The Historical Battle You’ve Never Heard Of

“What you’re standing in right now is effectively the kill zone.” Graham pauses for a moment for dramatic effect. Coincidentally, the cobbles he is standing on are coloured red, a detail which hasn’t escaped him. He gives a wry smirk, creasing his lined face into something warm and friendly.

I’m standing with my other potential raiders outside the gates. It’s a day so crisp that my fingers are having trouble gripping the pen which I’m using to write down what was just said. At least it’s not raining, although the sky looks threateningly dark and overcast. He says that where we are stood would have been the most well-defended place all around the walls, which is why most attacks came from the complete opposite direction.

I squint at the top of the dusty, faded yellow arch that belongs to Lincoln Castle, picturing it not with the red and white of the Saint George Cross proudly standing to attention in the wind, but instead bristling with sharp metal, envisioning arrows and crossbow bolts hissing down at me.

As the rest of the tour group and I make our way inside the walls, a chill breeze rolls in past the courthouse, making me draw my coat around myself tighter. Graham Line will say to me later after the tour that the walls of the arch are eight feet thick, and I will ask where the Normans got so much stone from, to which the answer is simply: “from the quarry.” Right, of course. He represents the Friends of Lincoln Castle charity, which organises events based on Lincoln’s history. “On special days, they let us dress up and you can be prisoners,” he says as we approach the building.

The Australian couple to my right make a joke about people from their country being descended from criminals. “You might feel very comfortable in our Victorian prison then,” says Graham, and we all laugh, our breath turning to steam in the air.
Lincoln Castle was ordered to be built by William the Conqueror in 1068, after he invaded England, but it wasn’t finished until the 1200’s. The first keep was built near old Roman fortifications, in a motte-and-bailey style. More refined defences stemmed from the original, eventually forming the castle seen today. However, 800 years ago this year, a battle was fought that played a pivotal role in the history of England.

An illustration that accompanied an account of the battle

In October 1216, nine-year-old Henry III became King of England. Almost immediately, his rule was threatened by civil war. His father John was a deeply unpopular king, causing rebellious barons to invite foreign armies into the country. A combined force of rebel English and French armies had taken hold of much of the country by May, only a handful of months into the boy king’s reign. One of the captured cities was Lincoln, however, the castle was still in the control of England, and under siege.

70-year-old William Marshal, regent to the king and first Earl of Pembroke, was tasked with leading the Royalist forces to break the siege. On May 20 1217, fierce fighting broke out near the castle’s East gate, opposite the cathedral, where I would come to stand freezing my extremities off hundreds of years later.

The French Comté-du-Perche (commander) had ordered an assault on the castle. Not long after the attack began, William Marshal arrived with the Royalists, smashing against the rebel forces and ending the fight for Lincoln that morning.

“It was common at that time to take hostages rather than killing, so you could trade them away for some of your own hostages or other things, such as gold,” Graham tells me. We have moved inside to the small room that precedes the gift shop, with polished miniature suits of armour glinting on a table next to us. Going inside was a mutual agreement judging by the redness of his nose. I’m thankful for the chance to massage my fingers back to life again. He peers at me over the top of the collar of his black waterproof coat, which is zipped up to the very top. A black hat sits atop his head. He smiles again. I motion for him to continue.

“The French commander was very valuable, but he just wouldn’t surrender at all – he kept fighting even though his men were almost all gone, and fought fearlessly. He got a dagger in the eye.” On asking him what happened after the battle, he says that the remaining French soldiers went back to their ships and sailed back to France. The battle was the turning point in what came to be known as the First Barons War, “and it’s the reason I’m not speaking French right now,” Graham attested.

Intrigue and a love for history compel me to investigate this battle further. Why do so few people know about it, if it is such a pivotal battle? I decide to visit the beautiful Tudor-style tourist information building after thanking Graham for his time. Inside the quaint crooked white walls lies a brightly lit room filled with patriotic knick knacks, as well as functional relics such as an A-Z road map.

“We asked ourselves about this, actually. One reason I think most people don’t know about the battle is that it isn’t really taught in schools,” Sarah Corrigan, who supplies tourist information, tells me. I reason that the First Barons’ War is a relatively unknown conflict in English history, therefore the Battle of Lincoln has a lower chance of being common knowledge. This might be due to the fact that it is simply overshadowed by more famous and romanticised wars.

As I step outside again, I take one final look at the castle. I have heard rumours that the French army is marching on Lincoln Castle again, on May 20. A defending force is being amassed as I write to throw them back. What’s unusual about this battle, is that there won’t be any casualties and anyone in the public can watch.


The story behind Lincoln Castle’s tiny observation tower

I’m not a particularly broad-shouldered man, but climbing the tight winding steps of Lincoln Castle’s Observation tower was no easy feat. Rubbing against my right shoulder was the central column which supported the minute staircase twisting far upwards; on my left, a cold metal railing. Water was a permanent fixture on each step, making the ascent much more treacherous.

When I reached the top, a blast of wind came to meet me, making me instinctively grab the railing to haul myself up the last few steps. But at last I had made it.

Built in the early 19th century, it marks the highest point in the castle, commanding a 360-degree view of the surrounding area that extends for miles in every direction. No one really knows why the tower was built, or what its original name was. However, it became known as simply the Observatory tower when the castle was being used as a prison. Gaol keeper John Merryweather was in charge from 1799 to 1830, during which time the tower was used to look for any potential escaped convicts. At least, that’s what it was officially known as. I went on a tour of the castle, where I found out what it was really used for.

“John Merryweather was a keen astronomer,” Graham, the tour guide, had told me, as a cold wind that made me stuff my hands deeper into my pockets rolled in. “The tower was built at around the time when telescopes were beginning to become popular.” He adjusted a black beanie on top of his head so that it covered his ears again. Breath rising in the air, he told me that Merryweather unofficially used the Observation tower as a personal observatory, where he indulged in his hobby regularly, when he wasn’t attending his duties as a gaoler, of course.

“The telescope pointed down as well as up,” Graham continued. “And it just so happened that the telescope pointed down into the prison grounds, into the women’s exercise yard.”

From the top of the tower, I could see where I lived. I quickly snapped a picture of the building from my vantage point and sent it to my flatmates before the rain came, thinking it would be at least slightly amusing or interesting to them.

They didn’t reply.