‘Bloody Suffolk’ ? and our man at the heart of the Gunpowder Plot

The Gunpowder Plot conspirators. Ambrose Rookwood, of Staningfield, was one of the chief financiers

The Gunpowder Plot conspirators. Ambrose Rookwood, of Staningfield, was one of the chief financiers - Credit: Getty Images

Sleepy Suffolk? Forget it. Suffolk men fought Viking invaders, opposed kings, beheaded abbots, burned tax offices and even plotted to blow up Parliament. STEVEN RUSSELL gets a history lesson of edited highlights

A 1907 pageant in Bury St Edmunds, showing the barons who met in the town to lay plans to force King

A 1907 pageant in Bury St Edmunds, showing the barons who met in the town to lay plans to force King John to sign Magna Carta - Credit: Contributed

Many a schoolboy and girl would have loved taking a scalpel to their dreary old history books and excising all the boring bits, wouldn’t they? Lessons would have been much more memorable if the past had been condensed into a series of ripping yarns about murders and heroes, with a few naughty bits thrown in for good measure. No wonder Horrible Histories does so well on children’s TV.

That’s pretty much the tack Robert Leader has taken with his latest book, Bloody British History: Suffolk ? “an enjoyable romp through all the blood and battles and all that’s gory, ghoulish and bizarre”.

Former local fireman Robert warmed up for Bloody Suffolk, so to speak, by writing Bloody Bury St Edmunds a few years back. So does this “boring-lite” approach suggest we have a short attention span or a diminishing appetite for history?

“I think the fact that publishers are asking for this kind of brevity does indicate that most people are probably too busy to spend time with a long and fully detailed history,” he says. “However, The History Press does see a market for histories that are condensed, yet lively and packed with all the really exciting events, and I hope their perception is correct.”

Robert Leader in the abbey ruins in Bury St Edmunds... where history was made

Robert Leader in the abbey ruins in Bury St Edmunds... where history was made


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My favourite parts are about the early years, and their reminders that many of us are here because our ancestors invaded this island – groups such as the Romans and Saxons, the Vikings and Normans. We owe our residency to migrants with swords in their hands.

Robert talks about AD 43 and the Roman emperor Claudius’s invasion. Landing in Kent, the army marched to what is now Colchester, where 10 tribal chiefs surrendered and signed treaties with Rome.

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“They included the Iceni, or Eceni, who were then dominant in Suffolk and Norfolk. The southern boundary of the Iceni tribal lands ran in a rough line from Newmarket to Aldeburgh, so the Iceni ruled most of Northern Suffolk.”

Later, of course, Roman greed and violence provoked Boudicca and the Iceni. Her forces stormed Camulodunum – Colchester – and also claimed about 1,000 men in ambushing the occupiers’ ninth legion, probably near what’s now Haverhill.

Oliver Cromwell - supported well by Ralph Margery, from Walsham le Willows, during the civil war

Oliver Cromwell - supported well by Ralph Margery, from Walsham le Willows, during the civil war

The Romans endured, though, and it wasn’t until the early part of the fifth century that they withdrew from Britain to defend their shrinking empire. Here, it left a vacuum to be filled by the Saxons, Jutes and Angles from northern Europe. As the Saxon age developed, the intermingled people created powerful kingdoms, the book explains. East Anglia was formed by the North Folk and the South Folk, plus eastern Cambridgeshire.

At least four East Anglian kings are said to have died in battles with the kingdom of Mercia. And then came Viking raids from Scandinavia – culminating in Ivar the Boneless bringing a full-scale army to our shores. For a couple of years there was a truce with Edmund, the young king of East Anglia, but then Viking forces attacked farms and monasteries. “They had broken the treaty and Edmund could no longer stand by and do nothing. He gathered his forces and, in AD 887, confronted his enemies in a pitched battle,” writes Robert. “It was a merciless fight, said to have lasted from ‘dawn till dusk until the stricken field was red with the blood of the countless numbers who perished’ (according to Roger of Wendover).”

