A Snapshot of Norwich’s History (Part 1)

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.

Norwich (Saxon Pot)

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.

Norwich (Norwich Cathedral)

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.

Norwich (Castle)

Norwich (Bishops Bridge)

Norwich (Brittos Arms)

Norwich (Guildhall)

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.



Norwich (st-gregorys)

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.

Norwich (carrow-bridge)

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:

Norwich (black-tower)

Norwich (black-tower-wall)

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.

Norwich (chapelfield wall)

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.

Kett’s Rebellion

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.

Norwich (oak-of-reformation)

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.

Norwich (bishopgate)

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.

Norwich (ketts-oak)

The Strangers

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.

Norwich (norwich-city-the-nest)

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.

Norwich (chamberlin)


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!!

Based on text written by Wayne Kett

The End of the Kingdom of East Anglia

By Joe Mason, July 25, 2013

The kingdom of East Anglia came to an end in the year 917 when it was conquered by Edward the Elder, the son of Alfred the Great. This was the culmination of a process of conquest that had been going on for over thirty years, since the time of Alfred. This was another step in the chain of events which led to the kings of Wessex becoming the kings of England. Alfred was probably the first king to use the title Rex Anglorum, or King of the English people.

A hundred years before, at the beginning of the 9th century, it had been Mercia, not Wessex, that dominated the kingdom of East Anglia. In the next half century East Anglia regained a large measure of independence as the influence of Mercia over the rest of England waned. By this time the seven kingdoms of England had been reduced to four; all the land between the river Humber and Scotland was known as Northumbria; Mercia, which included Lincolnshire and the midlands; Wessex in the south west, and East Anglia which comprised Norfolk and Suffolk and part of Cambridgeshire.

East Anglia (England 878)

This independence enjoyed by East Anglia was brought to an abrupt end by the political upheavals which followed the arrival of the Viking army in 865. The Vikings first arrived in Kent as a raiding army and in Norfolk they demanded horses. In Northumbria they carried out their first full scale onslaught on an English kingdom, establishing themselves as rulers in the city of York. Next they turned to Mercia but their campaign along the river Trent proved inconclusive.

East Anglia (Coins)1
KIng Edmund Silver Penny AD 885-915

We know rather more about the Danes who ruled East Anglia for nearly forty years. Their leader, Guthrum, was defeated in Wessex by king  Alfred who desperately wanted an end to the ten years of conflict with the Danes. He therefore decided to give Danes East Anglia, providing they were baptised as Christians. This was achieved, at least among their leaders, and Guthrum became known as king Athelstan. Alfred was however giving away a land over which he had no rights of ownership. A similar thing happened to Mercia, a part being ceded to the Danes. Following the death of the Mercian king Coelwulf in about 883 the part of that kingdom not occupied by the Danes became absorbed into Wessex.

In spite of a peace treaty between Wessex and the Danes (of which a copy still exists) the Anglo-Saxons and Danes repeatedly waged war. There were reversals of fortune but gradually the part of the country under Danish control shrank.  First Alfred took Essex, then his son took Norfolk and Suffolk, Lincolnshire and finally by the middle of the 10th century, the English controlled Yorkshire. These actions are often referred to as the reconquest of the Danelaw, but this term is misleading. It only makes sense if one sees things in a purely racial way, Anglo-Saxons against Danes. In any other sense it was conquest pure and simple, for the kings of Wessex had never had control over these northerly counties until the 10th century.

The year 917 saw the end of the kingdom of East Anglia but even the end of the independent kingdom of Yorkshire was not the end of the Viking threat. The kings of Wessex, and later the kings of the English, held sway over the land but by 1017 the whole country was conquered by the Danish king Cnut. The triumph of the Normans in 1066 might appear to be a French victory, but in fact Norman is the shorter version of Norseman. Back in the days when Guthrum and his successors were establishing Norse rule over East Anglia his fellow Dane Rollo was setting up the Duchy of Normandy.

East Angla (Rollesby)
There is even a hint in an old legend that Rollo began his career in East Anglia; maybe even in Flegg at Rollesby!

