History of Norwich

Discover who Nosey Parker was and how a Norfolk man was responsible for a rude two finger gesture in our Norwich Notables story.

For centuries Norwich was the largest city in England after London, and the capital of the most populous county in England. In the Middles Ages it served a hinterland of East Anglian wool producers, whose produce was transported to the city and then taken via the Wensum and Yare to Great Yarmouth from where it was exported to the Continent.

The city's isolated position beyond the marshy Fens meant it had closer links with the Low Countries than with the rest of England – at the time it was quicker to cross the North Sea than to travel cross-country to London. Of course, now it's well-served by an international airport, good rail transport and the A11 to Norwich will shortly be completely dualled.

The Romans had their regional capital at Venta Icenorum on the River Tas, about 5 miles (8km) to the south of Norwich next to modern-day Caistor St Edmund. The Roman settlement fell into disuse around 450 AD, and the Anglo-Saxons settled on the site of the modern city from around the 5th-7th centuries, founding the town of Northwic, which became Norwich.

By Anglo Saxon times Norwich was already one of the country's most important towns, developed from a collection of small settlements along the Wensum. Its position in rich agricultural land and close proximity to river and sea made it an excellent location for trade.

At the time of the Norman Conquest the city was one of the largest in England. The Domesday Book states that it had twenty-five churches and a population of between five and ten thousand. In 1096, Herbert de Losinga, the Bishop of Thetford, began construction of the Cathedral. Norwich was granted city status in 1194 because of its bustling market, the expanding textile industry and strong agricultural roots. During the Middles Ages, the wealth generated by the wool trade financed the construction of many fine churches; consequently, Norwich still has more medieval churches than any other city in Western Europe north of the Alps. Throughout this period Norwich established wide-ranging trading links with other parts of Europe, its markets stretching from Scandinavia to Spain.

At this time religion was a powerful influence on civic life with everyone being made to pay a tax or 'tithe' to the church, usually a tenth of their earnings in either cash or goods. Even the poorest paid up, lest they go south rather than north, and so medieval Norwich had 57 churches – one for every week of the year. At the time the city also had so many public houses there was one for every day.

The textile industry, based on worsted cloth (named after the nearby village of Worstead), meant that by 1700 Norwich was the second richest city in the country, after the capital, but the onset of the Industrial Revolution and the county's lack of fast-running water meant the city lost ground to northern manufacturing towns.

Serendipitously, this meant Norwich's medieval core was left intact while those who benefited from the new manufacturing processes dramatically changed themselves.

Migration in the Middle Ages brought Spanish Jews, Danes and Huguenot and Flemish 'Strangers' fleeing Catholic persecution and eventually numbering as many as one third of the city's population.

The canary bird was introduced by those Flemish refugees, fleeing from Spanish persecution in 16th century Holland. They brought with them not only advanced techniques in textile working but also their pet canaries, which is why Norwich City Football Club is nicknamed The Canaries.

Norfolk's Top 10 Museums

Iconic industrial sites in Norwich

Norfolk in ancient times

Explore NorwichNorwich's multi-coloured covered market and Norman castle.
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