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
|The pre-Conquest borough|
By the time of the Conquest Norwich had become one of the more important towns in England, comprising a large number of parishes, having importance as a regional centre, and an economy that was diversified; this rise to prominence had probably taken place within no more than the previous century or so. That a mint was established in Anglo-Saxon or more accurately we might say Anglo-Scandinavian Norwich indicates that the location was then already a focus of regional trade. An expanding population, especially after the arrival of the Danes whose political dominance in the area was brief (ca.870-917), although socially they continued to be influential into the eleventh century as the dedication of a chapel to St. Olave shows led to a shift in the economic centre of the region: away from western East Anglia to the Norwich and Ipswich areas, following the direction of the clearing of forests. Improved tools and techniques allowed large-scale deforestation of areas south and east of Norwich and exploitation of the rich soils. There were very few towns to serve the relatively large population of this part of the country, as markets for the region's agricultural produce and as industrial centres. There is evidence of a wide range of industries in the town prior to the Conquest. Pottery-making was one of the principal activities of the townsmen, along with the production of other goods from leather, metal, bone and wood. Norwich also became a centre of manufacture of Thetford ware, a type of pottery prominent from ninth to twelfth centuries, with that industry probably based in Westwyk (Pottergate). Iron-working was another industry for which archaeological evidence has been found, with the smiths furnishing the tools the farmers needed. It has also been found for panning for iron ore in the river, and quarrying of local rock likely employed other residents.
Equally important was Norwich's role as a principal port for trade with northwestern Europe, before Yarmouth appeared to challenge for that role. Evidence of long-distance trade indicates connections with the Rhineland by the ninth century, and with France, the Low Countries, and Scandinavia by the eleventh. Pottery from the Midlands has also been found by archaeologists, although the barrier of the Fens (contrasted with the navigability of the Wensum) would favour trade with the continent rather than central England. Tombland would have been the logical site for the local market; after the Mancroft market later supplanted it, the Prior held his fair on Tombland, but the citizens claimed and were conceded precedence in selecting where to place their stalls. The riverfront in the vicinity of Fye Bridge appears to have been a focus of economic activity, with warehouses and industrial activities evidenced there as well as reinforcement of the river bank to serve as a quayside.
Since it was a trade centre, Norwich may also have been an administrative centre for the region. Certainly the Normans saw it in that light, establishing there the only royal castle (until 1166) in East Anglia; the county courts of Norfolk and Suffolk also met there. That it may have been equally important in pre-Conquest times is suggested by the fact that it was selected as the target of Danish attacks in 869, after which the Danes chose to display their dominance by executing King Edmund (870) close to Norwich, and in 1004. On the latter occasion the Danish force, arriving by river (there being no evidence that burh defences covered that side), was said to have devastated the borough. Possibly the focus of the attack was on the burh, where we could expect resistance to have been mounted; for although Norwich was again flourishing and populous by the time of the Conquest, it seems that it was Conesford rather than the northern settlement that had rebounded from the raid of 1004.
There is tradition of an "earl's palace" on Tombland, but little supporting evidence. As a royally-sponsored community, the borough was probably governed by a single administrator appointed by the king - a Portreeve; it was thus treated as a separate administrative unit from the rest of Norfolk. Domesday appears to identify the last such official under Edward the Confessor: one Edstan, who had an unusually large holding and was so much the king's man that he could not give homage to anyone else, nor depart from the borough, without getting the king's permission. All other king's burgesses were free to commend themselves to other lords, reflecting the fact that freedom of personal status was greater in East Anglia than in other parts of England.
Whether this reeve consulted informally with the more important townsmen, we can only speculate. Such a group of leading townsmen who gained some knowledge of the law (particularly concerning commerce or land transactions) through participation in the courts as jurors, official witnesses, or compurgators, is likely to have existed. That Norwich's court was probably held at Tombland is suggested by the fact that when the church of St. Michael there one of the wealthiest and most important in the town was demolished to make way for the cathedral, its dedication was transferred to a nearby church, renamed St. Michael de Motestow mote referring to the Anglo-Saxon folk-court, and stowe to the slightly raised and level area of Tombland.
We shall now examine what effects the Conquest had on the thriving community of Norwich.