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As the city was burned, God and his angels slept

By Lincolnshire Echo  |  Posted: July 11, 2013

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The blood ran down the gutters of Steep Hill, the houses along Michaelgate were a mass of flames while the screams of the dying and wounded filled the air.

The French mercenaries had got into the city through Newport Arch and had spread out through Lincoln to kill, loot, rape and burn.

The carnage had started around 4pm, it was now past midnight and still the killing went on. Sunday, February 2, 1141, was a very bad day to be in Lincoln.

The sacking that followed the Battle of Lincoln was one of the worst atrocities of the civil war fought during the reign of King Stephen in the 12th century.

It was this brutal event, more than any other, that caused a contemporary chronicler to declare that "God and His angels slept".

The tragic day had begun very quietly. The city of Lincoln had declared itself loyal to King Stephen against his cousin, Matilda, who also claimed the throne of England.

Earl Ranulf, the lord of Lincoln Castle, had chosen to support Matilda and was now on the run.

He had left a small force of men in the castle to hold it and now King Stephen himself had arrived to lay siege to the fortress.

The Royal army was billeted in the town, with a camp outside for the horses and equipment.

There had not been much fighting since the castle defences were strong but Stephen was in no hurry. He could afford to wait until hunger forced Ranulf's men to surrender.

Soon after dawn on February 2, Stephen's scouts rode in from the south to report that an army was approaching.

They had made out the banners of Earl Ranulf and those of Earl Robert of Gloucester – the leading rebel commander – but there were others as well.

In fact, the approaching army was the main force mustered by Matilda that included several English nobles, Welsh conscripts and French mercenaries.

Stephen was outnumbered but he did not allow that to deter him. He was a talented military commander and he had with him the royal army of England, plus several earls together with their battle-hardened troops.

Stephen marched his army out to take up a strong position on the hill west of the castle.

William of Ypres commanded the mounted knights on the flank, while Stephen led the armoured infantry in the centre. His central command post was probably about where Whitton Park is today. From this strong position he defied his enemies to attack him.

Gloucester, Ranulf and their army crossed the Fossdyke near the current racecourse grandstand. The Welsh were sent forward first to skirmish with their javelins and arrows.

Stephen shook off this attack and a charge by some mounted knights that followed. William of Ypres then led Stephen's knights forward to disperse the Welsh. Earl Ranulf saw a chance and led a disciplined charge by his own knights. The assault hit Ypres like a battering ram, scattering Stephen's mounted men and driving them off to the north.

Without his mounted knights, Stephen was now at a disadvantage. His best chance to was to retreat back within the city walls of Lincoln. He gave the order to fall back but it was too late. Gloucester led a party of knights charging up and around Stephen's infantry to block the route back to Newport Arch. Ranulf now returned from his pursuit and brought up the rebel infantry.

Stephen was surrounded but still he fought on. He fought with a great battleaxe, wielded in both hands and with a blade eight inches across.

Even though his army was fleeing or surrendering, Stephen fought doggedly on. Several men died at Stephen's hand before he slipped on a patch of mud and was wrestled to the ground by a knight named William Kahamnes.

As Stephen went down, Ranulf's men stormed into the city of Lincoln and the terrible sack began. Robert of Gloucester tried to stop the slaughter, knowing that such violence would make other cities less likely to surrender.

It was well after midnight before Robert's men had got the situation under control.

How many citizens of Lincoln died that night is unknown but some estimates put it as high as a quarter of the population.

The Battle of Lincoln did not end the civil war. William of Ypres was still on the loose and before long he had raised a new army loyal to Stephen. It would not be until 1153 that peace came, with a treaty that made Stephen king for his lifetime on condition he left the crown to Matilda's son, who became King Henry II when Stephen died.

The Battle of Lincoln 1141 by Rupert Matthews has been published by Bretwalda Books. It is priced at £4.99 and is available from all good book shops and online.

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