Norwich city walls are there for all driving around the inner ring road to see. Hard to believe that these strange heaps of rubble left over from the Middle Ages once stood at least 12ft high and were the pride of England’s second city.

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They go on for miles.

In a circuit stretching from Carrow around Norwich, interrupted on one side by the River Wensum, the city walls contained an area one-and-a-half miles north to south and one mile east to west. From the 1300s they defined the city, with a number of gates marking strategic entry and exit points for the best part of 500 years. When celebrated traveller Celia Fiennes visited Norwich in 1698 she remarked on the vast place within two-and-a-half miles of walls. Norwich had come a long way from the Anglo-Viking settlement known as Northwic. This had grown up from what is now the Tombland area of the city, and expanded either side of the river. The Danes who came in the late ninth century made a great contribution to its growth, one that archaeologists are still investigating. It may have been they who created Norwichs first line of defences an earthbank thrown up around a far smaller area than the later walls.

Were they any good?

These defences availed the city little in 1004. In that year Sweyn of Denmark sacked both Norwich and Thetford; we dont know what kind of resistance was mounted. On two further occasions Norwich suffered the indignity of capture. In 1174 Flemish mercenaries fighting against Henry II sacked the town, and less than 40 years later King Louis of France seized it, during the disastrous reign of King John. The citizens probably decided that enough was enough. By now Norwich was a growing and prosperous place. King Richard had granted it a charter in 1194, and from this date its status as a city was guaranteed. Its inhabitants decision to pay for and build the walls demonstrated their civic pride and wealth. After much planning and fundraising, work finally began in 1297. A bank was made with material from the existing ditch and a further structure set on top. Not everyone was happy the new ditch cut through church land, which led to conflict between city and priory. The walls were made of flint and mortar, which were used in huge quantities. The whole circuit took half a century to complete, and when done it could boast more than 40 towers and 12 fortified toll gates: King Street, Ber Street, Brazen Gate, St Stephens, St Giless, St Benedicts, Heigham Gate, and, on the north side of the river, St Martins, St Augustines, Magdalen Gate and Pockthorpe Gate. Bishops Bridge Gate controlled the river crossing complete with a gatehouse on the bridge. At the southern end, where the wall met the river at Carrow, boom towers were created and a chain of iron laid into the water, defending the city from waterborne attack.

Who paid for this?

Most was contributed by private citizens. Norwich had a population estimated at 30,000, making it Englands second city, but its walls were greater in length than those of London and Southwark combined. One wealthy man, Richard Spynk, paid from his own pocket. His reward was exemption from taxes and tolls for him and his descendants. By 1343, when the walls were complete, they covered the inhabited area of the city on both sides of the river, excluding the suburb of Heigham, a village in its own right. There was one blind spot; where the meandering Wensum snaked around the city no walls were built. Instead a large fortress, known as Cow Tower, was created later in the 14th century. Did the walls see much action? The French never returned, but that was not to say there was always peace. In 1266 rebel barons looted the city, while during the 1381 Peasants Rebellion, Geoffrey Listers insurgents wreaked havoc. The most serious threat to the city came from Ketts Rebellion of 1549. Estimated at 10,000 strong, Robert Ketts Norfolk rebels camped outside the walls on Mousehold Heath. Their attack came at the weak point across the river and the fiercest fighting took place at the Bishop Bridge. Cow Tower was bombarded from the heights by captured artillery. Initially the royal troops were routed, and the rebels briefly held the city before being crushed by reinforcements.

Did the walls lead to cramped conditions in the city?

Being so large, the walls allowed for several centuries of unimpeded growth. Although the poor, as always, lived cheek by jowl, the rich had space to create spacious gardens and orchards for themselves. But by the 18th century the walls and gates were certainly a hindrance to traffic. They were an expensive irrelevance as Norwich was growing both within and without the walls. There were no heritage societies in those days to save them. By 1791 they were denounced as a nuisance that smells rank in the noise of modern improvement. From 1790 to 1810 the corporation demolished the gates. Sketches made by artists of the contemporary Norwich School, such as John Sell Cotman, show the gates in their latter days, more ramshackle than romantic. As the walls fell into disuse housing grew up both within and without, often cannibalising the materials, while much perished as roads were built and widened. The south side of St Benedicts Street Gate survived until 1942, complete with a doorpin. It fell victim to bombing during the Baedcker Raids of that year.

Whats left today?

A total of 15 sections survive above ground, including Cow Tower. To name a few, a large section remains at Chapelfield, where you can see evidence of arrow loops, at Carrow Road, the junction of Magpie Road and Magdalen Street where the gate once stood and at Barrack Street. At St Stephens a fine mural illustrates the gate in its glory days. There have been a few archaeological digs, most notably during the 1950s at Barn Road, but the walls retain much of their air of mystery.

FURTHER READING

English Heritage Book of Norwich, Brian Ayers, 1994.

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