Post-classical history



Before we examine the details of the only major battle in this civil war, we need to place it in context. We have already considered the development of warfare in general, with a brief look at such matters as arms and armour and siege techniques. But we need to look a little more closely at why battles were fought, and how. We shall then see the significance of Lincoln more clearly. As pointed out above, battles were rare, because of the risks involved; because of the danger of what might happen if defeated. Battle was bound to be chancy, even if one began with all the advantages. There could still be a surprise move, a panic on one’s own side, the sudden death of one’s leader, the unexpected arrival of reinforcements for the enemy. Any one of a thousand things could undermine even a commander confident of victory. So that although the benefits of victory could be very great, battle was a very high risk gamble, and few commanders in the twelfth century were prepared to take it. Consider the reputation of, say, Richard the Lionheart, always keen for a fight, never afraid of personal risk, yet on several occasions even he turned aside from a possible battle, and the only major battle in which he was involved, at Arsuf, was initiated by the enemy, and engaged at first by his own side against his orders.

Commanders knew that they could gain their ends by other and more reliable means, in particular by siege warfare, winning territory step by step. The occasional setback in this kind of war was to be expected, but it would not cut off one’s hopes at a blow. It was highly likely to be successful if you had more wealth and more men, and therefore appealed in particular to kings and superior authorities. But all twelfth-century war was a kind of challenge, and a successful commander could not avoid all challenges and all conflict. In the end he might have to risk battle or even engage in it to overbear his opponent. Therefore, battles most commonly occurred, oddly enough, at sieges. The first challenge was a lesser one: to gain authority over a single place, but if the opponent wanted to dispute that authority he must try to save the place. If the significance of the issue was great enough, this might in the end involve a defending army and an attacking army, and the issue might have to be resolved by battle.

Because of the riskiness of battle, it was also normal to place emphasis upon defensive tactics; it was more important not to lose than it was to win. Battle, like sieges, developed according to changes in technology, and changes in thinking about war. The most important battle-winning force which had emerged in the period just prior to Lincoln, was that of the cavalry charge.

Cavalry of course was not new, but its strength and method of use was. Typically in the past the point of cavalry had been its speed, and so it had been most useful for sudden manoeuvres such as flank attacks, and for pursuit (or escape). The more lightly cavalry was armed, the greater would be its speed. But this also left it vulnerable to attack of all sorts, and horses, however well trained, would find the noise and blood of warfare a great strain, so they might bolt. The most important factor in the changes which had occurred was the social status of the rider. We do not need to pursue in detail the development of what in modern times is usually called feudalism, though it is a relatively modern term and not a medieval one. The change we are interested in has caused some dispute over its timing, but there is no question that it happened. The socially superior class, by the eleventh century, acted as cavalry when at war, and by about this time were beginning to see themselves as knights, with the social and moral code that implies. Once this had happened, the other changes were almost inevitable. This class wanted to be best armed and protected, and could afford to be. They trained their horses and they trained themselves. The armour they wore as it increased in effectiveness, gradually also increased in cost and in weight. As a military group, therefore, this cavalry became more and more exclusive. Special horses were bred and trained for war, needing to be fast enough to move well – so not like cart horses – but heavy enough to play their part in battle, and also to carry the armour with which they, as well as their riders, were provided.

No sensible rider wanted his horse always to be weighed down with armour, but it became common practice to arm the horse as well as the man when fighting was likely, including, of course, for a pitched battle. We begin to see what is known as the barded, or armoured horse, as the common type of cavalry mount in battle. This horse would not move especially fast, but it would have reasonable protection and it would have weight. It could now be useful if speeded up and headed against men; it could trample infantry; it could break through their ranks. Thus developed, gradually, the idea of groups of cavalry charging across the field in battle. So effective was this method against forces not accustomed to it, that it helped to win some dramatic victories, as during the First Crusade, or at Hastings. Anna Comnena, the Byzantine chronicler, described its impact upon the Byzantines, who themselves used cavalry and armour, but not in quite the same way. She wrote that ‘the first charge of Celtic [Frankish] cavalry was irresistible’; ‘a mounted Celt is irresistible; he would pierce his way through the walls of Babylon’.1

What made the western cavalry so especially effective was the way they were trained to act as a group. To begin with, this seems to have occurred in small numbers, perhaps ten or twelve together. It was honed by the development of a newly popular sport, the tournament. At first this was mock group warfare rather than individual jousts. Knights from the western world flocked to advertised tournaments in Flanders or France or wherever. They could get rich through them, since one practice was to capture enemy knights and then ransom them. At the peak of the popularity of tournaments, they were occurring somewhere or other at almost weekly intervals. The point about the tournament for us, is that it also provided the opportunity to practise group cavalry moves. At some time between Hastings and Lincoln, it became the custom to use a large number of cavalry for a charge, in unison, what elsewhere I have referred to as the concerted charge.2 This is to distinguish it from the small group charge. Now a commander could send in a wave of cavalry: a line right across the field, or a mass attack from one or both wings. At first it was almost like a secret weapon.

