Norwich is the only city in Norfolk and is located 98 miles north east of London. It’s a beautiful city, with the tall spire of the majestic cathedral towering above the city and the steady flow of the River Wensum, which meanders through the centre.
Medieval Norwich and the explosion of the wool trade
The name of the city of Norwich first appears on coins that were minted during the reign of King Athelstan, who ruled at the start of the 10th Century. It was during the Norman Conquest that the city of Norwich really flourished; it was one of the largest cities in England with a population of 5,500.
By the end of the 14th Century Norwich was attracting many different craftsmen and the city became the main location for the highly lucrative wool trade. The growth of this market was helped with the two rivers (Wensum and Yare), both of which provided strong strategic export routes for the city’s wool.
During Medieval times the land that surrounds the city was (and still is) very fertile; this helped the city to further grow and prosper.
A city in peril!
Not all was positive in the city and Norwich folk encountered many problems. In 1272 there was a vicious riot as the people of Norwich fought against planned tolls to be levied on the annual fair that was held at Tombland, near the Cathedral.
During the ‘Black Death’ of 1349 the city suffered terribly as approximately 2,000 people perished – this was almost a third of the city’s population.
Rebels during the ‘Peasant’s Revolt’ of 1381 captured and murdered the city’s Mayor. These rebels were eventually defeated by an army that was led by Bishop Henry le Despenser. Today he is commemorated by a painting that can be found in St Luke’s Chapel, behind the altar in the Norwich Cathedral.
More trouble for the city of Norwich came in 1549 as a rebel army of approximately 20,000 yeoman farmers that were angry about the enclosure of common land were defeated by the Earl of Warwick. The rebel leader Robert Kett suffered a terrible fate and was hanged from the walls of Norwich Castle.
During the 16th Century the population of Norwich increased with settlers coming over from Europe – namely Holland. ‘The Strangers’ (as they became known), had a huge influence over the city and were responsible for the revival of the flagging textile trade that once dominated the city’s wealth and prosperity.
The construction of the Norwich Cathedral began in earnest sometime between 1094 and 1096; Herbert de Losinga was the first Bishop of Norwich.
The core of this iconic building is mainly built using Norfolk flint, with the white stone which the exterior is made from, coming by boat from Caen in Normandy, northern France. The stone was transported from the port of Great Yarmouth along the River Wensum and at the last stage it was shipped along a short canal that was dug out to directly link the Cathedral to the river. For well over 300 years this canal continued to be used; today its course is followed by land that runs from Lower Close to Pull’s Ferry.
The interior of the Cathedral is a magnificent sight; the nave roof is stunning and was embellished between 1465 and 1510. The Cathedral’s cloisters are one of the grandest in the country. Unfortunately, they had to be rebuilt after being attacked and severely damaged during the violent riots of 1272.
The Cathedral houses what could be one of the oldest Christian effigies in England; the stone effigy is set in a wall close to St Luke’s Chapel and is said to be a stone representation of Herbert de Losinga (first Bishop of Norwich), St Peter or Pope Gregory. The chapel of St Luke and St Saviour are home to pieces of art that date back to the 14th Century by unknown artists but their artistic flair could rival many of the great Italian works that date back to the same period.
The iconic Cathedral spire that was once the logo of Norwich based insurance company Norwich Union (now Aviva) was added to the building during the end of the 15th Century. It is 315 feet tall and is second only in height to Salisbury Cathedral.
A nesting platform was erected on the cathedral spire in 2011 for prospective Peregrine Falcons and a webcam at the platform is available, along with more information about this exciting project “to reconcile the contrasting needs of nature conservation and architectural conservation”.
Two great women
There are ‘two great women’ buried in the grounds of the city cathedral. In a basic and simple grave, close to the South door of the Cathedral, you’ll find the grave of nurse, Edith Cavell. She was executed during the Great War (1916) for going to the aid of Allied prisoners trying to escape from occupied Brussels.
The second woman is the 14th Century authoress of ‘XVI Revelations of Divine Love’, Julian of Norwich. It was in 1373 that she lay dying after receiving the ‘Last Rites’. As she looked upon the holy cross she noted that God’s love revealed itself to her during a series of ‘revelations’. Soon afterwards, she made a full recovery; her personal account of her religious experience was the first book to be written in English by a woman.
The land that surrounds the Norwich Cathedral is known as Cathedral Close; it gently runs down to the River Wensum. It’s a beautiful spot to relax, right in the heart of the city and is surrounded by many grand buildings. The Norwich School (formerly the King Edward VI school) is located here and a majestic statue of the school’s most famous pupil, Lord Horacio Nelson stands tall in the grounds of this fine, city Cathedral.
The historic castle of Norwich was built at the beginning of the 12th Century; the Domesday Book reports that 98 Saxon homes were demolished to make way for the Castle to be built. It was constructed using the same stone as the Norwich Cathedral, originating from the northern French town of Caen. From 1834 to 1839 (unlike the Cathedral) the Norwich Castle was refaced with Bath stone.
The castle has an archetypal Norman ‘keep’ which is one of the biggest in the UK. For many years the castle’s keep has been home to the Castle Museum.
The museum houses works from the artists known collectively as ‘The Norwich School’ – including John Cotman (1782 – 1842) and John Crome (1768 – 1821). The castle’s gruesome history includes use as the county gaol from 1220 to 1887. It also houses the death masks of some of the executed prisoners.