Within two hundred years they had finished the Anglo-Saxon kings for good. In a very real sense it was the Vikings who won in 1066, and have never been defeated since.




by Ellen Castelow

Anglo-Saxon tradition dictated that at the beginning of each year, the lord of the manor would greet the assembled multitude with the toast waes hael, meaning “be well” or “be in good health”, to which his followers would reply drink hael, or “drink well”, and so the New Year celebrations would start with a glass or two, or perhaps even a drop more! It is likely that such celebrations were being enjoyed many years before Christianity began to spread thoughout Britain from around 600 onwards.

Depending upon the area of the country where you lived, the wassail drink itself would generally consist of a warmed ale, wine or cider, blended with spices, honey and perhaps an egg or two, all served in one huge bowl and passed from one person to the next with the traditional “wassail” greeting.

The Wassailing celebrations generally take place on the Twelfth Night, 5th January, however the more traditional still insist in celebrating it on ‘Old Twelvey’, or the 17th January, the correct date; that is before the introduction of the Gregorian calendar messed things up in 1752.

There are two distinct variations of wassailing. One involves groups of merrymakers going from one house to another, wassail bowl in hand, singing traditional songs and generally spreading fun and good wishes. The other form of wassailing is generally practiced in the countryside, particularly in fruit growing regions, where it is the trees that are blessed.

The practice of house-wassailing continued in England throughout the Middle Ages, adapting as a way by which the feudal lord of the manor could demonstrate charitable seasonal goodwill to those who served him, by gifting money and food in exchange for the wassailers blessing and songs;

“Love and joy come to you,
and to you your wassail to;
and God bless you and send you
a happy New Year.”

The house-wassailing tradition has evolved into what we now recognise as carolling, where groups of people go from door-to-door singing Christmas carols. Some aspects of the original practise however can still be detected in the words of these carols; listen carefully as the wassailers demands begin, “now give us some figgy pudding”, and then as those demands turn to threats “and we won’t go until we’ve got some”.

The wassailing, or blessing of the fruit trees, involves drinking and singing to the health of the trees in the hope that they will provide a bountiful harvest in the autumn. This ancient custom is still practised across the country today, and is particularly popular in the cider producing areas of England, such as Somerset, Devon, Herefordshire, Kent and Sussex.

The celebrations vary from region to region, but generally involve a wassail King and Queen leading the assembled group of revellers, comprising the farmers, farm workers and general villagers, in a noisy procession from one orchard to the next. In each orchard the wassailers gather round the biggest and best tree, and as a gift to the tree spirits, the Queen places a piece of wassail soaked toast into its branches, accompanied by songs such as;

“Apple tree, apple tree we all come to wassail thee,
Bear this year and next year to bloom and blow,
Hat fulls, cap fulls, three cornered sacks fills…”

The wassailers then move on to the next orchard; singing, shouting, banging pots and pans, and even firing shotguns, generally making as much noise as possible in order to both waken the sleeping tree spirits, and also to frighten off any evil demons that may be lurking in the branches.

Acknowledgement: The originator of this article is Historic UK.


A Monk’s betrayal at St Benets

It is not uncommon for tales of apparitions to have grown up around the sites of former monestries. In the turbulent years of the Middle Ages, and either side, monks were thought to have had supernatural powers and were associated with mysticism and superstition in people’s minds. It is not surprising therefore that several tales about villainous monks at St Benets Abbey have circulated over these years – and indeed, still flourish. Mostly these tales have been linked to political intrigues and double-crossings which were part and parcel of powerful establishments.

St Benets, or to give it its full name of St Benedict’s-at-Holm (or Hulm) Abbey, has been a Norfolk Broad’s landmark for almost 1000 years. Situated on the banks of the river Bure, the Abbey has long been reduced to just the ruins of the former gatehouse, into which an 18th century farmer built a windmill. This strange ruin, as small as it is, holds many stories and hides more than a few mysteries.