Edmund was finally defeated, tied to a tree and had arrows shot at him as the Vikings demanded he renounce his Christian faith. “Finally they lost patience and chopped off his head.”

Alfred, king of Wessex, finally halted the Danes. A century passed before the assaults began again. In 1004 Sweyn Forkbeard led a full-scale invasion of East Anglia.

Ipswich had been sacked in 991, followed by the Battle of Maldon, where the Essex men under Earl Brythnoth were defeated. Now Sweyn and gang burned Ipswich and penetrated to Norwich. They swung back and sacked Thetford. Luckily, Elfketel the Brave – possibly part-Danish but the Saxon earl of East Anglia! – raised an army and stopped the Vikings.

Though not for long. In 1010 Sweyn burned Thetford to the ground and ravaged Suffolk.

The stubborn invaders were eventually expelled again, “but after the Battle of Hastings the persistent pirates obviously felt that the Suffolk defences were in disarray and staged another assault on Ipswich, in 1069. Again they were thrown back and this was their swansong; their last assault on Ipswich. The Normans were in power now and they were consolidating their grip. The Norman knights who had been given their share of the English lands by William the Conqueror were building their castle strongholds all over England. These knights built a castle at Ipswich and rebuilt another at Walton [Felixstowe] to dominate the Stour and Orwell estuary. Old Gipeswic was no longer a soft target.”

I like, too, the story of the Bigods, the rebellious earls of Suffolk who built castles at Framlingham and Bungay, but fell foul of King Henry in the late 12th Century.

In the early 1200s, they were able to buy back their titles and rebuild their castles – Richard the Lionheart being desperate for money to fund his crusades in Palestine. When Richard died, brother John became king... and became involved in civil war with his English barons. One of those was the latest Roger Bigod.

“This time, there was something useful in the outcome,” suggests Robert. “This Roger Bigod was one of those barons who swore the oath that ultimately forced John to sign Magna Carta, the great charter that became the foundation of English government and law. The abbey of St Edmundsbury became, on 20 November 1214, the secret meeting place for the barons and earls who had tired of the despotic behaviour of their arrogant king.”

John reneged on his pledge. The barons renewed their rebellion. The king “marched his army to Framlingham, where Roger Bigod suddenly saw the error of his ways and surrendered without a fight. John went on to capture Ipswich and then turned down into Essex, where he suffered another reverse and had to retreat; the barons promptly reclaimed Suffolk. The luckless people of the countryside saw their fields, crops and livestock devastated as the armies moved to and fro...

“The Bigods survived and remained in power as the ruling dynasty in Suffolk for another century.”

The next century, amid economic turbulence and general public unrest, saw a crisis in the relationship between the folk of Bury St Edmunds and their rulers in the Great Abbey. “Essentially it was a matter of who got the tax money that was extorted from everyone who passed through the town gates. The town burghers wanted a share and the abbot wanted the lot.” In the end, a mob stormed the abbey – breaking down the gates, beating monks who stood in their way, and looting. The abbot, back from a visit to London, was hauled into the market place and presented with a charter of liberties to sign. “A chopping block and a headsman’s axe stood ready if he refused. Of course, he signed and, just as inevitably, he repudiated the document as soon as he was released.”

As the conflict continued, the monks attacked the locals in their own church, which prompted the mob to again storm the abbey – and loot and burn abbey farms and property. “The Sheriff of Suffolk finally had to march in with a large force of soldiers and restore some sort of order. The leaders of the riots were all hanged and thirty cartloads of the rest were hauled off to Norwich Gaol. It took twenty years to repair the damage.”

There are many more stories.

But why should we take an interest in what’s dead and buried?

“I think that our history does shape us as a nation, a county or a town, and so it must be both interesting and helpful to know our background and where we are coming from,” Robert says. “What we learn from history could help us to shape a better future, although all too often it does seem that the lessons of history are rarely learned…”

Bloody British History: Suffolk is published by The History Press at £9.99. Robert has a signing session today (Saturday, January 17) at Waterstones in Bury St Edmunds, from 11am.

