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The First Battle of Lincoln – A rocky ruckus for King Stephen

During the trials and tribulations of the medieval years, the vacillations of the barons were a force to be reckoned with. Monarchs fell in and out of favour, depending on which way the wind was blowing. And ruling was a bit like trying to herd cats. As we mentioned in our last article on The Battle of the Standard, King Stephen of England suffered this no less than any other. Waves of discontent over his, some would say, capitulation to the Scots rippled across the land. And what had been stoical support for the nephew of Henry I, saw the tide turn and bring Matilda, the dead king’s daughter, back in favour for some.

Earldoms and Egos…

Robert of Gloucester, Matilda’s illegitimate half-brother, was certainly one to jump on the band wagon of opportunity. And it’s very possible it was he who pressed his half-sister to make a claim on the throne. By 1140, Stephen was struggling to manage his nobility. Earldoms awarded in one direction, angered others in another. It was a diplomatic battle that could never be won. And one such instance, when he made William of Albini the Earl of Lincoln, saw tempers flare yet again. William of Roumare, and his half-brother, Ranulf, Earl of Chester, rebelled. Both felt they had a stronger claim to the earldom and, in true baronial fashion, took matters into their own hands.
Wily coots that they were, they took Lincoln Castle through an act of trickery. Ranulf visited the castle at a time when its garrison was spread far and wide. He sent his wife ahead under the guise of a friendly visit. Ranulf arrived later, accompanied by three knights on the pretext that he was going to escort her home. Instead, however, they dispatched the guards and facilitated an armed force to enter and take the castle. Sneaky stuff that films are made of!
The citizens of Lincoln did manage to send a call to Stephen for help, however. And, bearing in mind these were troubled times, such a usurping act really couldn’t be overlooked. Stephen answered the summons and the people of Lincoln opened the gates to him and his forces. A siege situation began. Ranulf then announced his support of Matilda, of course. And Robert of Gloucester, her strongest ally, swiftly raised a significant force and marched to Ranulf’s aid.

Portents and Potentates…First Battle of Lincoln

On February 2nd, 1141, Stephen attended mass at dawn before the battle. As was part of the ritual, he carried a lighted candle. During the service, the flame went out and the candle broke. An ominous portent to many that was seen to be borne out by the end of the fracas.
For the siege to be successful, Stephen needed the help and support of local forces. His own army wasn’t large enough. Robert of Gloucester, on the other hand, had a weighty one and it was approaching fast. Stephen called a council to discuss the best course of action. Many urged him to allow a garrison to stay but leave himself to seek reinforcements. Others urged him to respect that it was a Sunday and to seek to negotiate peace instead. Stephen chose his own course. To stay, to fight, and to win the siege.

Castles and Kings…

The actual battle that ensued was a mixed up affair. The Welsh, who were supporting Robert of Gloucester, attacked first but this attack failed. In the meantime, Royalist forces were confronted by a fierce cavalry charge under Ranulf, and William of Ypres, with other royally-allied barons, swiftly fled before actually engaging properly in any fighting at all.
Stephen, during this, was leading a force on foot. But this grouping was soon surrounded on all sides. To his credit, chroniclers have espoused stories of the bravery of the king. He fought hard. At first with a sword. But once that had broken, next with a double-headed battle axe handed to him by a citizen of Lincoln. Robert of Torigni wrote that he fought “like a lion, grinding his teeth and foaming at the mouth like a boar”. And even when his axe broke, he battled on. Only to be brought to a halt when he was hit over the head with a rock.

Anarchists and Aftermaths…

Stephen was taken prisoner, paraded before Matilda at Gloucester, and then moved to Bristol to be confined in chains. His was not the treatment a king should receive, but few believed he would emerge from captivity. And it left Ranulf to smugly remain looking on from Lincoln Castle.
The City of Lincoln paid for supporting Stephen. It was ransacked, and many were slaughtered by the victorious army. Robert of Gloucester continued to be a thorn in Stephen’s side until he was captured by royalist forces. A few months later, an exchange of the two great men took place and Stephen was shortly restored to the throne. He made it his quest to force Ranulf to surrender Lincoln Castle. And he succeeded.
Looking at this in retrospect, as we do, one has to conclude that opportunistic egos, which could swap sides at the drop of a hat, abounded in baronial England at this time. Castles were there for capturing and showing off… Royalist support was there to be given and taken away. The First Battle of Lincoln, therefore, wasn’t so much a turning point in this medieval anarchic era, as a typically representative spat. And one wonders whether it actually works very well as a metaphor for current day politics …