlikely, that this covering fire allowed des Roches’s men to unblock the western gate.) Knights and horses were felled to the ground; as the warhorses were killed, many cavalry had to fight on as infantry. This dramatic development caused great disruption and confusion among the French and the barons. Falkes, ever the experienced opportunist, took advantage of the disarray to sortie in the city and into the enemy ranks. It is likely that either he was hoping that this moment of crisis could be developed into a tipping point for the rebels and French in which chaos would lead to flight, or that he was providing a shield for his men to unblock the western gate. However, the rebel and French troops did not break and instead turned on Falkes with vigour. A furious mêlée ensued as the two sides, no longer separated by the walls of the castle or city, battled with each other hand-to-hand. Falkes was captured but quickly rescued by the valour of some of his men. It seems probable this is the incident to which des Roches refers to in theHistory of William Marshal when he talks of Falkes’s actions.
Rather than be blamed by des Roches, Falkes played an important part by his brave and aggressive tactics. He successfully diverted many of the French and rebels away from the north gate to deal with the immediate threat he posed them and also possibly protected his soldiers dismantling the blocked western gate, too. The Dunstable annalist records that the besiegers had to take men from the walls to deal with Falkes. This weakened resistance at the gates and allowed the main royalist division to force its way through them and into the city.548 The Marshal’s biographer then devotes his attention to the bravery of his patron, as all such medieval panegyrists did. He portrays the aged regent as rushing to enter the city without stopping to place his helmet on and impatient at des Roches’s advice that they should first send men to ensure the way was secure. Lambasting any soldier leaving the scene of battle, the Marshal urgently exhorted his men to ‘Ride on! For you will see them beaten in a short while.’ With his war cry ‘God is with the Marshal!’ ringing out, he stormed into the city like a ‘ravenous lion’ and into the thick of the foe, clearing the way before him. Undoubtedly this is exaggerated, but it may have the ring of truth as the old warrior relished one final, glorious combat. With the city gates opened, the royalist army poured into the city and rushed on the enemy. The mêlée in the city became a desperate, full-scale battle.
The French and baronial forces were now assailed from the irruption through the gates, Falkes’s men from the castle, and the crossbowmen from the battlements. Many were cornered. The main battleground was the crowded space between the castle and cathedral; here the day would be decided. Wendover dramatically tells of sparks and thunder from clashing metal and the sound of swords against helmets, and of how the barons suffered grievously from the shooting of the crossbowmen, ‘by whose skill the barons’ horses were mown down and killed like pigs’. This greatly weakened the barons and the French as the riders were then easily taken prisoner in the press of combat without anyone to ride into the enemy and rescue them. An early casualty reported by the Marshal’s biographer was a catapult operator, the barons’ ‘most expert stonethrower’; he mistook approaching royalist knights for his own side. He therefore continued loading his catapult with a stone when they fell upon him and took his head off.
The History of William Marshal falls partly into the convention of portraying the battle as a series of individual combats between the great men of the day; certainly the great and the good receive his closest attention. We therefore have to be careful at taking his account too literally, even if it makes for exciting reading. Thus William Marshal the Younger also comes in for some special treatment, courtesy of the family’s patronage. He is seen wading into the enemy, like father like son, entering the city through a breach in the wall (the unblocked western gate?). In no time at all he has inflicted great damage on his enemies. Then galloping along comes his father with the ‘worthy’ Earl of Salisbury. They wheeled rightwards into enemy.549 The Earl was confronted by Robert of Ropsley who picked up a lance to joust with William Longsword; he struck the Earl so hard his lance broke into pieces. Riding on past, Ropsley was struck hard between the shoulders by the regent, a blow that nearly knocked him to the ground. It is possible that such an encounter took place, but opportunities for jousting in such a packed and confined space must have been very rare indeed. More realistic is what happened afterwards: Ropsley, fearing defeat as his comrades were being pushed downhill, slinked off to take refuge in an upper room of a nearby building.