Our own Guy Fawkes:

One of the Gunpowder Plot conspirators of 1605, who opposed the Protestant James I and sought to blow up the Houses of Parliament, came from Suffolk.

Ambrose Rookwood, of Staningfield, was one of the chief financiers. “Rookwood not only supplied much of the money for powder and weapons, but he also had a fine stable to provide transport and communications,” Robert Leader tells us.

Rookwood was the last conspirator to flee London, once the plot was rumbled.

“They were all eventually captured and Rookwood was hanged at Westminster Yard, alongside Fawkes and two other conspirators.

“At the scaffold, the Suffolk man made a speech that brought many in the crowd to tears. He confessed to his crime but prayed to God to bless the king and turn him into a Catholic.”

Suffolk uprisings:

In the 1380s came “peasants’ revolts” – fuelled by anger at the greed of feudal landlords and well-fed abbots in their monasteries.

In Suffolk, action included dissident parson John Wrawe pillaging manor houses and burning court records. And he led a mob against the abbey at Bury. The chief justice and local tax collector had their heads chopped off in the market place. The fleeing abbot was caught at Mildenhall and also beheaded.

In Ipswich, the offices of the archdeacon and local tax officials were burned. But the rebellions did not last long. “Approximately 600 royal soldiers marched into Suffolk and hanged large numbers of the rebels,” writes Robert Leader.

He fought for Cromwell:

During the civil war of the 1640s, most of the ordinary folk of Suffolk – enraged by taxes, suppressed wages and the king, barons and abbots who hogged power – were firmly behind Oliver Cromwell, suggests Robert Leader.

“Quite a few middle-ranking gentlemen and yeoman farmers joined them and one of these was Ralph Margery, from Walsham le Willows,” he writes.

This solid Puritan raised his own cavalry, which became the 13th troop of Cromwell’s Ironsides.

“It was this doughty Suffolk man that Cromwell praised when he said he would ‘rather have a plain and russet-coated captain that knows what he fights for, and loves what he knows, than that which you call a gentleman...’”

Margery led his troop into action at Naseby, the turning-point battle in Northamptonshire that saw King Charles defeated and heading for eventual execution.

Bump in the night:

“Great Livermere, just north of Bury, has been called the most haunted village in England,” says Robert Leader. “A strange lady in red who has the malicious habit of terrifying drivers at night by suddenly stepping out in front of their oncoming cars seems to head the hierarchy, although several other ghostly manifestations have been reported. A phantom cyclist also pedals around the country roads at night.”

Robert Leader:

Born 1938

Home was Brandon

Left school at 14 and worked in a saw-mill

At 17, joined the Merchant Navy

After leaving, had short-term jobs such as labouring on building sites

Started writing short stories

Sold some to magazines like Reveille

Novel The Faceless Fugitive was published by Robert Hale. Was soon writing four thrillers a year for Hale

‘When the money came in I went travelling, searching the globe for new ideas and new exotic backgrounds’. These included overland bus trips around India, Thailand and Cambodia After a trip to Africa he joined Suffolk Fire Brigade as a retained firefighter at Brandon Later, a new counter-terrorism series was sold to Pinnacle in the US, and there were two film options

Married Elizabeth, a widow with three young children

When recession came, publishing was badly hit ‘and everything was snatched away’

Took a ‘dead-end’ factory job

Spent three years at the University of East Anglia, studying philosophy, and graduated at 48

Hopes of getting into the advertising industry fell flat

Became a self-employed painter, decorator and maintenance man, as well as working as a retained firefighter until retiring at 55 after 20 years’ service

A heart attack at 64 ended his painting and decorating business, but the writing career flickered back into life

Two county guide books, In Search of Secret Suffolk and In Search of Secret Norfolk, were published, as was Exploring Historical Essex

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