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During the Roman conquest of Britain the Celtic Iceni tribe occupied East Anglia. Boudicca, a fiercely strong, independent woman led an uprising against the Romans which sadly failed. The Romans established the regional capital of Venta Icenorum on the River Tas (a few miles south of Norwich). The ruins of this site can be explored at Caistor St. Edmund, which forms part of the Boudicca Way – a 36 mile footpath from Norwich to Diss.
A few hundred years later, Anglo-Saxon ‘Norvic’ had formed around the confluence of the Rivers Wensum and Yare. By 575AD King Uffa had made Norvic a royal city and capital of East Anglia with its own mint. Saxon Norvic centred around Tombland, meaning ‘open space’ which is where the marketplace was located. Today this area is called The Cathedral Quarter.
The Danes arrived on our eastern shores and in 869AD killed Edmund, the last King of the Angles. The Danes settled in large numbers and grew further through marriage. Their influence remains today in place names such as Pottergate and Finkelgate in the Norwich Lanes. Across Norfolk you can find place names of Viking origin.
The Norman Conquest of 1066 saw the invading forces establish their authority by building a Royal castle, clearing the original Saxon area of housing in the centre of the city to construct a mound. The original castle was made of wood, although it was replaced by a stone building in around 1100. It was held on behalf of William the Conqueror by the Earl of Norwich. Under the Normans, Norwich steadily grew to become an important medieval city. In 1345 the King gave the castle to the city and it became the county gaol, with regular hangings outside. In 1549 Robert Kett, leader of a rebellion against the enclosure of common lands, was hung in chains from the walls.
In 1894 the newly converted Castle Museum & Art Gallery opened and remains to this day.
The construction of Norwich Cathedral began around the same time as the Norwich Castle and was an enormous undertaking. A canal was dug from the River Wensum at Pull’s Ferry to bring in limestone from Caen in Normandy. It took 200 years to complete the build. Norwich Cathedral boasts a glorious 96m high spire (second only to Salisbury) and also has the largest monastic cloisters in the country, housing more than 1,000 beautiful medieval roof boss sculptures.
It was the Normans who moved the Saxon marketplace in 1075 to the Mancroft area, where it has endured in the heart of the city for 900 years. Norwich Market is one of the largest and oldest open-air markets in the country with nearly 200 diverse stalls. It recently won the accolade ‘Best Outdoor Market’ in the UK for 2019.
Medieval Norwich thrived, becoming the second city in the UK only to London. A wealth of medieval buildings were constructed such as the Guildhall, Dragon Hall, Strangers’ Hall and St.Andrew’s Hall. The Museum of Norwich at the Bridewell was originally a merchant’s house in 1345 and later became the Bridewell – a ‘house of correction’ for women and vagrants. Today, as a museum, it tells the story of the city and its people. Find housing exhibits of local industries from the textile trade, shoes, chocolate and most famously – Colman’s mustard.
The medieval city walls were begun in 1297 and encircled 2.5 miles of the city, with 12 defensive gates fortified with great catapults. The ruins of the walls can still be seen today.
Norwich has long had ancient bonds with the Netherlands, which flourished through trade and cultural exchange during the sixteenth century. The persecution of Protestants in the Spanish Netherlands led to the Norwich authorities endorsing immigration to Norwich. These refugees from Europe were known as ‘Strangers’, and were mostly weavers bringing their valuable skills with them. They also brought us the infamous yellow canaries.
The Georgian and Victorian eras
The city transformed rapidly in the Georgian and Victorian eras, with enormous expansion of the city. During the 1700’s, a Cattle Market was established around the Norwich Castle Mound, and the banking and insurance industries began to emerge with force in the city. With the population of the city growing in the 19th century, massive slum clearance was undertaken and Victorian terraced housing was introduced. The Royal Arcade was opened in 1899 – a beautiful ornate covered shopping street, designed by George Skipper in the Art Nouveau style. A thriving shoe industry 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. In 2012, Norwich became England’s first UNESCO City of Literature, thanks to the city’s long literary history: from Julian of Norwich, the first woman to be published in English in the 14th century, to the establishing of the first Creative Writing Masters at UEA, with graduates including Ian McEwan, Anne Enwright and Kazuo Ishiguro.