The Sacking of Nottingham 1140

Ryan Denton

The Anarchy

The Anarchy was a civil war that was fought between 1135 and 1153, which resulted in the widespread breakdown of law and order across the kingdom. The conflict was a succession crisis precipitated by the drowning of William Ætheling, the only legitimate son and heir of Henry I, in the White Ship disaster in 1120. King Henry I’s attempts to install his daughter, the Empress Matilda, as his successor were unsuccessful and on Henry's death in 1135, his nephew Stephen of Blois seized the English throne, triggering a civil war. It was during this civil war that Nottingham was sacked in 1140. Nottingham Castle, established following the Norman Conquest, served as one of the most important castles in England due to its strategic location near the River Trent, and guarded a vital route to Northern England. The strategic importance of the castle at Nottingham became extremely apparent during the long-drawn out and bloody conflict that would become the Anarchy. The ruler of the Castle at the time, was William Peveril the Younger. During the anarchy, William Peveril the Younger had pledged himself to King Stephen, and his participation at the Battle of Standard likely led to one of Empress Matilda's leading figures in her faction, Robert 1st Earl of Gloucester, to march upon Nottingham. In the September of 1140, Robert of Gloucester and his forces reached Nottingham. Nottingham at this time was home to around 2,000 people and was undefended – no town walls or gates had been built to defend the town. The only military presence near to the town was the garrison stationed within Nottingham Castle. And so with the town undefended, the inhabitants chose to flee, those who could not flee, sought sanctuary within the town’s churches of St Mary’s, St Peter’s and St Nicholas’. The Earl of Gloucester’s forces, led by the Norman Knight, William Paganel (also Paynel) were ordered to seize the town and its castle in the name of Matilda.
The Sacking of Nottingham 1140
Empress Matilda

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The Sacking of Nottingham 1140
King Stephen

Invasion of Nottingham

Upon entering the town, the forces of the Earl of Gloucester discovered the town virtually undefended and Nottingham was at their mercy. The 18th Century historian Charles Deering gives the following account in his History of Nottingham; ‘This same year [1140] the Earl of Gloucester...with great power invaded the town of Nottingham, and spoiled it, the townsmen were taken, slain or burnt in the churches, whereunto they fled’. In most accounts of the event the following is said to have occurred, one of the wealthier citizens of Nottingham was forced to surrender his gold and led his captors into the cellar of his house. It is known that the citizen was named Sveyn, a moneyer who worked at Nottingham’s Mint, and whose house was located where today’s Commerce Square is sited. Sweyn promised to show his tormentors where his treasure was hidden, and lead them through into a rock-hewn basement underneath his house, and in this basement he declared they would find his wealth. The soldiers began to search and explore the dark cellar allowing Sweyn to evade his captors. Once the soldiers were firmly inside, he bolted the door behind him and fled. Before doing so whoever, Sweyn is said to have set fire to his own home to burn those that tried to seize his wealth. The result was a disaster, as the fire caught hold of the timber home, it began to spread to the neighbouring properties, and eventually most of Nottingham was ablaze. As a result of the loss to his own men during the sacking and subsequent fire, Earl Robert of Gloucester, arrested and captured many of Nottingham’s surviving citizens and notable residents, and marched them to Gloucester to be held captive and presumably held to ransom. Those who hadn’t been captured, and had sought refuge within the town’s churches perished in the flames. Hundreds of civilians are believed to have burned alive within its structures, and many of the town’s buildings were destroyed including the town’s churches. The destruction and devastation was most evident at St Peter’s Church where a large number of residents had sought refuge, and were trapped within its walls. It is unknown the exact number of people who perished in the sacking. The fire and sacking of Nottingham proved to be a blessing for Nottingham Castle, as the destruction and chaos caused by the fire, had saved the castle from a siege by Earl Robert of Gloucester. Five months later William Peveril the Younger and King Stephen were captured at the battle of Lincoln in 1141, and Nottingham Castle was surrendered to Empress Matilda’s forces as part of the uneasy peace arrangements, with William Paganel becoming custodian of Nottingham Castle. The Anarchy culminated with the Treaty of Wallingford in 1153, in which King Stephen recognised Henry, the son of Empress Matilda as his heir. It was during the reign of King Henry II, that Nottingham would be granted, and would construct a town wall to prevent a future calamity on the scale of 1140.
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The Sacking of Nottingham 1140

Ryan Denton

Ryan is a keen local historian, who studied History at York St John University, and has a real passion for his local city and county. Ryan shares his passion for local history at HistorywithHrothgar on Instagram and Twitter, talking about the history of Nottingham and Nottinghamshire, covering a range of historic topics and events ranging from cheese riots, famous locals, folklore, and lost buildings.
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