In the superstores of the Norwich Museum Service they have objects related to Norfolk that cover a huge period of time, but predominantly they house a social history collection related to Norwich. The objects they have help to tell the history of Norwich and its people, it is a history, lasting at least 1600 years. I wondered if I could condense 1600 years into a single blog? I have tried and the answer is No! I will instead attempt to fit as much as possible into two blogs, so here is the history of Norwich Part 1…… Here, I am going to focus on 10 key events or periods that were crucial in shaping the city we know and love today. I will take the time to highlight objects from our stored collection in the superstore and across the museum service as a whole that relate to each period.
The Arrival of the Anglo-Saxons
The arrival of the Anglo-Saxons represents the very start of the history of Norwich. During the Roman period Norwich was likely to have been little more than a cross roads, situated in the Tombland area of the city, with at most a farm and a few houses. The major Roman settlement was called Venta Icenorum and was situated a few miles to the South of modern day Norwich. Saxon incursions into East Anglia and their eventual dominance over the Romans in the early 5th century AD, led to the first settlers in what we now know of as Norwich.
One of the ‘Star’ objects – A Saxon Pot, excavated from Spong Hill, North Elmham, Norfolk.
It was an ideal place to build a settlement; the river afforded the settlers easy access to the sea as well as the ability to secure food from fishing. The soil was of a good quality for agriculture and there was a ready supply of good timber. It is important to remember that Norwich did not start as one settlement, in this period it was 5 or 6 villages that eventually merged into one. The name of one of these villages was Norwic which became the name of the city that developed.
The Norman Conquest
The Norman Conquest of 1066 had drastic implications for the country as a whole; this can be seen in Norwich where it certainly left its mark. Any visitor to the city cannot fail to notice the Cathedral which at 315ft is the highest building in the city, nor can they fail to spot the Castle sitting atop its mound, still dominating the city skyline over 1000 years after it was built.
The building of the Cathedral was the initiative of the first Bishop of Norwich Herbert Losinga, who came to Norwich from a monastery in Normandy. It was probably built over a previous Anglo-Saxon settlement and Roman road. Work commenced in 1096, but was incomplete at the time of Losinga’s death and his successor Bishop Everard oversaw the completion of the work.
The present spire is the Cathedral’s fourth the first was destroyed in riots in 1272, the second in a storm in 1361 and the third by lightening in 1463.
The Castle would originally have been built of earth and wood, the stone building dates from the late 11th century or early 12th century and is one of the largest Norman keeps in England.
The Normans used massive amounts of peat for fuel, this was dug from various locations in Norfolk. The removal of this peat created large craters in the ground (the Cathedral took 320,000 tons a year!) this coupled with a rise in sea levels led to the formation of the Norfolk Broads.
The Construction of the City Walls
Work begun on the city walls in 1297, but it was not until 1343 that construction was complete. The walls were 3ft thick and 20ft high with battlements, in front of the walls was a bank and a ditch. The ditch was 25ft deep and 60ft wide and offered further protection. The walls acted as an important part of the cities defence, it was beyond the capabilities of the authorities to maintain law and order everywhere, but within the city walls their power could be exercised more easily.
Taxes, levies and tolls were due to be paid for many different reasons, and so the city walls served another important function as they restricted the movement of goods and people allowing the authorities to ensure they gathered the correct taxes and tolls. The city walls survive in various places in Norwich:
Towards the end of Riverside Road and across the Wensum sits Cow Tower, this played a pivotal role in the defence of the city, (it was partly destroyed during Kett’s rebellion.) Another ruined tower and section of wall is visible further along Barrack Street, then at the end of Magdalen Street and opposite the Artichoke pub there is small section of wall remaining.
Over 800 years after their construction the city is still defined by its walls. If you mention that something is within the city walls to a local, they will instantly know the geographic area you mean. Despite the wall only surviving in fragments and not being a continuous structure it still persists as an invisible demarcation of what is in the city centre and what is outside.
