Castle Corner: Who built Norwich Castle and how was medieval East Anglia born?

Learn about William the Conqueror and the Normans at Norwich Castle

An excerpt from the Bayeux Tapestry depicting William the Conqueror. - Credit: Norfolk Museums Service

We explore the rich history of Norfolk and study key dates in Norwich Castle’s timeline to celebrate its new transformation taking place through the Royal Palace Reborn Project.

In a series of weekly interviews, we dive deep into our city’s fascinating heritage, learning from Lee Warden at Norwich Castle, what life was like for the people that used to live here.

This week we discover the origins of Norwich Castle and how the Normans changed life in England forever.

Q: What was happening in England at the time of the Norman invasion?

A: Most people know the date 1066 and mark it as the official end of the Viking era in England, when Harold Hardrada – the King of Norway – was defeated at the Battle of Stamford Bridge.

At the same time, Norman forces, led by William of Normandy (William the Conqueror), were arriving on the southern shores of England. Perceiving weakness on the English throne, he saw this as an opportune time to invade. The English were surprised by the organisation and efficiency of his army, and quickly realised they were no match.

Q: Where did the Normans originate from?

Norman monarch King William I who built Norwich Castle

William the Conqueror was actually a descendant of Vikings that settled in Normandy, France. - Credit: Norfolk Museums Service. Illustration: Andy Peters

A: The Normans sailed to England from Normandy in France. However, what many people may not know is that the Normans actually descended from Vikings. William the Conqueror was the great, great, great-grandson of Viking leader Rollo.

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The Vikings raided not only England in the eighth century, but countries all over the world. They used their longships to traverse the narrow French waterways, and upon their arrival, the reigning French King, Charles III, bartered with the Viking warriors, to negotiate peace.

In exchange for defending France against other Viking tirades, Rollo’s fleet was awarded a large plot of land in the North of France (Normandy – meaning land of the Norse men) and paid an extraordinary amount for their services.

Q: Why were the Normans so successful in battle?

A: They possessed the tenacious fighting and sailing abilities that the Vikings were renowned for, but also learned more civilised, Romanesque, efficient and modern warfare techniques from the French. They had a professional cavalry, well-trained infantry, knights, and archers. It was these new tactics that enabled William to succeed in the Battle of Hastings.

On Christmas day 1066, William the Conqueror crowned himself King of England, ending Anglo-Saxon rule, and bringing about the time of the Normans and the start of the Middle Ages.

The Norman's construction model of Norwich Castle

This model shows what Norwich Castle, keep and bailey would have looked like finished, according to the Normans' plans. - Credit: Norfolk Museums Service

Q: What did life in England under Norman rule look like?

A: King William was a driven, determined and unforgiving ruler. He didn’t take lightly to anyone that tried to cross him. When a group of northern Anglo-Saxon lords attempted to dethrone him, he ordered the Harrying of the North as punishment.

During the winter of 1069 –70, northern villages and towns were devastated and farmlands were salted to ensure no crops could grow or animals survive. Many starved to death, and these actions haunted the North for many generations. It’s said on his deathbed, King William regretted his vendetta, saying that perhaps he’d taken his revenge too far, though this is not confirmed.

The Normans completely revolutionised, reorganised, and updated the governing of the country. They modernised the judicial system, introduced fines and increased taxes. If a crime was committed, it was the King that had to be paid for breaking his laws, not the person who was wronged.

King William also commissioned the creation of The Domesday Book, recording all land, building, households and assets that everyone in the country owned. Norwich was listed as one of the largest settlements, known as the Hundred of Norwich. With this information, William the Conqueror could tell exactly how much tax every person living in England needed to pay him.

Under Norman rule, the English language once again adapted. Old French became the language of the court and the upper classes. In other areas of the country, a blend of Old French and Anglo dialects merged.

One of the most noticeable changes was how people began referring to meat products. They used one word to describe the meat of the animal, and another to refer to the animal itself. For example, ‘pig’ was the Anglo-Saxon term, and the Norman word was ‘pork.’

This was also the time of the crusades, and the Normans used their superior sailing skills to trade and acquire knowledge from across the globe, in particular the Middle East. Technology rapidly advanced in this era as they introduced new science and medicine to Britain.

Q: What impact did the Normans have in East Anglia?

A: As well as modernising life in England, King William changed the history of East Anglia forever. To resolve tensions between the North and South peoples, the Normans established Norfolk and Suffolk.

The region keenly interested King William, as the rich flatlands of Norfolk and easy access rivers made it an ideal trading point. For this reason, he was determined to make it a stronghold of the Norman kingdom.

Norwich Castle's exciting Royal Palace Reborn project

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

Q: Why did William the Conqueror decide to build Norwich Castle?

A: William instructed a castle to be built in Norwich to establish his power and wealth within the region, and effectively defend the land against any future attacks. He ordered 98 Anglo-Saxon buildings and two churches to be destroyed to make room for Norwich Castle. He commissioned the structure to be built from only the best Caen stone that was quarried in France which was a logistical undertaking and would have been horrendously expensive.

He also requested a bishop from Normandy to move to England and set up a church here in the city. Construction began on Norwich Cathedral soon after and was to be built using only the best quality French limestone.

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

This was King William’s way of communicating his kingdom’s extraordinary wealth and leaving a lasting impression upon anyone considering attacking England to think twice before they dared. It says a lot that almost 1,000 years later, these two structures still dominate our city’s skyline.

We’ve discovered many Norman artefacts including intricate glassware, armour (as depicted in the Bayeaux Tapestry), weapons, coins, badges and brooches, but it’s the architecture left by the Normans that tells us the most about who they were.

Both Norwich Castle and Norwich Cathedral still play a vital role in the lives of local people and show just how important the Normans were in shaping life in Britain as we know it.

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