Towards the end of 1140, King Stephen had intervened in a dispute over the royal castle at Lincoln. Although Stephen had appointed William d’Aubigny, Earl of Lincoln, the castle had been seized by half-brothers, Ranulf of Chester and William of Roumare. Instead of persecuting the brothers for their actions, Stephen created de Roumare as the new earl of Lincoln, transferring d’Aubigny to Sussex. Shortly before Christmas, however, Stephen received a plea from the citizens of Lincoln, claiming mistreatment at the hands of their new earl and appealing for help. Stephen’s response was to gather a small force and march north.
On entering the city, Stephen found that Ranulf of Chester had fled and that only a small garrison remained. Earl William (of Roumare) was inside but refused to hand over the castle and so Stephen began his attack, expecting that those inside would not hold out too long. What Stephen did not realise, however, was that Ranulf had gone directly to his father-in-law, Robert of Gloucester, where he pledged fealty to Matilda in return for military support at Lincoln. For Robert, this was not just about protecting his daughter – still resident at Lincoln castle – it was also an opportunity to extend Matilda’s Angevin influence and territory beyond the southwest of England. Without a moment’s hesitation, Robert made ready for war.
When it came to raising an army, Robert looked to his allies in the southwest and the Welsh Marches. Several Welsh rulers also lent their support to the Angevin campaign. This was less through loyalty to Matilda, however, and more likely an attempt to profit from the chaotic situation in England. Since Stephen’s accession in 1135, there had been several skirmishes on the Anglo–Welsh border with a pitched battle in 1136. Though the details are sketchy, it appears to have been a Welsh victory.
Having arrived in Lincoln with only a besieging force, Stephen was considerably outnumbered and refused to heed the advice to avoid battle and seek reinforcements. Robert had gathered a significant number of men thanks to his supporters in the southwest and Welsh Marches. The two sides met on 2 February 1141 outside the city’s western wall. Contemporary accounts of the battle suggest that the royal army consisted of a central division containing King Stephen, who led his forces on foot, and a group of dismounted knights, flanked on both sides by a small group of cavalry. The Angevins adopted a very similar position, with Robert of Gloucester leading from the centre. Both flanks contained a number of Welsh infantry, though probably stood further forward than the other soldiers. The army also contained a large number of archers, most likely brought by Ranulf of Chester.
Battle of Lincoln in Henry of Huntingdon’s Chronicle
The Welsh infantry were the first victims of the battle. Attacked by both flanks of the Royalist cavalry, the ill-armed and ill-disciplined infantry were either cut down or fled from the field. In the next wave, the Angevins advanced, possibly aided by an arrow attack, and broke through the royal line. According to the chronicler, Henry of Huntingdon, this Angevin offensive forced several of Stephen’s key nobles to flee, including his commander, William of Ypres. Those who remained were now completely surrounded by the Angevins who ‘attacked it on every side, as if storming a castle.’ In the chaos, the King replaced his broken sword with a battle axe and made a ‘strong and most resolute resistance.’ But the axe soon broke, leaving Stephen defenceless. An unnamed Angevin soldier then hit him over the head with a rock and he was taken prisoner. With Stephen captured and the army routed, the Angevins rejoiced at their decisive victory. Matilda now had a real opportunity to take the throne.