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  • Writer's pictureRoyston Nicholls

Norwich – Medieval England’s Second largest City

Norwich Castle and Cathedral

Although Norwich is quite small by modern standards (it has a population of less than 150,000), it was the second largest city in Britain in medieval times. This prominence was based on its role as a centre of trade and commerce, and as a staple port (a designated market town or port where all overseas trade in certain goods had to be transacted), which prospered from the lucrative wool trade. Norwich retained its position as the country’s second city until the 18th century, when the city’s fortunes declined with the onset of the Industrial Revolution and the expansion of new towns and industry in the north of England. It underwent de-industrialisation in the 19th century but remained a regional economic centre.

The cobbled streets of Elm Hill

The beautiful medieval houses of Norwich

Today Norwich is one of England’s least known cathedral cities, and yet it is a city of great beauty, with more than 30 medieval parish churches, all dominated by the 15th century 315ft spire of the largely Norman cathedral. There is also a wealth of medieval houses, particularly around the cobbled Elm Hill, with its quaint and colourful streets, at the top of which is the little church of St. Peter Hungate, rebuilt in 1460, and now of a museum of Ecclesiastical Art. Around Tombland the houses are predominantly Georgian. The name has nothing to do with tombs, but comes from the Anglo-Saxon word, toom, which means an open marketplace.

St. Ethelbert's Gate

The magnificent cathedral can either be approached from Tombland or via two medieval gateways, the 14th century Ethelbert Gate or the 15th century Erpingham Gate, which is ornate with statues and heraldry. To the east is another gate, a watergate, which connected the cathedral to the River Wensum. Above the gate is a house called Pull’s Ferry, although today there is no ferry. The beautiful cream-coloured Caen limestone, which was used to face the cathedral building, came from France via the River Wensum and the watergate. The cathedral was begun in 1096 and was completed in 1145 with the Norman tower, and with a wooden spire covered with lead. The Cathedral has the second largest cloisters in England, only exceeded by those at Salisbury Cathedral. The cathedral close is one of the largest in England and one of the largest in Europe and has more people living within it than any other close.

The Cathedral Spire

The Cathedral's Cloisters, the 2nd largest in England

Houses in the Cathedral Close

Pull's Ferry, which gave access to the River Wensum

The River Wensum

The Norman keep of Norwich Castle stands on the most substantial of the city’s hills, surrounded by a moat that has been converted into walks and gardens. Today the keep houses the City Museum and Art Gallery, with many examples from the Norwich School of painters, which was the first provincial art movement established in Britain. Another good museum is that at Stranger’s Hall (said to be named after Flemish ‘strangers’ who settled here to weave in the 16th century), housed in a building that dates to the 14th century. Now a museum of domestic history, it once housed numerous Mayors of Norwich, having first served this purpose in 1340.

The Norman Norwich Castle keep

Apart from the cathedral, my favourite church in Norwich is St Peter Mancroft, which stands on a slightly elevated position, next to the marketplace. It is a beautiful building, 180 feet long, and although the present church was begun in 1430, it stands on the foundations of a Norman church of 1075. The church contains a 1463 font, a Flemish tapestry of 1573, and an abundance of medieval glass. The North transept displays a remarkable collection of church silver, which is one of the finest of any parish church in the country.

St Peter Mancroft

The nave of St Peter Mancroft

Like so much of East Anglia (largely the counties Norfolk, Suffolk, and Cambridgeshire), Norwich is an undiscovered gem, and should you want to explore a beautiful city that is less crowded with tourists and somewhat off the beaten path, Norwich should be high on your list!

All photos courtesy of public domain

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