Within 10 weeks of sealing of Magna Carta in 1215, King John went back on the promises made in it, leading the country to fall into civil war. The English barons became divided between those supporting the crown and a group of rebel barons who invited Prince Louis, the son of the French king, to take the English throne. Louis brought an invading force over the Channel in May 1216 landing in Kent, and commencing the First Barons’ War.
In October 1216, King John died leaving his 9-year-old son, Henry III, as the next King of England. But the England he inherited was divided: the whole of the East of the country, between Dover and Lincoln, including the City of London, was under the control of the French and the rebel Barons. Lincoln and Dover Castles, however, held out for the royalist cause.
William Marshal, 1st Earl of Pembroke and 70-year-old regent to the king, requested all loyal knights to join him at Newark to relieve the siege of Lincoln. And on the morning of the 20th May 1217, he marched with his troops to Lincoln Castle.
Crossbowmen loyal to the king entered the castle, with the knights and their sergeants entering the city at Newport Arch and Westgate. The French chose to stand on Castle Hill and it was here that the main action of the battle ensued. The French commander, the Comte Du Perche, was killed in front of Lincoln Cathedral, and the French and rebel barons retreated down Steep Hill.
The Royalists claimed victory and, as retribution for giving refuge to the French and rebel barons, sacked the city; giving rise to the chronicler’s ironic nickname for the battle, "the Battle of Lincoln Fair".
The battle was the turning point in the First Barons’ War and led to Prince Louis returning to France for good having signed the Treaty of Lambeth in September 1217.
If the French forces and rebel barons had won this battle, England could well have had King Louis I, and not Henry III, on the throne in the 13th century, and England's native tongue could have become French. Some academics consider this battle to be as important as the Battle of Hastings and the Battle of Britain, in terms of its significance on the course of English history.
Magna Carta, which many believe has provided the blueprint for democracy across the world, in particular the constitution of the United States of America, would have been lost to history had the battle been lost. However, with Henry III on the throne, it was re-issued in November 1217 alongside a complementary charter: the Charter of the Forest.
The 1217 Battle of Lincoln took place between two of Lincoln’s architectural gems: Lincoln Cathedral and Lincoln Castle. You can visit other key locations in the battle surrounding these landmarks by using Visit Lincoln's digital trail.
To mark the 800th anniversary of this key date in Lincoln and England's history, summer 2017 will see the Lincoln Knights’ Trail on display – a trail of 36 knight sculptures, sponsored by local businesses. Each one, painted by a talented artist, will be auctioned at Lincoln Cathedral to raise money for the Nomad Trust to help the homeless of Lincoln when the trail has ended. To find out more, visit the Lincoln Knights’ Trail website.