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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Lemonade Lucy: Sweet or Sour?

Lucy Webb Hayes Image in the Library of Congress

Lucy Webb Hayes, wife of President Rutherford B. Hayes, is too often remember only as the teetotaling White House hostess who banned all alcohol from being served in the presidential mansion. Others portrayed her as almost saintly, the model of modern womanhood concerned only with the betterment of humankind. However, Lucy Hayes was much more than these caricatures.

Lucy Webb was born in Ohio in 1833 and was only two when her father died.  Her parents were active abolitionists. In fact, her father contracted the cholera that caused his death after going to Kentucky to free slaves he had inherited. Not only did her family support the abolition of slavery, but as good Methodists, they supported the temperance movement.

When she was thirteen, Lucy’s family moved to Delaware, Ohio so her two older brothers could attend Ohio Wesleyan. Lucy’s intelligence so impressed the professors that she was invited to sit in on classes at this all-male institution. Eventually she attended Cincinnati Wesleyan College for Females where she graduated at age eighteen.

Rutherford Hayes and Lucy Webb Hayes on their wedding day.

About the time of her graduation, she met a young attorney, Rutherford B. Hayes.  After two years of courtship, the couple married in late 1852.  The bride was twenty-one.  The groom was thirty.  The couple eventually had eight children, five of whom reached adulthood.

Lucy’s opposition to the institution of slavery influenced her husband who began to defend runaway slaves who had crossed from Kentucky into Ohio. In many ways their values were aligned, although Lucy was a stronger supporter of women’s rights than her husband ever was, but her support was limited. Because of his opposition to slavery, Hayes was an early member of the newly formed Republican party. He and his wife actively campaigned in 1856 for Charles Fremont, the Republican Presidential candidate.  Lucy believed Jesse Benton Fremont would have made a wonderful White House hostess.

Both Lucy and Rutherford believed the abolition of slavery could be occur without going to war, but once the Civil War broke out, both supported the Union cause.  Lucy was heard to say that had she been at Fort Sumter, she would have refused to surrender.

Rutherford volunteered for military service and was appointed to the 23rd Ohio Volunteers as a Major.  Ultimately, he rose to the rank of Major-General. As often as she could, Lucy joined her husband on his campaigns and even worked with her brother, a doctor, in caring for sick and injured soldiers. She also spent time cooking for her husband’s troops, sewing, and helping them in anyway she could earning her the nickname ‘Mother of the Regiment.’

In 1864, without campaigning and while still on the battle field, Rutherford Hayes was elected to the House of Representatives and then reelected in 1866.  He did not actually take his seat until after the war was over in 1865. While he served in DC, Lucy spent time there and in Ohio with their children.  Often found in the visitor’s gallery, Lucy was well-informed on the political and social issues of the day and became her husband’s confidant and unofficial advisor.

At first impressed by Andrew Johnson, she eventually sided with the more radical Republicans in opposition to Johnson’s reconstruction policies.  On one trip to the south with her husband and a congressional delegation, she attempted to explain the importance of ‘Negro Suffrage’ to southern women.  Her arguments fell on deaf ears.

In 1868, the couple returned to Ohio where Hayes was installed as the Governor of Ohio.  Lucy then publicly and actively began her work for the welfare of children and veterans.  She set up a home for children orphaned by the Civil War.  Although funded with private monies, the orphanage was run by the state.  Her concerns about ‘institutions’ expanded to include working for improvements in facilities set up for the deaf and the blind.

Official White House Portrait

Lucy Hayes continued to support these causes after her husband was elected to the White House.  The election of 1876 marred by charges of voter suppression, ballot tampering, disputed electors was only resolved on March 2nd 1877, two days before the new President was to take office. No inaugural ball was held, the normal festivities had been curtailed.  The Hayes were escorted into Washington with a group of special agents protecting them—the first such use of the Secret Service.

Lucy stood by her husband’s side as he took the oath of office on March 4, 1877.  What the public did not know was Hayes had actually been sworn in two days before on March 2nd in a private ceremony held in the Red Room of the White House. Lucy was to stand by her husband’s side throughout his one term in office.

Hayes had idealistic dreams of bringing the country together, emphasizing the importance of the Constitution in history.  He pulled federal troops out of the south believing the promises of the southern states that they would no infringe of the rights of the newly freed slaves. This ushered in the era of Jim Crow.  He did institute sound money policies which made business and industry stronger; he was an opponent of ‘greenbacks,’ paper money issued by the government with nothing to back the currency. In his attempt to reach his goals, he managed to make almost every political faction in the country angry.

As First Lady (and she was the first or one of the first women to be given that title, historians are divided on the issue), she continued to work for the causes close to her heart—the welfare of children and those unable to care for themselves.  She visited schools for the deaf and blind.  She established scholarships for African-American children to attend schools and was interested in programs to help Native American children. Education was a priority for her.  Lucy Hayes was the first wife of a president to graduate from college.

Too often she is remembered only as Lemonade Lucy, the woman who kept alcohol out of the White House and held hymn sings on Sunday night.  This is a very distorted picture of Lucy Hayes.  True, there was only one dinner where alcohol was served and that was when the Grand-Duke Alexis came to dinner.  The decision about beer, wine and hard liquor was not made by Lucy, but by her husband who sought to placate the avid temperance wing of the Republican Party.  He made the decision. She took the blame.  The couple did hold Sunday evening hymn sings for family and friends, but she also hosted many musical evenings, often inviting people of color to perform at those events.

Lucy’s long-lasting contributions to the White House include the introduction of the Easter Egg Roll on the South Lawn.  She ordered a set of china for the mansion to be decorated with the flora and fauna of the United States.  A portrait of Martha Washington was commissioned to hang opposite that of George Washington.  Lucy, in fact, ordered that an Ohio artist paint the portraits of all the presidents who were not yet represented in the White House collection.  As First Lady, she was present at the dedication of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Natural History in New York city.  One final cause Lucy Hayes took up was advocating for the completion of the Washington Monument.

It was also under her tenure as First Lady that bathrooms with running water were installed in the White House. However, money needed for refurbishing the 1600 Pennsylvania Ave was denied by Congress. Lucy disguised holes in the carpet by moving furniture and scoured the attics for useable furniture to replace pieces that had broken over the years.

At home with one of her dogs

Often pressured by various groups to be their spokesperson or advocate, Lucy avoided siding with any specific group. She traveled throughout the United States including a seventy-one day cross-country tour in 1880 where she went down into a silver mine, visited the new University of Southern California, and toured Yosemite.

Hayes had promised when running for election in 1876 that he would only serve one term. Even if he wanted to change his mind, the Republican Party refused to renominate him. Lucy and her husband returned to Ohio in 1881 where she continued to advocate for causes she felt strongly about—children, education, improving conditions for former slaves.

In 1889 at the age of 57, Lucy Webb Hayes died after suffering a stroke.  She was surrounded by her beloved family, her gardens, and her animals. While she was First Lady, the White House was home to a mockingbird, two dogs, a goat, and what may have been the country’s first Siamese cat.  In many ways she was a transition between the First Lady’s role of just being a hostess to being political activist. She was a loving wife and mother.

While she was First Lady, Lucy Hayes was considered to be a model for other women to follow. She was aware of that responsibility and did her best to put her values into practice. She was so much more than the sobriquet of Lemonade Lucy.