skip to main content

History of Norwich

Norwich is an ancient city that lies at the heart of rural East Anglia. It was the Anglo Saxons who first made their homes beside the river Wensum, and it was from one of these settlements, which bore the name Northwic, that the city got its name. The settlement grew and grew and merged with others to become the largest walled town in medieval England. In 1066, at the time of the Norman Conquest, Norwich was one of the most important boroughs in the kingdom. Trade by river and sea was increasing and light industry had begun to develop. The market on Tombland was thriving with local produce, pottery, ironwork, wooden and leather goods, as well as furs from Scandinavia and Russia, woollen cloth from Flanders and herring from the North Sea.

Norwich Castle was built by the Norman Conquerors as a show of strength. A steep-sided artificial hill was constructed in 1067 which was 40 feet (13 metres) above ground level. Originally the castle was made of wood and was replaced 60 years later by a stone keep, which can still be seen today.

The keep was roughly 70 feet (20 metres) high, with walls about 100 feet (30 metres) long, and was virtually square in shape. It was built of local flint and mortar, and faced with stone.

In 1096 work started on the Cathedral. Churches and Saxon houses were cleared so that a canal could be dug from the River Wensum to the site of the Cathedral. This meant that stone from Caen in Normandy could be brought directly to the building site by water, thus making lighter work. By 1119 the transepts, presbytery and four bays of the nave had been built, but the Cathedral was not finally consecrated until 1278.

By Medieval times Norwich had within its walls 56 churches. Many of these were built as a reflection of wealth of local landowners. In 1194 Norwich became a city when Richard I granted a charter giving rights of self government. 1349 was when The Black Death hit Norwich and it is thought that as many as two-fifths of the population of roughly 6,000 people may have died. With a high proportion of clergy dying, four parish churches fell into disuse because of the lack of priests and parishioners. However, by 1377, Norwich’s population had risen back to 6,000. Many of the new residents were peasants who had left their unproductive homeland to seek work in the city’s growing textile trade. At the beginning of the 14th century, weaving was the most important trade in the city and, within a hundred years, Norwich was considered the main centre of worsted manufacture in the country. This industry continued for the next five hundred years until machinery was introduced during the Industrial Revolution thus making skilled craftsmen redundant.

The Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 meant life at the end of the 14th century was far from peaceful. Armies of rebels set fire to the houses of lawyers and other wealthy folk and it was the bishop, who, with his own army, eventually managed to restore order to the city.

During the early 16th century there were several fires which swept through Norwich, destroying whole streets of thatched and Tudor timbered houses. It is thought that 718 houses were burnt to the ground over a four day period in March 1507, and in June of the same year an additional 360 homes were lost. This was almost half of the city’s housing, which led to a decision that all new buildings should have tiled roofs.

In 1549 an army of 20,000 rebels, led by Wymondham farmer Robert Kett, took over control of the city; causing a lot of destruction, they were protesting about an increase in rent and the enclosure of local common land for grazing by rich sheep farmers. They made their camp on Mousehold Heath and it took two royal armies six weeks to defeat them. Kett and forty eight other rebels were hanged at Norwich Castle.

In 1565 there was great concern about the decline in the worsted industry. The city authorities arranged for thirty households of religious refugees to come over from the Netherlands to teach the local craftsmen how to produce different types of cloth. Not only did the ‘Strangers’ (as they were known) bring over their knowledge of weaving, they also brought with them a love of gardens and canary breeding.

By the end of the 16th century the weaving trade was busy and cloth merchants and grocers were making their fortunes. The local gentry could now buy medicines, imported food and fine clothes without travelling to London. Norwich seemed to be prospering again; however, according to the mayor, in 1570 about a fifth of the population were living on charity and the city was rife with tramps.

Norwich experienced its last epidemic of Bubonic Plague during 1665-6; this resulted in most of the wealthy citizens leaving Norwich. Unemployment became a serious problem, followed by a severe food shortage in 1666, which was only averted by huge catches of herring which were brought ashore at Great Yarmouth. Agricultural wages in East Anglia were very poor and country life became increasingly difficult; this prompted people to move from the country into the city in search of work. The textile industry was recovering from a slump as new interest in fashion meant there were employment opportunities for many. Norwich was now exporting its cloth to Europe, North America, India and China.

By the early 1670’s Norwich had a population of around 21,000 and was probably the largest provincial town in England. Improvements to the main roads and the development of horse-drawn coaches meant that travelling between towns became easier in the 17th and 18th centuries. The gentry of Norfolk and Suffolk would come into Norwich to make purchases and to take part in social events such as card playing and dancing. During the 18th century Norwich’s leather industry steadily grew, making such items as buckets, harnesses, hosepipes, boots and shoes. Brewing also became increasingly important and Norfolk malting barley was considered the best in the country. By 1801 the city had six large breweries, supplying local needs, as well as sending beer to London for sale.

