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History of medieval Norwich

Sketch-map of medieval Norwich, ca.1260

This is a clickable imagemap.




It has been hypothesized from the name of one of the principal roads through Conesford, Berstrete, together with the deviation in the curve of the town wall at the southern end of the city (suggestive of a direction northwards up Berstrete, rather than the actual more westerly curve taken by the main part of the wall), that a burh defence may have at one time existed along the line of this route to protect the south-western side of Conesford. Archaeology has not substantiated this (in contrast to evidence of a ditch in the northwestern sector of the Anglo-Saxon settlement), and it seems unlikely that burh fortifications would have extended so far south beyond the main concentrations of settlement, but the theory remains.

As one of the most important, populous and prosperous towns of the kingdom, it was caught up in national conflicts and was used as a base, or targeted for attack, by rebels on several occasions between the Conquest and the baronial revolt of mid-13th century. The civil war between Stephen and Matilda had prompted the townspeople to devote effort to ditch-digging in the (formerly unprotected?) area of Westwick, although such efforts were also motivated by the desire to define boundaries. The assault by Flemings in 1174 apparently went undefended and the city was sacked. Each generation must have had occasion to perceive the vulnerability of the place. A city ditch is again heard of in 1235.

The ditch-bank dug in 1252/53 may have been an extension of existing defenses or may have followed a new line (in either case, it is generally assumed to have been that later taken by the stone walls), enclosing a large area of about a square mile, and serviced by 9 gates (see below) with wooden gatehouses. As complaints by the surrounding countryside and by the monks attest, the line of the new ditch encompassed lands that were sparsely settled or simply fields (e.g. Gildencroft, Normannesland, Great Newgate) – these might have been considered "suburbs" (and parish churches of late Saxon or early Norman period are associated with those to the north of the burh-ditch line) but the complaints suggest that some were strictly speaking outside of the jurisdiction of Norwich proper. However, since the monks were defending their own jurisdictional claims, their complaints cannot entirely be trusted. The new defensive line bulged out well beyond the lines (actual or hypothetical) of any Anglo-Saxon burh defense, to incorporate areas not then protected and those of 11th century expansion – notably Westwyk and Mancroft (now the urban centre) – as well as unsettled lands, some of which may however have once been borough fields subsequently lost to encroachments following the Conquest. Although the course of the ditch was dictated in part by the desire for a line that did not undulate in a way that would have created defensive problems, it also represented an assertion – if not a re-assertion – of territorial claims.


The Cathedral-priory precinct. The site acquired by Bishop Losinga was unusually large; he envisaged not only a cathedral but also a priory for 60 Benedictine monks and an episcopal palace. The eastern section of the site was meadow, but western parts were previously built on and two churches had to be demolished; according to the complaint about the 1253 ditch, the meadowland – known as Cowholm – and the land on which St. Michael's had stood were not part of the hundred of Norwich). The Prior's Fee included not only the close proper (east of Tombland and south of Holmestrete) but also Tombland itself and the settled area along Holmestrete, as well as Normannesland and Great Newgate (see below); the townspeople in these areas fell under a jurisdiction separate from that of the city.


The Great Hospital. In 1249, Bishop Suffield founded the Hospital of St. Giles to take care of priests who were too poor (i.e. lacking a living) or too ill to work; 30 beds were provided for the sick and infirm, while provision was made for feeding other of the poor there daily. The hospital was endowed with meadow-land stretching eastwards to the river. Over time it gradually strayed from its mandate and became a desirable retirement home for wealthy citizens.


The Castle Fee. The size of the fee can be imagined from the fact that 98 burgesses lost their homes when the earthworks were constructed. Even though it is only the keep and the mound raised beneath it which now survive, they are still imposing. The extensive fortification, which was the single royal castle in Norfolk and Suffolk, must have had a daunting effect on any remaining Anglo-Saxon ambitions for independence. When the city took over the Fee in 1345, the keep and its mound were excluded.


The Shirehouse. The location where the county court was held, presided over by the sheriff. Consequently, this remained outside city juridiction even after acquisition of the surrounding Fee (1345).


Normannesland. An area of land here was part of the Prior's Fee and came to be known as Spitelond. According to the complainants made about the 1253 ditch, this area was never actually part of the hundred of Norwich. At the time that a hospital dedicated to St. Paul (although often known as Normanspitel) was founded thereon, in the first half of the 12th century, new endowments extended the area northwards, new settlers were found, and a new parish church (with the same dedication) provided for them. The hospital served poor invalids.


