The battle of Lincoln (20 May 1217) and William Marshal’s ransom agreement with Nicholas de Stuteville
By David Carpenter
Published Online (2007)
Introduction: The battle of Lincoln, fought on 20 May 1217, is second only to Hastings as the most decisive in English history. When King John, in the late summer of 1215, reneged on Magna Carta, the opposition barons offered the throne to Louis, eldest son of the King of France. By the time of John’s death in October 1216, Louis held sway over more than half the kingdom. It seemed highly likely that John’s successor, his nine year old son, Henry III, would be swept from the throne, and England and France united under the same dynasty, a development of incalculable significance for the future shape of Europe. It was Lincoln which shattered Louis’ forces and ensured this would not happen. By the end of the year, the war was won, Louis had departed and Henry was seated securely on the throne.
The commander of the Henrician forces on this great day was the regent, William Marshal, earl of Pembroke, a man of around seventy whose extraordinary career had brought him gigantic wealth and a reputation as ‘the greatest knight in the world’; that, at any rate, was the claim made in the life of the Marshal written within a few years of his death from information supplied by his family and friends, a work with claims to be the greatest secular biography of the middle ages. According to the life, the Marshal was so eager to enter the fray at Lincoln that he would have charged without his helmet had he not been restrained by a squire. This episode caught the imagination of both John and Gillingham and J.C. Holt, and both used it to make wider points. For Gillingham it reflected (a major theme in his work), the rareness of battles in medieval warfare: ‘No wonder that the old fellow was so out of practice that he forgot to put on his helmet’. For Holt, it showed the ruthless materialism behind medieval politics and warfare for the Marshal was desperate not to miss out on prisoners and thus on ransoms: ‘There was clearly good business to be done that day in the narrow streets beneath the castle’.