17 October 1173: The Battle of Fornham

‘I have been concerned here to record what I know from personal experience of the events that took place in St Edmund’s church in my time, describing the bad deeds as well as the good, to provide both warning and example. I begin in the year in which the Flemings were taken prisoner outside the town…’
With these words Jocelin of Brakelond begins his Chronicle of the Abbey of Bury St Edmunds and adds that 1173 was the year when he himself entered the monastery. Following suit, Jocelin must have known every detail of the battle that was fought at nearby Fornham St. Genevive on 17 October 1173, the first serious defeat of Henry the Young King’s forces on English soil in the rebellion against his father, and probably, as John D. Hosler points out ‘the most decesive battle’ in Henry II’s reign.

‘… on the fourth of July, by the king’s command, the city of Leicester is said to have been besieged, because the earl, its lord, had left the king and taken part with the young king his son’ (Roger of Wendover, Flowers of History, Vol II, p.25) Robert de Beaumont, Earl of Leicester chose not to follow in his father’s [also Robert] footsteps and did not become as staunch supporter of Henry II as his father had been. In fact when the king’s sons’ rebellion broke out in 1173 [known today as the Great Revolt of 1173-1174] he, according to William of Newburgh, ‘had been the first to desert the king’ and stand firmly on the Young King’s side, becoming one of his chief allies. Robert’s defeat at Fornham was a great blow to young Henry and to the rebellion in general.

Robert, together with his wife, Petronella- who ‘by her decision, talents, and energy, was a fit match for her warlike earl’- were staying in Flanders at the time when Henry II’s forces laid siege to Leicester. Upon receiving the news the earl and the countess set sail for England at the head of a large force of Flemings and Normans, ‘both horse and foot’, landing at Walton in Suffolk on 29 September. Immediately upon their arrival they joined forces with Hugh Bigod, Earl of Norfolk- whom Newburgh calls ‘a powerful and crafty man’- at the latter’s castle of Framlingham. Together the earls laid siege to Hakeneck, the castle of Ranulph de Broc and took it. At the time Richard de Luci, justicier of England together with Humphrey de Bohun and a large force, was stationing in the North ravaging the Lothians, land of the king of Scotland. However, upon learning of the earl of Leicester arrival in England, de Luci made truce with the Scots until the feast of Saint Hilary and hurried southwards. In the meantime earl Robert left Framlingham and set off for Leicester. The two armies met ‘on the road between Thetford and Bury St Edmunds’, where, shortly before the justicier joined forces with Reginald, earl of Cornwall, the king’s uncle, Robert, earl of Gloucester, and William, earl of Arundel. The fierce battle followed described by Roger of Howden in his Annals:

‘[The earl of Leicester] … came with his army to a place near St. Edmund’s, which is known as Fornham, situated on a piece of marshy ground, not far from the church of St. Genevive. On his arrival being known, the earl, with a considerable force, and Humphrey de Bohun with three hundred knights, soldiers of the king, went forth armed for battle to meet the earl of Leicester, carrying before them the banner of St Edmund the king and Martyr as their standard. The ranks being drawn up in battle array, by virtue of the aid of God and of his most glorious Martyr Saint Edmund, they attacked the line in which the earl of Leicester had taken his position, and in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, the earl of Leicester was vanquished and taken prisoner, as also his wife and Hugh des Chateaux, a nobleman of kingdom of France, and all their might was utterly crushed. There fell in this battle more than ten thousand Flemings, while all the rest were taken prisoners and, being thrown into prison in irons, were there starved to death. As for the earl of Leicester and his wife and Hugh des Chateaux, and the rest of the more wealthy men who were captured with them, they were sent into Normandy to the king the father; on which the king placed them at Falaise, and Hugh, earl of Chester, with them.’ (p.375)

Having been, as he claimed, the eye witness and participant of the events [he wrote that a year later, in 1174, he was before the walls of Alnwick when the king of Scotland was surprised and captured] and writing shortly after the Great Revolt, a Winchester clerk Jordan Fantosme, in his Chronicle of the War Between the English and the Scots in 1173 and 1174, provides us with yet further detail. Thanks to him we know the earl of Leicester’s movements after he landed in England and before he was captured at Fornham. We know that both Leicester and Norfolk laid siege to Dunwich in the county of Suffolk, ‘a celebrated town on the sea-coast noted for various kinds of merchandise- as William of Newburgh noted- and were met with fierce resistance, when the citizens, ‘transformed into hardy knights’- ‘there was within the town neither maid or woman who did not carry a stone to the palisade to cast’- all fought tooth and nail to save their town. ‘And so brave were the great and the little/ That earl Robert went away quite scorned’. When all their assaults failed, the earls abandoned the siege and turned to pillage the Hugh’s lands in Norfolk. Some time later earl Robert made a decision to go to Leicester. He was full aware of the dangers awaiting him on the way, the country being hostile to him, but following the advice of his wife, Petronella and Hugh de Ferrieres, earl of Derby, and hearing the Flemings remonstrating that: ‘We have not come to this country to dwell/ But to destroy King Henry the old warrior/ And to have his wool, which we desire’, he no longer hesitated. Putting confidence in the number and valour of his companions composed of 80 horsemen and 4000/5000 foot soldiers, Robert marched to Leicester. He seemed to forget that the ‘valour’ of his companions was rather doubtful for they were, in greater part, weavers, not knowing ‘how to bear arms like knights’. The Flemings did not get the wool they so much desired. Instead, being mercenaries, and the mercenaries in circumstances of defeat they received the most brutal treatment. They met their cruel and gruesome end when the villagers finished them off in the massacre that followed the battle of Fornham. ‘There was in the country neither villager nor clown/ who did not go to destroy the Flemings with fork and flail … by fifteen, by forties, by hundreds and by thousands/ by main force they make them tumble into the ditches … Upon their bodies descend crows and buzzards/ who carry away the souls to the fire which ever burns’. As Matthew Strickland points out in his War and Chivalry, in the twelfth century it was the most common practice to spare the rebel noble’s life and take him [or her] captive with possibility of ransom whereas, cut down his poor mercenary, his only consolation being ‘the priest of Saint Siward’ saying mass for his soul.

