The History of Norwich
Exactly when and why Norwich was founded is unclear. Unlike many of our cities it has no Roman roots, being founded sometime in the 7th century by the Saxons , possibly as several smaller settlements around a fording point on the Wensum. With good river communications including eventual access to the sea, contrary to its (erroneous) modern image the town was cosmopolitan, with significant foreign trade links and many Vikings settling alongside the Saxons – though this didn’t prevent Sweyn Forkbeard raiding it in 1004, surely attracted by wealth symbolised by the mint established in the previous century.
As with the rest of England Norwich’s fortunes changed with the Conquest . In 1060 it had 1320 burgesses; by 1086 the Domesday Book recorded 719, partly resulting from its Norman Earl Ralph de Gueder’s failed coup in 1075. But the Normans did choose Norwich, whose population was more than 5000, as their major regional centre. Between 1070 and 1075 they erected a defensive mound and wooden fortress, replaced eventually with the magnificent Norwich Castle still standing above the city. It became an ecclesiastical centre too with the building of the Cathedral by Herbert de Losinga, the bishop who demolished two churches and numerous houses to clear a 36 acre site, vandalism partly justified by the beautiful Cathedral Close.
In 1194 the city received its city charter, though the cathedral precincts and castle remained under church and royal control respectively. In 1272 the divide between cathedral and city erupted into major riots after a brawl escalated into an argument over jurisdiction culminating in a massacre of monks.
With Norfolk’s fine grazing land the wool industry flourished, feeding the weaving of Worsted cloth, and Norwich as its trading centre was soon the fourth city in the land. More medieval churches remain in Norwich than even London or Paris boast, paid for by wool fortunes. Such wealth allowed the building of the city walls in the 14th century. The city’s regalia and silver plate is among the finest in England, another reflection of economic power. An odder demonstration of this was the failed Norwich Crusade, a raid in 1383 on the Low Countries paid for by public donations, partly aimed at hurting Flemish weaving, partly over the papal schism.
The 14th century was not the kindest for Norwich: the Black Death halved the population between 1349 and 1351; in 1381 it was a major focus of the Peasants’ Rebellion, for which it suffered. But that century did produce one of the city’s great figures, the mystic authoress Julian of Norwich .
Not content with one peasant rebellion, Norwich in 1549 saw Robert Kett’s three week uprising against the enclosure of commons and the dissolution of the monasteries. This tanner seized the city and led his army to victory over one government army before falling to a far larger one: Kett was hanged from Norwich Keep.
The weaving trade so important to Norwich began to falter in Elizabeth I ’s reign. Mercer Thomas Marsham revitalised it and his city by inviting Flemish and Northern French weavers, persecuted for their Protestant faith by their Spanish overlords, to resettle there. Between 1565 and 1569 some 6000 ‘strangers’ arrived, swelling the existing 10,000 population and creating some tensions – “They take our work” - along with economic prosperity. They had new techniques, wove fine sateens dubbed The New Drapery, and retained useful trade links with their original homelands.
These strangers (the undercroft of Strangers’ Hall , one of their better houses, can still be visited) also brought religious radicalism to Norwich, and added to its reputation for radical political action: several families from Norwich were on The Mayflower ; in the Civil War Norwich was foursquare Parliamentarian; and in 1793 the Bell Hotel was the meeting point of a secret group hoping to spread French revolutionary ideals.
Another tradition begun by the strangers was printing, Anthony de Soleme setting up the first press in the city. In later years it had the first provincial newspaper, The Norwich Post (1701); Jarrolds the printers; and even from the 1970s H.M.S.O.
By 1771 it has been estimated that 12,000 looms were working in Norwich, by then the second city in England, and some 72,000 people locally were employed in textiles. But soon Yorkshire and Lancashire with coal for powered-looms displaced Norfolk; by 1860 Norwich as a textile centre was finished.
In place of textiles shoe-making, engineering, wire-fence manufacture, and of course Coleman’s mustard works provided jobs in 19th century Norwich, which also put the surrounding agricultural land to new use producing the barley for its burgeoning brewing industry. Of longer term significance though was the establishment in 1792 by Thomas Bignold of what became insurer Norwich Union, still as Aviva a major employer. Norwich was a service sector centre before the term was invented – The Gurney Bank (eventually Barclays) also began there.
The arrival of the Railway – the first line to Great Yarmouth completed in 1843, the London link in 1845 – changed Norwich’s outlook: London rather than exporting became the outlet for its goods.
Though the Luftwaffe found Norwich a convenient target, leaving only 5,000 of its 35,000 houses unscathed, the history of Norwich can still be seen in a walk around the city streets: grand Norman architecture jostles medieval inns and ever elegant Georgian houses. The place can still cut the mustard.