History of Norfolk

Pre 1066

Prior to the Doomsday Book and the Norman conquest of 1066 Norfolk history is in the main uncharted. There is however ample evidence of Roman occupation in the area, such as the flint workings at Grimes Graves, the Roman camps at Brancaster and Castle Rising, numerous “straight as an arrow” Roman roads like Peddars Way and Watling Street and remains of forts at Thetford and else where.

There is also much evidence of the Danes occupation of the area with many towns and villages bearing names that have Danish origins. Horning, Holt, Darum – Dereham, Kjelling – Kelling, Horsted – Horstead to name but a few.

1066 – the middle ages

The Domesday book lists many towns, villages and small settlements in Norfolk and an unusual number of “free men” who were independent land owners and small freeholders..

Norfolk was divided up amongst William the Conquerors followers. In all, the 1.4 million acres that make up the county were divided roughly into, on average, manors of 800 acres. The Normans built themselves substantial fortified homes and castles in the area, the most famous and important being Norwich Castle, built by Ralph de Guader, the Earl of the East, on the site of an original built by Canute. It was built at such speed, that by 1074 he defended it in a rebellion against the king. He, not surprisingly, lost albeit honorably and the castle passed in to the hands of Robert Bigod. Another large Castle was built, by William de Warren, at Castle Acre near Swaffham and its ruins are still to be seen to this day. Many of the other castles built over the following centuries also have remains that are worth a visit, in particular Caister Castle circa 1415, Baconsthorpe Castle, and the manor houses of East Barsham and Outwell.

From 1066 to the 1300’s the rich and pious in Norfolk helped build and financed many monasteries in the area. Nearly every great family founded at least one.  This swelled the numbers of those already existing before the Norman invasion. By the 13th century there were around 80 monastic establishments in Norfolk alone. The monastery at Walsingham can trace its origins to 1061 and St Benets Abbey near Ludham is believed to have been founded by Canute around 645 ad. Sadly nothing is now left of this except some rather forlorn walls and an arch. But in its time the monks were all-powerful in the area and ran amongst other things, all the peat diggings in Broadland and they oversaw and profited from the farming and other industry for a large area around the abbey.

Norfolk also has more than its fair share of churches dating back to the middle ages. In fact there are over 700 churches and parishes and this equates to one every 2.7 sq miles compared with the national average of 1 to every 5.1 sq miles. The reason why is not altogether clear, but the result is that Norfolk has an unusual number of very fine buildings. Particular mention should be made of the church at Salle near Reepham. It’s the largest and most splendid parish church in the county yet is in one of the smallest villages! Others, such as Worstead,built between 1379 and 1450, owe their size to the wool trade and wealth of their benefactors.

After the rebellion in Norwich in 1074 Norfolk, apart from building and towns expanding, remained fairly quiet until the mid 13th century and the persecution of the Jews, and in 1272 a riot by the monks and citizens of the area. From here we travel to the mid 1300’s when the black death made its first of two appearances in Norfolk killing a large percentage of the population. Wat Tyler led the rebellion of 1381 (The Peasants Revolt) which was caused by the taxes levied at the time and in particular the Poll tax.  The rebellion caused widespread unrest in Norfolk, although short lived. The rebels gathered at Thetford collecting together men from Brandon and Diss before moving across Breckland towards Norwich where they assembled on Mousehold Heath and then onward into the city where they killed Sir Reginald Eccles, a JP and Sir Robert de Salle. They then moved on to Great Yarmouth plundering and burning as they went. Within 2 weeks the uprising was fragmented and largely confined to the north east of the county. The rebellion was finally quashed in Norfolk a few days later near North Walsham and the leader Geoffrey Lister was tried and executed.

16th century
By the 16th century Norwich was second only to London in size and wealth. In 1520 it had a population of around 8500 and by the 1570’s it had swelled to 15,000. The plague however took its toll in 1579-1580 killing around 5500 people and the cities population then remained constant at around 11,000 for the next century. At around the same time Great Yarmouth had a population of over 4000, as did Kings Lynn.

