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Norwich: A Brief History of Time in the City of Stories

If it’s sights and attractions you’re after, then Norwich, the capital of Norfolk, doesn’t disappoint.

Elm Hill Norwich

Elm Hill.

The city has the largest permanent undercover market in Europe, many museums and theatres, traditional pubs, cobbled streets such as Elm Hill, Timberhill and Tombland, ancient buildings like St Andrew’s Hall, half-timbered houses such as Dragon Hall, The Guildhall and Strangers’ Hall, a Victorian arcade, a jumble of medieval lanes and a delightful riverside along the winding Wensum.

It’s the city’s history that makes it such a magnificent place. No wonder it’s called The City of Stories.

Pottergate in the ‘higgledy-piggledy’ Lanes has lots of independent shopping.

It was 19th century writer George Borrow who named Norwich ‘a fine city’ – you’ll see it mentioned on the name signs as you enter – and another writer, JB Priestley, said of the city, ‘What a grand, higgledy-piggledy, sensible old place Norwich is!’

But how much of its history do you know? Let us take you on a whirlwind lesson…

The Romans had their regional capital at Venta Icenorum on the River Tas, about five miles south of Norwich, next to modern-day Caistor St Edmund. The settlement fell into disuse around 450AD.

Romans, Boudicca and the Iceni in Norfolk

In 575AD Anglo Saxon King Uffa made Northwic a Royal city and capital of East Anglia. Norwich became the seat of the Earl of East Anglia with its own mint and 25 churches. Developed from a collection of small settlements on the River Wensum, its position in rich agricultural land and close proximity to river and sea made it an excellent location for trade.

Eating al fresco Tombland Norwich

Al fresco dining at Tombland.

Easy access to the sea could also bring trouble. In 840 Danes invaded East Anglia. Their language remains in places such as Pottergate and Finkelgate. Tombland isn’t a place for burying people, it’s actually Scandinavian for ‘open ground’ so there was probably a market here.

Market Place & Castle couple Norwich

The castle dominates the city centre view.

In 1067 the Normans arrived and asserted themselves by building a new castle that dominated the city skyline. Originally wooden, it was remade in stone after 1100AD. Today the Castle is a Museum and Art Gallery, hosting many works by the Norwich School, led by John Crome.

Normans in Norfolk

Work started on Norwich Cathedral in 1096 using Caen stone from France. It took 54 years to complete. Norwich Cathedral has the second highest spire in the country, after Salisbury, and has the largest monastic cloisters. It is one of the best examples of Romanesque architecture in Europe.

Best things to see in Norwich Cathedral

Castle and cathedral Norwich

Norwich Castle and Cathedral.

The oldest pub in Norwich is the Adam and Eve, which served masons building Norwich Cathedral.

Richard the Lionheart gave Norwich a Royal Charter to become a city in 1194 because of its bustling market, the expanding textile trade and strong agricultural roots. The wealth generated helped create more fine churches. Today Norwich has more medieval churches than any other city in Western Europe north of the Alps.

On that subject, at the 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. It also had a pub for every day! (In fact, in 1870, Norwich had a recorded high of 670 licensed premises).

Archers trained for the Battle of Agincourt in 1415 at Chapelfield Gardens in Norwich. They were led by Sir Thomas Erpingham, whose statue sits atop the main gate to Norwich Cathedral. We should add that it’s from their victorious gesturing to the captured French knights that we get a certain two-fingered salute (think about the lifting of their two bow fingers).

Norwich notables – 11 people who made the City of Stories

Elm Hill walkers Norwich

Cobbled Elm Hill.

Norwich’s most famous street, cobbled Elm Hill, was rebuilt in 1507 after a devastating fire. A survivor of that fire is The Briton Arms, one of the only thatched buildings in the city.

In 1549 Robert Kett from Wymondham lead a revolt of 15,000 men against land enclosures. After defeat at Mousehold Heath he was hanged outside the castle and his body left to deter more dissent.

From Norman times to the 19th century Norwich was the second most important city in the UK after London. Then the Industrial Revolution came and bypassed the city – no fast-running water. Serendipitously, this meant Norwich’s medieval core was left intact while those who benefited from the new manufacturing processes dramatically changed themselves, probably not for the best. Norwich is now the best-preserved medieval city in the UK.

Pub & Paddle Wensum Norwich

The River Wensum helped Norwich trade with the Continent.

Dutch and French-speaking Huguenots and Walloons refugees fleeing religious persecution arrived in the city in 1565, invited by Queen Elizabeth I, who once stayed at The Maid’s Head Hotel in the city. The so-called ‘Strangers’ helped produce some of the finest woollen exports to the world, namely worsted cloth (named after the local village Worstead).

Strangers' Hall Norwich

Strangers Hall is where religious refugees from Europe met.

Spanish Jews, Danes and Huguenot and Flemish migrants fleeing the Catholic Church numbered as many one third of the city’s population. The canary bird was introduced by the Flemish refugees, which is why Norwich City Football Club is nicknamed The Canaries. More of that later.

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.

Assembly House Norwich

Norwich’s Assembly House.

The grand Georgian Assembly House was built in 1754 as public rooms for genteel society. You can have a traditional English Afternoon Tea there today.

Norwich two cathedrals

Norwich’s two cathedrals, the Catholic Cathedral of St John the Baptist in the background.

In 1882 the Catholic Duke of Norfolk gave to a gift to begin the construction of the Cathedral of St John the Baptist. Behind the cathedral is the 3-acre Plantation Garden, created in an old medieval chalk quarry.

Norwich’s delightful Art Nouveau Royal Arcade was constructed in 1899. And a transformation of a major city icon also took place in Victorian times… the dilapidated Norman castle was given a makeover. Yes, the pristine façade you see today was created by the Victorians!

Royal Arcade shopping Norwich

The Victorian Royal Arcade.

Norwich City Football Club, the Canaries, was founded in 1902. They used to play at The Nest on Riverside before moving to Carrow Road. Their ‘On The Ball City’ is the oldest football song still sung in the world.

Guildhall and Market Norwich

The Market with Guildhall on the left.

City Hall was formally opened in 1938 by King George VI and Queen Elizabeth. The award-winning Art Deco civic centre was built to replace the flint 15th century Guildhall, across the road, which remains England’s largest and most elaborate provincial medieval city hall. Marvel at its ‘knapped’ flint and stone chequerwork. Nearby is Norwich Market, Europe’s largest permanent covered market and a vibrant riot of colour and commotion.

London Street, Norwich

London Street.

In 1967 London Street became the first shopping street in the UK to be pedestrianised. Nearby The Lanes are home to many of the city’s finest independent shops.

Norwich is the only city in an English National Park, the Norfolk Broads, which are part man-made. We know this because of research by botanist Joyce Lambert in the 1960s. She discovered the lakes were flat-bottomed and steep-sided rather than being bow-shaped. Further research revealed medieval Norwich Cathedral burning 400,000 turves of peat in one year. Yes, the Broads were dug for fuel!

Forum, City Hall, Millennium Plain, St Peter Mancroft Church Norwich

To properly appreciate Norwich’s juxtaposition of contemporary and past, stand on Millennium Plain between the hangar-like, glass-fronted Forum and the 15th century St Peter Mancroft church, the largest in Norwich. It’s the perfect place to start writing your own story in Norwich.

Best things to do in Norwich