Lincoln is filled with strange and ancient buildings hiding in plain sight among the modern structures of the city. These buildings hold clues to the impressive history of our city, and St. Mary’s Guildhall down Lincoln High Street is one such example. Beyond its old, noble exterior lies the story of Lincoln’s medieval power, when the city boasted not one, but two royal dwellings.
In the high-medieval period, Lincoln was a major centre of political power, both in terms of economic might, population and strategic military importance. This was particularly the case during not only the Anarchy, when the Battle of Lincoln nearly altered the course of English history, but also in the reign of Henry II, which immediately followed the death of Stephen, the King at the centre of the civil war.
Henry, the new king, spent a considerable amount of time in the city. He had wintered in the city in 1172 and two years prior even had his son, the young Henry, crowned joint monarch in Lincoln. There is some confusion as to where he was crowned, as it is often noted that he was invested with the crown at ‘St. Mary’s,’ though whether this refers to St. Mary-le-Wigford church or the Cathedral is unknown.
For a stay of considerable length (an entire winter season), Henry II required suitably comfortable lodgings. Fortunately for the king, a suitable location had already been constructed by Henry some fifteen years earlier: what is now known as St. Mary’s Guildhall, on the High Street.
The building was constructed as a town house for the King, one of several in key cities across the realm. Built at the beginning of his reign, these dwellings (referred to as ‘town houses on a palatial scale’) enabled him to travel his realm and live in opulence while doing it; such was the case in 1170 when his son was crowned and again in 1172 when he spent the Christmas period there.
With the addition of a new king in young Henry, these regional houses took on increased significance. Having been given no lands to rule over himself and with a distinct lack of desire for political power, the young King Henry often resided at these ‘palaces,’ including St. Mary’s, where he would partake in jousting competitions and revelry; preferring partying to politics; he would later show some ambition and rebel against his father, though would be unsuccessful and died in 1182 in Martel, France.
The buildings usefulness as a royal dwelling was short-lived, however. By the 1230s, the building was used not a royal residence, but as wine storage for the King and twenty years following that, was purchased as a guildhall by the Great Guild of St. Mary, (from which it gained its present name) who would hold it for another three centuries. Later, it would have even more uses, including a maltings, shops, a school and a church.
Oddly enough, this site on the High Street was not Lincoln’s last brush with royalty and their palaces. Some 250 years after the construction of St. Mary’s Guildhall, another palace was constructed, this time by John of Gaunt, directly across the street from where the Guildhall sits.
John of Gaunt (Gaunt is and anglicized form of Ghent, in modern Belgium, where he was born) was a powerful figure in 14th century England. The son of Edward III and brother of the Black Prince, Edward, Prince of Wales, John of Gaunt (known as the Duke of Lancaster) was a key figure in the regency of the young King Richard II, father of future king Henry IV, and ancestor to all English monarchs to the present day.
A very powerful and extremely wealthy man — a modern assessment of his wealth, taking into account inflation, has put his net-worth around £110 billion — John had several palatial compounds constructed in literally every county of England and dozens more throughout France.
As a city of great importance, it was essential for John of Gaunt to maintain a home in Lincoln, which he did. The history of the site, however, is unknown after his death and was only discovered by archaeologists in 1960.
It is interesting to note, however, that the guildhall at St. Mary’s was at one point known as ‘Jon O’Gaunt’s stables,’ possibly referring to the integration of parts of the previous royal palace of Henry II during the period.