Shrieking Monk (Normans)2The tales which have survived the test of time include attacks by the Normans then, 300 year’s later, the Peasants Uprising when the Abbey was stormed and its deeds and charters destroyed. There are also those mythical stories and legends relating to images and sometimes terrible things that had once been a part of this once sacred place and have since been periodically returned by what may well be magical means! They include the recurring story of a monk from St Benets who, on quiet evenings, can still be seen rowing between the Abbey and Ranworth in a little boat, accompanied by a dog. It is said that he is quite harmless and concentrates only on his regular task of maintaining the rood screen in Ranworth church. Then there is the Dragon which once terrorised the village of Ludham and ended its life at the Abbey. The Legend of the Seal is another tale dating back to the days of King Henry I when a legacy of ancient carvings depicting the story were built into either side of gatehouse entrance and can still to be seen today – However, let us not be carried away in directions that would take us away this Tale.

Shrieking Monk (St Benets)4This leaves one particular apparition which has its roots firmly at St Benets, it is the one which is today’s subject – Remember! in common with all orthodox ruined abbeys and priories, St Benets and its surviving gatehouse is haunted!

Today’s apparition is often known as ‘The Shrieking Monk‘ and it is believed to be that of Essric, the young bailiff monk who basely betrayed the Abbey in the hope of becoming its Abbot. This spectre has a fearful significance – and it screams! Like many, it has an anniversary date for appearances, but it is just as likely to be seen at other times of the year when ‘conditions are just right’. It is possibly to experience this particular spectre in the late autumn or winter, on dark nights between midnight and early dawn, particularly if the dawn is shrouded in a heavy mist and there is a distinct chill in the air. Even today, few would care to pass the old ruin when such conditions are abroad – particularly when they hear the tale of a certain wherryman who, some years ago, lost his way in such conditions and found himself, and his boat, opposite the ruined gatehouse of St Benets. Apparantly, this boatman moored because he heard screams and stepped on to the bank and a distant forward out of curiosity, only to witness the blurred outline of a monk swinging on the end of a rope above the gatehouse doors. They say that fear overwhelmed him more than he would have thought possible and he turned in panic to seek the safety of his wherry; unfortunately, he slipped in the early morning mud and fell into the Bure to be drowned! However, I digress a little…………now back to this Tale.

The story of the ‘Shrieking Monk’ goes back to those Norman’s and to the time when William the Conqueror was, apparently, experiencing great difficulty with taking St Benet’s Abbey. The story surrounding William’s difficulty is intertwined with that of the monk Essric and has since developed into a mythical tale that still intrigues many; it ends with an execution but always begins with the Abbey, as it was at the time, materialising out of thin air and the present ruinous Mill transforming itself into a stone tower from where the execution took place.

Shrieking Monk (Normans)3We are told that the Monks of St Benedict’s successfully withstood attacks from King William’s men for months on end and could have held out for much longer had it not been for the act of treachery by Essric, the young bailiff monk. The strong walls of the Abbey had proved impregnable and there was enough food to feed those inside for at least twelve months; some also believed that a trust in God by the Abbot and the rest of the Abbey’s monks also played an important part in staving off the enemy. Unfortunately for all concerned, the young monk held aspirations which did not match his low position in the church. His aspirations, if legend and myth are to be believed, also made him a prime candidate  to be bribed.

The Norman army deployed around the Abbey had been on the verge of giving up on their task but the general in charge decided that maybe a different tactic might work, having identified Essric as a possible solution. What was needed was for a messenger to be sent to the Abbey with a letter urging the Abbot to surrender, but at the same time to, surreptitiously, slip a tempting offer to this particular monk. This plan was indeed put into operation and a messenger was despatched on horse back, carrying a white flag to guarantee entry. Once inside and before meeting the Great Abbot to hand over the general’s letter, the messenger managed to hand a separate note to the monk, asking him at the same time to, somehow, return with him to meet with the General; a safe audience was guaranteed.

Shrieking Monk (Ghost)4On receiving the general’s letter, the Abbot bluntly refused to contemplate his demand and quickly sought a volunteer to convey his decision back to the other side. Unsurprisingly, Essric the highly flattered monk stepped forward and offered his services; he by then being totally intrigued by the general’s attention in him. The monk’s ego and aspirations were further enhanced when on arrival he was told by the general that he, Essric, was obviously destined for a better career than that of a humble bailiff monk. Now, if only Essric would help the general’s soldiers take over the Abbey he, the humble monk, would be elavated to Abbot of St Benedict’s Abbey – for LIFE – a gift that would be far beyond the menial’s wildest dreams! The general added that the young brother had absolutely nothing to lose, for if the Abbey held out, despite impressive defensive walls and generous stocks of provisions, the army would attack in even greater force and inflict a terrible result on the religeous order. But, if this “Abbot Elect” would just open the gatehouse doors that same night, everyone would be spared.

