Norwich History in a Nutshell
Before the Romans invaded Iron Age Britain in AD 43, Norfolk had been the territory of the Iceni people. The most famous leader of this tribe, Boudicca, led an unsuccessful revolt against the Roman occupation in around AD 60.
Following her defeat, the Romans inhabited the area for more than 300 years. The local capital became Venta Icenorum, on the River Tas (South Norfolk), just to the south of the present day city. Today visitors can explore the ruins around the site at Caistor St Edmund which forms part of the Boudicca Way, a long distance footpath running 36 miles between Norwich and Diss.
After the Romans, Venta Icenorum was abandoned and a new town grew up on the River Wensum – north of Venta Icenorum. There were scattered settlements, but at the centre was Tombland. Today, Wensum Street runs from Tombland to Fye Bridge – the ancient river crossing to ‘Norwich over the water’ – one of the settlements here on the north bank was ‘Northwic’, now known as Norwich.
Into this Anglo-Saxon world came the Vikings. They were resisted by Edmund, King of East Anglia, but Edmund was killed by the Danes in 870. Following, the Danes ruled the area for nearly 50 years.
Although there is little now to show for their occupation, they left their imprint on the city in many street names.
East Anglia was recaptured in 917 by the Anglo-Saxon king Edward the Elder and then occupied once again by Vikings in 1004. In this year, Sweyn (Sven) Forkbeard, the King of Denmark, burnt much of Norwich to the ground. Over the next 50 years, the Danes settled alongside the native Anglo-Saxons, creating a large prosperous town of some five to ten thousand inhabitants. This set the scene for the next major upheaval in Norwich’s history, the Norman period.
The arrival of the conquering Normans from France changed everything. They relocated the town centre from Tombland to the current marketplace, where it was overlooked by the new castle. Norwich Cathedral was begun in 1096, with stone being imported from Caen in northern France. The Normans also built 2.5 miles (4 km) of defensive walls around the city.
The medieval period was a prosperous one for the Norwich area with the main industries being wool trade and weaving. Large numbers of skilled Walloon and Flemish weavers came to Norwich from the Low Countries during this time, often to escape persecution at home. Examples of their work can be seen today at The Museum of Norwich at the Bridewell and Norwich Castle.
The wealth of the city was reflected in the many buildings dating from this time, luckily for us, many of these buildings have survived; Norwich Castle Museum & Art Gallery and Norwich Cathedral as examples. From the 1400s onwards there was extensive church building. Today you will find 31 medieval churches still standing, some open for worship, others put to imaginative use, for example, Norwich Puppet Theatre.
England’s Second City
For much of the time between 1650 and 1750, Norwich was rated as second only to London in terms of its prosperity, with textiles still being the mainstay of the economy. During the 1800s, newer industries began to gain prominence, for example, printing and the production of leather. The completion of the railway connection between Norwich and London in 1845, an achievement of Victorian entrepreneur Sir Morton Peto, brought transport links to the capital. A thriving shoe industry was well established and new ventures, such as Colman’s Mustard, became enduring legacies of Victorian Norwich.
20th and 21st Century Norwich
Through the 20th century and to the present day, Norwich has continued to evolve. The 1930s saw the building of the revolutionary Art Deco City Hall overlooking the marketplace, and in 1963 the University of East Anglia (UEA) admitted its first students. The UEA brought more extraordinary architecture to Norwich, in the pyramidal shape of Denys Lasdun’s “ziggurats”. This was followed by the striking structure of the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, designed in the 1970s by Norman Foster – his first commercial building and now with listed status. In 1988, in a move to protect one of the area’s greatest natural assets, the Norfolk Broads became a national park. As the 21st century got underway, the landmark Forum building, housing the Millennium Library and much more, was opened in the centre of Norwich.
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