The history of mankind is a history of rebellion, from the peasant’s revolt, to the French Revolution and even recent events like the springs in the Middle East have seen people who believe they are being oppressed revolt against their oppressors. Perhaps the biggest such occurrence to ever hit Norwich was Kett’s rebellion. It started in the summer of 1549, as a minor disturbance in nearby Wymondham, but spiralled into a sequence of events that led to a national crisis for King Edward VI.
Peasants begun pulling down fencing around enclosed fields (the process of enclosure involved taking away common land and physically enclosing it for exclusive use by the landowner). One local landowner (John Flowerdew) alarmed at what was happening and fearful for his own land bribed them to attack his rival Robert Kett’s fences. This backfired drastically as Kett joined the protestors, helping them rip down his own fences before leading them to attack Flowerdew’s. Kett then marched the growing army of men (10,000) to Norwich, where they were refused entry. So they camped on Mousehold Heath for 7 weeks.
Kett and his advisors produced a document entitled ‘29 articles of complaint, concerning economic matters’. It included one particularly revolutionary statement asking that ‘We pray that all bonded men may be made free’. Although serfdom had been largely in decline in England since the Peasants Revolt, the final serfs were not freed until 1574.
Despite being offered a pardon in exchange for dispersing Kett’s men raided the city, imprisoning the mayor and 5 other leading citizens. The government responded by sending 1,400 men and a battle was fought at Bishopgate in the full glare of the Cathedral on the 1st August. The government troops were forced out of the city and for that day at least Kett was victorious. At this point many of the cities nobles fled to London with the retreating army, leaving Kett in total control of the city.
Clearly the government could not let this situation persist, so they sent a huge force of 12,000 troops and before August was over the rebels had been forced out of the city. From Mousehold Heath Kett’s men attacked the city from the top of what is now Gas Hill, partially destroying Cow Tower. Finally a further retreat to Dussindale saw them defeated by the government troops.
300 men were executed and Kett himself was captured in Swannington 25 miles to the north of Norwich. Both Robert Kett and his brother William were sent to face trial in London, where they were kept in the Tower of London. The trial was a formality and they were both found guilty. Robert Kett was hanged from Norwich castle with his body left hanging for months as a message to would be revolters. His brother William Kett suffered a similar fate being hanged from Wymondham Abbey and left for all to see.
For hundreds of years Robert Kett was portrayed and remembered as a traitor, but during the 19th century his reputation received a reprieve and people begun to increasingly think of him as a folk hero rather than a traitor. This is the reputation Kett retains today, a hero who stood up for the common people of Norfolk against the oppression of the ruling elites.
To find out more about Kett’s Rebellion, why not visit his home town of Wymondham when in town? Visit Wymondham abbey where Robert’s brother William was hung (the Kett family coat of arms is displayed inside) and visit Wymondham Heritage Museum for displays relating to Kett’s rebellion.
In 1565 the areas that are modern day Holland and Belgium were a colony under the control of the Spanish. Spain was a Catholic country which conflicted with the largely Protestant local population, the result was religious persecution inflicted by the Spanish on the locals.
This meant many were keen to flee religious persecution. Coincidently at the same time the city of Norwich was facing economic difficulties and was receptive to the idea of Dutch weavers migrating, as it would strengthen Norwich’s textile industry and because new skills and techniques could be passed onto the local populace.
In 1565 the city initially allowed 30 households of refugees to migrate to Norwich. Many more followed and by 1579 there were 6,000 of them, the cities population was only 16,000 so they represented over one third of the total population.
The Strangers were allowed to live in Norwich with relatively few restrictions placed upon them, however in 1570 members of the gentry led by John Throgmorton staged a failed rebellion against the migrants failing to attract sufficient popular support. For his part in the rebellion, Throgmorton was hanged, drawn and quartered. A few years previously (1567) the then mayor, Thomas Whall had placed some restrictions on the strangers claiming that they were taking away local jobs.
Most of the new migrants were weavers; this is where their influence is best seen. The expertise and innovations they brought over was pivotal in helping Norwich become famous for its textile industry. By the middle of the 18th century the quality of products produced were unrivalled anywhere in the world. The strength of Norwich textiles carried on until the Industrial Revolution when other cities with a greater access to cheap labour overtook Norwich, but the city diversified and continued to be a significant textile producer. It was only in the 1970s that textiles finally stopped being produced in the city.