The fate of the Count of Perche is clearer, and supported by different sources. As the Franco-baronial forces were pressed southwards into the lower city, the Count held his position on the flat ground before the imposing west front of the cathedral. This was probably intended to rally his French troops rather than as a last stand. The Count, the young, 22-year-old Thomas came from a notable family with extensive lands – and claims to land – in England. The Marshal’s biographer depicts him as ‘looking very arrogant and proud; he was a very tall, handsome, fine-looking man,’ echoing other accounts of him. Perhaps valour got the better of discretion for this chivalrous, relatively inexperienced knight. He was quickly surrounded by the king’s knights pressing all around him. They called on him to surrender to save his life but he refused point blank, disdaining to be taken by men disloyal to their true King and his: Louis. The royalists rushed on him and his men and many ‘were wounded and maimed, trampled on and beaten, and many taken captive’, says the biographer in a realistic depiction of the combat that took place ‘in the very close of the cathedral’, says the Barnwell chronicler. The royalists were in danger of being driven from the higher ground when Reginald Croc, a knight from Falkes’s household, lunged forward with either his sword or dagger and thrust it through the eyehole of the Count’s helmet and into his eye, inflicting a mortal wound. According to the Marshal’s biographer, the young Count attacked the Marshal, his first cousin, in his death throes, taking his sword in both hands and striking the Marshal’s helmet three times, and with such force that marks were left on it. He then slumped down and fell from his horse. Wendover says the wound pierced his brain and he fell to the ground without a word. The biographer reports that this caused great sadness all round and that ‘it was a great pity that he had died in this manner.’ By the end of the battle Croc was named as another fatality; it is likely that he was struck down after killing the Count.
The felling of their leader caused dismay among the French, who, says the Marshal’s biographer in the only account of the following action, ‘could no longer stand and resist’. Those that could retreated rapidly southwards down the hill to the lower city to join their comrades who already made their way there. They rallied in an open space at the top of the well-named Steep Hill; any further down and the incline would have made an upward counter-attack almost impossible, especially after the exertions of the hard-fought battle. Thus regrouped, the Anglo-French soldiers ‘came riding uphill in tight battle formation’. Before they reached the top they were engaged by the royalists, who had the great advantage of fighting downhill. At this juncture, the Earl of Chester appears on the scene to the right of the rebel forces. This leads to speculation that he had been assaulting the city from the east and had broken in through the east gate. Not only did he assail them, but attack also came from the rear led by the brothers Alan and Thomas Basset. The French and rebels quickly realised that there was no hope of regaining control of the city and that the battle was lost. A rearguard was hastily formed as they undertook a fighting retreat downhill until they were pushed through the southern gate and out of the city itself.
Once outside, the History of William Marshal reports a stand of the French and rebels at Wigford Bridge. Although some historians have seen this as a last stand it is more likely that it was the rearguard providing protection while the rest of the army still at liberty crossed over the bridge to attempt flight and escape on the other side. Here the bar gate was a peculiar mechanism, something about which Wendover offers considerable detail. It seems to have been a swing-door design that compelled riders to dismount and pass through one at a time, closing again after each person had passed through. This was naturally a great hindrance to the escape and would have necessitated the rearguard stand to cover the slow crossing. The Marshal’s biographer less convincingly blames a cow for blocking the exit. It was apparently swiftly dispatched.
Here, during the final encounter of the battle, the Marshal’s biographer takes a particularly poetical turn and waxes lyrical over chivalry and the fighting that took place. ‘What is armed combat? … It is much nobler work. What, then, is chivalry? Such a difficult, tough, and very costly thing to learn, that no coward ventures to take it on … Had you been there, you would have seen great blows dealt, heard helmets clanging and resounding, seen lances fly in splinters in the air, saddles vacated by riders, knights taken prisoner.’ Swords and maces delivered their blows. Horses were targets; ‘their protective covering was not worth a fig’ against the knives and daggers drawn against them (as at Bouvines). Amidst all this William Bloet, the banner holder of William Marshal the Younger, got carried away. He launched himself into the press of the enemy ‘so heavily and head on he fell over the side of the bridge, he and his horse with him’. This bathetic episode is the last recorded action of the engagement. The battle was over.
