Being a battle fought on the the feast of the Purification of St Mary, that is the 2nd February, in the year 1141 between Stephen king of England and the earls Ranulf and Robert supporters of Matilda the rival claimant for the throne.

The Background

Stephen was officially king of England and had been since the year 1135, but was opposed by Matilda, who with the assistance of her half-brother Robert of Gloucester in 1139 seized control of Bristol and much of the West Country. The country was therefore gripped in civil war with individual barons vacillating over which side to support.

The Road to Lincoln

It all began late in the year 1140 when Ranulf of Gernons the earl of Chester, and his half brother William of Roumare joined the rebellion against Stephen and captured Lincoln Castle. The capture of the castle was achieved through a simple stratagem; they both sent their wives on a friendly visit to the castle, so that when Ranulf appeared with three escorts ostensibly to escort the women home he was readily admitted. Once inside however, Ranulf and his men overpowered the guards, seized control of the gatehouse and admitted William who then arrived with a small force of knights to seize control of both the castle and the city of Lincoln itself.

Stephen was understandably not pleased when he heard the news, and after Christmas he assembled an army, and marched on Lincoln. He soon seized control of the town and laid siege to the castle still occupied by Ranulf of Gernons and his brother. Ranulf however managed to escape during the night and sped back to Chester to raise an army of his own. Naturally he made contact with Robert of Gloucester1 and also managed to raise a significant contribution from Wales as well.

Meanwhile Stephen busied himself with the construction of siege engines and made plans to retake the castle, whilst the earls of Chester and Gloucester combined forces and marched on Lincoln to raise the siege.

The battle

King Stephen soon became aware that he was threatened by a large force, but to give him his due, declined the advice of those that urged him to either flee or seek a truce, and decided to stay and fight. The core of Stephen's force was composed of some Breton and Flemish mercenaries, under the command of William of Ypres and Alan of Dinan respectively, and Stephen may well have believed that with such professional troops on his side he had little to fear.

Against him was the combined force of the two earls Ranulf of Gernons of Chester and Robert of Gloucester together with a large force of Welsh foot soldiers comprising around a third of their total force. This "fierce mob of Welshmen" as described by Orderic Vitalis or as the anonymous author of the Gestae Stephani calls them "a dreadful and unendurable mass of Welsh", clearly made an impression on the contemporary imagination. The appearance of a large force of Welsh troops as far east as Lincoln was obviously a terrifying prospect.2

Stephen sent some of his troops forward to attempt to prevent the army of the two earls from crossing a nearby ford, but the opposition charged his lines, seized the ford and proceeded to engage the main body of his army. It soon became clear that Stephen was in danger of losing.

According to Orderic Vitalis "the enemy were more powerful because of their numerous foot-soldiers and the Welshmen". The two earls therefore seemed to have had the advantage of numbers and they rapidly made it tell. Seeing the tide of battle favouring the other side both William of Ypres and Alan of Dinan made their excuses and left. Once they'd gone a number of other Norman and English knights abandoned Stephen as well.

Orderic Vitalis makes it clear that a number of Stephen's supporters were not that enthusiastic and rather hedged their bets, "In that battle treachery ran wild. Some of the magnates joined the king with only a handful of their men and sent the main body of their retainers to secure the victory for their adversaries."

Stephen however fought on do the bitter end with a few faithful knights3 until finally he bowed to the inevitable and surrendered to Robert of Gloucester, who naturally handed over this valuable prize to his half-sister Matilda.

After the battle

When the citizens of Lincoln heard of the king's defeat, many of them abandoned their homes and fled towards the nearby river and sought to escape by boat across the water, but many were drowned when the boats capsized in the general panic to escape.4

Actually those that fled had the right idea, for as soon as the battle was over, "Earl Ranulf and the other victors then entered the city and sacked it like barbarians; they slaughtered like cattle all the rest of the citizens they could find or capture, putting them to death in different ways without mercy or humanity."

Having been captured Stephen was taken prisoner and taken to Gloucester before being locked up in Bristol Castle under the firm grip of his rival Matilda. With Stephen now out of action Matilda could (and did) consider herself queen of England. She travelled to Winchester where the assembled clergy hailed her as the Lady of the English before proceeding to London where she began arrangements for her coronation. Unfortunately for Matilda her general arrogance and petulant demands for money soon angered the citizens of London sufficiently that they rose up against her and drove her out.

To make matters worse, Stephen's wife who confusingly was also named Matilda raised an army herself, and managed to defeat and capture Robert of Gloucester at the battle of Winchester. Matilda, as in Matilda the Empress was forced to release Stephen in exchange for her brother Robert which put her back at square one.

What it all meant

Had Matilda succeeeded in maintaining her grip on London and establishing her position as queen of England then the Battle of Lincoln would likely be celebrated as the turning point of the conflict, and a key event in British history when the Angevin dynasty replaced that of the Norman.

As it was a few hundred people died, Lincoln was sacked and looted but whatever advantage Matilda gained by the victory was thrown away by her inability to understand that merely being the daughter of Henry I was insufficient in itself to make her queen.


1 Ranulf of Gernons later married Maud the daughter of Robert of Gloucester

2 The Welsh force under the command of Maredudd ap Madog ab Idnerth and his brother Cadwgan ap Madog from the kingdom of Cynllibiwg in mid Wales

3 Named by Orderic Vitalis as Baldwin of Clare, Richard Fitz Urse, Engelram of Sai, and Ilbert of Lacy, who "stood loyally by the king in the battle and fought courageously with him to the end."

4 Around five hundred of the citizens drowned compared to the battle itself where only around a hundred or so men were actually killed.


The ecclesiastical history of Orderic Vitalis, edited and translated with introduction and notes by Marjorie Chibnall, (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1968-1980) From which the above quotations are derived except where indicated otherwise.
Gesta Stephani, edited and translated by K.R. Potter (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1976)
Historia novella : the contemporary history, by William of Malmesbury, edited by Edmund King; translated by K.R. Potter (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998)
Historia Anglorum : the history of the English people, by Henry of Huntingdon; edited by Diana Greenway (Oxford: Clarendon Press/Oxford University Press, 1996)

See the website accessed 09 Jan 2003 for these texts.

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