As always with new battle-winning tactics, it is not long before someone seeks and finds a response; so it was with the concerted charge. It was powerful, but it had flaws. Once delivered, it was difficult to repeat, since it meant gathering the horses together again in the midst of the turmoil of battle, and finding another chance to give them a clear run. So that if the charge did not decide the battle at once, the opposition was then in a good position to counter. Another flaw was that, although this was an excellent offensive tactic for battle, the cavalry force was not very useful in defence, so that the commander was more or less committed to seeking early means of attack. Another weakness was that, however well armoured, horses could still be wounded, for example in the leg. By aiming at horses, defensive troops, especially if they possessed archers, could halt or weaken the charge before it was even delivered. And horses, after all, are animals, and likely to do unexpected things if hurt or frightened, however well trained; sometimes they bolted, very often they reared, and riders were constantly thrown in the middle of a fight.

One rather unpleasant solution to the problem of how to stop the cavalry charge, was to place objects in the path of the horses, such as caltrops – metal spheres with spikes. This is a tactic mentioned by Anna Comnena, but not so far as we know, used in the West at this time. Another answer attempted in the East was to push forward wagons in the path of the horses.3 One common answer in the West was increasingly to employ infantry with bows or spears, though this often failed to halt the charge altogether, and such troops tended to be poorly armed and vulnerable to the charge if it reached them.

By 1139, the armies of the Anglo-Norman world had developed their own tactic to cope with the charge. It had been honed through use at several battles from Tinchebrai in 1106, through Alençon, Brémule, Bourg-Théroulde, and as we have seen already at Northallerton in 1138.4 The Anglo-Norman answer was to use a method practised occasionally in the past for other reasons, of dismounting troops trained as cavalry, to fight on foot. Various examples can be quoted of this use in the past, from the Battle of the Dyle in 891, through Conquereuil, to Pontlevoy. It would shortly also be employed by the Franks themselves on the Second Crusade. But no one used it as frequently and consistently as the Anglo-Normans in the first half of the twelfth century; it was theiranswer to the charge.

On the face of it, there seems to be some illogicality about training and arming troops to fight on horse, and then on the battlefield using them as infantry. Some historians have thought that the Anglo-Normans borrowed the tactic from the Anglo-Saxons, who rode to battle and fought on foot. But this is not the same thing. The troops we are talking about were trained as cavalry, which the Saxons were not. And the evidence shows that the men who practised the tactic for the Anglo-Normans were almost exclusively men of Norman, not Saxon, origin. Economically, in the long run, it did not make sense to pursue this method, but it was an empirical answer to a question which required an urgent response. How do we cope with the mounted charge in battle? What this answer entailed, was to use your best troops to do the dirty work. Archers and missile throwers could obstruct charges, but would not be good at holding their position. The idea of dismounting knights was to use the best armed troops, the best trained troops, the troops with the best morale, and to stand fast against the charge and hold it. Because commanders had soon realized that although the impact of the charge was great, it could be faced and held by determined infantry. Knights were not keen to fight in this way, and protested, for example, to the commander who ordered them to dismount at Bourg-Théroulde. But it was effective and so until a better solution presented itself, virtually every good commander used it.

There were probably some experiments, and at the Standard the archers and dismounted knights were mixed together at the front of the line. But again it had worked. The one disadvantage of this tactic, was that it immobilized mobile troops. It made a good defensive formation, but victory in battle generally required something beyond soaking up enemy offensives. Therefore, most Anglo-Norman commanders only dismounted a proportion of their knights; others were kept on horseback in separate formations, sometimes on the wing, sometimes as a tactical reserve.

This then was the world of war at the time of the Battle of Lincoln. The major new offensive tactic was the concerted charge by heavy cavalry; the main defence against it was to use archers and dismount some of your knights as infantry. But beyond that it still mattered enormously what troops you could raise, from feudal levies to mercenaries, what novel ideas you could introduce, and how good was the morale of your troops. Battle, as always, was a matter of tried and trusted tactics and principles, plus intelligent use of the forces and weapons at your disposal. As medieval commanders knew, it would always remain a risk.


