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Guide to Norwich
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Norwich History

Norwich History Norwich’s origins can be traced as far back as the Romans, who settled here and built the provincial town of Venta Icenorum at Caistor St Edmund.

Not long after they had made themselves comfortable, the Anglo-Saxons arrived, making their homes on gravel terraces next to the River Wensum. One of these settlements first had the name Northwic, and as the village grew and merged with others, the area became known as Norwich and had developed into the most influential town outside London by time of the Norman Conquest.

At William The Conqueror's expense Norwich Castle [map] was built from timber in 1067 as an image of strength and authority, while most of the Saxon houses and churches had been cleared by 1094 to make way for a canal leading from the River Wensum.

Between 1120 and 1130 the stone keep of the castle was built using local flint and mortar. The new keep was about 70 feet high with walls 100 feet long.

The Normans also established a new market in the place where the outdoor market still stands on Guildhall Hill [map], and Norwich Cathedral [map] was founded to house 60 Benedictine monks.

Although life was fairly prosperous for the people living inside the city walls, Norwich was the unfortunate target of several attacks during times of political unrest. Luckily the city’s defenses were improved substantially between 1150 and the mid 1300s, preventing any enemy from gaining access, until the Peasants' Revolt in 1381 when an army of rebels ransacked the city and burned down the houses of wealthy merchants.

Norwich was granted city status in 1194, when Richard I signed a charter giving the area rights of self-government, while in 1223 four bailiffs were appointed to maintain order through the four local courts.

The Black Death arrived in the city in 1349 and it is believed that two-fifths of the population, around 6,000 people, died from the disease. However by the late 14th century, the population had begun to rise again with peasants moving into the city to find work in the booming weaving industry, which played a vital part in the city's development for 500 years.

In 1404 a charter was granted allowing the city to have its own mayor, two sheriffs and twenty-four aldermen, who were elected for life. Further charters in the next decade made Norwich a county in itself.

During the 15th and early 16th century many of the city's most important buildings, including the Guildhall, the Cow Tower [map] and many churches, were erected. However a number of fires swept through Norwich, causing half the city's housing to be destroyed, which led to a decision that all new buildings should have tiled roofs.

Things got a lot worse in Norwich in 1549 when a rebel army of 20,000 yeoman farmers led by Robert Kett took control of the city in protest at increased rents and the enclosure of land by wealthy landowners. It took two royal armies six weeks to suppress them, but on defeat Kett and 48 other rebels were hanged at the castle.

In the mid-17th century the English Civil War caused many problems and disruption to the local weaving industry, and to make matters worse Norwich had its last epidemic of bubonic plague in 1665, causing most of the wealthy citizens to move out of the city. During this time agricultural wages in East Anglia were among the lowest in England and life in the country became increasingly difficult, prompting people to move into the city in search of work.

Fortunately, the textile industry recovered from a slump and provided work for the locals. Norwich cloth was exported all over the world to Europe, North America, India and China. In the early 1670s Norwich was deemed to be the largest provincial town in England, with a population of around 21,000.

In the 18th century the city was still prospering and the first Norwich bank was opened by Charles Weston in 1756, while in 1775 John and Henry Gurney founded a bank that still survives today as part of Barclays.

The population of Norwich increased from 37,256 in 1811 to 80,368 in 1871, and the city began to expand outside its walls. However, conditions in the city were not exactly good, with no supply of clean water and epidemics of cholera and other deadly diseases. Later in the 19th century a new waterworks was built to provide filtered water, and an awareness of public health was increased among locals.

During the 20th century the city's population continued to rise from 121,490 in 1911 to around 180,000 in 1980. World War II saw Norwich bombed more than 40 times, causing damage to more than 30,000 houses and 100 factories, along with numerous churches and shops.

The city started to be rebuilt in the 1950s and this continued well into the 1980s. The dawning of a new millennium has led to more development in Norwich, including the wonderful glass structure of The Forum [map], which houses an information centre, heritage centre and library.


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