Today, dear peeps, we’re going to be spending time in medieval England, more specifically in the reign of King John. This time and place was a man’s world where women rarely got more than a passing mantion by the (male) chroniclers. There were exceptions of course, and one such exception was Nicholaa de la Haye, who has gone down in history as a lady who defended her castle against besiegers not once, but thrice. Quite kick-ass, I would say, especially as she was well into her sixties during that last siege. Very briefly, Nicholaa was the only surviving child of Richard de la Haye, hereditary castellan of Lincoln Castle, and upon his death, the rights devolved to her and her then husband, Gerard de Camville. Now, what is truly interesting about this power couple is that they very early on sided with John, Count of Mortain, against said count’s brother, King Richard. Well, more specifically, they were no fans of Richard’s chancellor, William Longchamp–and they weren’t exactly alone in this–and therefore pledged their support to John, the king’s younger brother.
We all know John is not exactly remembered as a warm and fuzzy character. And yet, throughout her life, Nicholaa would remain loyal to him. As there are evident qualities in Nicholaa, this has me assuming there were some nuggets of good in John as well. But hey, that might be the romantic in me–and frequent readers to this blog will know I am very, very romantically inclined.
Now, if you want to know more about Nicholaa and her life, I recommend you read King John’s Right Hand Lady: the story of Nicholaa de la Haye by Sharon Bennett Connolly. To entice you to do so, I’ve written a review!
For as long as I have known Sharon Bennett Connolly, she has been a major, major fan of Nicholaa de la Haye. Once she started writing for publication, I’ve been waiting for her to finally sink her teeth into this her favourite medieval heroine. And now she has.
Having finished Ms Bennett Connolly’s book, I conclude there is very, very little the author doesn’t know about the world and times in which Nicholaa lived. She has also done a thorough genealogical work, and I was quite fascinated to discover Nicholaa had successful Anglo-Saxon forebears, men who thrived in England even after the Norman Conquest. It shows it wasn’t all black and white after 1066.
What is also evident is just how ephemeral Nicholaa herself is. She has left no diaries, no personal thoughts. Her life—what we know of it—can only be reconstructed through available documents that have survived the teeth of time. As Nicholaa lived in a man’s world, she therefore is more of a shadow hovering in the background than the obvious protagonist—at least for the first sixty or so years of her life. This is a challenge Ms Bennett Connolly happily takes on, digging through veritable mountains of information for the random nugget pertaining to Nicholaa.
The reader has to make their way through quite a few chapters of detailed genealogy, of descriptions of charters and donations, before Nicholaa is finally allowed to take her place on the stage. Even then, Nicholaa is quite often something of a satellite, orbiting round the far more well-known protagonists of the time.
Personally, I found Ms Bennett Conolly’s succinct presentation of King John to be one of the highlights, as was the abbreviated biography of Ela of Salisbury. And once Ms Bennett Conolly gets to the meat of the story—Nicholaa’s repeated and spirited defence of Lincoln Castle, which she held for King John and, subsequently, his son, against the besieging forces of the French—the narrative becomes quite gripping.
As an invaluable resource for all those wanting to know more, more, more about medieval England, Ms Bennett Connolly’s book ticks all the boxes.
As a reading experience, there are moments when this reader feels inundated by minutiae, much of which seems irrelevant to the story of Nicholaa. It is my opinion the book would have benefited from a tighter edit, in particular as there are quite a few repetitions.
Most of all, though, King John’s Right Hand Lady: the story of Nicholaa de la Haye, is a (very) belated eulogy over an impressive medieval woman. Ms Bennett Connolly has lovingly glued together all the little bits and pieces she’s been able to find to present us with an incomplete yet fascinating description of a lady who made such an impression on her contemporaries and the (male) chroniclers that her name still survives.
Buy your copy here!
Now, having finished my read, I had some firther questions. So I reached out to Sharon for some further insight.
When did you first encounter Nicholaa?
I first started looking deep into Nicholaa’s story in 2015.
It was the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta and Lincoln Castle had just reopened after the completion of a major building programme. A custom-made vault had been built to protect and preserve the city’s copies of Magna Carta and its sister charter, the 1217 Charter of the Forest.
Given the significant anniversary, and Lincoln’s possession of one of the 4 surviving copies of the original Magna Carta, there was a lot of noise in Lincoln about Magna Carta and its role in the First Barons’ War which followed its creation.
And Nicholaa’s name came up.
So, after visiting the castle with my son – he was only 10 at the time – I decided to find out more about Nicholaa de la Haye. I had recently started a blog, history…the interesting bits .com and decided to write an article about Nicholaa’s role in defeating the English rebels and their French allies in the 1217 Battle of Lincoln, entitled ‘England’s Forgotten Heroine.’
And ever since that first article, I have been hoarding whatever information I could find.
In your book, you remain somewhat ambiguous as to why Nicholaa remained loyal to John, throughout all the ups and downs. At one point, you suggested, tongue-in-cheek, that may have had a similar appreciation for making money of land 😉 Would you care to expand on why she and her husband served him so faithfully?
That was a question I kept asking myself all the time I was writing the book. Why did Nicholaa support John when so many turned against him?
The more I thought about it, the more I realised it was about mutual trust and loyalty.
