Vicious battle fought near Bury St Edmunds that claimed the lives of thousands was little known until Battlefields Trust enthusiasts got involved
It feels so peaceful now - gazing across the lush green of a golf course - you can scarcely imagine the horror, turmoil and bloodshed that once unfolded here.
But this is where, on an October day 850 years ago, thousands of people died.
No-one knows how many bodies lie buried beneath the greens and fairways, or the meadows beyond.
One thing is certain. A lot of blood soaked into this ground, which has held its secrets for more than eight centuries.
A couple of miles north of Bury St Edmunds, where the River Lark meanders through the Suffolk countryside, is the site of one of the biggest and bloodiest battles ever fought on East Anglian soil.
On October 17, 1173, rebel troops clashed with the royalist army of King Henry II in the Battle of Fornham.
The result was the crushing defeat and wholesale slaughter of the rebels who found themselves trapped in the marshy ground beside the river.
Had they won, the course of history could have been very different.
But despite the scale of the battle it faded into the mists of time with its place in history forgotten even by people living close to the site in Fornham St Genevieve.
It was so little known that even the Battlefields Trust, which works to preserve and raise awareness of conflict sites, were only alerted to it when asked to comment on a nearby planning application.
But now, and especially in view of the 850th anniversary, they are working to make it better known.
Land where the conflict happened now sees nothing more dramatic than a battle to birdie the 18th on the golf course of All Saints Hotel. “The golf course protects the site,” says the trust’s director of operations David Austin, with East Anglian coordinator Robert Simmons adding that the hotel owners have been very supportive.
The area involved could stretch as far as the ruined church of Fornham St Genevieve, where the 14th century tower stands as a stark reminder of the old village demolished in the 18th century to give the occupant of Fornham Hall a better view.
The rest of the church burnt down but the tower was left as a feature of the revamped park.
In 1827 a macabre discovery was made near the church by workers felling a tree. The remains of at least 40, and possibly hundreds, of bodies buried on top of each other, with the skulls showing signs of violence, is thought to have been a mass burial of battle victims.
Over the last 150 years the area has given up a handful of finds - a dagger and spear in 1873, and a sword in 1876 - all now in Moyses Hall Museum in Bury.
And much more recently, in 2017, headlines were made when another sword was dredged out of the golf course pond.
It is now on display in the hotel, where the trust recently staged a study day about the battle. Suffolk County councillors Robert Everitt and Beccy Hopfensperger financed the event, plus two information boards, from their local budgets.
The Battle of Fornham was part of the revolt of 1173-4 which was sparked by a family feud between Henry II on one side and his wife - the formidable Eleanor of Aquitaine - and sons on the other.
Henry was not only king of England, he also ruled much of France with a kingdom stretching from the Pyrenees to the Scottish border.
This alarmed the French king, Louis VII, who was possibly also keen to stir up trouble because Eleanor was his ex-wife. She had been unhappy in the marriage, which was annulled in 1152. Eight weeks later she married Henry.
Meanwhile English barons were upset by tighter controls imposed by Henry, and many were enraged by the murder of Archbishop Thomas Becket in 1170.
The revolt began in France. Louis encouraged the king’s sons including his eldest, Henry, who had already been crowned as his successor, to rebel.
Other enemies of the king were quick to join in, among them William the Lion, king of Scotland, and four English earls.
The main battles were fought in France, and ended in peace talks. But Robert Beaumont, Earl of Leicester raised a large force of Flemish mercenaries and crossed to England where he landed at Walton.
He was joined by fellow rebel Hugh Bigod, Earl of Norfolk and they based themselves at Bigod’s castle at Framlingham. On October 13 Beaumont’s army attacked and destroyed the castle at Haughley, near Stowmarket.
The rebel army also rampaged through the area, plundering Bigod’s tenants which caused friction between the earls.
To make matters worse Beaumont’s wife Petronilla and Bigod’s wife Gundreda couldn’t stand each other.
Encouraged by Petronilla - whose opinion of the English was that they were better at drinking than fighting - Beaumont decided to march his forces back to his own castle at Leicester.
But as they looked for a way to cross the River Lark at Fornham, they walked into a deadly ambush. Intercepted by the king’s forces they had no choice but to stand and fight.