If you are interested in the history of Norwich’s textile industry and the influence of the Strangers then why not pay the City a visit and go to Norwich’s Bridewell Museum where there are some excellent displays charting the its history. Norwich has such a rich and fascinating history so please see Part 2!!
There is hardly a substance known to man that has not been tried as a medicine, nor any disease for which faith-healers have failed to prescribe.
Even way back in Saxon days physicians recommended an ointment made of goat’s gall and honey for cancer, and if that failed, they suggested incinerating a dog’s skull and powdering the patient’s skin with the ashes. For the ‘half-dead disease’, a stroke, inhaling the smoke of a burning pine-tree was supposed to be very efficacious.
In East Anglia people suffering from ague, a form of malaria characterised by fits of shivering, used to call on the ‘Quake doctors’. If the doctor couldn’t charm away the fever with a magic wand, the patient was required to wear shoes lined with tansy leaves, or take pills made of compressed spider’s webs before breakfast. A locally famous Essex ‘Quake doctor’ in the 19th century was Thomas Bedloe of Rawreth. A sign outside his cottage said, “Thomas Bedloe, hog, dog and cattle doctor. Immediate relief and perfect cure for persons in the Dropsy, also eating cancer” !
Wart-charmers had many strange cures, some are still tried today. I know because when I was a small child, I tried one! One that is still used is to take a small piece of meat, rub the wart with it and then bury the meat. As the meat decays, the wart will slowly disappear. Another wart-charm:- Prick the wart with a pin, and stick the pin in an ash tree, reciting the rhyme, “Ashen tree, ashen tree, Pray buy these warts from me”. The warts will be transferred to the tree.
Orthodox practitioners would never have guessed at some of the more bizarre cures that people tried in the late 19th century. Holding the key of a church door was claimed to be a remedy against the bite of a mad dog, and the touch of a hanged man’s hand could cure goitre and tumours. In Lincoln, touching a rope that had been used for a hanging, supposedly cured fits! To cure baldness, sleep on stones, and the standard treatment for colic was to stand on your head for a quarter of an hour.
Eye diseases came in for many weird remedies. Patients with eye problems were told to bathe their eyes with rainwater that had been collected before dawn in June, and then bottled. Rubbing a stye, on the eye-lid, with a gold wedding ring would be a sure cure 50 years ago. In Penmyndd, Wales, an ointment made from the scrapings from a 14th century tomb was very popular for eye treatment, but by the 17th century the tomb had become so damaged, the practise had to stop!
For hundreds of years, the kings and queens of Britain were thought to be able to cure, by touch, the King’s Evil. This was scrofula, a painful and often fatal inflammation of the lymph glands in the neck. Charles II administered the royal touch to almost 9000 sufferers during his reign. The last monarch to touch for the King’s Evil was Queen Anne, even though her predecessor William III, had abandoned the right.
Copper bracelets and rings have a long history. More than 1500 years ago, copper rings were prescribed as a suitable treatment for colic, gallstones and bilious complaints. We still wear them today to ease rheumatism, together with nutmeg in our pocket!
Not all these folk remedies were useless; for example, the juice of willow trees was once used to treat fevers. In the form of drugs based on salicyclic acid it is still used for the same purpose today – aspirin! Penicillin of course recalls the mould poultices that ‘white-witches’ made from bread and yeast.
Treating tooth-ache in the 19th century could be a gruesome business. Pain would be relieved, it was said, by driving a nail into the tooth until it bled, and then hammering the nail into a tree. The pain was then transferred to the tree. To prevent tooth-ache, a well tried method was to tie a dead mole around the neck! Few people could afford a doctor, so these ludicrous treatments were all they could try, as most people lived out their lives in unrelieved poverty.
