Friday 13 May 2016

Sinister omens & idle traditions: a twelfth-century superstition that the king of England must not enter Lincoln

The following note discusses a rather intriguing medieval superstition which states that the king of England must not enter the city of Lincoln for fear of calamity. Some of the key witnesses to this superstition are noted below, the earliest of them dating from the mid-1140s and the last from around 1201.

John Speed's proof plan of Lincoln, created at some point between 1603 and 1611, with east at the top of the plan. The former Roman walled city (Lincoln proper) lies on the left side of this plan, separated by the River Witham from on its Wigford suburb; according to Roger of Hoveden and William of Newburgh, it was in the latter suburb beyond the walls that Henry II was crowned, due to the superstition that a king of England may not enter the city of Lincoln. Click the image for a larger view of Speed's plan (image: Cambridge University). 

The first reference to a belief that the king of England ought not to enter the city of Lincoln comes from the fourth version of Henry of Huntingdon's Historia Anglorum (X.25), probably written in 1147, shortly after the event it relates. Henry describes the event as follows:
In the twelfth year, at Christmas [25 December 1146], King Stephen showed himself in the kingly regalia in the city of Lincoln, where no other king—deterred by superstitious persons—had dared to do so. This shows King Stephen possessed great boldness and a spirit that was not fearful of danger.
Needless to say, this is an intriguing statement, particularly given that Henry of Huntingdon was not only a contemporary source, but also a canon of Lincoln cathedral and clearly very familiar with the city and its clergy. As such, it would seem that this must have been a genuine superstition current in mid-twelfth-century Lincoln, and one that previous kings had, in fact, respected. Unfortunately, Henry offers no further details of this superstition, but two late twelfth-century historians from Yorkshire, William of Newburgh and Roger of Howden, pick up the tale and offer some relevant details and incidents. So, William of Newburgh—whose abbey had significant lands in north Lincolnshire—wrote the following expansion of Henry of Huntingdon's passage in 1196–7:
In the twelfth year of his reign, king Stephen having (as before-mentioned) wrested the city of Lincoln from the earl of Chester, was desirous of being solemnly crowned there on Christmas-day, wisely disregarding an ancient superstition, which forbade the kings of England from entering that city. On his proceeding into the town, without the least hesitation, he encountered no sinister omen, as that idle tradition had portended would be the case; but after having solemnized his coronation, he retired from it, after a few days, with joy, and contempt at this superstitious vanity.
This section is best understood as largely derivative of Henry's account and adds little of substance, aside from an apparent clarification of the nature of the superstition, indicating that it did not simply relate to the wearing of a crown in Lincoln, but rather the king of England's entry into the city at all. Perhaps more important, however, is the evidence offered by both William of Newburgh and Roger of Howden for the continuing existence of this superstition at Lincoln into the reigns of Henry II and John. With regard to the former reign, Roger of Howden—who wrote and revised his work between the early 1170s and 1201—offers the following account:
In the year of grace 1158, being the fourth year of the reign of king Henry, son of the empress Matilda, the said king Henry caused himself to be crowned a second time at Lincoln without the walls of the city, at Wikeford.
William of Newburgh relates the same event and suggests that the reason for Henry's crown-wearing outside of Lincoln's walls was the previously mentioned 'ancient superstition':
In the fifth year of his reign, Henry, the illustrious king of England, was solemnly crowned at Lincoln on Christmas-day, not within the walls, indeed, on account, I suppose, of that ancient superstition which king Stephen (as before related) laudably condemned and ridiculed, but in a village adjoining the suburbs.
There are two particular points of interest here. First and foremost, if William is correct, then this would indicate that the superstition not only survived into Henry II's reign, but that Henry II actually indulged it, unlike his immediate predecessor. Second, the place where Henry was crowned outside the walls of the city is named as Wikeford. This name is that of the medieval Lincoln suburb of Wigford, which lies just to the south of both the Witham and the walled town and seems to have seen a notable degree of activity during the Anglo-Scandinavian and medieval periods. As to where in Wigford the crown-wearing took place, it was suggested in the nineteenth century that the church of St Mary-le-Wigford—possibly founded in the second half of the tenth century by the mercantile elite of Lincoln—may have been the site in question. Alternatively, it has been more recently argued that Henry II actually had a royal town-house (hospicium) constructed in the 1150s a little further to the south and away from the city, at St Mary's Guildhall next to St Peter-at-Gowts, and that it was at this newly built and interestingly extramural royal residence that the crown-wearing ceremony took place.

The eleventh-century tower of St Mary-le-Wigford church, Lincoln (photo: C. R. Green)

St Mary's Guildhall & St Peter-at-Gowts in 1784, by Samuel Hieronymus Grimm (image: Wikimedia Commons).

The final probable reference to this superstition comes from Roger of Howden, writing in 1201, who appears to allude to it when describing King John's visit to Lincoln in 1200 to receive the homage of William, king of Scotland:
On the tenth day before the calends of December, being the fourth day of the week, John, king of England, fearlessly, and contrary to the advice of many of his followers, entered the cathedral church of Lincoln, and offered on the altar of St John the Baptist, in the new buildings there, a gold chalice. After this, on the same day, he and William, king of the Scots, met for a conference, outside the city of Lincoln, upon a lofty hill.
Although Roger doesn't mention the 'ancient superstition' explicitly, the fact that John is said to have entered the cathedral—located in the walled Upper City—'fearlessly' and 'contrary to the advice of many of his followers' strongly suggests that the superstition survived to this point and was a matter of concern to some of John's entourage. Moreover, as W. A. B. Coolidge points out, it may also be noteworthy that John subsequently retreated 'outside the city of Lincoln' to a 'lofty hill' to receive the homage of William.

We thus have a rather interesting trail of evidence, suggesting that there was a genuine superstition warning against the king of England entering Lincoln wearing his crown, or perhaps even entering it at all, which was current in at least the 1140s and perhaps continued to carry weight through to the reign of John. As to its origins, these are likely to remain mysterious, although one could speculate whether the story might have something to do with the stories of independent kings of Lincoln and Lindesi that appear in the twelfth-century Havelok tale and other medieval Lincolnshire sources, arguably reflecting a continuing memory in Lincolnshire folklore of the genuine pre-Viking kingdom of Lindissi/Lindsey. Interestingly, two other cities—Leicester and Oxford—are also said to be the subject of similar superstitions, although as these superstitions are only recorded by authors of the thirteenth to fifteenth centuries, it might be wondered whether they are not somehow derivative of the Lincoln tradition recorded by Henry of Huntingdon and William of Newburgh.

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