Stephen had made William of Albini, Earl of Lincoln. This was the same William who then married Henry I’s widow, Adeliza, and was thus Lord of Arundel at the time of Matilda’s landing. But if his wife’s allegiance was doubtful, and she either invited or allowed Matilda to enter England through Arundel, her second husband remained loyal to Stephen.

Cronne has suggested that this grant, of Lincoln to William of Albini, enraged both Ranulf of Chester and his half brother, William de Roumare, who believed they had a claim on Lincoln Castle and saw the grant as ‘an affront’. Round believed that Ranulf was also motivated by hostility to Henry of Scots after Stephen’s Scottish settlement. This was partly over the loss of Carlisle, but also because of a personal antagonism to Prince Henry which had shown itself while the prince was in England at Stephen’s court. He had probably been involved in some attempt to ambush the prince, which was one of the reasons King David ordered his son to return home.5

If Davis is right, Stephen juggled his earldoms in 1140, transferring William of Albini to Sussex and making William de Roumare, Earl of Lincoln.6 William de Roumare was half brother to Ranulf, Earl of Chester, both sons of Lucy, who is thought to be the daughter of Thorold, sheriff and castellan of Lincoln Castle. William was the son of Lucy’s second husband, Roger fitz Gerold, and Ranulf, the son of her third husband, Ranulf le Meschin, Earl of Chester.7 Through Lucy, therefore, both had some claim to Lincoln, and William’s was the best.

The following sequence of events is uncertain, since there are some discrepancies in the chronicle accounts, and because Stephen visited Lincoln several times, and there is the possibility that the writers mixed up the dates, confused the visits, or repeated events. In 1140 the half-brothers took Lincoln Castle by a ruse. They visited when the best part of the garrison was in the town. They came under the pretext of a social visit to the castellan, sending their wives in advance, to talk and joke with his wife. Ranulf then himself arrived, without a cloak and unarmed, but the men with him carried hidden arms. Once inside, they overwhelmed the guard and took control of the castle. Then they let in William de Roumare, waiting with troops outside.

Stephen came to visit the half brothers in the city, and seems to have accepted their case, moving William of Albini to the Sussex earldom as a result. This was a very special favour to William de Roumare, and makes the subsequent events even more puzzling. The explanation seems to be that William’s strong attachment to his half-brother Ranulf, Earl of Chester, overcame any gratitude to the king.

Ranulf, rather illogically, had been enraged by the recognition of the Scots’ right to Carlisle, though it was a good claim, recognized previously by Henry I, and though he had played no part in the Battle of the Standard to defend the north against the Scots. Ranulf seems to have been a choleric and difficult man, and William de Roumare, though older, seems to have been dominated by him.

It would seem that the king had taken the castle into his own hands before these events, and that the half-brothers had, therefore, taken it from him. It is not certain what Stephen had gained from the agreement made with them, but William of Malmesbury verifies that a peace had been made.9

The citizens of Lincoln soon felt that the half-brothers had exceeded the bounds of the peace, and were treating them harshly, so they sent to the king to come and assist them. They found him in London, where he had intended to spend Christmas. Stephen now decided to besiege the castle, which must mean either that it should have remained in his hands and the brothers had retaken it, or that he demanded they render it to him and they refused. From the uncertain evidence, the former seems to be more likely. Certainly, the taking over of the castle infuriated the king. Orderic wrote that he ‘was very angry at the news, and astounded that his close friends, on whom he had heaped lands and honours, should have committed such a crime’.10

Stephen came to besiege Lincoln Castle, although it was the Christmas season, and found only a small garrison there which gave him hopes of success. The citizens welcomed the king and let him into the city, so the castle was isolated. They captured seventeen knights who were relaxing in the town. Ranulf had gone, but had left his wife and his half brother William in the castle.11 No doubt Ranulf had left behind his wife, the daughter of Robert of Gloucester, as a deliberate ploy to encourage Earl Robert to come to the rescue.

Stephen set up throwing engines and began to batter the garrison. Without aid it was unlikely they could survive long. But now Ranulf of Chester decided to throw in his lot with the Angevins, and went for help to Robert of Gloucester, his father-in-law. From the Angevin point of view it was a godsend. Matilda accepted Ranulf’s offer of fealty. Ranulf and William together would be powerful new allies, and war in Lincolnshire as well as in the west would greatly improve their chances of success. Robert, therefore, responded positively and raised as large a force as he could, calling up Welsh troops in the process, probably from his own lands and those of his allies.

