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Originally published 2018
It’s 1578. Norwich is England’s second city, and has one of the largest populations in England. The beginning of the century has seen major changes in the town: several large fires had changed the skyline forever; Henry VIII had shaken the country’s religion to its core, and in Norwich especially, tensions between landowners and those who work the land were at fever pitch. In around 1565, the mysterious ‘Strangers’ had arrived in Norwich fleeing religious persecution in continental Europe, and bringing with them new languages, skills and practices.
The city wasn’t doing too badly, but like any Tudor town it wasn’t without its problems. Animals roamed the streets, buildings were falling apart, and just outside Brazen Gate (around where Queen Street Sainsbury’s now is) there was an ENORMOUS muck heap, made up of all kinds of unmentionables.
In about June 1578, Norwich received the news that their popular monarch, Queen Elizabeth I was to visit, as part of one of her ‘Progresses’. The city had just 2 months to prepare.
The Progresses were a big deal. Part pageant, part PR exercise, part royal duty, on her ‘Progresses’ Elizabeth would process through the towns of certain areas of Britain, showing herself to subjects, and engaging with people outside the Royal Courts. For the ordinary person, this was the an out-of-this-world experience; they wouldn’t have seen anything like this before, and here was the most important person in the country before their very eyes. Unlike today, people would not have known – with certainty at least – what their leader even looked like. By and large, Elizabeth was a popular Queen, and she had been on the throne for over 20 years (although there were worries about who would succeed her), so when news came that she would be coming to Norwich, no effort was spared.
The heads and body parts of executed criminals were removed from the city walls, and the gates of the city were repaired and made good. In a similar vein, the buildings along the procession route were patched up and re-plastered, and the streets cleaned. The animals were shut away, and the Brazen Gate muck heap vanished. Norwich was ready to receive its visitor.
One day that August, Queen Elizabeth arrived in Norwich, and entered through the magnificent St Stephen’s gate, in around the area where the St Stephen’s roundabout is now (the gate was demolished in the late 18th century). The procession was immense, as the Queen travelled with an enormous party, including her government, servants and maids of honour. She wore jewels in her hair and around her neck, and was very visible, as was the idea of the tour. Met by the Mayor of Norwich, she was also greeted by 60 of the finest-looking men in Norwich, dressed head to toe in black satin with yellow and purple details (these handsome fellas had to pay for this get up themselves). Elizabeth was treated to the first of many speeches before making her way through the city to the Bishop’s Palace where she would be staying.
Two things in particular were remarkable about Elizabeth’s trip to Norwich. The first was the sheer amount of effort the city went to. Everywhere she went, the Queen was treated to theatre, music, dancing and very, very lengthy speeches (this was considered entertainment at the time…). In fact, she had so many displays to see and speeches to listen to, that on her first day in Norwich it took her 6 HOURS to get from St Stephen’s gate to Cathedral, and the Bishop’s Palace (about 1 mile). People even erected their own monuments to the Queen, such as one you can still see housing a water pump on a walkway between Westwick Street and Anchor Quay.
“The Queen looked out the window before bed, making a comment about how nice a courtyard wall would be. She woke up the next morning to the sight of a newly built wall.”
The second remarkable thing was the way in which her sleeping arrangements were made. If there was any residence of standing on the royal trajectory, and the Queen wished to stay there, then absolutely no expense would be spared on making her comfortable. And we’re not just talking changing the sheets and hoovering the curtains. We’re talking structural works, redecoration, new landscaping. There is one story of the Queen spending the night in someone’s stately home, looking out the window before bed and making a comment about how nice a courtyard wall would be, then waking up the next morning the sight of a newly built wall. Owners of grand houses would quite commonly be temporarily displaced from their houses, and there are even reports of them sleeping in tents in the garden to make room for the Queen and her party.
Reports at the time chronicle that Queen Elizabeth was a kind Queen, and one who was patient with her subjects. One evening of her visit, the Queen and her troupe ventured over the River Wensum to Gas Hill, to spend an evening at the Earl of Surrey’s house. As usual, along her route was all kinds of entertainment, planned not just for her departing journey but her return journey too. The evening was obviously a good one, as the party didn’t leave Surrey’s house until three hours later than planned, during which time nervous performers had anxiously been waiting in readiness along the River Wensum, and Bishop’s Walk towards the Cathedral. One performer had been waiting in the grounds of the Great Hospital, and that night – three hours late – finally stepped out in front of the great Queen to read his speech (told you they were everywhere).
He bottled it.
The poor man was so nervous he tripped and stumbled over his words, in front of the Queen of England and her closest companions. People at the back of the party started to chat amongst themselves, and the drunken noblemen began to lose interest. Not Elizabeth. Shushing the people chatting behind her, she spoke to the man and told him not to be afraid, and to continue with his reading.
“There is some discussion about whether Queen Elizabeth and her party brought the plague to Norwich… the following year about a third of the population of Norwich was wiped out in a tragedy that ravaged the globe.”
There is some discussion about whether Queen Elizabeth and her party brought the plague (or The Black Death) to Norwich from London, as the following year about a third of the population of Norwich was wiped out in a tragedy that ravaged the globe (more about this another time – it’s utterly grim). Some people think that the plague arrived with the travelling party, although some historians believe that the incubation period of plague (about 2-6 days from infection) is such that if the Queen had brought it with her in August 1578, there would have been a major outbreak in Norwich a lot sooner than 1579.
Overall, the Queen’s visit to Norwich was a success. Not only was this a chance for the Queen to see her subjects, but also a chance for her subjects to speak to their Queen, about matters that were important to them, though the medium of speeches, performance and song. At one weaving display, the Dutch Strangers thanked the Queen for allowing them to settle in Norwich, and one Norwich headmaster praised the Queen for the years of peace she had brought to England. That said, this was a very expensive visit indeed: the city got into major debt, and regulations had to be relaxed in order to let more traders work in the city. The visit would have been a spectacle like nothing else in our lifetime, and there are no photographs or films to show it. What we do know though, is that 440 years ago one of the greatest Monarchs in history graced the same streets that we are able to walk down today, and that is amazing.
This post is written with enormous thanks to Shea Fiddes, City of Norwich Tourist Guide, who took me (and several others) on a fascinating walking tour around the city all about Queen Elizabeth’s visit to Norwich. The tour was organised by Strangers’ Hall, Norwich, which is one of the most incredible attractions in the city. This Hall, dating back to 1320, is now an immersive museum, with rooms recreated in the style of different eras significant in Norwich’s history. If you want to learn more about the Queen Elizabeth’s visit to Norwich, Strangers’ Hall have a ‘Busy for Lizzy’ themed programme of events – get involved here. You can also visit the Hall for free on Thursday 13, Friday 14th and Sunday 16th of September, as part of the Heritage Open Days. Thanks too to Cathy Terry, senior curator of Social History, Strangers’ Hall.