The church of St Clement, Outwell, was started in the 13th century and expanded in the 14th and 15th centuries when the roof was raised and its carvings installed. The church was built of limestone from the Lincolnshire Wold and mostly likely came to site by the river. The church stands amid the fens and dykes below the Wash, between the rivers Nene and Great Ouse, close to the Cambridgeshire border. It was a prosperous place in the second quarter of the 15th century from when it remains a somewhat curious church that demands attention.
St Clements is a church thick with angels. They flock about the roof beams, more than 100 of them, some bearing musical instruments, others the instruments of the Passion. If you look carefully at the above photo, you can see what is now known as the “unknown” glories, the carved buttresses, while in between and over head are the angels, with more angels in the south aisle and the Lynn Chapel off the north aisle. Then there are the demons which are very difficult to see for the roof is so dark that the visitor may miss these and even the large dark angels. The following two demons are exceptions:
There are 12 demons carvings and they were, in a sense, ‘lost’….but not really….in fact, they have been there all the time but, because of the poor light entering the roof area, the carvings are almost impossible to see. However, on one particular day in 2012 they were indeed ‘found’ by an historian who was studying the medieval glass…… so now they are famous!….having been safely ‘in situ’ for nye on 600 years. Apparently. they are carved the wrong way round, with the demon overcoming each of the smaller apostles, when it should be the other way round. Pevsner’s guide to Norfolk says they stand below canopies, but it’s more interesting than that. What has been revealed is that figures of Apostles, delicately carved with emblematic detail, stand under larger looming heads-and-shoulders of semi-human and demonic figures, bearing the weight of the roof. What does this juxtaposing of holiness and the infernal mean?
The placing of the figures was planned. The Apostles stand in pairs. Time and death-watch beetle have done away with most of the identifying symbols once held by the Apostles. But one pair, on opposite sides of the nave, are still easy to name: St John, holding a chalice, and St James, with his pilgrim satchel and staff. The horn-headdressed lady looms over the more sensitively carved sculpture of St James with staff and satchel. Leaning over St John is a furry-chested, beak-faced devil of the kind you might see in a manuscript illumination (or, at the time, perhaps in drama). Over St James leans another unsettling figure: a large-featured woman with an exaggerated horned headdress and, in place of hands, taloned paws.
Why put such things together in a church? – but why not, for the aspect in play can be found in creation itself. Commenting on the Book of Proverbs, the 13th‑century spiritual writer John of Forde wrote that: “The Wisdom of God played before the Father’s face over the whole expanse of the earth.” God played with the monster Leviathan too, the Psalm says. There was indeed a medieval fondness for monsters which presupposed the reliance of humanity’s creativity on the primary creation by God. As St Anselm, the philosopher (Archbishop of Canterbury 1093-1109) saw it, men could mentally rearrange elements of God’s creation and so make an artistic image such as the horn-headdressed woman with clawed paws!
At Outwell, then, the dignity of the Apostles is pointed up by the mirror‑image ludicrous figures grinning above them. But, as already been stated, the carved figures are hard to see. When they were made, the brightest light was from distant candles or reflected daylight, and their details could seldom have been clear. Yet, no doubt, the local yeomen, newly prosperous, the Beaupres and the Haultofts, would have been proud to pay for carved figures of the Apostles to join the angels aloft, and not have thought it out of place to have a few demons and chimeras thrown in.
Some other images of St Clements Church, Outwell, Norfolk
Following their introduction into the British Isles by the Normans, rabbits were farmed in manmade warrens call “Coneygarths”, whose so-called “pillow mounds” encouraged the species to burrow and facilitate their capture. The construction of pillow mounds represents a remarkable long-lived form of animal husbandry, which in some places remained in use until the early 20th century. The vast majority of known pillow mounds are thought to be post-medieval and consequently the landscapes of extant rabbit warrens are a reflection of post-medieval warrening experience rather than that preceeded it.
Further, although former warrens are geographically widespread across England and Wales, their remains are more prevalent in western upland areas because the growth of arable practices in Eastern England during post-medieval period removed many of that regions former warrens. Despite this, chancery records reveals numerous references to rabbits and rabbit warrens in Eastern England compared to elsewhere. They also imply that the warrens in Eastern England were able to produce a surplus of rabbits that suported an export trade and supplied the Royal Court at Westminister, something that warrens in the remainder of England were less able to do.