One can hardly doubt that Jordan was at Fornham that day, bearing witness or even taking part in the battle. How else could he provide us with such a detail? According to him the engagement was begun by Walter Fitz Robert who ‘first encountered the Flemings and put [them] into a bad way’. Here follows further description of the actions taken by the leaders of Henry II’s army, providing the invaluable information about the men themselves. The earl of Arundel, ‘of great pride’, who ‘never loved delay’; sir Humphrey de Bohun of ‘very great cleverness … and … of very great consequence’, who caused ‘to the king of Scotland the loss of Berwick’; finally young Roger Bigod, the eldest son of Leicester’s ally, earl of Norfolk, who never in his life had so great a desire for anything as to destroy Flemings, ‘whom I see coming here’. Jordan also does not miss to comment what befell the proud and formidable Leicester’s wife. Petronella, fully armed, carrying the shield and lance, tried to escape, but ‘met with a ditch where she was almost drowned’, and she would have, had not Simon de Vahull lifted her up, saying:

‘Lady, come away with me, give up that idea
Thus it fares in war, to lose or to gain’

By ‘that idea’ Simon meant that Petronella wished to drown herself intentionally. She left her rings ‘in the midst of the mud … Never will they be found in all her life.’ Roger of Wendover provides further detail, claiming that ‘the countess had on her finger a beautiful ring, which she flung into the neighbouring river [the Lark], rather than suffer the enemy to make such gain by capturing her’.

What both Jordan Fantosme and Roger of Wendover could not have predicted- although Jordan was close claiming that the Countess’s ring would never be found in all her life- was that seven centuries later Thomas Carlyle would claim that ‘in the river Lark itself was fished up, within man’s memory, an antique gold ring; which fond Dilettantism can almost believe may have been the very ring Countess Leicester threw away in her flight, into that same river Lark or ditch’. He would also mention ‘copper pennies of Henry II’ still found on the site in his times ‘rotted out from the pouches of poor slain soldiers, who had not had time to buy liquor with them’, and the discovery of ‘a circular mound of skeletons wonderfully complete, all radiating from a centre, faces upwards, feet inwards … and evidently the fruit of battle, for many of the heads were cleft, or had arrow-holes in them’ under the roots of an enormous ash-tree ‘grown quite corpulent, bursten, superfluous, but long a fixture in the soil’.

To sum up what befell the earl of Leicester’s army at Fornham St. Genevive and in the memories of posterity, let me quote the Suffolk Literary Chronicle: It is beneath the mounds of earth which stand up like solitary monuments of a far earlier age, at Fornham St. Genevive, that the slaughtered of that day are entombed. The gleams of the summer’s sun, and the storms of winter pass over these solitary sepulchers from year to year, and from century to century. The traveler passes these lonely tombs unheading the story of their mouldering tenants. Even the villagers living close to their green precinets are ignorant of the history of the great fight, whose victims lie beneath the heaped up turf. Below the sod, hovever sleep the remains of thousands of stalwart men, knights and barons of a foreign chivalry, who left their native land to leave their bones upon a foreign soil’ (p.141)


Chronicle of the War Between the English and the Scots in 1173 and 1174 by Jordan Fantosme translated into English by Francisque Michel

Roger of Wendover’s Flowers of History Vol. II translated into English by J. A. Giles

Chronicle of the Abbey of Bury St Edmunds by Jocelin of Brakelond trans. by Diana Greenway and Jane Sayers

William of Newburgh in English Historical Documents 1833-1874 ed. by David Douglas and G.W.Greenaway

The Annals of Roger de Hoveden trans. by Henry T. Riley

Arms and the Men: War, Loyalty and Lorship in Jordan Fantosme’s Chronicle” by Matthew Strickland in Medieval Knighthood IV Ed. by Christopher Harper-Bill & Ruth Harvey

War and Chivalry. The Conduct and Perception of War in England and Normandy 1066-1217 by Matthew Strickland

Henry II: A Medieval Soldier at War, 1147-1189 by John D. Hosler

Past and Present, and Sartor Resartus by Thomas Carlyle

The Historic Sites of Suffolk” in The Suffolk Literary Chronicle. A Collection of Miscellaneous Literature and of Original and Selected Papers Relating to the County. Vol. I, 1838, printed and published by John King


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