Battle of Fornham
This idyllic picture of the River Lark drawn in 1835 hides the dark secret of this landscape, the setting for a battle between forces of King Henry II, lead by Robert de Lucy and the rebels lead by Robert de Beaumont 3rd Earl of Leicester, as part of the ‘Great Revolt’ of 1173-4.
Henry II had many children both legitimate and illegitimate. Henry II’s heir apparent, Henry the ‘Young King’, seeing his power and wealth diminishing, and aggrieved by his Father’s treatment of Thomas Becket, took action. The Young King withdrew from his father’s court and gained the support of France, Flanders and Scotland, as well as English Barons who had an eye to increasing their own wealth. His brothers Richard and Geoffrey and his mother Eleanor (of Aquitane) supported him in the ensuing rebellion.
In 1173 the young Henry and his allies made a failed invasion of Normandy, his ally William the Lion of Scotland also failed in the North of England. The Earl of Leicester, back from Normandy gathered an army of Flemish mercenaries, possibly weavers and tradesmen who had an eye to increasing trade and who were not experienced fighters. The Earl landed at Walton near Felixstowe, where Hugh Bigod 1st Earl of Norfolk held a castle. The Earl marched on to Bigod’s castle at Framlingham, where it is said that Hugh and his son Roger Bigod disagreed as to their allegiances. Leicester (and possibly Hugh) continued West to take Haughley Castle.
At this time a truce was called with William of Scotland, and Robert de Lucy Lord Chief Justice of England marched South towards Bury St Edmunds. Under him were Humphrey de Bohun, Reginald, Earl of Cornwall, and the Earls of Gloucester and Arundel. An army of about 1500 men was mustered at Bury St Edmunds and marched out of the North and Risby gates towards Fornham Bridge to set up position probably on the high ground near the road leading to Barton.
The Earl of Leicester, wanting to avoid Bury travelled cross-county heading for his castle at Leicester. He approached Fornham with the large force of mercenaries. It is thought that floods on the River Lark caused him to eventually accept battle at Fornham in October 1173.
With untrained men, Leicester’s battle failed, and it is said that villagers from Fornham assisted the King’s men in the battle. Many mercenaries were killed, and the wife of the Earl was felled from her horse. The Earl surrendered and was lodged in Bury before he and his wife were sent to Normandy.
Hugh Bigod negotiated with the King’s supporters and managed to attain a safe passage home for the surviving mercenaries. However, with the continuation of the revolt Bigod joined with Philip of Flanders in 1174 and attacked Norwich. Henry II returned to England, destroyed Walton Castle and headed for Framlingham. On hearing of this Bigod surrendered. Framlingham Castle, then a motte and bailey, was dismantled and Bigod was fined. It is possible that Hugh Bigod’s punishment was light because his son, Roger had fought for the King at Fornham.