Walks of fear and rebellion

Keiron Pim Norwich’s history of fear and rebellion is being brought to life by acclaimed TV historian Bryan McNerney, who has started a new series of city tours. He spoke to KEIRON PIM.

Keiron Pim

Bryan McNerney's engaging approach to bringing the past to life has brought him awards for his television work and plenty of fans who describe him as “the history teacher you wish you'd had at school”.

Now anyone interested in discovering more about Norwich's gruesome and fascinating history can enjoy a guided tour from him, in which you will probably spend half the time laughing and find at the end that you've learned a few things too.

Bryan's ability to make history fun saw him pick up the Royal Television Society Personality Award in 2000. With a CV including four series of The Historyman, which picked up a million-plus viewers when it ran on the BBC, and a number of Anglia TV shows exploring our region's past, he is a familiar figure to many people.

“I call it 'education by stealth',” says Bryan, who lives in south Norfolk, and he'll be deploying the technique on his new series of Horrid Histories tours running from now until Halloween, departing at 7.30pm six days a week from the city's Adam and Eve pub. On Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays the tour has the theme of 'Rebellion!', and on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays the title is 'Fear'.

The former pays tribute to Norfolk people's fine history of dissent or, as Bryan puts it, “the way that we have this great tradition of whenever authority has sat a little too heavily on us, we have jumped up and bit their bums!”

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The most famous example is Kett's Rebellion of 1549. Bryan's view of history always begins from the bottom up, exploring the lives of the everyday majority rather than the rich and powerful minority. And so his focus here is not so much on the landowner-turned-rebel leader Robert Kett as on the exploits of a couple of lesser-known figures.

“I have two heroes here,” he says. “One was Fulke the Butcher, who killed Lord Sheffield. As for the other guy, we don't even know his name. He was a young boy who stepped out from the crowd on Mousehold Heath and pulled a moonie at the Royal Standard.”

This was in front of 15,000 people who had congregated from all over the county, he explains, “to protest because they live in a world, as the saying went at the time, where 'Sheepe doe eat up Men'.”

What this meant was that landlords realised they could make more money by pushing agricultural workers off the land and keeping huge flocks of sheep there instead.

“What that did is throw whole communities into chaos,” Bryan explains. “Large numbers of people were without gainful employment. To use another phrase that was popular at the time, the masters 'put profit before people'. Any of this sound familiar? Plus ca change,” he laughs.

Anyway, this is one of his characteristic entertaining digressions; he is originally from Liverpool, but his 30-plus years in Norfolk have left him fond of “a mardle”, as he puts it. So, back to the anonymous buttock-barer.

“Most people at the time had no concept of a large crowd. Unless you had been in the army the biggest crowd you were likely to have seen would have been watching the friars preaching on the site of the Theatre Royal.

“No wonder the authorities flew up into a bit of a panic. They'd gone up on to the heath to overawe the people, and this boy steps up, lifts his doublet and drops his hose. He is effectively doing it to the king. The royal party go apoplectic. Imagine the impact it would have today in a fairly secular society with a degree of royalism. There should be a statue to this kid.”

The 'Fear' tour takes in stories including the infamous episode concerning “Little St William”, the boy whose death in 1144 was blamed on Norwich's Jewish population, sparking the accusation of Jewish ritual murder known as the “blood libel”.

It also looks at witchcraft and other sources of mediaeval terror such as the Black Death and the Plague.

There's also a contemporary relevance as he addresses the ongoing fear some people have of “alien” communities, offering a timely reminder that at the end of the Elizabethan era, 40pc of Norwich's population was foreign-born, in the form of Dutch, Flemish and Walloon “Strangers” from the Low Countries.

Bryan first came to Norfolk when he was 20 and got a job in a King's Lynn canning factory. He was schooled by Salesian monks, graduated from university with a degree in English history and landscape archaeology, and has been a nurse, a drayman, a school caretaker, a TGWU shop steward, a busker and a bouncer, among other jobs.

He says his dad always used to ask him “When are you going to get a proper job?” but he has managed to sustain an impressive career so far through his broadcasting, writing and giving guided tours - which is, in fact, where he in his element. “I like crowds, I like showing off - that's the bottom line,” he laughs. “I do it because I enjoy it.”

For more information or to book see www.horridhistories.co.uk or call Bryan McNerney on 07986 829859. Tours continue until October 31.

The tour departs at 7.30pm from Norwich's oldest pub, the Adam and Eve on Bishopsgate, which serves food until 7pm.