The congestion at the bridge might have been a slaughtering ground for the French and rebels, or at least a mass corralling of prisoners. That it was neither was due to three factors. The first is that the battle had been waged over six hours; the men on both sides involved in the combat were exhausted. The second is that the nature of the war did not lend itself to massacre of fellow knights. The third was that, as Wendover puts it, ‘the King’s men only pretended to pursue them, and if it had not been for the effect of relationship and blood, not a single one of them would have escaped.’ The Marshal’s biographer, however, says that Peter des Roches energetically pursued the defeated and caught many. Only three to five fatalities are recorded for the whole battle. Wendover says these were the Count of Perche, his slayer Reginald de Croc and an unknown soldier in the baron’s party. Matthew Paris later added two of the Count’s knights.550 Reginald was buried honourably at Croxton monastery. Perche, being excommunicated, was not buried in consecrated ground, but allowance was made for his position and he was laid to rest in the ground of the hospital. The unknown soldier’s fate was less considerate: he was buried outside the city at a crossroads. The marked lack of recorded casualties (the figures were unlikely to cover lowly infantry deaths) earned the battle the title of ‘The Tournament’ or ‘The Fair of Lincoln’.
Those that could fled south, Simon de Poissy and Hugh d’Arras chief among them. If the biographer of William Marshal is to be believed, so desperate was their flight that when they came to a broken bridge they killed their horses to ford the river over their bodies. Robert of Sandford, fleeing with his wife, was told by another knight: ‘Leave her, you will not carry her off.’ Robert turned abruptly around and, disgusted and angered, knocked the man to the floor with his lance. He and his wife reached safety. Those who made their escape ‘rested neither by night or day in any house or any town’.
The magnitude of the victory is marked by the astonishing roll call of prisoners. ‘No knight eager,’ says the Marshal’s biographer, ‘to capture knights could fail to do so that day,’ John Marshal bagging no less than seven barons. The baronial party had been decapitated and eviscerated as nearly all the barons who fought for Louis were taken prisoner: the Earls of Hereford, Winchester and Hertford; Gilbert de Gant, Robert Fitzwalter, William de Ros, ‘and many others too tedious to mention,’ says Wendover. The Barnwell chronicler records 380 knights taken prisoner, and numberless soldiers and townspeople. The Anonymous of Béthune says some barons escaped, ‘but they were few’.551 Three hundred knights were also captured and only three of the leading French captains escaped: de Poissy, Arras and Eustace de Merlinghem with about 200 knights. The ransom from the prisoners would have made many a victorious knight rich, or, in the case of the leading barons such as the Marshal family laying claim to their generous share, even richer. However, riches were also to be had elsewhere.
The greatest damage and loss of life was not at the Battle of Lincoln itself, but in the savage sacking of the city afterwards. The History of William Marshal does not sully the regent’s great victory by offering an account of this terrible event, but Wendover, ever aware of the sufferings of noncombatants and being geographically extremely close to events, does. In a passage entitled ‘Of the plunder and pillage of the city’, he gives us a vivid account of what happened when the royalists had secured their victory:
After the battle was thus ended, the king’s soldiers found in the city the wagons of the barons and the French, with the packhorses, loaded with baggage, silver vessels, and various kinds of furniture and utensils, all which fell into their hands without opposition. Having then plundered the whole city to the last farthing, they next pillaged the churches throughout the city, and broke open the chests and store-rooms with axes and hammers, seizing on the gold and silver in them, clothes of all colours, ornaments, gold rings, goblets and jewels. Nor did the cathedral church escape this destruction, but underwent the same punishment as the rest, for the legate had given orders to knights to treat all the clergy as excommunicated men … This church lost eleven thousand marks of silver. When they had thus seized on every kind of property, so that nothing remained in any corner of the houses, they each returned to their lords as rich men … Many of the women of the city were drowned in the river, for, to avoid shameful offence [rape], they took to small boats with their children, female servants and household property, and perished on their journey; but there was afterwards found in the river by the searchers, goblets of silver, and many other articles of great benefit to the finders.552
The Barnwell chronicler confirms the atrocities. The spoils of victory were, as ever, money and women.
Lincoln was a devastating blow to the Anglo-French party, the most decisive of the war that had started back in 1215. The poem of the battle lauds the victory as ‘O famous day, to be venerated through our age!’ Powicke says ‘within a few hours the cause of Louis had suffered a crushing defeat’; Carpenter calls the Battle of Lincoln ‘one of the most decisive in English history’ with the result that ‘England would be ruled by the Angevin, not the Capetian dynasty.’553 But Louis was not finished yet.