On the night before the battle, there was a dreadful storm, with hail, rain, thunder and lightning. Then on the day itself, Sunday 2 February, Stephen attended a service, presumably in the cathedral, and was celebrating mass at dawn. According to the ritual, it was the king’s role to carry a lighted candle in his hand, but the flame suddenly went out and the candle broke. The chronicler says it was then mended and relit, and with the obvious benefit of hindsight adds: ‘which was a sign of course that he would lose the dignity of the kingdom for his sin and at length, when penance had been rendered, by God’s favour wondrously and gloriously get it back again’. But Orderic probably voiced most people’s thoughts, seeing it as ‘a clear omen of misfortune’. According to Henry of Huntingdon, there was yet another evil omen, when during the service, the pyx containing Christ’s body broke its fastening, and fell upon the altar; ‘a sign of the king’s fall from power’. It would not appear that Stephen had much chance of victory!12


Like many other battles in the twelfth century, Lincoln arose out of a siege. Stephen had only a small force with him, sufficient to besiege the small garrison within Lincoln Castle. Robert of Gloucester led a larger army, intended to relieve Lincoln and not afraid to face Stephen’s small force in battle. Stephen was informed of their approach. He was advised to retreat and gather a larger army. The king here made a serious error, probably by allowing feelings to dominate sense. Most commanders would have heeded the advice and avoided battle. But there were special personal reasons why Stephen chose to stay and fight. Of course, he was not keen to abandon the siege; his anger against the half-brothers had not decreased, and one of them was in the approaching army. He was also promised aid from the citizens of Lincoln, which would bolster his army’s size. In addition, he may have been influenced by the thought that at last he could get at the heart of the enemy. Through the war to this date, he had always possessed the greater force in the field and the Angevins had assiduously avoided battle. Now before him was the backbone of the enemy military power: the Earls of Gloucester and Chester, along with Miles of Gloucester. Victory for the king would put an end to Matilda’s hopes. But quite likely the motive which dominated was fear; fear of looking a coward; fear of being tarred with the same brush as his father. The Gesta Stephani says ‘he refused to sully his fame by the disgrace of flight … but went boldly to meet them outside the town’. Orderic says that ‘the wilful prince turned a deaf ear to the advice of prudent men, and judged it dishonourable to put off battle for any reason’.13

Robert of Gloucester made a diagonal approach to Lincoln from the west, in order to get his army across the River Witham. The course of this river has altered since the Middle Ages, but only a little. The water still meanders across the flat lands to the south and west of the city. Lincoln is one of those cities whose medieval condition is easy to imagine. One can still enter the city formally near the Brayford Pool, from the bustling modern shopping centre, where one faces a medieval stone arch. Ahead and above, silhouetted against the skyline stand the two buildings which dominated the city then and still do, to the west the square bulk of the castle, to the east the soaring towers of the cathedral. They stand at the top of a very steep hill, which made the castle particularly difficult to approach and capture. The city occupied the hill on which the buildings stand. The west wall of the city was the western defence of the castle. At the foot of the western slope is a flat plain, across which wanders the River Witham after its journey through the Fosse Dyke westwards from the Brayford Pool.

The lookout of the royal force in the town, would easily have been able to see the army as it crossed the river by a ford, probably a mile or so to the west of the city, and made its way through marshy ground by the river to the firmer ground of the plain. William of Malmesbury says that the river was swollen by rains so they had to swim across, which would account for the marshy state of the ground around.14 The writer in the Victoria County History, with a close knowledge of the area, thought the battle was fought to the north of the city, on the grounds that it was the best direction from which to attack. But given the evidence of the fording, the more likely site is immediately to the west of the walls.15

It was Sunday 2 February when Stephen was informed of the approach. He called a council to debate what should be done. The advice was to leave a force to defend the city, but himself to go for reinforcements. As we have seen, he refused to budge. According to Orderic, clerics present advised the king that battle should be avoided because it was Sunday, and that peace negotiations should be initiated, and a truce agreed. Stephen refused to heed the advice.16