In 1549 Robert Kett a landowner and of some wealth led an uprising against enclosures and the unreasonable demands made by lords of manors who were enforcing fees out of their tenants and retaining bondmen rather than allowing them freedom.

This is now know as Kett’s Rebellion The rebellion made up of over 10,000 men camped on Mousehold Heath just outside Norwich and blockaded the city . During July and August Kett and his men took the city and successfully defended it against the Marquis of Northampton and the Kings army. However the Earl of Warwick with more of the King’s army and several thousand mercenaries arrived outside Norwich. Fighting continued for many days and after a battle at Dussindale (Thorpe St Andrew). Kett was finally captured. He was executed in the December at Norwich Castle.

To this day an Oak tree stands on the old A11 at Wymondham believed to be where Kett and his followers from surrounding towns and villages met and swore an oath.

1500 – 1750

By the 1500’s Norfolk was divisible into 5 regions so far as population and industry were concerned.

The area to the west (later to become the fens) was still mainly marshland and was less populated. Some of the area was grassland and supported the grazing of bullocks and sheep. To the north the area was mainly heathland and today there are still large areas of heath at Kelling and else where. However the land varied in the region and crops were grown and were rotated between corn and grass, which supported sheep. Much of the area was enclosed (fenced).

To the south was Breckland, a poor sandy area that supported sheep and some cropping The North East area was more highly populated the land was fertile producing high quality grain and good beef cattle. The long established and wealthy weaving towns of Worsted, Aylsham and Cawston were in the area together with the City of Norwich and the port of Great Yarmouth The south east from Great Yarmouth and inland to Diss was known for its rural textile industry and dairy farming.

Many foreign immigrants settled in Norfolk during the period most of whom were Dutch and some French all driven out of their homeland, the Low Counties, by the Duke of Alva. The fortifications along the Norfolk coast were strengthened with a fortress near Kings Lynn and additional fortifications at Weybourne, Sheringham, Mundesley, Winterton, and Yarmouth. Most of this strengthening was in preparation of the Spanish Armada fleet, which was defeated long before it reached Norfolk’s coast.

Many of Norfolk’s great houses were built or extended during this period financed by new found wealth due to increasing trade and industry and the redistribution of monastic lands. Many were built of brick such as the halls at Great Witchingham ( now the home to Bernard Matthews turkeys) Great Melton, and Barnham Broom, other superb 17th century homes include Blickling Hall circa 1620 and Holkham Hall circa 1750.

BlickAyl HolkhamHall

Formal education began to become more popular towards the end of the 18th century although it was mostly for boys with girls receiving little or no education in the 3 r’s. It was mainly on a fee paying basis although some free education was given in some schools. And some charity schools were founded..

1750 – 1900

By now Norfolk was well established as a farming county.  Most of the land was owned and farmed by the aristocracy and their tenants. Indeed the Holkham estate alone covered in excess of 43,000 acres. Holkham together with the other large estates began a policy of rebuilding and refurbishing. Whole new farms complete with outbuildings were built in a more substantial manner than before. Even new villages with churches and schools sprang up to house the farm staff. This was truly the hey-day of the big estates. By now virtually all the land in Norfolk had been enclosed and was farmed for arable crops or was fenced for grazing. Roads rather than tracks and cartways began to radiate from the towns and towards the end of the1700’s the tarmacadam road began to appear although anything other than the roads between main towns were still cart tracks. During the early 1800’s the textile industry in Norfolk began to dwindle and with the dawning of the industrial revolution the major industrial towns where in the country. These new populated areas needed feeding and Norfolk with its fertile soils was ideal for growing the ever increasing amounts of wheat and barley It was not until the 1850’s that the majority of Norfolk saw the age of the train and being one of the last counties to benefit from this new mode of transport the network was not completed until 1906. 

