Standing sentinel on a bend of the River Wensum in Norwich, the circular Cow Tower cuts an incongruous figure. Now opposite new luxury housing along the city’s riverside it is a symbol of the medieval past. Yet the tower has had many uses in its long life – and is perhaps not the formidable defensive bulwark it at first appears.

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Strange name for a defensive position.

It certainly wasnt christened Cow Tower and the builders might not have been too flattered at the current name. When it was rebuilt in the late 14th century it was meant as a potent symbol of the citys authority. But were getting ahead of ourselves. Norwichs earliest physical defensive barrier had been an Anglo-Scandinavian ditch and bank built north of the River Wensum around 900-950.

Under the Normans this was expanded so, by the late 14th century, the walls were 20ft high, had 11 gates and spanned two-and-a-half miles longer than the City of Londons walls. One weak spot remained; the space between the fortified gate that guarded the Bishops Bridge and a point 430 yards north-east of the Cow Tower was undefended, although the river itself presented a barrier. The first owners of a tower there were the monks of the Great Hospital. Its main function was as the priors tollhouse to collect dues from vessels travelling between the city and the coast along the Yare and Wensum. Later it was used as the priorys prison, and in those days it was known as Dungeon Tower. Our main primary source for the towers story comes after it was granted to the city in 1378.

Is that when the cows moved in?

Later. The city fathers of Norwich were proud of its status as Englands second largest habitation. They were determined to build something that would do Norwich proud. So they hired mason Robert Snape to rebuild the tower, making the stone arrow slits, which could also be used for early handguns, paying him 9d for each one. The tower is 50ft (15m) high, 36ft in diameter, while the walls are 6ft thick.

By the time the work was completed, in about 1399, 3000 bricks had been transported by water to the site. It had three storeys, and living quarters for the garrison. It must have been an expensive undertaking. The tower looked impressive but appearances can be deceiving.

Architectural historian Nickolaus Pevsner wrote: Cow Tower was built with such luxury in mind that its defensive qualities are in doubt. This was backed up by archaeological work performed during the 1980s. The brick and stone bastion turn out to be a bit of a sham, having a flint core; the tower has been described as a beautifully-built edifice masquerading as a fort. It had fancy fireplaces, and even indoor toilets the last word in extravagance. Not only that, it had grand wide windows at a low level; an attacker could have just jumped through one of these to gain entry. Also, standing alone without surrounding walls it could easily be isolated.

Was it ever attacked?

Cow Tower and the Bishops Bridge gate were the only fortifications on the east side of the city facing Mousehold Heath. In 1549 this formed the frontline during one of the citys most extraordinary events. Wymondham landowner Robert Kett led more than 10,000 Norfolk peasants in a protest mainly directed against land enclosures and economic hardship which ended in a bloody uprising. In August of that year the rebels swarmed down from the Mousehold Heights. They stormed the bridge, some of them swimming the river, defeated the Earl of Northamptons royal army and sacked Norwich while many of the gentry fled.

The towers first and last taste of military action came soon afterwards. It was not long before a better-equipped, more ruthlessly-led force under the Duke of Northumberland turned up to end the rebellion. Ketts men were unabashed. In the chaos of war they got hold of a cannon, took it up to Mousehold and began bombarding the troops within the towers walls. The fortifications did not stand up well; Ketts gunner scored a number of hits to the structure. You can see the damage to the top of the tower to this day. But when the rebels abandoned the high ground and fought a pitched battle at Dussindale they were slaughtered by Northumberlands professionals.

What about those cows!

Being set in meadows, cattle were set to graze by the river. As the tower lost its last remaining military functions it began to decay. The cows rubbed themselves against it and sheltered from bad weather, and the name Cow Tower began to be used. The great Norwich artist John Sell Cotman captured the scene of romantic neglect in his 1807 painting.

For many years the only way for most people to see the tower was from the river, where it stood in splendid, crumbling isolation. Only towards the end of the last century, as a riverside walk was created for citizens and visitors to enjoy, did Cow Tower become really accessible. As cuttings from the back copies of the Eastern Daily Press reveal, the police and fire service were more than once called out to rescue adventurous youngsters who had got into difficulties while climbing it. It is now fenced off to prevent this.

From the 1950s onwards there has been ongoing renovation, most recently by English Heritage. Today the tower is maintained by Norwich City Council, and you can enjoy it on a walk by the citys historic riverside.

FURTHER READING

The Buildings of England, Norfolk 1; Norwich and North-East, by Nickolaus Pevsner and Bill Wilson.

Website: www.english-heritage.org.uk

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