The king led his forces to stand before the west walls of the city, while the Angevin forces deployed as they arrived to the north of the ford. There was some attempt by the royalists to obstruct the crossing, but it failed. The Gesta Stephani gives the impression that the battle followed immediately after the ford crossing was made, but this does not match other accounts, and is probably simply a telescoping of events.17 Stephen did not make his own battle speech. The scene is beautifully depicted in the pages of the chronicle of Henry of Huntingdon by a line drawing in pen and ink. Stephen, wearing his crown, is shown standing to one side, while the speech was made for him by Baldwin fitz Gilbert, whose brother had been killed in the fighting in Wales at the beginning of the reign. The chronicler says this was because the king was not good at making speeches, lacking a witty tongue.18 Baldwin, ‘a man of the highest rank and a brave soldier’, stood upon a hill to make the speech.19 He began by attracting the attention of all, allowing a telling pause. This suggests that Stephen may have deliberately asked Baldwin to make the speech because he knew him to be an accomplished speaker.20 According to the chronicler the speech consisted of insulting the enemy leaders, though one suspects the chronicler is having fun at the expense of the nobility through invention rather than repetition. He retailed speeches made on both sides, though he cannot have heard both, and probably heard neither. Baldwin accused Robert of Gloucester of having the heart of a hare. But Baldwin also reminded his own side of the justice of their cause, their numbers and their courage.

For the Angevins, speeches were made by both of the earls; Ranulf first and then Robert. Robert reminded his audience that he was the old king’s son, and that Stephen had usurped the crown which should be his sister’s. He accused Stephen of bad government, and blamed him for the disorder in the land. On that side insults were also issued: that Earl Alan was guilty of every evil, that Count Waleran was boastful, slow to advance but quick to retreat, that Earl Hugh Bigod was a perjurer, that William of Aumale, Earl of York, had been deserted by his wife because of his intolerably filthy behaviour, and that the adulterer who had carried off the said lady had the gall to be standing alongside the earl in the royalist forces, let alone William of Ypres with his treasons and ‘impurities’.21When Robert had finished speaking, his army raised a great shout, lifted their arms to heaven and advanced.22

As the besieging army facing a relief force, the royalists were in a naturally defensive situation. They had to guard against a sortie from the castle at their rear. Oman thinks the royalists had more infantry, following the words put into the mouth of Baldwin fitz Gilbert by Henry of Huntingdon: ‘we are not inferior in cavalry, and stronger in infantry’, but both these statements seem wrong. Since the speech goes on to praise the loyalty and bravery of the earls, who all fled, one wonders if the speech as presented by Henry is meant to be ironic. Orderic says that the reverse is true; and all other evidence suggests that the royalists had fewer cavalry. It does seem probable, however, that the royal infantry was better quality.23 We do not know how good the city militia from Lincoln was, but it was unlikely to be worse than the poorly armed Welsh, ‘unskilled and unpractised in the art of war’ (at any rate in this kind of war), not generally equipped for fighting in battles.24 The difference almost certainly was in the Angevin superiority in cavalry; they had come prepared for a battle. Stephen had only his siege army, and had previously had no reason to expect to face a large force. Orderic also says that some of the magnates who were with the king had treacherously sent troops to join the rebels.25

The royal force dismounted some knights in the one main division, the king in its midst, himself on foot. He drew these knights in close order around him. The horses were led away to a distance.26 He meant to lead by example. His own household men protected the royal standard. His left was commanded by William of Aumale, in company with his chief military adviser, William of Ypres. His right was probably led by Hugh Bigod, but contained a whole handful of earls: those of Warenne, Northampton and Worcester (Waleran), as well as Alan of Penthièvre, Earl of Richmond, an experienced captain, no doubt to balance William of Ypres on the left. Both left and right seem to have been cavalry forces, and few in number. Many of the magnates were at Lincoln with only a small proportion of their feudal followings. The royal cavalry formed in two lines ‘but this part of his force was small’.27 It is possible, from Henry of Huntingdon’s account, that the cavalry made a line right across the front of the royal force, and were then broken into three sections by the enemy attack.28

