History of Norwich

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One of England's most esoteric cities, Norwich's founding may long remain a mystery. The city is thought to have grown up because of its position at a bridgeable point at what was then the head of the Yare estuary. By the time of the first written evidence of its existence, near the end of the Tenth Century, Norwich was already a thriving burgh.

Saxon Norwich was centred on Tombland - which means empty or open space and has no reference to graves at all - with the city's richest church and the palace of the Earls of the East Angles bordering the settlement's central market. Today the city's main roads still lead to Tombland which is a good four hundred metres north east of where city centre is today.

The major push toward the city taking the form in which we still see it today was the Norman Conquest of England in 1066. The Castle was built as a centre for Norman power over the English burgesses. Norwich Cathedral is held by many to be the finest Romanesque building in England, and may well have become so by complete chance; its Norman founder dying before even the high altar was completed, his successors did not have enough cash to change the grandiose masterplans. Building commenced in 1096 and the central body of the Cathedral itself attained its present form with the completion of the fourth spire, at 96m the second tallest in England, in 1463.

Norwich in the High Middle Ages had much of the form and structure of the city that we know today. Many surviving public buildings date from the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries: Bishop's Bridge was constructed prior to 1331, thirty years before the construction of the city walls. The Guildhall, today the city's main Tourist Information Centre, was put up between 1407 and 1413 on the site of an earlier municipal building, The Tollhouse. Many street names also date from this period: Rampant Horse Street gained its name from a tavern, but the horse market met here in the fifteenth century; Maddermarket was the centre of the dying trade, madder being a red pigment; Haymarket, not surprisingly, was an agricultural off-shoot of the main city market.

There was a medieval Jewish community in Norwich and the area between Haymarket and Orford Hill was for a while known as the "Jewry". The most significant minority group in Norwich, however, were those known as "Strangers". The proximity of Norwich to the Low Countries has always precipitated an interchange of people. The persecution of Protestants in the Spanish Netherlands led to the city authorities allowing a slow stream of immigration into the city from the middle of the sixteenth century. Most were weavers; notable exceptions included Norwich's first printer, Anthony de Solempne, who arrived in 1567.

The monastic nature of the Cathedral was, of course, a victim of the Reformation. Norwich, however, was the first cathedral priory in the country to re-establish itself as Dean and Chapter. Archbishop Matthew Parker, entrusted by Elizabeth I to undo the machinations of her sister's efforts at counter-reformation, was Norwich born. His reputation for leaving no stone unturned has purportedly given us the soubriquet "nosey parker".

Many of the city's august institutions trace their routes back to the eighteenth century: The Norfolk and Norwich Hospital was founded in 1772 as part of the voluntary hospital system; Gurney's Bank was established in 1775. The younger son of the family would marry into the Barclays, the London banking family. Norwich's Gurneys would go on to play a significant part in the development of the huge clearing bank. Norwich Union, perhaps the most august of all, can trace its routes back to 1783 with Thomas Bignold's incredulity at not being able to get insurance for his move from Kent to Norwich. By the 1820s, the society was trading overseas, with offices in Lisbon and Bordeaux, ground was broken on the imposing Surrey Street headquarters in 1906.

New high quality housing began to be put up in the city from the 1820s onwards. The terraced inner-suburban houses that now make up the Golden Triangle were the product of new housing regulations passed by the City Council from 1877 to 1889: Clearance of the courts and yards on the perimeter of the medieval city dates from the same period.

The first through train ran from Norwich to London in July 1845, and the building of Prince of Wales Road in the 1860s linked the centre of the city to the new Thorpe Station, streamlining traffic flow into the city in the process. The Great Northern Railway opened Norwich City Station in 1882; this was closed to passengers in 1959 and freight ten years later.

The city continued transforming rapidly itself in the twentieth century. The new City Hall went up in 1938, designed by CH James and SR Pierce. During the second world war the city suffered severe damage during the Luftwafe's Baedeker raids. Homes and businesses were destroyed as was the old Bonds store on All Saint's Green, containing the only thatched cinema in Britain and a number of medieval churches, including Saint Benedict's and Saint Julian's. Highlights of post-war building in the city included the West Earlham estate.

In 1963, the old Earlham Golf Course began to be transformed into what would eventually become the reinforced-concrete wonderland of the University of East Anglia. Dennis Lasdun, who shaped the University campus, was the designer of the teaching wall, Europe's longest building, and Norfolk and Suffolk Terraces, the renowned student residences based on Mayan ziggurats. The arts collection of Sir Robert and Lady Sainsbury was given to the university in 1973, and Norman Foster's cavernous Sainsbury Centre for the Visual Arts was built in 1980 as its new home; the Crescent Wing extension was added in 1989/1990.

Today's Norwich contains a wealth of historical buildings and landmarks but is undeniably a thoroughly modern city. No large urban centre in England is as far from another town of comparable size, but this has not stopped Norwich moving and shaking with the best of them: The subterranean Castle Mall, the new Riverside development and the new UEA Sportspark are contemporary highlights. Before the end of 2000 the Millennium Library will also provide the citizenry with an architecturally outstanding public building with which to further pride themselves in their fine old city.