History of Norwich

Happisburgh Beach Norfolk England

Norwich lies at the heart of rural East Anglia. It was the Anglo-Saxons who first made their homes on gravel terraces beside the River Wensum, and it was from one of their settlements, which bore the name Northwic, that the city got its name.

The settlement grew and merged with others to become the largest walled town in medieval England.

At the time of the Norman Conquest in 1066, Norwich was one of the most important boroughs in the kingdom, and even had its own mint. There was a thriving market on Tombland (the name means an open space) with a variety of local goods and produce, including North Sea herring, as well as pottery, cloth and furs from the Continent.

The Normans set up a new market in the place where the outdoor market still stands, and this eventually became the main trading area. This early 19th-century print by David Hodgson shows the fish market, which in medieval times was separated from the main market area. Norwich Castle can been glimpsed in the background. Norwich Castle was built by the Norman conquerors, who first constructed a steep-sided artificial hill in 1067.

This wooden castle was replaced 60 years later by the existing stone keep, built on a mound which rose 40ft (12m) above ground level. A ditch and bank were made to protect the town, and between 1297 and 1334 thick walls, mainly of flint, were constructed. Parts of the walls and some towers still remain. This view of Norwich from the south is dated 1558.

It shows the city walls that once enclosed a square mile (259 ha) of land. These stood about 20 ft (7m) high and were in total about 2 ½ miles (4km) in length. There were once 12 great gates, and these survived until the 18th century.

The eastern boundary was protected by the River Wensum, and a chain of Spanish iron was hung between circular boom towers at Carrow to control access by water. Work began on the Cathedral in 1096. Saxon houses and churches were cleared, and a canal was dug from the River Wensum, so that stone from Caen in Normandy could be brought by water directly to the building site.

A cathedral monastery was built to house 60 Benedictine monks. By medieval times there were 56 churches within the walls. Many of these had been built, not purely out of piety but also to reflect the wealth of local landowners. Richard I had made Norwich a city in 1194, and in 1404 a charter allowed it to have its own mayor, two sheriffs and 24 aldermen, who were elected for life.

The wealthy merchants who ran the city became increasingly powerful, and the Cow Tower, the Guildhall and almost all the city’s churches were rebuilt between 1350 and 1530. Weaving was the most important of the 130 trades being followed in the city at the beginning of the 14th century, and within 100 years Norwich was the main centre of worsted manufacture in the country.

The Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 brought an army of rebels who set fire to the houses of lawyers and other wealthy citizens. Several fires also swept through Norwich during the early 16th century, destroying whole streets of Tudor timbered and thatched houses.

After the loss of over 1,000 dwellings in two fires during 1507, a decision was reached that all new buildings should have tiled roofs. In 1549 a rebel army numbering 20,000, led by Wymondham farmer Robert Kett, took over control of the city, causing more destruction.

The main grievances were an increase in rents and the enclosure of local common land by rich sheepfarmers for grazing. The rebels made their camp on Mousehold Heath, overlooking the city, and it took two royal armies six weeks to suppress them. Kett was eventually captured and hanged at Norwich Castle.

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