Although clearly naive, Essric was not without a degree of intelligence. Surely, he questioned himself, the other brethren would punish him if he was ever found out; they would certainly not accept him as their Abbot? He was not even an ordained priest – for heaven’s sake! Even here, the general had anticipated such doubts but seemed to have no difficulty in convincing Essric that by using his new elevated rank of ‘conqueror of the Abbey’ the brethren would accept their new Abbot, in pain of losing the present incumbent and anyone else of a rebellious nature. With this assurance, the now traitor returned to St Benet’s in both excitement and with not a little fear. The monk was naturally welcomed back and praised for his bravery in delivering the Abbot’s letter of refusal; whilst Essric held a burdensome secret that only he knew.

Shrieking Monk (St Benets)6The final days of May that year were full of sunshine, bridging the final days of spring to the start of summer; the evenings were however deceptive with one culminating in a sudden dissolved dusk displaced by a very chilly, dark and eerie night. The bell in the Abbey tower rang out eleven times, each ring echoing across the night ladened marches whilst Essric’s heart pounded at an ever increasing pace as he waited for the final chord. This was followed by the sound of three knocks on the gatehouse door; the expected visitors had arrived! The nervous bailiff slowly withdrew the well lubricated bolts and was about to slowly release the door quietly when it was flung open and the monk was brushed aside as soldiers burst through and set about their task. Very quickly the monks realised a betrayal and offered no resistence because shedding blood was abhorrent to their beliefs; any arms were put aside and a truce quickly agreed, followed by an order that all must essemble in the Abbey Church the following morning.

Shrieking Monk (crowning)2There, on a morning that reflected the prevailing mood of the defeated, the young ‘Abbot Elect’ was paraded in with great ceremony and in front of the assembly was anointed and then dressed in cope and mitre. The Abbot’s crovier was placed in his hand, followed by a pronouncement that the once monk was now the Abbot of St Benedict’s-at-Holm – for LIFE! To complete the ceremony, the new Abbot was escorted the length of the Abbey by Norman horsemen in ceremonial armoured attire and banners flying – but with no applause except for that coming from the Normans; the defeated audience watched in total silence. The new Abbot was, however, full of himself and he ignored a part of the spectacle that was clearly of no importance to him. That changed all too quickly and the Abbot’s face, so flushed with utter pride one moment, turned deathly white as his hands were suddenly thrust behind his back and tied unceremoniously. Still dressed in his glittering robes, this ‘newly annointed abbot’ was dragged off – Norman’s abhor treachery!

Shrieking Monk (Hanging)Essric, shrouded by a realisation that he had been completely fooled and foolish, cried for mercy but his cries were ignored. His march from the throne to an open window in the bell tower was further ignominious. There, he was hoisted up on to a makeshift gibbet made of a simple stout pole protruding out from the widow that faced a still misty river and marsh beyond. Then, no sooner had the noose been placed around the unfortunate’s head, when he was released to swing in full view of those who had gathered below. Those who were further away and out of sight of this summary execution would have their chance to witness the result on offer to anyone else, now under to authority of Norman rule, who dared to be treacherous for personal and selfish gain. The church authority may also have considered it appropriate that the individual who had fallen from both window sill and grace, was by then in the process of being judged by his Maker. We know now that tradition has decreed that the monk who once erred would, forever, be destined to continuously repeat his death, shrieking over and over again, as a warning to others of like mind.

How many, I wonder, of those today who choose to manouver their boats along the river Bure through early morning mist, or walk the same past the ruined Abbey, ever concern themselves about apparitions – particularly if the morning, from midnight onwards, happens to the 25th May? How many out on that day would quicken their stride or increase water speed – just in case! Maybe all it takes is to be alone in the dark or in an early mist, a mist that was thought to be rising, but drops again suddenly at the same moment as the temperature takes on a deeper chill. One thing is certain; all that is needed beyond these conditions is for a lone lapwing to swoop close by and send forth its pre-emptive cry of what might follow!