Castle Corner: What was the Norwich Crusade and how did it change Norfolk's history?

Soldiers taking their crusading vows to join the Norwich Crusade in 1383.

Soldiers who took a crusading vow wear a red cross as a symbol of their devotion. - Credit: Royal Library of Belgium

While Norwich Castle transforms under the Royal Palace Reborn Project, we take a step back in time to explore the castle’s greatest moments.

In a series of weekly interviews, Lee Warden from Norwich Castle acts as our tour guide through history, revealing the secrets of the people that lived in Norfolk before we came to be here.

This week we learn about the crusade of the Bishop of Norwich, his attempts to save our once-prosperous wool trade, and how despite good intentions, the crusade came to spell disaster for all involved.

Q: How did Norwich become one of the most successful medieval cities in England?

A: Since the time of William the Conqueror, Norwich was one of England’s busiest and wealthiest trading points. The rivers Yare and Wensum provided easy export routes and Norfolk and Suffolk’s fertile farmlands made it a lucrative location for the wool trade that boomed throughout England in the 14th century.

Q: Why did Norwich’s wool trade decline?

A: In 1383, the year of the Norwich Crusade, England lost access to its trading routes in France. The Hundred Years’ War had been raging for almost 50 years, and the series of conflicts between France and England had caused much disruption to the lives of people living in England.

Visit Norwich Castle to discover more about Norfolk's history and learn about the Norwich Crusade

Henry le Despenser had some military experience but was no strategist, and this led to the failure of the Norwich Crusade and the Bishop needing to stand trial for his actions. - Credit: Andy Peters

The country went from exporting over 18,000 sacks of wool to Flanders, to exporting less than 2,000. This meant people were losing a lot of money, family businesses were failing, and people were starving. It had a massive impact on Norfolk’s economy and residents, as this was where many of the wool traders lived. 

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Matters weren’t helped by The Great Schism that occurred in 1378 and 1417 which saw a split in the Roman Catholic Church, over who was its rightful leader. France believed Clement VII was the rightful pope, while England supported Urban VI. This disagreement fueled the war effort on both sides with religious fervor. 

Q: What was the Norwich Crusade?

A: The Norwich Crusade, also known as Despenser’s Crusade, was an attack led by the Bishop of Norwich, Henry le Despenser, on France to aid our Flemish allies, reopen trade routes and convert the French people to accept Urban VI as the pope.

He got permission from King Richard II to perform a religious ritual known as Plenary Indulgence, to help raise money for his crusade. The people of England could pay a one-off fee, proportional to their income, to be cleansed of all their sins.

The service proved incredibly popular, not so much because people were desperate to be cleansed, but because they fully supported the crusade and wanted to do their bit to help save their livelihoods. In next to no time, Henry had the money he needed to raise an army and fund his crusade.

He travelled to St Paul’s Cathedral in London, where he announced the beginning of the crusade and his followers took their crusading vows, giving them the right to wear their red cross that identified them as crusaders. The cross was later adopted as the English national flag.

As there were so many people that had joined the crusade, not only military soldiers but also many regular folks that came along simply out of curiosity, it took several trips to ferry the entire army across to France. 

Once everyone had finally arrived, le Despenser led his battalion towards Gravelines, a region in France halfway between Flanders and Calais. They quickly secured the area, reopening several crucial trade routes, and began plotting their next move. 

Q: Why did the Norwich Crusade fail?

A: Though le Despenser had military experience, he was not an adept leader or tactical decision-maker. Upon arriving in France, he immediately struggled to keep the men united or under control and quickly the crusade descended into chaos.

After securing Gravelines, Henry led his men to lay siege to the town of Ypres. A curious choice, as it was one of the few remaining Urbanist strongholds in France – the people living there supported the same pope as England. Still, le Despenser ordered an attack on the town.

Confused by his actions, captains in the crusade reported the events back to King Richard II, making it clear they felt Henry had no idea what he was doing. To make matters worse, the stragglers that had come along with them no longer paid attention to Henry, ignoring his orders for all non-military personnel to return to England. 

Knowing the success of the crusade was vital, King Richard II sent additional troops and experienced commanders to reinforce and advise Henry. Angry that he was no longer trusted, le Despenser ignored their guidance and continued to lay siege to Ypres in the way he saw fit. 

France retaliated by sending emergency relief forces to regain control of the area and prevent the English invasion. On learning of this, Le Despenser panicked and realised he could not face the French in open battle, so ordered a hasty retreat. 

The forces fled back to Gravelines, but instead of staying to hold the area they had fought to secure weeks earlier, Henry ordered his men to burn the place to the ground. Regaining control of Gravelines was the only successful thing Henry had achieved on his crusade, but he had even destroyed that.

Left with nothing, Henry sued for peace with the French forces before retreating across the channel back to England. 

Norwich Castle's exciting Royal Palace Reborn project

Norwich Castle's exciting Royal Palace Reborn project is making great progress. - Credit: Norwich Castle

Q: What happened when the Bishop of Norwich returned to England?

A: The impact of the crusade's failure spread far and wide. King Richard II was furious with le Despenser, for not only had the crusade achieved nothing it had set out to, but it had actually strengthened France’s position.

When he returned to England, Henry was put on trial and it was discovered many of the men that had gone on the crusade had used it as an opportunity to make money illegally, by accepting bribes and plundering, looting and raiding every area they travelled through.

Norwich Castle Royal Palace Reborn Project is supported by local businesses

Local businesses, trusts and supporters of the Royal Palace Reborn Project. - Credit: Heritage Fund / Norwich Castle

The corrupt captains were imprisoned, and Henry was removed from his position as Bishop of Norwich. As he was a man of the cloth, le Despenser was not imprisoned, but instead was fined and ordered to pay back the entire cost of the crusade.

What began as a promising and heroic crusade became a cautionary tale of rash and poor decision making that spelt the beginning of the end for England’s power in France.

To find out more about Norwich’s rich history, visit museums.norfolk.gov.uk/royalpalacereborn.

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