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 | Information sources
Map of Anglo-Saxon Norwich | Map of Norwich ca.1260
Appendix 1: Calendar of customs of Norwich
|Origins of settlement|
The topographical features of the site that was to become Norfolk's county town were such as to encourage settlement. At a time when heavy forestation of eastern Norfolk hindered land travel, Norwich's site lay on a ford at the highest navigable point of the river Wensum (which ran into the Yare), on a well-drained gravel terrace that was the product of the formation of the Wensum valley. Around it lay a highly fertile soil, another result of valley formation. It had easier access to the sea than there now is, for a higher sea level covered large areas of eastern Norfolk and formed the Great Estuary, which came to within a few miles of the site of Norwich; only later did the Yarmouth sandbank block this access. By the early Saxon period the sea had receded to its present level, but the continuing free-flow of the tide kept parts of Norwich's site marshy for several centuries, making the medieval river wider and shallower than today. It also made the valleys surrounding local streams (or cockeys), wide and marshy, a factor influencing the shape of settlement in the vicinity. The result was to isolate a ridge of high ground (later Berstrete) running northwards towards the river as far as the future site of the castle; this ridge then gradually descended to the river. Opposite, on the northern bank, another ridge continued the direction along Fybriggate.
The marsh and forest may have discouraged much settlement at the site during prehistoric and Roman times, although deforestation in order to clear land for cultivation, particularly in the vicinity of the riverbanks, was underway from the Neolithic and intensified during the Bronze and Iron Ages. Norwich itself has not given up much evidence to suggest Roman settlement on the site, for nearby Venta Icenorum (at Caistor) was their focus, and would become a source for scavenged building materials. But it is suspected that Roman roads may have passed through the site; if the north-south Berstrete and the east-west Holmstrete were such (largely hypothesis), then they would have reached a cross-roads just south of a point in the Wensum where there is some evidence of a ford or, at least by Late Saxon times (if not in Roman times), a bridge. Light settlement in the neighbourhood of that crossing began in the Early Saxon period, but it was not until the Middle Saxon period that Norwich really began to take shape as an urban centre, though this is better evidenced from topographical names, and from the increase in the number of churches several of whose dedications (e.g. to saints Vedast, Etheldreda, Olaf) point to Saxon or Danish origins than from archaeological finds.
Crossroads tend to be magnets for settlement. So too proximity to a navigeable river, when water traffic became as important as roads, if not more so, in the post-Roman period. Also influential was the fact the north-south river crossing was easier here than anywhere else on the River Wensum, above the point where it joined with the Yare. Despite the legendary associations of Norwich castle, there is no evidence of such a fortification in that locale until the Normans. By circa 500 A.D., there is evidence of occupation in the area of what was later known as Fye Bridge, at least on the northern bank of the Wensum. This was probably Coslanye (or a part thereof), whose name ("Cost's long island") indicates a Saxon origin; just west of the city Costessey ("Cost's island"), an area cradled between the Wensum and the Hud, had been lightly settled since prehistoric times and was mentioned in the Domesday Book. Initially centered on the Eade Road cemetery, where a range of Early Saxon items have been found, Coslanye seems to have shifted south (relocation being common enough in seventh century East Anglia), refocusing around St. Martin at Oak, which appears an early foundation. The bounds of settlement north of the Wensum remained confined, throughout the medieval period, to the area defined by the gravel terrace. Additional early settlements seem possible: in the southern end of the (future) town, focused around St. Etheldreda in the eighth century; and, more clearly, in the west around St. Benedict's gates as early as the sixth century. These were likely only minor settlements a handful of homesteads.
More important was the settlement known as Conesford (possibly a Danicized version of a Saxon name meaning King's Ford). Archaeological remains suggest this was contemporary with, but larger than, the western settlement. Conesford was probably located east of the crossroads along Holmstrete, within the river-bend, giving proximity to the two likely fords indicated by those roads. Yet another modest settlement appears to have been located on the west side of the crossroads, although the subsequent disruption due to building of the castle in that location makes it difficult to assess the extent or importance of that hamlet. The crossroads between those two settlements would have been a natural place for the siting of a market to serve the local population; the name of this site, Tombland, means "unoccupied ground" and the size of medieval Tombland was ample for a large market. Such a marketplace would have helped knit the two settlements into one, with the name Conesford taking precedence over that of the other, whose name is lost to us (although "Needham" has been suggested as a possibility, the roots of this seem more likely associated with some hamlet south-west of the conglomeration that came to form Norwich).
What attracted settlement to this locale? Besides easy access to water and fertile soils, there was abundant timber, chalk and flint in the area; there was meadow-land for pasture, and the river current fuelled water-mills (present by the time of Domesday). Perhaps most important was the route to the rich herring fishery of the North Sea; fish was a staple of the medieval diet, and herring were particularly valuable for their salt. As part of the fee-farm paid to the king, Norwich owed six-score fresh herring in 25 pies; there is indirect evidence this obligation may have existed as early as Domesday. There was a quay for unloading fish on the north bank of the Wensum, just across from Conesford, in an area known in Danish times as Fishergate, and archaeological finds have been relatively rich around Fishergate. A second quay,near the site of St. Laurence's, was associated with the western settlement. As forest was cleared away in Norfolk, more fertile land was opened up to agriculture, the population increased, and farmers produced more than they needed for subsistence alone, market centres were required and Norwich's central location in the agricultural region brought it to greater prominence, although initially it was a lesser commercial centre than Ipswich. There is, however, little indication it was either a large-scale or specialized manufacturing centre before the Late Saxon period.