The rabbit was rare in medieval England and much sought after for both its meat and its fur by landlord and poacher alike. Today the rabbit is regarded as prolific, destructive and of little value but this modern reputation belies historical experience where or much of its history the rabbit was a rare and highly prized commodity. The animal, believed to be indigenous during a previous interglacial period, was considered extinct until deliberately (re)introduced via France in the 11th and 12th centuries. Its value lay both in its meat and fur and, as someone noted in the 17th century:
‘no host could be deemed a good housekeeper that hath not plenty of these at all times to furnish his table’.
The rabbit’s fur was used as clothing as well as on clothing and, although neither the most fashionable nor valuable, rabbit fur became very popular in the 13th century. Yet in the beginning when first introduced, the rabbit found the English climate inhospitable and needed careful rearing and cosseting inside specially created warrens such as ‘pillow mounds’. For the next five centuries the vast majority of England’s rabbit population lived protected within these confines, and it was not until the 18th century that it successfully broke out and colonised a much wider area and through numbers devalued its worth.
Back in the 17th century the rabbit was still regarded as an important cash crop. In the Middle Ages rabbit warrens represented almost the sole source of supply for rabbits and their scarcity made them a valuable and fiercely guarded commodity. Indeed, the collapse of the grain market in the later 14th and 15th centuries encouraged some landlords to develop their warrens as an alternative source of income, to the extent that rabbiting can be classed as an unlikely but successful late medieval growth industry.
Throughout the Middle Ages the right to hunt and kill any beast or game was a special privilege granted by the king, so that all hunting was carefully controlled and restricted. Hunting in the extensive royal forests was the privilege of the king alone, but outside these areas the Crown was prepared to sell exclusive hunting rights by means of a charter of free-warren. In effect, the recipient of this charter was granted the sole right to kill the beasts of warren, which basically consisted of the pheasant, partridge, hare and rabbit, within a specified area. Hence the right to keep and kill rabbits was the exclusive privilege of the owner of free-warren and it was therefore illegal for anybody else to attempt to do so. Free-warren was consequently a valuable privilege, jealously guarded by its owner.
Whereas the modern rabbit has developed a resilience to the damp British climate, its medieval predecessor felt this aversion more keenly so areas of dry and sandy soil were chosen; also, gradients were preferred so as to facilitated both drainage and the dispersal of burrowed soil. Significantly the largest concentration of warrens in East Anglia was in Breckland, a region of undulating heathland, low rainfall and deep, porous sands, in other words an ideal habitat for the rabbit.
Most warrens in East Anglia had been founded by the late 13th century, many by church landlords. The Bishoprics of Ely created warrens at Brandon and Freckenham respectively; Bury St Edmunds Abbey did likewise at Mildenhall and so did West Acre Priory at Wicken and Custhorpe in Norfolk. The Prior and Convent of Ely were granted free-warren in Lakenheath. It is believed that the rabbit was a particularly favoured delicacy of the Abbot of St Edmunds who had a warren created at his country retreat in Elmswell and at Long Melford, whilst both West Acre and West Dereham Priories also established their own warrens nearby. Various lay landlords were also prominent in this new experiment, notably at Methwold, Thetford, Tunstead and Gimingham. It is difficult to ascertain the exact area of these early warrens, although the largest swept down the western edge of Breckland from Thetford through Wangford to Eriswell. By the end of the Middle Ages such warrens had probably grown to occupy the 1000 acres plus they were to reach at their zeniths.
The distinctive clustering of warrens indicates that the rabbit did not colonize a wide geographical area and even in central parts of East Anglia it remained a rare beast. This might surprise a modern reader familiar with the animal’s ubiquity and sex drive, but the medieval rabbit was fragile and uncomfortable in its new, cold environment and under constant threat from predators and harsh winter conditions. Consequently, low fertility and high mortality rates restricted natural increase, even within the relative safety of the warren. This placed severe restrictions on long distance migrations, although undoubtedly some fledgling warrens were spawned in the vicinity of the early warrens, and these were then exploited by eager landlords.