The Angevin army was probably commanded by Robert of Gloucester. Orderic says he was ‘the greatest in the army’, and John of Hexham calls him the ‘general and organizer of the battle’, though Ranulf may not have seen himself as inferior, and had made the first of their battle speeches.29 It is not possible to reconcile the various chroniclers’ accounts entirely. Some describe both armies in line abreast, some as if in divisions, one behind the other. The most coherent account is that by Henry of Huntingdon. He was also nearest of the main chroniclers to the scene of the battle. We have, therefore, chosen to prefer his account, and where possible to incorporate other information. This suggests that the disinherited formed the left wing of the Angevin force, and faced those earls alongside Alan of Brittany. No leader is mentioned for this division, but Miles of Gloucester, though not an earl, would seem to be the likely name to pencil in. Henry of Huntingdon refers to Welsh on the right flank of the Angevin army, and then speaks of Ranulf’s intervention on this wing. This is not the usual decision of historians, but following Henry of Huntingdon, we therefore place Ranulf in command of the Angevin right wing. Since three divisions are clearly mentioned by several writers, this would leave Robert of Gloucester commanding the centre, which would seem to be the natural position. Like the royalists, the Angevins too dismounted some of their knights to fight on foot. Ranulf had also brought with him infantry from Cheshire, most probably archers. It would be wrong to pretend we are certain about the positions in this battle, particularly with regard to the Angevin formation. It is quite possible that the description of ordering, one division behind the other, was the order of march, which as often happened in medieval campaigns, resolved into divisions abreast for battle, van on one wing, rear on the opposite wing. This might explain at least some of the discrepancies in the sources. From the chronicles it is uncertain if the three Angevin divisions were in line abreast or one behind the other. Given the royalist formation, we have preferred line abreast.30


The Battle of Lincoln, 2 February 1141.

One still has to find a position in the van for the Welsh. They were certainly in the van of the Angevin army, and the first to be mentioned as the engagement got under way. Again, following Henry of Huntingdon, we have placed them on the right flank, probably slightly in advance of the main divisions. It is possible from other accounts that a similar Welsh group was placed in the same position on the left flank. Three main Angevin divisions in line abreast seems the most probable formation in order to face the three divisions of the royalists, and we place the Welsh infantry on both flanks, thrown slightly forward. Orderic says the Bretons and Flemings under Alan and William of Ypres faced the Welsh, which implies that they were on the wings. Henry of Huntingdon reports the Welsh advancing from the side, which also clearly places them on at least one flank, presumably the right. Robert of Torigny supports this point, suggesting a Welsh advance from the flank. There does not seem to be agreement among our chroniclers about the formation, so we should remain suitably unsure that we have interpreted correctly. Orderic at least seems to suggest that the Welsh and the royalist cavalry were in the van on either side, and this does match other accounts, and is the one we have chosen to follow. He also tells us that the Welsh were led by Maredudd and Cadwaladr. These are identifiable Welsh princes, brother and brother-in-law of Owain the Great. Cadwaladr married the daughter of Richard fitz Gilbert of Clare, so these men were probably fighting as allies or mercenaries for the Angevins.31 We conclude that the Angevins had three main divisions in line, with Welsh in advance of both wings.32 These Welsh levies were infantry forces and poorly armed.

The advancing troops raised their voices in shouts, while trumpets blared, and trampling horses shook the earth.33 The first action of the battle saw the destruction of the Welsh infantry when they were attacked by William of Ypres and the Earl of York on one side, and Alan of Brittany on the other. This first clash was of brief duration, and the Welsh fled from the field. But the cavalry forces behind them stayed put and now entered the fray. The Angevin left wing, probably under Miles, attacked the royalist forces which included Alan of Brittany. The Angevin cavalry on the right, under Ranulf, must have attacked at the same time, since we are told that their royal opponents were the first to be forced from the field. One account says that Waleran and William of Ypres fled ‘before coming to close quarters’, which is highly suggestive of an archery attack by the Angevin forces.34 The royalist cavalry had presumably lost its order in the destruction of the Welsh, and were now themselves an easy target for the Angevin cavalry wings, which broke through and routed them.35 This was the decisive point of the battle. William of Ypres we know to have been a brave and loyal captain. The fact that he now left the field suggests the hopelessness of Stephen’s position. Henry of Huntingdon says that ‘as an experienced general he perceived the impossibility of supporting the king’.36 In fact, according to William of Malmesbury, all six of Stephen’s earls fled from the field. Orderic says that William of Ypres and Alan were the first to take flight, and that Waleran, William Warenne and Gilbert of Clare then followed suit.37 Wise soldiers knew that the king should never have fought the battle; his cavalry numbers were clearly not up to coping with the enemy, and William of Ypres and the others considered that the only option was to flee in order to fight another day. When William left, he obviously considered defeat inevitable. His assessment was not incorrect.