Great Newgate. This was mainly agricultural land, and was earlier known as Thedwardscroft. The name "Newgate" was inherited from the street on which it subsequently lay, which must at some point (probably in the 11th century) have been a new offshoot from Nedham Street. From ca.1100 it was part of the Prior's Fee, remaining agricultural in character but possibly with some minor settlement of townsmen thereon prior to 1253. After lengthy disputes between city and priory as to ownership, the king took it away from the Prior (1291) and handed it over to the city (1305); this decision may have been motivated more by a consequent increase to the fee farm than to clear evidence of ownership.


Little Newgate. Fields held by Carrow Abbey, but possibly with some minor settlement thereon prior to 1253 (when the area was named among others in the complaint about the ditch). The Abbey held leet court for its tenants there, but surrendered its jurisdiction to the city in 1290. The name was inherited from the area being adjacent to the lower (and lesser) part of the street known as Newgate.


The manor of Pockthorpe was part of the Prior's Fee and extended along the northern bank of the river to where it turned south. It served as a home farm for the cathedral-priory. After having been truncated by the line of the 1253 ditch, the area within the ditch was within a century, acquired by the Carmelites for their friary.


Carrow Abbey was founded in 1146, by grant of the king to some Benedictine nuns, to the south of the (future) walled area, but on lands that had earlier served as townsmen's fields, thus setting the scene for future jurisdictional disputes. One such was the nunnery's claim to have the right to collect a toll on corn sold in the city during the time of the Carrow Fair; this too was relinquished in the settlement of 1290, with the city authorities promising in return not to obstruct the holding of the fair.


Chapel in the Fields
This chapel occupied quite a large site (described as a croft) by mid-13th century. It originally included a hospital, but shortly before the 1253 ditch was dug, was converted to the collegiate church of St. Mary's, housing a community of priests. In the 14th century, before the large Guildhall superseded the small Tolbooth, this chapel was occasionally used for major civic assemblies.




Conesford (later King Street) Gate. This was the first gate to receive a mention, in 1186.


Berstrete Gate


Swinemarket Gate (later the Brazen Doors). This was an entrance/exit of lesser importance; when the wall was built it was provided only with a postern gate here.


Nedham (later St. Stephen's) Gate. This was the major entrance to the city from the south. A leper house was later established a short distance beyond this gate.


Newport (later St. Giles) Gate. Named for the street which led here through the novus portus (new borough) founded for French settlers. A leper house was later (ca.1343) established immediately outside this gate.


Westwyk (later St. Benedict's) Gate. A leper house was later established immediately outside this gate.


Coselanye (later St. Martin's) Gate


St. Augustine's Gate. A leper house was later established a few hundred yards beyond the gate.


Fybriggate (later Magdalen) Gate. A leper house was later established immediately outside this gate.


Barregates (later Pockthorpe Gate).


Bishop's Bridge. It does not seem that a gate was erected to protect this entrance into the city until the 1330s, and then as part of citizen Richard Spynk's contribution towards the development of defences, even though jurisdiction over the bridge was a bone of contention between city and priory.


Gosehill. An area of unsettled land belonging, according to the complaints about the 1253 ditch, to Carrow Abbey and not part of Norwich hundred – although the presence of Conesford gate there earlier suggests the townsmen considered the area part of Norwich. The area was later renamed after an owner John le Boteler, the name becoming Butler Hills and later corrupted to Butter Hills.


Gildencroft. A large area of open (and presumably partly agricultural) land to the north of Coslanye and outside the burh boundaries. At the time of the complaints about the 1253 ditch, when referred to as the croft of St. Augustine (being adjacent to that churchyard), it was in use for meetings of the court of an external jurisdiction (either Tokethorpe manor or Taverham hundred). It later was held by the Great Hospital. A large part remained undeveloped long after the medieval period.


The Tolbooth (later called the Tolhouse). This original base for city self-government was likely on the site where the 15th century Guildhall was later built, on a scale unequalled in medieval England outside of London. The Tolbooth was of a much more modest size. As the name suggests, it was likely the point of collection of market tolls, as well as serving as courthouse and gaol.


Marketplace. This market was doubtless a feature of the Newport (later Manecroft) from the foundation of that settlement, and probably part of the rationale for the foundation, although the Newport also made provision not only for the housing of Norman merchants in Norwich but also that of Norman barons and soldiers. By mid-13th century this was the central marketplace for the retail of provisions; there were numerous secondary, specialized markets elsewhere in the city.


Hildebrond's Hospital. Founded in the early 14th century by Hildebrond le Mercer and dedicated to the Virgin Mary, it served as a hospice for poor travellers and vagrants.


At its peak, in the second half of the 12th century, the Jewish community in Norwich was the second wealthiest (after that of London) in England; it declined in size during the 13th century. Most Jews in Norwich lived close together, within the shadow of the royal castle, although this was not mandatory – for instance, the wealthiest, Jurnet, had a stone house in Conesford Street (perhaps for the easy access to the river).



