Nicola de la Haye, Sheriff of Lincoln

Nicola de la Haye, from Lincolnshire, was the first female Sheriff of England and lived from ca. 1150 - 1230 in the High Medieval Era. Her name is also spelled Nicolaa de la Haye or as Nicola de la Haie.


Lincoln is situated in the middle of England, in the region called East Midlands. As the eldest daughter of three, she inherited not only vast lands in both England and Normandy from her father but also the post of hereditary constable of Lincoln Castle when he died in 1169. In this function, she by herself led her forces twice in defending Lincoln castle against prolonged sieges - first in 1191 and again in 1216/7.


In 1911, King Richard the Lionheart was away on crusade and had left the land in the hands of his untrustworthy Lord Chancellor William de Longchamp. The power and geographical position held by Nicola and her husband Gerard de Camville was desired by Longchamp for his own use. He ordered Camville to hand Lincoln Castle over and went to attack the fortress while Camville was away and only Nicola present. His forces included thirty knights, over 300 infantry troops and over forty snappers (combatants experienced in breaching fortifications). If Longchamp thought a castle defended under the leadership of a lone middle-aged woman without male relatives present, he was sorely mistaken. Nicola held out. Unfortunately, when Richard the Lionheart returned from captivity in 1194, the King sided with Longchamp and caused Nicola and her husband great troubles until he died in 1199.


Nicola then played an instrumental role under Richard's successor, King John (that King John, the evil ruler from the legends of Robin Hood and the Magna Carta). By being one of the few people of power to back King John against repeated rebellions, she helped shape the course of history.

John was awful and even by medieval standards a cruel ruler, although generous to his friends. He was ruthless and inept at politics, making about as many enemies as he lost crown territory square miles. Nonetheless Nicola de la Haye seems to have been a staunchly loyal character. John was kindly disposed towards her, they had known each other long and John had witnessed the injustices done to Nicola by his elder brother Richard and the treacherous Lord Chancellor. John never made the mistake of crossing Nicola and her husband. The couple remained on John's side throughout and even when Camville died in 1214, Nicola stayed politically active in John's services. This was a significant risk to herself as the rebel barons had some successes against John and if John had been deposed Nicola would have lost everything. Yet even if this daunted her, it certainly did not deter her.


In 1216, when she was around 66, King John visited her castle and she told him (probably with both truth and performance) that she was now an old widow and that was unable to continue in office any longer. He replied: “My dear Nicola, I want you to hold on to the castle as you have so far, until I decide otherwise.” She was appointed Sheriff of Lincolnshire. If she really tried to retire this move went wrong for her, yet it seems more likely that it was a performance act by which she him, the King, publicly confirm her role. The same year of 1216 she came under siege again and held out until May 1217, when the rebel barons and their French allies were finally defeated. After John had died in the autumn of 1216, her loyalty was transferred to his successor Henry III. The affirmation of her role and good will by both John and Henry III were useful for Nicola in establishing her agency as even her own family tried to overthrow her at times. She had at least two daughters and a son. One of her granddaughter‘s husbands tried to usurp Nicola in her old age by trying to evict her and usurp her function as sheriff some time after her second besiegement. He was forced to hand both back to her, although the role of sheriff was ultimately taken from her.

Aged around 70, she retired to an estate of hers and lived there until her death around the age of 80 in c. 1230. She held vast lands and had lived through a highly turbulent time in English history right in the centre of the political action. A fascinating and undoubtedly formidable character, Nicolaa de la Haye and her life show that the stereotypes of the meek medieval woman are reductive. Nicola is a woman of privilege and her life is an individual story, but nonetheless she demonstrates that women in fact could have agency right in the middle of the action and were shrewd political allies.


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