Fine City History: Tombland’s murderous secret in plain sight

Ethelbert Gate from Tombland. Picture:

Ethelbert Gate from Tombland. Picture: - Credit:

Tombland was once the main market area of Norwich, before the Normans established a new market area by the castle, where it still stands today.

Tombland, from the Old English meaning 'empty space', was also the site of a popular annual fair. Medieval fairs could get quite rowdy and the events often led to tensions between the monks of Norwich Priory and the townsfolk.

St Ethelbert's gate is one of the two main gateways into cathedral close and it was built by the good citizens of Norwich as a penance for their unruly behaviour.

The story began in 1272 with a growing disagreement between religious men and the citizens of Norwich over rights, duties and boundaries – a number of citizens were even killed by the monks. The monks argued that as men of God they answered to their own justice system and did not abide by city laws. The monks locked the gates to the cathedral; instructing their men to attack anyone who got too close.

Things got even more heated, however, and the help hired by the murderous monks went on a rampage of violence that swept the city. The mob revolted and not only did they burn down the gates but also St Ethelbert's church and damaged the cathedral and the cloisters during three days of rioting.

Once the rioting had been quelled, King Henry III himself came to Norwich and blamed the citizens for the damage - charging huge fines for repairs and rebuilding.

Even the Pope himself decreed that the entire city of Norwich was to be excommunicated from the church. Which says a lot about the secular justice system at the time and the status of the church.

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The citizens were ordered to build a new entrance into the monastery area and hence - St Ethelbert's Gate.