The seige of Dunwich


The lost town of Dunwich has inspired many poems. Twenty are contained in a slim volume produced by Ormonde Packard and published by the trustees of Dunwich Museum in 1983.

The town was first recorded in verse by Jordan Fantosme in his Chronicle of the Wars between the English and the Scots, written in Norman French in the twelfth century. Jordan Fantosme was Clerk to the Bishop of Winchester. A section of his Chronicle describes the siege of Dunwich in 1173. During a rebellion against King Henry II the Earl of Leicester attempted to win over East Anglia. He was joined by Lord Hugh Bigod of Norwich.

You can see a thirteenth century copy of the Chronicle in the library of Lincoln Cathedral. There is another copy at Durham. The section on the siege of Dunwich runs as follows:

Have you heard tell the news?
The Earl of Leicester has turned traitor,
And at Orwell has certainly landed.
He has fleeced the people as though the land were his own;
From thence to Dunwich, funds he has extorted by force.
All young and old, have verily heard
That Earl Robert of Leicester has far advanced,
And having reached Suffolk, he holds the land to ransom;
All the way to Dunwich, all is at his command.
Many a Flemish soldier of fortune follows the Earl,
To bring joy later to the King of England!
Earl Hugh Bigod his messenger has sent
To announce to the men of Dunwich that he is their friend:
Let them side with the Earl if they would have sport and be merry,
Or they all will lose their heads.
And they answered him that they would be fools to take his advice.
Better to sell themselves to their enemies dearly.
Indeed look to the proverbs, wherein it is told:
"He who is guilty of treachery to his lawful lord
Or of any offence whereby his lord may suffer wrong
Is certain to reap his just deserts,
But he who loyally serves, is held in high repute."
So spake the people of Dunwich, about whom you hear me tell.
The Earl of Leicester prepared to besiege the town,
And swore his usual oath:
That if the worthies and burgesses failed to surrender,
Not a man would escape being wounded or killed.
And those in the forefront did answer him:
"Cursed be the man who for you has a pennyworth of fear.
The good lawful king lives,
And will soon bring your venture to naught.
Our town we'll never surrender for fear of your attack."
The Earl of Leicester became more and more angry,
And to frighten them had gallows erected.
He bade sergeants and squires with speed to arm
And attack resolutely the town in strength.
That day saw the burgesses, right valiant warriors,
Sally forth to the ramparts; each man to his task;
Some to draw bows, others to hurl spears,
The strong helped the weak, again and again.
Within the town there was not a wife or a girl
Who did not to the palisade carry a missile.
Thus did the people of Dunwich defend their town.
As these verses tell, which are here written.
And young and old were so stout-hearted
That Earl Robert retreated, mocked and discomforted,
No love did he feel for the people of Dunwich.
Neither threats nor trickery had been of use,
Nor sergeant nor squire into those hearts had struck fear.
The Earl and his forces made ready to go.
On the morrow at daybreak, when they saw the dawn,
His marshalls he called and plainly to them said:
"Order the men to mount; no delay must there be.
I to Norwich will go, if God give me strength,
To learn how they've fared and what is their bearing."