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Norwich: a city of two tales

‘Weavers windows’ line the upper floors of Norwich's ancient shop fronts ‘Weavers windows’ line the upper floors of Norwich's ancient shop fronts
05 Feb
For this month’s Discovering Britain Trail, Laura Cole visits Norwich, a city of rebellion turned city of sanctuary

For more great walks, trails and viewpoints, be sure to check out the new Discovering Britain Facebook page by clicking here.

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Norwich is the only English city to have been excommunicated by the pope. The Ethelbert Gate, an embellished stone archway between the cathedral and the old market place, made sure the people of Norwich would never forget it.

The gate is beautiful. Two storied, with a small chapel built over the vaulted arch underneath. But there is a sinister edge to it too – as though the church was narrowing its eyes at the city. The thin windows remind of arrow slits, above them are tall and sharp stone gables that resemble palisades. On the arch itself, a carved figure points a sword at a serpent, but since Saint Ethelbert is not associated with dragon slaying, some historians speculate the scene was supposed to be a warning from the church. The gate hints at the rift between the people of Norwich and the church, as well as the power held by the latter during medieval times.

The city’s people had been at odds with the cathedral monks over many years for many reasons, though mostly about rights and boundaries. Then, during a summer fair in 1272, three things happened very quickly. There was a confrontation, one church servant shot a man with a crossbow and the city authorities had two others arrested. In the weeks afterwards, the pope delivered his excommunication and further church violence riled the people into riots. When the king arrived to settle the conflict, he forced the city to pay the church £2,000 and for citizens to build the Ethelbert Gate.

The region has a reputation for rebellion. East Anglia was once the home of the marsh-dwelling Iceni tribe whose queen, Boudica, led the infamous revolt against encroaching Romans. In 60AD she razed their settlements at Colchester, St Albans and London and became a serious threat to the Roman regime before dying of illness or poison.

Shortly after, the Romans built Venta Icenorum, ‘central place of the Iceni’ just three miles south in Caistor St Edmund. Its ruins are considered the ancestor of modern Norwich, which was settled in its current spot by Anglo-Saxons in the fifth century. A local adage goes ‘Caistor was a city when Norwich was none, Norwich was built of Caistor stone.’

Nonetheless, the stone of many of Norwich’s most prominent buildings is from somewhere else – France. Walking under arches and into the cathedral yard, eyes are drawn first to the enormous cathedral spire, 96 metres in the air. ‘Only Salisbury Cathedral is taller,’ explains Rory Walsh, writer of this Discovering Britain trail.

The grandeur was intentional. When William the Conqueror invaded England and took the throne in 1066, Norman forces set about building castles and cathedrals across the country. They were signs of force and the transfer of power. Norwich – then the largest city after London and York – would have been high on his list. ‘It was the Normans who built the cathedral and the nearby castle,’ says Walsh. ‘Made in specially-imported pale French limestone, both buildings were imposing symbols of Norman supremacy.’ The cathedral remains the tallest building in the city.



A long and narrow path leads east from the cathedral towards the River Wensum. The footpath lies on the route of an old canal that was built specially to be the final leg of the limestone’s journey from Caen, France. Today, the canal is filled in and the river is quiet. It gently sips up stray willow leaves as it meanders along three sides of a square around the cathedral grounds.

Five hundred years ago, a trader coming in on this river from the open broads would have found a hectic mesh of activity. The river had helped Norwich become the largest city in England outside of London, with its access to the broads, the sea and the lowland countries beyond it. The Quayside, now a pretty row of riverside cottages, would have been brimming with traders. However, in the 1500s the boats brought more than produce – they also brought ‘the strangers’.

‘The strangers were protestant refugees, who were fleeing persecution in the low countries,’ explains Frank Meeres, archivist at the Norwich Record Office. When the catholic Spanish rulers ordered the execution of ‘heretics’, they fled by the boatload to Germany, France and England. Many thousands settled in Norwich for good reason. ‘They had been invited,’ says Meeres. ‘In 1565, the City of Norwich and Queen Elizabeth I invited 30 asylum seekers and their families from Flanders.’

The truth was that Norwich needed their help. ‘The city had grown up around the textile industry,’ Meeres continues, ‘but it was beginning to lag.’ Fashions were changing with foreign fabrics preferred over English wool. Luckily, many of the protestant refugees were skilled in textiles – it was a perfect relationship. ‘Over a relatively short time of ten years, the city saw an influx of around 5,000 strangers,’ says Meeres. ‘It would have been a drastic change at the time, considering the local population was only 12,000.’

norwich2Norwich cathedral is still the tallest building in the city

Turning away from the river and southwards into the city, it’s clear that Norwich grew up as a medieval powerhouse. A gridwork of narrow, cobbled streets, ‘the Norwich lanes’ make up the interior of the city. Many are still timber-framed shop-fronts and others still have ‘weavers windows’ on the second floor, which were constructed to allow as much light as possible in to the upstairs, where looms were used.

Unfortunately it is difficult to know exactly where the Strangers settled. ‘Though the city welcomed them, they were also placed under a list of restrictions,’ says Meeres. ‘For many years, they weren’t allowed to buy property, which would have made life more difficult, and also makes it particularly hard to pinpoint where they used to live and work.’

The Strangers’ mark on the city is undeniable. Their expertise made Norwich a textile capital once again, a prestige it maintained until the industrial revolution. When the persecution in their homelands ended, some returned, while others had fully integrated into the community and became Norwich locals. ‘Many people still come and visit the archives to trace their ancestry back to the refugees,’ says Meeres.

The city of Norwich still today tries to emphasise its tradition as a home for refuge. In 2007, it became the only city in the UK to join the International Cities of Refuge Network. ‘With another refugee crisis underway in Europe,’ says Meeres, ‘Norwich’s historic welcome to persecuted peoples, and its success afterwards, has a renewed meaning.’ 

• Location: East of England
• Type: Urban
• Duration: 1.5 hours
Click here for more details

Unearth more of our nation’s history and find more great walks, trails and viewpoints around the UK at discoveringbritain.org or via the new Discovering Britain Facebook page.

This was published in the February 2018 edition of Geographical magazine.

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