The principal administrative divisions of the city – the leets – reflected development of settlement in the area: the settlement most distant in time and of far lesser significance by the thirteenth century, now was remembered only as that "on the other side of the river"; on the other hand, the name of the focus of Anglo-Saxon settlement, Conesford, survived despite its dismemberment with the superimposition of castle and cathedral fees over land formerly housing townsmen; the secondary settlement Westwyk also survived in name, although during the thirteenth century the name was superseded by "Wymer" (a townsman of this name being mentioned in the Domesday account of Norwich); and the Norman foundation known apparently at first as the Newport, but later as Manecroft (a name whose precise meaning is disputed but at least reflects that the settlement was established on formerly agricultural land, just beyond the edge of the Anglo-Saxon settled area – and possibly therefore borough fields, so that the name may reflect Anglo-Saxon resentment at their loss to Norman newcomers).

By contrast, there is no apparent topographical logic to the sub-divisions which are first documented in the thirteenth century, not even in terms of the number of parishes each comprised, since this varied considerably. Hudson, who considered the matter in some depth, concluded that the boundaries of the sub-leets were dictated by the need to ensure that each contained at least 12 tithings, so that each would be represented by the jury of 12 Capital Pledges required by law to make presentments in the leet court. Adjustments in the number and size of the sub-leets were made occasionally in the Late Middle Ages, presumably prompted by shifts in population.

By the last quarter of the 14th century, the sub-divisions were being treated as leets in their own right, seemingly superseding the earlier, larger divisions. Those four divisions persisted, however, for serving an administrative purpose in the 15th century electoral system, under the name of "great wards", each later subdivided into 3 aldermanries which were very similar in extent to the original sub-leets.


Southern Conesford. At least following the disruptions resulting from the Conquest, there was little commercial or industrial activity in this part of the city, although some of the wealthier citizens lived there or in Northern Conesford, and a number of private quays were located on the riverside here.


Northern Conesford. The two Conesford sub-leets were amalgamated by mid-14th century, likely the result of reduced population (and therefore the number of tithings) in the area, as large areas of land were acquired by the Augustinians and Franciscans for their friary precincts.


Berstrete. Named after the Anglo-Saxon road which was the sub-leet's backbone and which ran along a ridge above the slope down to the river (on the western side of the ridge lay a natural valley through which ran the Great Cockey).


St. Stephen.


St. Peter de Manecroft. The most populous parish in the city, as might be expected of the parish encompassing the marketplace. The location of the parish church is marked on the map with a red cross. The original church belonged to the earl who was (with the king) co-founder of the Newport, although the present structure was a rebuilding of the second quarter of the 15th century. The prosperity and grand proportions of the church reflect that its parishioners included many of Norwich's richest merchants.


Referred to by the collective names of its parishes: St. Giles, St. Margaret, St. Swithun, and St. Benedict. By late 14th century, this division had become known by the principal parish of the district, St. Giles.


Referred to by the collective names of its parishes: St. Lawrence and St. Gregory. By late 14th century, this division had become known by just the name of one of the parishes, St. Gregory.


Referred to by the collective names of its parishes: St. John de Maddermarket, Holy Cross, St. Andrew, St. Michael de Motestow, and St. Peter. By late 14th century, this division had become known by the name only of St. Andrew.


Referred to by the collective names of its parishes: SS. Simon and Jude, St. George before the Gates of the Holy Trinity, and St. Martin before the Gates of the Bishop. By late 14th century, this division had become known by the principal parish of the district, St. George. The boundaries of the Wymer sub-leets were around this time adjusted to reduce to number to three.


Referred to by the collective names of its parishes: St. Michael de Coselanye, St. George, St. Mary, and St. Martin. By late 14th century, this division had become known by the name only of St. Michael.


Referred to by the collective names of its parishes: St. Olave, St. Botulph, St. Clement, St. Mary Combust (a term apparently reflecting that the parish had been devastated by fire at some earlier period), St. Saviour, All Saints, St. James, St. Edmund the King, and St. Margaret Combust. By late 14th century, this division had become known by the name only of St. Clement, perhaps the principal parish of the district. The boundaries of the two Ultra Aquam sub-leets were adjusted in the late 14th century to make three subdivisions.

Origins of settlement |  The pre-Conquest borough |  Effects of the Conquest
Evolution of a self-governing community |  Power struggles with rivals
A division of interests |  Summary/Recap
Map of Anglo-Saxon Norwich |  MAP OF NORWICH ca.1260
Appendix 1: Calendar of customs of Norwich


Created: December 28, 1998. Last update: July 1, 1999 © Stephen Alsford, 1998-2003

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The contents of ORB are copyright © 2003 Kathryn M. Talarico except as otherwise indicated herein.