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The Battle of Lincoln 1217 – A pivotal point in the rebirth of England

You’ll no doubt have heard of the Battle of Hastings. And we’re sure you’ll also have got wind of the Battle of Britain. However, there is a third battle that many historians deem to be of equal historical significance; the 2nd Battle of Lincoln. How so? Because this particular clash that occurred early in the Thirteenth Century wasn’t just a spat between irritated barons and the king. Far from it. This was French vs English; Barons vs a deceased King John; Feudal Europe vs the future of democracy.

These were troubled and confused times…

The First Barons’ War had erupted in 1216 as a result of King John reneging on his agreement to Magna Carta. Not the noblest of acts, and certainly one that many of the powerful English barons railed against. So much so, in fact, that these rebelling barons had turned to the French prince, Louis, and requested he come to England and assert his (tenuous) right to power.

Louis had responded to the call, bringing an invading force across the Channel in May 1216. By October 1216, however, John was dead. He’d suffered an ignominious death from dysentery and left his nine year old son, Henry III, to be king. By the time William Marshal had been named regent, the whole of the east of England was in French hands. Only the castles of Lincoln and Dover were left holding strong.

By 20th May, 1217, however, Lincoln Castle was still under siege. The upper and lower parts of the town had fallen to French control, but the castle itself had continued to resist invasion. William Marshal, the 1st Earl of Pembroke and regent to King Henry III, took up the challenge to defend this loyal stronghold and break the deadlock.

Was one castle really that important?The Battle of Lincoln 1217

Actually, yes. A lot was at stake. Marshal wasn’t just fighting to save a castle and its town, he was fighting to save the English throne. William knew he needed to unite the barons once more, and a victory at Lincoln against the French would make a significant contribution towards achieving this. Magna Carta was already fading in the minds of some, particularly as John was dead. To this end, therefore, Marshal sent out a call to all loyal knights to join him at Newark. On the morning of 20th May, they marched to Lincoln Castle.

It was a bloody battle, but perhaps one with an even bloodier aftermath. Crossbowmen, charging knights, and diversionary tactics won Marshal the day. But as retribution for giving refuge to the French, royalist celebrators then ransacked the city and slaughtered many French foot soldiers and indigenous city dwellers. Even by the standards of the time the massacre was not a point of pride, and chroniclers later referred to it with a heavy dose of sarcasm as ‘the Battle of Lincoln Fair’.

But despite this, the battle itself was a turning point in the First Barons’ War. And, even more importantly, it was a pivotal moment for both England and democracy.

William Marshal, THE diplomat of the times…

Not a heading written purely for dramatic effect. A heavily outnumbered force led by a 70 year old knight – be he the ‘greatest knight in all the world’ – had just fought the most significant battle on English soil since 1066. In the aftermath of John’s calamitous reign, and with memories of Magna Carta falling off a cliff edge, William Marshal having won this key conflict then rose to the resulting diplomatic challenge in a way that only he could; he offered the rebel barons an amnesty in return for their allegiance to the new king – the young Henry III.

England was reborn…

Prince Louis tried to maintain a foothold but he’d been outplayed; his efforts were in vain. Despite the lineage of many of the rebel barons being traceable to France, the years since the Norman invasion had diluted their cultural ties. With John’s farcical reign having suffered the loss of his continental holdings early on, those barons whose lineage did hark back to more mainland ties now had to decide where their loyalties lay. Those choosing to pursue an English life had to let go.

As a direct result of the Battle of Lincoln, English returned as the first language. And, as if to mark the enormity of this switch, by 1271 the first history of England was written… in Old English… not in Latin or in French. The Franco-Anglo unit could and would never again be. England in its own right was reborn.