The exploitation of warrens was a highly skilled business and most warreners were full-time manorial officials, paying them handsome wages but often stipulating their exact duties and reserving the right of dismissal if their work was unsatisfactory. Besides financial remuneration, most warreners enjoyed other perks such as extra pasture rights and flee accommodation within the warren lodge. The pressures of their work were largely seasonal and peaked with cullings in the autumn when the rabbit’s fur was thickest. Extra help was often required in this busy period, as at Lakenheath in I384 when seven men were hired for twenty weeks.
The most common method of trapping was with ferrets and nets, the ferrets being released into specific burrows to drive the rabbits above ground and into nets tended by trappers. Most warreners reared their own ferrets, although sometimes a ferreter was hired at considerable expense. For much of the year, however, the warrener worked alone to guard his rabbits against hunger and predators and even to seek ways to encourage breeding. Surprisingly perhaps, the early rabbits were reluctant burrowers, which prompted some warreners to construct artificial burrows or ‘pillow mounds’. Over time, rabbits got the message!
Pillow mounds were designed to provide dry, well-ventilated burrows in which the rabbit could breed comfortably; the very existence of these ‘aids’ just emphasize both the animal’s unease in the damp climate and the need to mother the animal carefully. Warreners needed to take positive steps to curtail rabbit’s high mortality rates, particularly with any shortage of winter food, although on the heathlands gorse provided a cheap and convenient source. Other than that, oats were regularly fed to rabbits. Warreners also waged a perpetual war against the rabbit’s natural predators and poachers. The fox, stoat, weasel, wildcat and polecat stalked with ruthless efficiency, so that Brandon, Lakenheath and Kennett warrens were set with numerous traps and snares ‘for nocturnal predators’.
The real threat from both predators and poachers eventually resulted in the construction of a wooden watchtower at Lakenheath warren in I365 and a stone lodge in Methwold by I413, followed by Thetford. These lodges were features of medieval Breckland and the one at Thetford still stands. Most date from the late 14th century and reflected the threat posed by poachers and the determination of landlords to protect increasingly valuable assets. These remarkable buildings also absorbed much of the capital invested in warrens for they were expensive to build and maintain. Brandon lodge was completed in the I380’s and stood at two storeys high and was protected by slit windows and flint walls three feet thick. At Elmswell in the early 16th century, the warren lessee was allowed over one-sixth the value of the lease each year to spend on upkeep. Rabbit rearing was otherwise a relatively inexpensive business, with the major expenditure on labour.
Output from most warrens remained low until the later 14th century. Cullings varied wildly from year to year, but seldom exceeded a couple of hundred. The sale price of the rabbit reflected its scarcity and for a century after its introduction to East Anglia it cost at least 3d each, which was equivalent to the wage of almost two days’ unskilled labour. Rabbits proved most acceptable gifts to friends, favourites and eminents and the Prior of Ely sent sixty to Edward III in I345.
Prior to the Black Death of 1348-9, rabbit production was a distinctly low output concern geared primarily towards household consumption. It presented some commercial opportunities in the luxury goods market, but its mass marketing potential was restricted by its high price and the low incomes of most Englishmen. The early warrens often represented a net financial loss in many years, emphasizing that rabbits were essentially an indulgence enjoyed only by the very wealthy. However, the drastic reduction in the human population after the mid-14th century Black Death heralded a remarkable change in fortunes for commercial rabbiting. This was brought about by rapid gains in living standards and the purchasing power for many people. This increased purchasing power induced changes in taste and fashion and opened up a new market for goods previously considered as nonessential. Hence in the late 14th century there was considerable growth in output of goods with relatively high value, such as woollen cloth, cutlery, leather goods, pewter and wine.