Nicholaa and her husband, Gerard de Camville, had sought and received John’s support in 1191, when William Longchamp, Richard I’s justiciar, had ordered Gerard to relinquish Lincoln Castle. On refusing, Gerard had given his fealty to John at Nottingham, leaving Nicholaa in command of the castle. Longchamp sent mercenaries to seize it, besieging Nicholaa for 40 days, without success. In the end, Longchamp and the mercenaries went home.
When King Richard came home in 1194, Gerard and Nicholaa were ordered to relinquish the castle and spent the next 5 years ‘out in the cold’. They must have been regretting giving John their support.
But John did not forget.
In 1199, when he became king, one of his first acts was to reinstate Gerard and Nicholaa in Lincoln Castle – and make Gerard de Camville sheriff of Lincolnshire to boot! Gerard would be deeply involved in the administration of Lincolnshire for the rest of his life, which ended in January 1215.
So, in 1216, Nicholaa was a widow, in her 60s, and has just paid off a bunch of rebels besieging Lincoln Castle when John visits Lincoln. Nicholaa meets him at the castle gates and offers him the keys, saying she is too old and weary to bear the burden of command any longer.
John refused her resignation and ordered her to stay in post until he ordered otherwise.
Now, John was running short on allies by this time, but I don’t doubt he could have found a knight to take on Nicholaa’s responsibilities. But Nicholaa had proved herself more than capable of holding Lincoln. She knew the county and the major players in the area. She was the ‘man’ for the job. So, rather than replace her, John promoted Nicholaa and made her sheriff of Lincolnshire – it was almost the very last thing he did before he died.
King John trusted Nicholaa and Nicholaa returned that trust with loyalty.
What do you think of King John? Was he as thoroughly rotten as he comes down to us, or has he been, at least to an extent, the victim of a black legend?
Oh, now that is a question and a half! In some ways John suffers from a bad press. He was a good administrator, knew England like the back of his hand and loved his children. He also faced major challenges in trying to hold together the unwieldy Plantagenet Empire against a resurgent France under Philip II.
In those days, the chronicles were written by monks and John had a rather fractious relationship with the church. The monks were not his friends and did not cut him any slack when reporting events. For instance, one claims John spent so much time in bed with his wife that he neglected the kingdom. What he doesn’t mention is that John’s wife was, at the time, between 10 and 12 years old and living with John’s first wife, Isabella of Gloucester. (Anna’s comment: It would take someone like John to entrust his new wife to his repudiated wife…) John had married Isabell of Angouleme in 1200 and the couple’s first child was not born until 1207, which gives the lie to the monk’s gossip.
However, what is hard to get past with John, and what tarnishes his reputation beyond repair, is his treatment of Matilda de Braose. Born in the same decade as Nicholaa de la Haye, she was in her 50s when she fell foul of John. Her family were hounded to Ireland and back and after Matilda and her 30-something son were captured, they were imprisoned while her husband, William de Braose, remained free to raise their ransom/fine. William disguised himself as a beggar and fled to France, probably expecting John to release Matilda after a few months of confinement. Instead, Matilda and her son were abandoned in their prison cell and left to starve to death.
Not sure John can ever be forgiven for that.
Nicholaa was hereditary castellan of Lincoln Castle, but obviously she didn’t live there full time. What was her favourite residence do you think, and is there anything left of it?
Nicholaa was also baroness of Brattleby, a village just a few miles north of Lincoln, and she would have had a hall there, as well as one within the castle walls. Neither residence survives today, unfortunately; today’s Brattleby Hall is a Victorian building. The church at Brattleby, however, is 11th century and dedicated to St Cuthbert, so Nicholaa would have known it. She may well have lived at Brattleby, and raised her children there, when she was not needed at the castle. Its close proximity to Lincoln would have meant she was within easy reach of the castle if needed.
However, I would think her favourite residence was Swaton, in south Lincolnshire. It is the village she chose to reside in after her retirement. It is about 20 miles from Lincoln itself and I suspect she needed the distance to break the ties from something that had been such a big part of her life, the castle. Nicholaa obtained permission for the village to hold a regular market and chose to be buried there. It is a beautiful little village and Nicholaa’s tomb can still be visited in St Michael’s church there.
If Nicholaa had been born in this day and age, what profession do you think she’d have gone for?
Wow! That is a hard question to answer. Definitely an advocate for women’s rights, maybe a politician or local councillor?
I really don’t know. Nicholaa was very much a woman of her time, and yet out of her time. She came to the fore in extraordinary circumstances in a time of political upheaval. It is hard to see someone so intrinsically entrenched in the 13th century in a 21st century role.
Thank you, Sharon, for taking the time to stop by.
Sharon Bennett Connolly is the best-selling author of several non-fiction history books such as Heroines of the Medieval World, Silk and the Sword: The Women of the Norman Conquest and Ladies of Magna Carta: Women of Influence in Thirteenth Century England. Her fourth book, Defenders of the Norman Crown: Rise and Fall of the Warenne Earls of Surrey, tells the story of the Warenne earls over 300 years and 8 generation (see my review here) , and her most recent release, King John’s Right Hand Lady: the story of Nicholaa de la Haye has her returning to her fascination with medieval womenis due to be released in May 2021. A member of the Royal Historical Society, Sharon has studied history academically and just for fun – and has even worked as a tour guide at historical sites. She writes the popular history blog, www.historytheinterestingbits.com. (Anna says: MUST VISIT!) Sharon regularly gives talks on women’s history; she is a feature writer for All About History magazine and her TV work includes Australian Television’s ‘Who Do You Think You Are?‘