The royalists were led by Richard de Lucy, the Chief Justicular, and Humphrey de Bohun, the Lord High Constable.
With them were the knights of the abbot of Bury St Edmunds, led by the sacred banner of St Edmund held aloft by Roger Bigod, Hugh’s son, who had sided with the king.
Robert Simmons, East Anglia coordinator for the Battlefields Trust, said the river would have been much wider in the 12th century.
“The Lark was straightened and canalised around the time of the Industrial Revolution. Back then there was a lot of marshy ground.
“The royalists charged down on the rebels and drove 4,000 mostly Flemish soldiers behind what is now the sewage works and onto what is now the golf course.
“It’s thought that many drowned in the boggy ground, others were put to the sword.
Most of the deaths were on the north side of the river.”
Beaumont’s force was quickly overwhelmed. Local villagers also joined in the fray finishing off the fallen rebels and hunting down any who had fled.
Fear that Flemish weavers thought to have tagged along with the fighting force would threaten their wool trade could have partly accounted for the savagery,
The trust’s Suffolk coordinator Ian Wilson says: “One of the reasons the battle was so bloody was because it was Flemish mercenaries on the other side.
“There was a lot of fear about losing the wool trade, they feared the Flemings, there was fear of them taking over your property, burning your house, abusing your family.
“Villagers added themselves to the royalist troops - the knights knocked their enemies over and the peasants finished them off.
“The battle was over in the twinkling of an eye. It was quickly won but there were a lot of deaths afterwards.”
Accounts of the battle differ wildly on the number of dead. But it is likely to have been at least 4,000 - and possibly as many as 10,000.
Beaumont and his wife - who had ridden with him into battle wearing armour and equipped with a shield and lance - were captured and sent to the king in Normandy.
She is said to have been found in a ditch, and reportedly lost her ring on the battlefield. In 1811, a labourer found a gold ring set with a ruby which some believed was the one lost by Petronilla. Sadly it later disappeared.
Trust members point out that the history of battles tends to get written by the winners.
“Our current historians rely on the chroniclers of the time, none of whom were at the battle. It was all word of mouth and one or two would have been in the pay of Henry II,” said Robert.
“In the end Henry made up with his sons, less so with his wife. He locked her up for the next 10 years.”
The young Henry died before his father, who lived until 1189, when his second son Richard the Lionheart took the throne.
The Earl of Leicester was also released and went with Richard on the crusades, where he died.
David said that aristocrats were high value prisoners and tended to be ransomed.
“It’s fascinating how the nobility got recycled,” Robert adds. ”But the Earl of Norfolk didn’t do very well. Henry took against him and demolished Thetford castle.”
Archaeological discoveries on battlefield sites are always few and far between because things like swords and armour were too expensive to be left behind.
“The day after the battle, the winning side takes all the valuable stuff,” said David.”Then the peasants take what’s left.
“The cost of a full suit of armour for a knight would be the cost of an expensive sports car now. The swords found at Fornham would have been dropped in water.”
The Battle of Fornham was not the end of the rebellion. It carried on until 1174, when William the Lion of Scotland was captured at the Battle of Alnwick, and the remaining rebels surrendered.
But the victory at Fornham was still a significant milestone in ending a serious threat to the stability of the realm.
The Battlefields Trust operates in England and Wales and has 1,800 members. A separate Scottish trust was set up post-devolution. Its president is historian and broadcaster Professor Michael Wood and it is chaired by Professor Anne Curry, a prominent medieval historian.
Operations director David Austin, who lives near Bury, said: “It was formed in 1992 in response to the building of the A1-M1 link road which was planned to go through the site of the battle of Naseby.
“The Department of Transport moved the route after the protest, and that was the catalyst.
“We work with Historic England and English Heritage to protect battlefields. If there are any plans to build on them we will step in and use the planning process to oppose that, and have been successful on a number of occasions.
Suffolk coordinator Ian Wilson adds that it’s also about getting battlefields recognised.
Among the relatively few battlefields in East Anglia are North Walsham in Norfolk - the only battle of the 1381 Peasants’ Revolt.
Essex coordinator Steve Davey says another significant battle was in Maldon, site of a confrontation between Vikings and Saxons in the late 10th century.