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Norwich is a fine old city with an historic rebellious streak

Posted in British Cities, Historical articles, History, Religion on Friday, 29 November 2013

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This edited article about Norwich first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 470 published on 16 January 1971.

Kett leading Norfolk peasants, picture, image, illustration

The twenty-seven day King of Norwich, Robert Kett, leading a peasants' revolt by C L Doughty

The young man was in the dumps as he strolled across Mousehold Heath above Norwich. He was fed up with his job in the lawyer’s office and spent more time studying languages than the law books which he should have been reading. He was rudely shaken out of his thoughts by a young gypsy who accosted him and claimed to recognise him from a meeting when they had been boys. It was only when the gypsy described the earlier meeting that the young clerk recalled the events.

As if reading the young man’s thoughts the gypsy declared, “Life is sweet, brother.”

“Do you think so?” replied the disgruntled clerk.

“Think so! There’s night and day, brother, both sweet things; sun, moon and stars, brother, all sweet things; there’s likewise a wind on the heath. Life is very sweet, brother; who would wish to die?”

Those words, in his fictional autobiography, Lavengro, were to become among the most famous that George Borrow wrote. They expressed his own feelings when later he left his job with the lawyer and, after a brief spell in London, set off on a journey that took him through Europe and which ended in Russia where he supervised the translation of the Bible into Manchu. He went on to travel through Spain selling bibles and then went on that walk through Wales which formed the basis for his book, Wild Wales, one of the books that blew through the stuffy Victorian rooms and tempted people to try out their own legs and go walking in the country.

The Heath and the old city of Norwich had known many rebels.

One of the first was Herbert de Losinga. It is said that he had been made Bishop of Ramsey by William Rufus in return for paying £1,900 into the King’s treasury. Buying high positions in this way was quite normal at that time, but Herbert de Losinga couldn’t settle in the post and felt that he had obtained it by unfair methods. At last he decided to go to Rome and see the Pope to explain his feelings and resign the position. Rufus got to hear of this and, having a temper to match his red hair, he forbade the Bishop to go on the journey. But Herbert de Losinga had made up his mind. Even an angry king could not alter his decision and he set off to Rome. The Pope listened to his explanation and accepted the resignation, but he realised the honesty and strength of purpose of the man and, so that this would not be lost to the church, he made him Bishop of Thetford. However, as penance, Losinga was charged with the duty of moving the see to Norwich and building a new cathedral there. So the Bishop returned to Britain and set about his task. Like many other red-haired people, Rufus was generous as well as quick tempered and when he saw the efforts of the Bishop he patched up the quarrel and lent his help to the project.

Norwich Cathedral is one of the most beautiful in all England and is set in a city famous for its churches. There are 32 medieval churches in Norwich but not all of them are used as churches today.

Robert Kett of Wymondham was another rebel who knew the Heath, although more sadly. He lived in the 16th century at a time when the enclosures of Common Land and the change from arable to sheep farming were causing much discontent and unemployment. Then at the dissolution in 1549 came the final spark that set the situation alight. The local people had paid over a sum to obtain possession of the church buildings and the materials of the Chapter House and thought that they had saved this. But Henry VIII’s minion came along and, despite all protests, stripped the church.

The angry muttering flared up into a full-scale rebellion and a horde of Norfolk folk marched on Norwich, putting Robert Kett at their head. Taking the town by surprise, they captured the Mayor and set up camp on Mousehold Heath. Although they were not properly equipped or organised, they defeated a detachment of troops sent against them under the leadership of the Marquis of Northampton. This so disturbed the authorities that a second and much larger force was sent under the Earl of Warwick. This time the rebels made the error of leaving their strong position on the Heath and they were severely defeated in the valley below. Kett was captured and hanged as a rebel. However, although his actions might have been ill-advised, there was much justice in the claims which were put forward and on the fourth centenary of his rebellion in 1949 a tablet was set up on the Castle gate commemorating him as a fighter for justice and freedom.

Below Mousehold Heath is the Lollards’ Pit where, as early as the 16th century, Protestants had been burnt by Bishop Nix, and the town was always a centre of non-conformity. In the time of James I, William Bridge, the rector of St. Peter Hungate, refused to read the Book of Sports which dictated the sports which could be legally played on Sunday (among others archery, running and leaping were allowed, but dramatic interludes, bear-baiting and bowling were banned). As a result William Bridge was expelled from his church and he joined the Congregationalists, eventually fleeing with them to Holland at the same time as others sailed in the Mayflower to America. Later, those who had been in Holland, returned to Norwich and in 1642 Bridge founded his congregation. Afterwards the Toleration Act was passed and, in the relaxed conditions, the sect built the premises now known as the Old Meeting House in 1693. This is one of the earliest noncomformist churches in the country. The approach is a narrow courtyard and it is said that this was arranged so that, if trouble arose, it would make a suitable point for the men to stage a defence while the women and children got away at the back. Presumably rioters had the courtesy to call at the front door.

Another of the famous people of this town was James Smith, who in 1792 began making and selling boots and shoes, worked on standard lasts and thus helped to shoe the feet of many who strode forth.

The town is very proud of George Borrow’s description of it as “a fine old city” and many of its publications are headed “A fine city – Norwich,” but it could well use the words, “There’s a wind on the heath,” in honour of the honest rebels.

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