It appears, therefore, that on the site of Norwich prior to circa 850 there stood either a collection of unrelated villages, of which those around the crossroads/marketplace coming to be perceived as a single entity were by far the most important focus of population. Or that this apparent separation is an illusion of topography, and we simply see settlement strung out along either side of the river-bank, in greater or lesser densities at different points; for example, a steady line of dwellings along the south-west bank would have been interrupted by the small valley of the Great Cockey. From the arrival of the Danes, and perhaps particularly after the Saxon reconquest of East Anglia (917) the less densely settled points became populated and a more continuous settlement pattern emerges; this trend may have reached its zenith in the first half of the eleventh century certainly the archaeological finds so far have been richer from that period. The spread of settlement from the Conesford core was primarily directed southwards, along Southgate, and then up the slope away from the river, towards Berstrete ridge houses there were later destroyed to make room for the castle. Between the western focus for settlement at St. Benedict's and the pair of eastern foci, the Danes settled along west Holmstrete and later spread southwards to Pottergate, following the courses of the cockeys. It may have been they who named this part of the settlement Westwyk (in reference to its location relative to the more important settlement around the marketplace), or possibly that name had been applied even prior to Danish habitation. Marsh surrounding the banks of the river inhibited expansion northwards until that area was reclaimed in the twelfth century.
North of the Wensum, expansion seems to have been directed from Conesford, rather than Coselanye. Archaeology has uncovered large amounts of Middle Saxon material (relative to other Norwich sites) along Fishergate. The northwards extent of this expansion is suggested by the location of St. Botolph's (a dedication typically found at the entrance to a settlement) and evidence for a defensive ditch and bank around the northeastern expansion area. The evidence is partly the alignment of the streets (see the map of Anglo-Saxon Norwich); excavations on the western and northern sides have more recently confirmed the presence of a ditch with a bank on the inner side. The route of the western side remains less certain. These defences would have helped control the Fye Bridge and a second river crossing further east. Slightly later, a second ditch may have been constructed to take in Coselanye, although this is more hypothetical. The creation of a defensive system at Norwich was part of the wider trend begun in the tenth century to create "burhs" fortified settlements responding in part to unsettled times, but also to the need to control commerce by restricting it to locations where there was an established market and one of the dozens of royal mints that were spread across the country. It is not known whether there were similar earthworks around the southern settlements; archaeology has so far failed to find clear evidence of such. There may be no need to assume one; a burh did not necessarily encompass a settlement, but provided an area that was protected and could serve as a refuge for the population (see Maldon for a similar example, where too an undefended marketplace was just outside the burh).
By the time of the Conquest, these various foci for settlement had been superseded by what was clearly a single town one of the largest in England; the origins of the town were recalled in its later division into administrative wards:
|See Map of Anglo-Saxon Norwich (82K)|
If "Norwich" emerged out of the amalgamation of these various settlements, (apparently by at least 1004 A.D.) why did not the larger entity take on the name of its principal and central settlement, Conesford? Some historians have thought that Conesford was the "northern wik", but there is no convincing explanation of why a settlement already having a name should be given a new one (particularly when Conesford continued to be used), nor of what feature Conesford could considered to be north. Since Westwyk appears to have been named because of its geographical position in relation to either Conesford or the crossroads/marketplace, Norwich probably originated as the name of the expansion area north of Conesford; the term "wic" could be used for subsidiary settlements, serving a larger settlement. Coselanye, although north of the river, had a name and needed no other. Its relative unimportance (lying in the northwestern corner of the conglomeration) is reflected in that its name did not persist as one of the later four wards. Instead we have for the area north of the Wensum Ultra Aquam "on the other side of the river" in effect, no name at all. This is explicable if the name of the more important northern settlement could not be used for a ward, because it was already in use for the whole borough. An alternative hypothesis would be that "Westwyk" and "Norvic" (as the earliest known coin minted there has it) refer to location in regard to the river, since Coslanye and Conesford were also named in relation to river features, but I consider this less likely.
If Norwich originated as the northern colony of Conesford, by what right did its name take precedence over that of its mother? Perhaps by right of greater 'publication'. The earliest evidence for the name is from coins, which bore the name of the place where minted. These coins spread the assumption that Norwich was the correct name of the borough. This theory assumes that when a mint was set up in the community, it was established in the northern wic, where there was doubtless more room than in overpopulated Conesford, and probably close to one of the quays where goods were unloaded and to the bridge leading across to the Tombland market. What would gradually develop into a formal quayside attracted mercantile warehouses and manufacturing of goods from materials such as metals, bone, leather, and cloth. King Athelstan (925-939) had restricted all minting to the port/burh. In connection with this we may note three things:
That evidence of minting at Norwich has been found from earlier than Athelstan's reign does not diminish this theory, since it is concerned not with when a mint was first set up, but with why "Norwich" predominated over "Conesford". It is possible that Athelstan authorized a mint in the northern wic because it was a burh; on the other hand, burh defences may have been placed around the northern settlement to satisfy royal regulations concerning a mint that already existed there.