The rail network enabled market towns to become the centres for maltings, iron foundries and feed mills from them flour and Norfolk’s agricultural products were distributed throughout the country and machinery needed to tend the land was brought into the county. During the first half of the 19th century Norfolk’s farmers became more and more prosperous however this was not to last. In the second half of the century cheaper grain began to be imported from America and Norfolk’s farmers began to suffer. People began to leave the country in favour of the towns and industrial areas. Except for the best-run estates farming went in to decline and became less intensive and the fields and hedgerows became overgrown and neglected.The coastal towns of Great Yarmouth, Wells and Kings Lynn flourished as fishing ports, the herring industry at Great Yarmouth grew to enormous proportions and all the coastal towns had their own fleets of inshore vessels fishing for crabs, cockles, mussels, lobsters and shrimps. The boats were built locally and the shipbuilding yards in the towns and coastal villages expanded. The “holiday maker” industry began to come to the forefront with the coming of the railways. Until then the resorts could only be reached by sea or road. The Norfolk Broads too became a popular holiday destination.

1900- 1920

Agriculture in Norfolk had a temporary reprieve at the onset of war in 1914 but this was short lived and immediately after the Great War many of the estates and other land changed hands. When war was declared Norfolk found itself very vulnerable both to attack and bombardment from the sea and from invasion. Most of the coastal defences built in the preceding centuries had been demolished and after the German navy attacked Great Yarmouth there was a sudden flurry of gun battery building and trench digging all along the coastline. Concrete “pillboxes” were built both on the coast and inland to defend the county against invasion.

1921– 1939

The period between the two wars saw major changes to Norfolk’s agriculture. Sugar beet became a major crop and was grown under contract to the new sugar beet factory built at CantleySheep farming declined and was replaced by dairy farming; by 1939 the county was a major milk producing area.

The military defences of the First World War had been comprehensibly dismantled and only the pill boxes remained when on 3rd September 1939 war was declared.



War again made enormous changes to the face of Norfolk. The county was to become known as “The flight deck of Britain”. RAF stations and concrete runways appeared throughout the county. By the end of the war there were some 37 active airfields in the county. Many remain in some form to this day others have been returned to farmland. Some, such as RAF Coltishall, are still very active and the airfield of Horsham St Faiths is now Norwich International Airport.

Extensive defences were constructed both all along the coast and inland. Not only was it necessary to protect against invasion but also attack from the air. Some 14 coastal batteries were installed armed with searchlights and 6-inch guns.

Norfolk received its fair share of raids during the war and very few places escaped damage in some form or other by 1945 Arable production was increased, every bit of land not used for other war purposes was put under the plough and Norfolk was farmed more intensively than ever before.


Investment and grants meant that with peace came prosperity to Norfolk’s farming community and with modern tools and artificial fertilisers farming by the early 1950 was again a very profitable way of life. However modern methods meant that less manual workers were required. In little more than 10 years the numbers halved.

In 1953 on The 31st January flooding extensively damaged the Norfolk coast. The county had been subjected to flooding many times before over the centuries but never on such a scale. Force 10 winds and exceptionally high spring tides resulted in the sea defences all along the coast being breached and villages such as Salthouse and Cley were under several feet of water and apart from property damage large areas of grazing were flooded.

In the Heacham area 65 people were drowned. At Kings Lynn much of the town was flooded and 15 died the picture was repeated all along the coast. The coastal defences of Norfolk although repaired and reinforced are still vulnerable to attack  and in many places remain very weak, shingle banks and decaying wooden groynsare all that protects much of the coast line.


From the 1970’s Britain including Norfolk suddenly woke up to the fact that unless measures were taken to protect our historical sites, buildings and our unique flora and fauna much of it would be lost forever. In 1970 there were some 5,000 listed buildings in Norfolk by the mid 80’s there in excess of 10,000. In recent years the unique Norfolk broads have been declared Britain’s newest National Park. Norfolk now has numerous stately homes open to the public. Beautiful broads and rivers that are beginning to recover from the onslaught of tourism and are looked after by the Broads Authority.

Picturesque villages that through strict planning regulations will remain typical Norfolk villages. It is a county steeped in history that has managed, just in time in many cases, and sadly to late in others to save enough of its heritage to be well worth a visit.