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Originally published 2018
Norwich is a city filled with ancient streets and alleyways, beautiful heritage sites and plenty of stories. So here’s a whistle-stop history lesson – brief but hopefully informative – taking us from the days of the Icenis through to the present day.
Image: Norwich in 1343 – image from www.themurderers.co.uk
Long before the Romans invaded Britain, the Iceni tribe lived in this area. They were led by Prasutagus and, after his death, by his wife Boudicca – she led an (unsuccessful) revolt against the Romans in 60AD. The Romans continued to occupy the area (called Venta Icenorum, in what is today the South Norfolk area) for another 300 years or so. Today you can still explore the area where Boudicca and her men were said to have fought against the Romans – called the Boudicca Way – by taking a walk along the footpath which stretches from Norwich to Diss.
By 410AD the Anglo-Saxons were starting to invade the area, building minor settlements and, slowly but surely, gaining a stronghold on the area which we today call Norwich. The river was an ideal connection to the sea (and therefore fish!) and the land was fertile and ideal for growing crops. Soon they began to establish industries such as pottery and metal work, which helped develop the area’s success as a trading centre.
Fast-forward to 866, when the Danish Vikings came along and invaded East Anglia; they lived alongside the Saxons until 917 when King Edward the Elder, of the Anglo-Saxons, took back control. There is, however, still various remnants of the Viking rule in Norwich – Magdalen Street, for example, was the main street during Anglo-Scandinavian rule, whilst Tombland (used then as a market place) was named after the Danish word for ‘tom’, meaning open or empty (nothing to do with the eerie associations with graves and burials that many assume!)
The Saxons established various villages in this area which would then merge together; one of the villages was called ‘Norwic’ which is where the city later got its name from.
Next, along came the Normans. In 1066 they conquered Norwich, which at that point was one of the largest towns in England with a thriving trade and industries – they obviously recognised the potential of the area! They built a timber Castle – sort of a stand-in until they could start building a proper stone version – and closed the market, clearing space in Tombland for the Cathedral that they’d also decided to build.
The new castle took around 20 years to complete, whilst the Cathedral took nearly 200 years using stone imported from Caen, in northern France! They also built the defensive walls around the city, using funds which every inhabitant had to contribute to.
Though there were many rebellions and much fighting during the Medieval period, it was also a time of prosperity for the area, with its textile trade booming. You can see examples of textile crafts today at The Museum of Norwich at the Bridewell and Norwich Castle.
What else is there to do when a city has plenty of money, and wanted to shout about it? Build lots of churches, of course! 31 of the many churches built during this time still stand today; some are open for worship whilst others have been converted for new purposes – Norwich Puppet Theatre is a prime example of a church put to a creative new use, and one you can most certainly visit today!
Norwich was known as England’s ‘second city’ from 1650 – 1750, and in the 1800’s some new industries began to grow. Printing was a key developing industry, as was leather production, and a railway in the area was completed in 1845, providing links from Norwich to London. One key industry that emerged in the 1800’s and which made a real name for Norwich in years to come was the shoe and boot industry – read our blog post all about it here.
In 1803 John Crome started a school for artists called The Norwich School, in 1856 a new Colman’s Mustard factory opened at Carrow Road, and in 1884 work began on the Roman Catholic Cathedral of St John the Baptist (completed in 1910). You wouldn’t believe that the Roman Catholic Cathedral was only built just over a hundred years ago when you visit, but it’s one of the UK’s best examples of Victorian Gothic Revival Architecture and is a must-visit!
Norwich continued to grow and develop further into the 20th century, with City Hall built in 1930 and Norwich City Football Club’s purpose-built football ground, on Carrow Road. Built in just 82 days, it opened on 31 August 1935.
The University of East Anglia opened in 1963 with its striking ‘Ziggurat’ buildings – today listed structures – followed by the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, designed in the 70’s by Norman Foster and today standing proud as another listed building!
The Broads became a National Park in 1988 to help protect the wildlife and nature of the area, whilst 1993 saw the opening of Castle Mall, a shopping centre built on almost 7 acres of land, including some of the Norwich Castle mound.
2001 saw the creation of The Forum, a Millennium Commission Lottery Project designed by Sir Michael Hopkins, which today houses the city’s public-access library (replacing the central library which burnt down in 1993) and the new Norwich Market re-opened with refurbished, brightly coloured roofs (as is so iconic today) in 2004. Chapelfield Shopping Centre (now intu Chapelfield) opened in 2005, built on the old Caley’s chocolate factory site (later Rowntree Mackintosh and Nestlé).
In 2012 Norwich was given UNESCO City of Literature status – the first city in England to gain this status.
Onwards and upwards!