The formation of the two armies, especially that of the Angevins, is uncertain, and so, therefore, must be the exact sequence of events of the cavalry battle, but the final stage is quite clear. Stephen, with his one central division on foot, was now faced by three divisions, ‘on all sides’, which closed in on him.38 The situation was graphically described by one writer as being like an attack all round a castle.39 Some lords had stayed by his side and fought on, including Baldwin of Clare, Richard fitz Urse, Engelran de Saye, and Ilbert de Lacy.40 Helmets and swords flashed in the air. Shouts and cries echoed all around. The king fought with his sword, men recoiling from his ‘terrible arm’.41 Eventually the weapon broke, and a citizen of Lincoln passed him a weapon more familiar to the Anglo-Saxons than to modern Anglo-Norman armies – a battle axe. Orderic indeed calls it a ‘Norse axe’, which suggests that the Lincoln militia were not armed in the most modern manner, but in a by now rather antiquated way as infantry forces.42 Stephen fought on ‘like a lion, grinding his teeth and foaming at the mouth like a boar’.43 At least he did not leave an impression of cowardice, but made a ‘strong and most resolute resistance’.44 The battle axe was also broken in the conflict. At last he was put out of his misery, when one of the opposing army hit him over the head with a rock, which hardly sounds like a knightly action. Stephen was taken prisoner, either by Robert of Gloucester, or by William of Cahagnes. When he came round he kept on complaining that this was not the treatment to give a king, and that his enemies were breaking their faith, to the point where some of them actually burst into tears.45 The ordinary citizens of Lincoln, however, could expect no mercy. Many were cut down, by ‘the just anger of the victors’. As many as 500 drowned trying to escape across the river, more than were killed in the battle. They leaped into any boat they could find until the boats were too full and capsized.46 The town itself also suffered, with houses and churches set on fire by the victors.

William of Malmesbury says that Robert of Gloucester treated the king well, ordering that he should be kept alive and unharmed, not even insulted.47 He was taken before the empress at Gloucester, and then on to Bristol, where he was imprisoned. According to William of Malmesbury, because others wanted him closer confined, and because Stephen was found from time to time at night having wandered outside his place of confinement, he was put in iron chains.48 It sounds like the apologist trying to explain away the fact that his hero, Earl Robert, was keeping in irons the anointed king. But battle was seen as divine decision, and Stephen had lost. One writer, who gave only a couple of lines to the battle, concluded that Stephen had been captured ‘by the just judgement of God’.49


  1.  Comnena, The Alexiad, pp. 163, 416.

  2.  Bradbury, ‘Battles’, pp. 1–12.

  3.  Comnena, The Alexiad, p. 165; Bradbury, ‘Battles’, pp. 1–12, p. 12.

  4.  Bradbury, ‘Battles’, pp. 1–12.

  5.  H.A. Cronne, ‘Ranulf de Gernons, Earl of Chester, 1129–1153’, TRHS, 4th ser., xx, 1937, pp. 103–34, p. 113; J.H. Round, ‘King Stephen and the Earl of Chester’, EHR, x, 1895, pp. 87–91, p. 87.

  6.  Davis, Stephen, p. 134.

  7.  F. Hill, Medieval Lincoln, Cambridge, 1948; Cronne, ‘Ranulf’, pp. 103–34.

  8.  Gesta Stephani, pp. 110–11.

  9.  William of Malmesbury, p. 46: ‘pacifice abscesserat’.

10.  Orderic, vi, pp. 540–1.

11.  The Gesta Stephani says he had gone, but Orderic says he only escaped after the king arrived; Gesta Stephani, pp. 110–11; Orderic, vi, pp. 540–1.

12.  Gesta Stephani, pp. 110–13; Orderic, vi, pp. 544–5; Henry of Huntingdon, ed. Forester, pp. 276–7; Henry of Huntingdon, ed. Arnold, p. 271.

13.  Gesta Stephani, pp. 112–13; Orderic, vi, pp. 540–3.

14.  William of Malmesbury, p. 48, says that they had to swim across, which is possible, but also that the river was the Trent, which seems impossible.

15.  C.H. Vellacott, ‘Political History’, in VCH, Lincolnshire, ii, ed. W. Page, p. 252.

16.  Orderic, vi, pp. 540–1.

17.  Gesta Stephani, pp. 112–13.

18.  Henry of Huntingdon, ed. Arnold, p. 271: ‘quia rex Stephanus festiva carebat voce’; BL Arundel MS 48, f. 168v.

19.  Henry of Huntingdon, ed. Arnold, p. 271: ‘Loco stans excelso’.

20.  Henry of Huntingdon, ed. Forester, p. 277; Henry of Huntingdon, ed. Arnold, p. 271: ‘ubi attentionem eorum modesta taciturnitate stimulavit’.