Commercial rabbit rearing benefited from the changing economic conditions in a number of ways. First, the labour costs of rabbit keeping were low compared to grain farming and this enhanced its attractiveness to landlords in a period of rising wages. Furthermore, cullings could be sharply increased without a big rise in labour inputs, so that unit costs in rabbit production fell appreciably in the 14th century. Secondly, the demand for meat rose, and although there are no grounds for supposing that the rabbit suddenly became the meat of the masses, it certainly descended the social scale. Lastly, demand for better clothing increased and chroniclers commented on the rising standard of dress amongst the masses. Being a low-value fur, rabbit was most likely to benefit from any expansion in the mass clothing market. The common grey rabbit was most numerous in East Anglian warrens and was used for warmth rather than for display. On the other hand, Methwold, Wretham and some coastal warrens specialised in the rarer silver- grey and black rabbits. These were much more fashionable as an adornment on clothing and, apparently, Henry VII possessed night attire tailored with black rabbit fur which bore a close resemblance to the more expensive ermine and was much in demand as an imitation. By mid-century the rabbit had replaced the Russian squirrel as the basic fur of north-west Europe, and the growth of exports from London points to England’s role as a major supplier. London was not the only port to benefit, for at Blakeney in the 16th century rabbit skins were the fourth-largest export commodity. The Low Countries remained an important market, but Norfolk ports also sent furs to Danzig and the Baltic.
The rabbit trade between East Anglia and London also remained prosperous for some considerable time. Methwold warren was a regular supplier to the London market and a London merchant was fined for importing East Anglian rabbits during the close season imposed by the Poulters. Throughout the Middle Ages this Guild had fixed the price of rabbits on the London market and in the 15th century one would fetch between 3d and 4d. Even after the relatively high costs of transport and labour, the net profit on one trip was still considerable.
The rabbit undoubtedly made a significant impact upon those areas to which it was introduced. East Anglian soils display a wide variety of type and composition, from fertile clays to thin, acidic sands, and in the Middle Ages these sands presented a formidable obstacle to cultivation. Rabbits were valuable precisely because they provided an opportunity to make productive use of the poorest soils, and indeed some warrens were founded on soils described as fit only for rabbits. Furthermore, as areas of poor soil were most likely to suffer the brunt of the declining grain market in the later Middle Ages, then rabbiting offered a welcome source of alternative income in a difficult period. The industry presented a range of employment opportunities, not all of them legal, and as output increased so did the occupational spin-offs. The position of warrener was itself financially rewarding, whilst helping with the trapping or guarding of rabbits could provide a useful source of supplementary income at the very least.
The preparation of furs was a skilled and specialized task, and towns and villages near the warren areas harboured a number of skinners and barkers dependent on the local rabbit and sheep trades. They were prominent in medieval Thetford and Bury St Edmunds. The rabbit industry also encouraged other specialists in the clothing trades, such as listers and glove-makers . It is also probable that the fur was sometimes shorn from the skin and then felted, again for use in clothing. Of course, the amount of specialist craftwork generated by the rabbit industry locally should not be overstated, for the largest warrens tended to send their produce directly to London, and so some of the benefit accrued to London skinners and poulters. However, this trade, though largely seasonal, did then provide much needed stimulus to the boatmen and carriers of the region. As the mass of the peasantry was legally excluded from taking the rabbit, any benefit to them from the growth of the industry would appear negligible. However, it is suspected that many peasants living in the vicinity of warrens secured a reasonable supply of rabbits illegally, either for domestic consumption or for distribution through the black market. The incidence of poaching increases rapidly from the mid-fourteenth century, reflecting both the growth in rabbits and of poaching itself.
The attraction of poaching was its simplicity and its profitability. Most warrens were situated on vast and isolated tracts of heathland, some distance from the nearest village and were therefore exposed and palpably difficult to protect. In addition, the rabbit prefers to leave its burrow and graze nocturnally, thus presenting poachers with excellent cover from the protective gaze of warren officials and with easier pickings on the ground. With no necessity to drive the colony from its burrows, they merely surrounded the unsuspecting animals with dogs. The stout warren lodges provided a base for the warreners’ operations against the poachers and welcome protection in case of danger, but they fought a losing battle.