Norwich Castle Museum
The Castle is a popular museum and a member of the Norfolk Museums Service. This organisation comprises museums, study centres and Norfolk based services relating to archaeology and education. Other museums in the group are Cromer Museum, Gressenhall Farm and Workhouse, The Time & Tide Museum (Great Yarmouth) and Lynn Museum – plus many more. Read the full list of the organisations that form this group here.
In 1974 the local District and County Councils of Norfolk decided to give a joint committee the powers to manage the museums and the Norfolk Museums Service was established – their vision, to bring local history to life, stimulate learning by engaging as wide an audience as possible and to try to enrich people’s lives by creating a sense of place.
The Norfolk Museums Service is now recognised as one of the leaders in the museum sector. Indeed, in 2012 the organisation succeeded in bidding for a huge investment from Arts Council England. Today, this thriving organisation is one of only sixteen museum services in England that has been awarded a Major Partner Museum status by the Arts Council.
There’s always lots of events, fun activities for people of all ages and a varied program of study for school children at the Norwich Castle Museum.
The castle offered the people of Norwich protection from invaders. So too did the River Wensum as it forms a natural defensive line on three sides of the city. In addition to these two important lines of defence, the city was given further protection by the erection of a wall that was 20ft high and was built during the 14th Century.
The wall was made up of 10 gateways that had a series of towers constructed between them. Large parts of the wall remain to this day; a fine example can be seen on Carrow Hill. Here you can see 25m of the original wall where this section climbs up to Black Tower.
A pleasant walk from Carrow Bridge to Cathedral Close will give you the chance to see the best parts of the remaining city wall. This walk takes you past Pull’s Ferry, Bishop’s Bridge (circa 1200s) and the ruins of Cow Tower.
There are lots of museums to visit and enjoy in Norwich. The Bridewell Museum is a fascinating place to go to learn all about Norfolk life. Here you’ll learn lots about the traditions of the local people, such as brewing, fishing, ‘flint-knapping’ and weaving. The museum is located in a building that dates back to the 14th Century and was used as a prison from 1583 to 1828.
A visit to the Bridewell Museum shows visitors exactly how in 1700 Norwich had grown in status and was England’s second city. Norwich was larger and much more prosperous than its medieval counterparts Bristol, York, Newcastle and Exeter.
There are many different parts to the Bridewell Museum; each explores a different aspect of life in Norwich such as religious, civic and political life. Their vast collection includes a magnificent medieval door frame, parliamentary chair and a sedan chair from Opie Street.
Bridewell Museum has recreated an 18th century coffee house and offers visitors the opportunity to view replica archival documents. Here you can try out fashionable wigs of the time!
The third room at the Bridewell Museum concentrates on the city’s early textile/wool industry. The museum is home to world famous pattern books and visitors can see a skirt made from Norwich-made cloth.
Norwich Market and surrounding
As with most of the great cities of the UK, Norwich has had a market in the centre of the city since Norman times. The market was completely rebuilt in 2006.
Many fine buildings surround the market; these include the church of St Peter Mancroft and the Guildhall, built at the beginning of the 15th Century.
The Guildhall houses a Spanish Admiral’s sword that was presented to the city by Horacio Nelson after his victory at Cape St Vincent. It was very soon after this that Nelson received his knighthood and became Lord Nelson.
At the back of the market place is City Hall, built in the Art Deco style, it was opened by King George VI in 1938. Along with the Cathedral, Castle and the Roman Catholic Cathedral, the clock tower of City Hall dominates the city’s skyline.
The hall’s balcony, one of the longest in England, is a record breaking 111m/365ft long. City Hall holds the largest clock bell in the United Kingdom, with the deepest tone in East Anglia.
Another historic part of the city is Elm Hill. This part of Norwich was named after a great elm tree that stood at the top of the hill which is paved with cobblestones.
Here you’ll find many timber framed buildings which are home to art galleries, book shops, emporiums, a pottery and a traditional teddy bear shop. On adjoining Magdalen Street is Gurney Court, birthplace of the great prison reformer and Quaker, Elizabeth Fry (1780).
During the first half of the 20th Century life for the people of Norwich was difficult because this era was one of immense change. At this time the city suffered terribly during the First World War (1914 – 1918) and again, during the Second World War (1939 – 1945).
Norwich suffered extensive bomb damage during World War II as the German bombing raids targeted large parts of the old city centre. Huge parts of the city’s Victorian terrace housing around the centre were destroyed.
The city’s industry and the critically important rail infrastructure were targeted and suffered immense damage too. During a four night targeted raid in April 1942 Norwich suffered from the heaviest German raids. These were part of the of the Baedeker raids. These raids were so called because the ‘Baedeker’ series of tourist guides to the UK were used by the Germans to select cultural and historic targets for the air-raids rather than strategic targets.
It was during this challenging time that Lord Haw-Haw referred to the almost certain destruction of Norwich’s newly built City Hall (completed in 1938). Amazingly, the grand building survived the Second World War, completely unscathed.
Other significant targets which were hit included the Colman’s factory, Morgan’s Brewery, the City’s train and bus stations plus the Mackintosh chocolate factory. It wasn’t only the factories that were a target for the Germans and their bombers but so too were the shopping areas including St. Stephen’s Street, St. Benedict’s Street, Bond’s department store (now John Lewis) and Curl’s department store.
Interestingly, during World War II Norwich also served another purpose for the service men of the British Army. Norwich was widely used as a postal acronym to convey messages of desire to their sweethearts waiting for their return home. These were written on the back of envelopes and “Norwich” became “(k)Nickers Off Ready When I Come Home”!