21.  Henry of Huntingdon, ed. Forester, pp. 275–6; Henry of Huntingdon, ed. Arnold, speeches by Angevins, pp. 268–71, for royalists, pp. 271–3.

22.  Henry of Huntingdon, ed. Forester, p. 276; Henry of Huntingdon, ed. Arnold, p. 271: ‘terribili clamore’.

23.  Henry of Huntingdon, ed. Forester, p. 277; Henry of Huntingdon, ed. Arnold, p. 272: ‘in equitibus non inferior, in peditibus confertior’; Orderic, vi, pp. 542–43.

24.  Henry of Huntingdon, ed. Forester, p. 278; Henry of Huntingdon, ed. Arnold, p. 273; ‘inermem bello praeferunt temeritatem, et arte et usu belli carentes’.

25.  Orderic, vi, pp. 542–3.

26.  Henry of Huntingdon, ed. Forester, p. 277; Henry of Huntingdon, ed. Arnold, p. 271: ‘equis abductis’; Robert of Torigny. RS, p. 140: ‘Ipse pedes omnem circa se multitudinem loricatorum, equis abductis’.

27.  Henry of Huntingdon, ed. Forester, p. 277; Henry of Huntingdon, ed. Arnold, p. 271; Robert of Torigny, in Stevenson, p. 53, repeats this; Torigny, in Howlett, p. 140.

28.  Henry of Huntingdon, ed. Arnold, p. 273; and Robert of Torigny, RS, p. 140: ‘et divisio eorum in tria deserit’.

29.  Orderic, pp. 542–3; John of Hexham, p. 134; ‘dux et dispositor praelio’.

30.  In The Medieval Archer, p. 55, I took the one behind the other formation, but on consideration, have decided that the alternative is just to be preferred. From the chronicles, either could be correct.

31.  Orderic, vi, pp. 542–3, and n. 2; Robert of Torigny, in Stevenson, p. 53; Robert of Torigny, RS, p. 146: ‘Walenses qui a latere procedebant’. Henry of Huntingdon, ed. Arnold, p. 268: ‘a latere’; and the Angevin Chronicle, based on Henry of Huntingdon, p. 302: ‘a latere vero erat turma Wallensium’.

32.  Henry of Huntingdon, ed. Forester, p. 279, says that William of Ypres’ force routed them; Henry of Huntingdon, ed. Arnold, p. 273: ‘percussit Walenses … et in fugam coegit’.

33.  Henry of Huntingdon, ed. Forester, p. 279; Henry of Huntingdon, ed. Arnold, p. 273; see n. 24 above.

34.  Gesta Stephani, p. 112: ‘antequam manus consererent’.

35.  William of Malmesbury, p. 49.

36.  Henry of Huntingdon, ed. Forester, p. 279; Henry of Huntingdon, ed. Arnold, p. 274: ‘videns impossibilitatem auxiliandi regi’.

37.  William of Malmesbury, p. 49; Orderic, vi, pp. 542–3.

38.  William of Malmesbury, p. 49.

39.  Henry of Huntingdon, ed. Forester, p. 279; Henry of Huntingdon, ed. Arnold, p. 274.

40.  Orderic, pp. 542–5.

41.  Henry of Huntingdon, ed. Forester, p. 279; Henry of Huntingdon, ed. Arnold, p. 274.

42.  Orderic, vi, pp. 544–5: ‘securi norica’; and John of Hexham, p. 135: ‘securem Danicam’; Henry of Huntingdon, ed. Forester, p. 279 has the axe broken first and then the sword, which seems a less likely order; Henry of Huntingdon, ed. Arnold, p. 274.

43.  Robert of Torigny, RS, pp. 140–1; in Stevenson, p. 53.

44.  Gesta Stephani, pp. 112–13.

45.  Ibid., pp. 112–15; Henry of Huntingdon, ed. Forester, p. 279, is the only source to say that William of Cahagnes captured Stephen, but may still be correct; Henry of Huntingdon, ed. Arnold, p. 274: ‘miles valdissimus’.

46.  William of Malmesbury, p. 49; Orderic, vi, pp. 544–7.

47.  William of Malmesbury, p. 49.

48.  Ibid., p. 50.

49.  Worcester, in Stevenson, p. 368; Worcester, ed. Thorpe, p. 129: ‘justo Dei judicio’.

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