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Discover The Battle of Fornham

By Dan Clarke, Heritage Officer at Moyse's Hall Museum

Exploring the human lust for power, oppressive regimes, or those seeking to establish the rule of law, the Conflict exhibition at Moyse's Hall Museum delves into over 2000 years of human conflict with local, national, and international artefacts included.

Under the Banner of Saint Edmund: The Battle of Fornham

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The Fornham Sword on display at Moyse's Hall Museum

The largest known conflict seen near Bury St Edmunds was the ‘Battle of Fornham’, fought across land that includes or borders the villages of Fornham St Genevieve, Fornham All Saints, and Fornham St Martin.

The battle was fought on 17th October during the Revolt of 1173-74. The Revolt was a complex family feud - full of ego and greed; modern soap operas take note!

It should be noted that this is one of the most complex of feuds in the history of a country full of convoluted conflicts, many aspects of what follows are open for debate.

It has been argued that the Revolt occurred as a result, in part or in total, of Henry II’s decision to offer three castles to his youngest legitimate son John as part of an inheritance to secure his son’s marriage to the daughter of the Count of Maurienne. This undermined the claim of Henry the Young, the king’s eldest legitimate son, as the three castles chosen were on land that would have formed part of his inheritance.

The fallout of this decision would lead to Henry II’s eldest three legitimate sons, Henry, Richard (later ‘The Lionheart’), and Geoffrey, withdrawing to the court of Louis VII and raising a rebellion against their father. Louis was Henry the Young’s father-in-law and encouraged the rebellion along with other nobles who would profit from a transfer of power to the would-be usurper.

The brothers were also aided by their mother, Eleanor of Aquitaine, wife of Henry II, who joined the cause along with many others who were horrified by the King’s possible involvement in the martyrdom of Archbishop Thomas Beckett in 1170, an event which sent shockwaves throughout the Christian world.

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Swords on display

The revolt began in April 1173 and would lead to battles throughout the Angevin Empire in England and Normandy. The endeavour was for Henry the Young and Louis VII to aggressively take the formers inheritance and then, perhaps ironically, give land and revenues of it to those nobles who supported the move.

Louis and Henry the Young secured many allies and were confident enough to invade Normandy while Scotland invaded England from the north. These invasions failed, as did the peace talks that followed, which led to further conflict.

October 1173 saw the revolt reach our Suffolk borders. Robert de Beaumont, 3rd Earl of Leicester, invaded England with an army of Flemish mercenaries, landing at Walton, Suffolk. Leicester took his forces to Framlingham where he joined Hugh Bigod, 1st Earl of Norfolk. Bigod was a keen supporter of Henry the Young having been promised the custody of Norwich Castle if the rebellion was victorious.

Robert de Beaumont’s next step was to move his army to his home base of Leicester, with the motive for this being up for debate. One possibility is the need for reinforcements due to fighting with the King’s forces weakening their hold. However, another interesting suggestion is that Leicester had to move on due to frustrations or squabbling with Bigod and his wife, Gundreda, who herself was of the de Beaumont bloodline.

Leicester’s forces were cut off as they were fording the River Lark, and while split between banks were easier prey for supporters of Henry II who rode under the banner of St Edmund, backed by our Abbey. The King’s supporters took the victory and captured Leicester.

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On display we have the two swords found at the battle site. The first - looked after by Moyse’s Hall Museum - is on permanent loan from the MacRae family who owned the land it was found upon. The second sword is usually on display at All Saints Hotel close to where it was found, with their café overlooking the beautifully kept battlefield. This is the first time the public have been offered the chance to see the swords side-by-side. From the battlefield we also have a dagger and spear, as well as arrowheads and bolts of the period to give a sense of the scene itself.

Two rings were found near the battle site on land near the River Lark. There is a story about Petronilla, wife of the captured Earl of Leicester, who cast a ring into the mud and went into the water. It has been suggested that if true she was trying to drown herself in defeat. While unlikely to be her ring, these two pieces offer a chance to contemplate a moment of humanity within a narrative largely lost to inhuman facts and dates. One is a stunning Roman ring, which, it has been suggested, may have been reused during the Medieval period. The other is probably too late for the battle but nonetheless a beautifully inscribed gold medieval ring.

Come on Netflix, get this crazy business on screen.

Elsewhere in the ‘Conflict’ exhibition you can see the incredible Saxon ‘Snape Sword’, Wellington and Hardy’s signatures, along with incredible artefacts from their era, a Civil War display, and medieval and post-medieval hand-to-hand combat. In a supplementary display we have one of the guns used to kill Bonnie and Clyde. Bringing us right up to the modern era, we have worked with the Suffolk Regiment Museum and the Royal Anglians to display real uniforms from the First and Second World Wars, as well as contemporary military dress.

Book Your Ticket for the Conflict Exhibition Now!

The ‘Conflict’ exhibition at Moyse's Hall Museum (Saturday 28 January - Sunday 23 April) will explore warriors, nameless and otherwise, from antiquity to the 20th Century.

With incredible artefacts on loan from museums and private collections, this unique exhibition will focus on Roman artefacts from across Europe, the medieval Battle of Fornham (1173), as the biggest battle ever seen in West Suffolk, and post-medieval struggles and conflicts.

Some items will have a global significance pertinent to either their owners or victims. From the earliest English guns, to the two Fornham Swords displayed side-by-side for the first time, Trafalgar fleet issued musket, Roman daggers, one of the shotguns that killed Bonnie and Clyde, and even a Tommy Gun!

Tickets: Adult: £6, Student, Income Support & Senior: £5, Child: £4, Family ticket £19.

Book your tickets now at Moyse's Hall Museum Website.

See the Battle Re-enacted!

Stronghold Re-enactment will be at West Stow to bring to life the events surrounding the Battle of Fornham during its 850th anniversary.

The Battle of Fornham Re-enactment takes place at West Stow Anglo-Saxon Village on Saturday 25 March takes place from 10am to 5pm. Tickets: Adult £7, Child £4, Senior, reg. disabled & student £6, Family ticket £21.

Book at the West Stow Website.

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