Improvements in local agriculture meant an increased production and a new cattle market grew up around the Castle. Norwich’s first bank was opened in 1756 and it was in 1775 that a local family, John and Henry Gurney, started a bank which still survives today as part of Barclays. It was in 1792 that Thomas Bignold, a wine merchant and banker, started the insurance business which was to become Norwich Union. The prosperity of the 18th century meant there was money to invest in building work. Subsequently the Assembly House was built in 1754, and the old Norfolk and Norwich hospital was constructed in 1771-2.

During the 19th century the population of Norwich increased from 37,256 in 1811 to 80,368 in 1871. The city began to expand beyond its walls and the living conditions were somewhat unhealthy; with no supply of clean water there were epidemics of cholera and various other deadly diseases. This improved when a new waterworks was built which provided filtered water, and generally people’s awareness of public health increased.

Norwich originally had three railway stations, but only Thorpe Station, which was opened in 1844, remains today. The meadow land around Thorpe Station soon became crowded with houses and hotels for the railway workers, and factories were built beside the river to take advantage of water and rail transportation. Professional people began building their homes outside the city walls, as the city centre was becoming overcrowded. The area between Ber Street and King Street was particularly over-populated with slum housing. In 1892 work began on the church of St John the Baptist, which was later to become the Roman Catholic Cathedral.

It was in the 19th century that Jeremiah Colman built a new mustard mill at Carrow, A.J Caley began making chocolates at Chapelfield and John Jarrold opened his printing works at Whitefriars.

During the 20th century the city’s population increased from 121,490 in 1911 to an estimated 180,000 in 1980. Re-housing schemes and slum clearance began in the late 19th century and continued for many years, with council houses providing improved living conditions for thousands of people. In 1900 an extensive tram system meant that people could travel cheaply throughout the city, and it ran for thirty years. By the 1920’s the Guildhall, which had been the civic headquarters for over five hundred years, was now too small. The decision was made to build a new city hall, which was opened by George VI in October 1938.

Norwich was bombed more than forty times during the Second World War, and was selected for two of the Baedeker raids in which historic buildings were targeted; in excess of 30,000 houses were damaged, 100 factories, as well as seven medieval churches and numerous shops, were destroyed. Rebuilding started in the 1950’s and the central library was built in 1963, with the University of East Anglia (UEA) taking its first students in that same year.

In the early 1990’s the site of the old cattle market was excavated to house the Castle Mall shopping centre, an innovative scheme, built on several levels, using the medieval street patterns and linking the east and west sides of the city centre.

A timeline of Norwich

Read about some of Norwich’s most important dates in history, including when Norwich Castle, Norwich Cathedral and other historic and important buildings were built. When the Black Death reached Norwich, Kett’s Rebellion and when devasting fires hit the city. See important dates in history for Jarrold Department Store, Colman’s Mustard, The University of East Anglia, Norwich International Airport and Norwich City Football Club.

The finest holiday cottages & self-catering accommodation in Norfolk.

Book with Norfolk Hideaways

Find & Book
Angel Cottage

Angel Cottage

Great Walsingham, Norfolk

More details & Book

A thoughtfully renovated cottage with charming original features including beamed ceilings and an exposed 16th century wall, combined with modern comforts and a relaxed feel.

Egret (4)

Egret (4)

South Creake, Norfolk

More details & Book

A lovely property in the village of South Creake with calm coastal-themed interiors, and a large enclosed garden, that's super dog friendly (it will defeat even the most determined of canine escape artists). This comfortable and peaceful rural retreat is only seven miles inland from the coast, so you can still dip your toes in the sea when you feel the need!

May Cottage

May Cottage

Titchwell, Norfolk

More details & Book

May Cottage is simply amongst the very best retreats that North Norfolk can offer. With bespoke furnishing and interiors, coupled with luxury touches and facilities, couples and small groups will fall in love with this wonderful property. With outstanding views of the coastline and of the rolling fields that border the village, May Cottage offers a very literal window to the surrounding landscape.

Have you got a business that’s worth shouting about? Advertise with us for FREE

There are several advertising options available, these include:

  • Simple business, accommodation or restaurant listing - FREE
  • Full page business listing advertising your brand, accommodation, restaurant
  • Full page article
  • Bespoke banners

Contact us for options available and costs

Get started