Nichola de la Haye–Who Knew

Nichola de la Haye’s Seal

One of the more famous (or infamous) villains in English medieval history is the Sheriff of Nottingham, the nemesis of Robin Hood. A sheriff or shire reeve, was responsible for overseeing the county or shire for the king, enforcing the laws, collecting taxes, keeping the peace.  There was one very unusual sheriff during the reigns of Richard the Lion-hearted and then his brother King John. The sheriff was a woman, Nichola de la Haye[1].  Despite her important role in history, her story, like that of most women at that time, has largely been forgotten.

We are only guessing that Nichola was born somewhere in the early 1150s.  As well as owning lands in France, her father, Richard, was a Lincolnshire landowner and the caretaker or castellan of the royal castle at Lincoln.  Richard de la Haye died about 1169 leaving only three daughters. Nichola, the eldest inherited his English lands and the rights to his position at the castle. Her two younger sisters were given his lands in France.

Upon the death of her father, Nichola became a wealthy heiress and a highly desirable matrimonial prospect.  Any husband would expect to control her lands and also assume the position of caste.  Her first husband died in 1178, leaving her with a daughter. She married again before 1185. Her second husband died in 1215. She outlived him by fifteen years. While Nicky’s husbands each claimed the role of castellan while they were in the castle, but if they were away and after their deaths, she was often left in charge.

Castle Gates at Lincoln

The chroniclers of the time first write about Nichola in 1191.  King Richard had gone on the Third Crusade, and while he was gone, Prince John attempted to usurp the throne.  Her husband left her in charge of the castle in Lincoln while he joined with John’s forces.  Richard’s supporters marched to Lincoln and placed the castle under siege.  Nichola refused to yield and held out for forty days.  One contemporary recording the event commented that she defended the castle ‘without thinking of anything womanly’. [2]

Naturally when King Richard returned, he was displeased with the loyalty that Nichola and her husband expressed in supporting John, and they lost their position in the castle and her land.  However, when Richard died and John became King, the couple regained their holdings in 1199.

When her husband died in 1215, Nichola officially assumed the position of castellan, a role that she probably had been carrying out even when her husband claimed the title.  Contemporary writers are clear that he has the position only because he was married to her.

By the time of her husband’s death, England was in a state of upheaval with many of the nobles accusing John of corruption, murder, and misrule.  He extorted money on various pretexts to support his unsuccessful military campaigns in France. Some of the barons wanted to invite the French King to come and rule England.  In June 1215, a peace treaty of sorts was drawn up between the king and the rebelling barons.  This document known in history as the Magna Carta is considered to be the framework of modern British Government by putting limits on power of the monarchy.  A year later, John repudiated the conditions laid out in the charter and civil war broke out.

Seige at Lincoln according to a Medieval Artist

Nichola held Lincoln for John.  When a rebel army tried to lay siege to the castle after sacking the town, she bribed them to go home. 

In September 1216, King John visited the Lincoln.  Nichola met him outside the main or east gate, holding out the keys to the castle. She offered the keys to him claiming her great age (she might have been in her 60s) made it tiring to carry such a heavy responsibility for her king.  John, addressing her in respectful terms, said she should keep the office until he removed her. Before his death about a month later, John named Nichola to the responsibility of being Sheriff of Lincoln

In the months that followed, Nichola proved her loyalty to the crown giving her unstinting support to nine-year old king, Henry III. Other nobles, fearful of the weakness of a child ruler, invited Prince Louis of France to come and take the throne. The rebel forces were meeting with some success, but Nichola held the castle at Lincoln firmly for Henry III.  Prince Louis even traveled to Lincoln asking for her surrender, assuring her he would guarantee her safety. She refused.

Warrior Nichola

In March 1217, Lincoln Castle was under siege.  A siege lasted for close to three months.  Catapults bombarded the walls. Nichola’s forces were outnumbered three to one by the French.  The city itself supported the rebel cause and welcomed the French Army. By mid-May a relief force arrived, the siege was broken. This battle, where Nichola held the castle, is considered to be the end of French aspirations to rule England.  English chroniclers of the time praise her abilities; the rebels and the French portrayed her as ‘‘a very cunning, bad-hearted and vigorous old woman’’[3]

Her reward for holding the castle until other forces could come to defeat the French army was to be removed as sheriff and as the overseer of Lincoln Castle.  Her replacement, the Earl of Salisbury, seized the castle. Salisbury was an uncle to the young king.

Nichola who was well into her 60s might have just retired to some of her landholdings in the area. She did not.  She went to the regents for the young king explaining all the ways she had supported the young king and had proven her loyalty. Eventually a compromise was reached.  Salisbury got the position of sheriff, but Nichola remained castellan and retained control of the city of Lincoln.  She continued in these positions, despite Salisbury’s frequently attempts to unseat her.  Salisbury even married his son to her granddaughter in hopes of diminishing her powers.

In 1226, Nichola gave up control of Lincoln Castle and retired to live a quiet life. She was probably in her early 70s. She died in November 1230, outliving Salisbury by four years.  Salisbury’s son and Nichola’s granddaughter inherit her lands.

Nichola’s name on a charter

Her resistance to the French in the siege of Lincoln in 1217 saved the reign of Henry III who became an important ruler in English History. Chroniclers of the time struggled with how to describe the actions and life of this woman.

Medieval women played a larger role than most history books would have us believe.

Nichola De La Haye– female sheriff and defender of a castle… a woman who enabled the reign of a child king to continue… who knew?

[1] Nichola’s name has many different spellings across reference materials. Nicolae, Nicholaa, Nicholae. I picked one and stuck with it, but spelling in the middle ages was somewhat fluid.

[2] Paraphrased from Chronicle of Richard of Devizes. Section 38, page29, published 1881


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