Many of the peasants who lived in the rabbit-producing regions must have poached at some stage during their lives and most of the reported cases involved one-off offenders. However, the countless references to the use of nets, ferrets and dogs largely indicated planned operations within the rabbit-warren itself, and often the perpetrators of these deeds are common or habitual poachers. It is also apparent that no-one was beyond reproach, judging by the number of petty clerics involved in poaching. In 1435 the parson of Cressingham was fined for poaching at Swaffham and Augustinian canons from Blythburgh Priory were regular unwanted visitors to Westwood warren. In 1425 one of their number, Thomas Sherman, was described in the court roll as ‘a poaching canon’. ”
Most of these regular poachers reared their own ferrets and dogs, and made their own nets. Greyhounds were popular, and were certainly favoured by the Blythburgh canons. However, rough heathland terrain proved demanding and other poachers preferred the more hardy lurcher, a cross between the greyhound and the collie. Court officials kept a watchful eye over these men, and John Brette of Flempton (Surf) was fined because ‘he kept a certain dog in order to kill the lord’s rabbits’. Some poachers, such as Geoffrey Sewale of Walberswick, preferred to set traps in the warrens but for many, ferreting remained the most popular. Indeed, they were in such demand on the Suffolk Sandlings in the 15th century that one Blythburgh canon ran a profitable business in leasing his well-trained ferrets to other poachers, presumably for a suitable fee.
By the later Middle Ages poaching had become a sufficiently serious and lucrative business for poachers to organize themselves into gangs. These were not merely some haphazard extension of individual operations, but represented a deliberate and carefully planned pooling of knowledge and resources. Their activities were characterized by efficiency and ruthlessness and they entered warrens heavily armed and equipped with a comprehensive range of poaching accessories. Their success undoubtedly prompted manorial officials to try and catch them with incriminating evidence even before they entered the warrens. The homes of an East Suffolk gang were scrutinized by court officials from Walberswick, who allegedly found four men keeping lurchers ‘in their tenements’, one man keeping ferrets and a net in his house’, and another with a supply of ‘haypenne’ nets. A Thetford gang of the 1440s, equally well equipped but more elusive, was reportedly operating in Downham warren attired with ‘soldiers tunics, steel helmets, bows and arrows’, whilst others were armed ‘with cudgels and staffs’. In September I444 this formidable bunch attacked and wounded three members of a rival gang from Elveden and without licence abducted and unjustly imprisoned them in the town of Thetford’.
Many of these Breckland gangs were comprised of skilled craftsmen, notably bakers, weavers, fishermen, and hostelers, and with their wide range of contacts hostelers may have been particularly important in co-ordinating activities. It is also possible that some warreners played a double game, for their expertise and local knowledge would have been invaluable. A Robert Fisher, a warrener living in Thetford, certainly poached in nearby Downham warren in 1446. With or without inside help, most poaching gangs included a number of men drafted from outside the locality. Court rolls always listed those culprits known to them, but often complained that these were joined by many other unknown men’. Such anonymity reduced the courts’ chances of breaking up gangs, and provided the gangs themselves with a wider range of dispersal points for their illicit gains.
It is possible that the rise in poaching was motivated by a sense of social grievance as much as by economic necessity. Resistance to the feudal order was endemic in late medieval East Anglia and court rolls repeatedly record refusals to perform manorial offices, labour services and the like. Occasionally this flared into violent protest, and most commentators have noted the vehemence of the I381 revolt in the region. The criminal activities of the poaching gangs were primarily directed against the ‘privilege of feudal order’ and so might have been championed and condoned by other peasants.
The rabbit was undoubtedly a very tangible embodiment of feudal privilege and status and therefore an ideal medium for social protest. The Smithfield rebels of I38I explicitly demanded that all men should have the right to take game and to hunt hares in the field. The physical damage caused by maurauding rabbits was certainly a source of friction and was amongst the grievances cited in Kett’s Rebellion in Norfolk in 1549. Unfortunately, conclusive proof that poaching was a major form of social protest is elusive. Its increase in the later 14th century certainly corresponded with a rise in social tensions, but also with a rise in the demand for the rabbit. Indeed, there was little sense of camaraderie or social unity between those Thetford and Elveden gangs in the I440s.