Lincoln’s past: When the city was at the forefront of the political scene

With Gainsborough set to mark 1,000 years since it was briefly capital of England and Denmark, I thought it would be fitting this week to look into a few instances in Lincoln’s own past where the city played a key role in English history, namely the battles of Lincoln when kings, an empress and even the prince of France determined the future of the country.

The Old Hall is on the site of Gainsborough Castle where King Sweyn lived and died. Gainsborough was named as capital of the country for five weeks in 1013.

Following the death of Henry I in 1135, Stephen managed to usurp the crown of England from his cousin, and rightful heir, the Empress Matilda (Empress of the Holy Roman Empire and also known as ‘Maude’). This initiated a period of warfare throughout the country (and France) known as ‘The Anarchy’. By 1139, Maude and her champion, Robert of Gloucester, were able to regain control of their territories in France and began a campaign to reclaim the empress’ place on the throne of England.

In 1141, the garrison at Lincoln was loyal to the empress and Stephen arrived with a force to regain the important castle. He immediately occupied the cathedral and besieged the castle from both inside and outside the walls. A relief force was dispatched by Maude under the command of Robert of Gloucester, which included a large Welsh contingent under the poetically named Lord of Powys, Madog ap Maredudd.

Illustration of the Battle of Lincoln (1141) from the British Library, Arundel 48 f. 168v

The relief force crossed the Foss Dyke on February 2 and engaged the forces of Stephen somewhere west of the city walls. Despite a routing of the Welsh forces by Stephen’s army, they were soon outnumbered, and after having his axe and sword broken in fierce combat, the king was captured and the remaining forces loyal to Stephen coldly crushed in the streets of Lincoln.

Following this victory, the Empress Matilda was able to control England for a brief while, until Stephen was ransomed (and later managed to regain the throne). Nonetheless, the Battle of Lincoln proved a key moment in the war.

Only 76 years after the first battle of Lincoln, the city was again forced into becoming a deciding battlefield for the future of the country. In 1215 the barons of England rebelled against the disastrous reign of King John and called on the crown prince of France, the future Louis VIII, to take over the reigns of government. Louis quickly seized much of the south-east of the country, but the death of John at Newark in 1216 and the creation of a regency for the young Henry III, quickly changed the situation on the ground.

With John out of the way, the necessity of the French seemed less relevant. Louis, however still had some support and held large portions of land. This included the city of Lincoln, though the castle remained loyal to the king. A force, lead by the Earl of Pembroke, marched from Stowe and reached the walls of the city in May 1217, assaulting Newport Arch. There they easily managed to overrun the French and raised the siege and mercilessly slaughtered large amounts of enemy troops.

Newport Arch in Lincoln in the 1890’s. Photo: Old UK Photos

The French quickly fled south over the river (when the river was widened in the 19th century, large amounts of French swords and armour were discovered) and the victorious troops viciously pillaged the city on the pretence of aiding the enemy. The looting was so bad that the battle became known as the ‘Lincoln Faire’. By the end of the year Louis was forced to give up his claims to the English crown and Lincoln had again proved a decisive location in English history.

It may be many years removed from these events, but with celebrations such as those this summer in Gainsborough it is important to remember the role Lincoln has played in shaping the country. For centuries the city was at the forefront of the English political scene. Today, Lincoln may seem to some as if it has lost much of its power nationally, but it has simply shifted from a major political centre to one of immense cultural heritage and history.