The Roman Town before Norwich (70 to c.970)

Painting Unknown

The Roman Town that Collapsed (70 to 5th-Century)

The story of Norwich begins a few hundred years after the collapse of Venta Icenorum. But before we get into the origins of Norwich itself, we need to talk about the old capital of Norfolk.

The town of Venta Icenorum (or Caistor St. Edmund in Modern Englis
Venta Icenorum Ruins
The remains of Venta Icenorum, as seen from the air. Now part of Caistor St Edmunds.
© John Fielding 2015 (CC-BY 2.0)

After the Romans invaded England. They found that the country-side within the Iceni tribal land (modern day Norfolk) was both populated and developed. Upon seeing this, the Romans saw the potential for development in the area.

Even though the Romans made some progress towards this goal of developing the Iceni tribal land. Mainly as constructing several roads across that area. The revolt of Boudicca would disrupt the plans for further development in the year 60.

The reason for the revolt was that after Boudicca's husband King Prasutagus died, the Romans tried to exert power over the area by raising taxes. That attempt to raise taxes led to Boudicca starting a protest movement which led to her tortured and her daughters being raped by the Romans.

This would lead to her to raise an army to go against the Romans, but after raiding some Roman towns. In response, the Romans assembled an "army of troops" and defeated Iceni in a last battle. 

Even though Boudicca escaped, she would commit suicide by ingesting poison as she didn't want to be captured by the Romans. 

After the failed revolt, the Romans wanted to pacify the Iceni people with vengeance. One attempt at doing so was to build the Roman market town of Venta Icenorum (Caistor St. Edmund), around 2.5 miles south of where Norwich is today [

Venta Icenorum would not survive the collapse of the Roman occupation in Britain. Some suggest that the collapse of Venta Icenorum is because of the town serving as an artificial capital of the Iceni land [

The Anglo-Saxon Villages That Would Become Norwich (C.410 to 970)

The collapse of Venta Icenorum left Norfolk without a capital for a period. There was no evidence of Roman occupation of the area we would nowadays call Norwich. But this would change during the early Anglo-Saxon times when the Anglo-Saxons invaded East Anglia and set up several settlements in the area [

It should surprise no one that so-many settlements started up on the banks of the River Wensum. That area was ideal as a place to build new settlements. Which included; Fertile soil to grow crops on, streams for fresh water and good access to the sea for trading and fishing.

Five settlements would be near the banks of the River Wensum, with other settlements being spread out over a large area of Norfolk.

The four settlements that were near the river are the ones we are actually interested in when talking about the history of Norwich where [
St. Mary Coslany Church
St. Mary Coslany.
© Evelyn Simak 2010 (CC-BY-SA 2.0)

Northwic - The biggest of the settlements was at both sides of Fye Bridge. Between the southern part of Magdalen Street in the settlements north and Wensum Street as the southern part.

It is likely that the Northern part of Northwic (Norwich-over-the-water) was built first. An archaeological dig took place in 2005 at Fishergate and Thoroughfare Yard. That found evidence of "complex" occupation in area, dating back to the early Early-Saxon period [

Though the history of Northwic dates back to this period, the areas of what would become Norwich would have unlikely have been of "urban density" [

Westwick - A small settlement located where Westwick street is located today. 

Coslany - A settlement that was located to the west of Northwic and to the north of Westwick. 

Conesford - At this point in history, Conesford was in the eastern part below the River Wensum. Conesford effectively ceased to exist shortly afterwards with that land given over to the church. Needham would soon afterwards be renamed Conesford. 

Needham - The southern settlement, which renamed Conesford soon afterwards.

There is little in the way of confirmed occupation of this area during the Early-Saxon times. With Northwic likely being the only known settlement back then. Over the next couple hundred years, this would change. As more settlements, such as Conesford and Coslany where funded as was roads linking most of the settlements in this area.

Those settlements soon would become home to many new industries. Including both low-skilled like farming, fishing and textile weaving and others that would be considered more specialised, such as pottery and metal working. 

This combination of different industries would allow the settlements to grow and expand. A lot of the information going over how the settlements grew appears to have been lost to time. But that the city takes its name from Northwic would suggest that the industrial of Norfolk in the early and middle Saxon times was based around that settlement.

Viking occupation of "Norwich" and East Anglia (866 to 917)

City Hall - doorway relief panel
A ‘doorway relief panel’ at Norwich City Hall, that depicts the Vikings arrival to Norwich.
© Evelyn Simak 2018 (CC-BY-SA 2.0)

Also, throughout the Anglo-Saxon times, Viking ships would travel down the River Yare to raid the newly built settlements. After years of raiding the settlements, the Vikings invaded East Anglia in 866 and conquered the area.

After ravaging Northumbria. The Vikings set up winter quarters in East Anglia with the locals supplying the soldiers with horses.

For a short, there was peace between the locals and the Vikings, but that peace was not to last. As in 868, East Anglian King Edmund and his army fought the Vikings at Thetford. His army lost and King Edmund was captured and executed "in a cruel and barbarous manner" .

There continued to be fighting across England after this until 878, when the Vikings would be defeated in a battle in Wessex.

A treaty signed say the Vikings agree to retreat to East Anglia and that Viking king of East Anglia Guthrum agreed to convert to Christianity.

Anglo Scandinavian settlements at the River Wensum (c.870 to 917)

Warning: The lack of archaeological finds from this period has led to a lot of theories and speculation about what happened during the Vikings rule over Norwich. This may lead to inaccuracies in the information provided in this section.

Once the Vikings had stable control over East Anglia. one thing they did was to create a new fortified town on the north bank of the River Wensum (On the site of Northwic) called Norvic [
8]. I could see this town as the prototype of Norwich.

The principal part of this town (on the site of Northwic) was protected both by a thirteen-foot deep ditch and earth bank that was topped with a wooden fence. I do not know it how long it took for the Vikings to expand, but what we know is that after setting up the new town at the Northwic area. The Vikings would soon enough start expanding across the river, with a new town to the south of the river created named Conesford [
7] [10].

Though, there is very little evidence of what this town would have exactly looked like, as archaeological digs around Norwich have found very little from the Viking period. There have still been some interesting Viking finds around Norwich, including [

A Scandinavian church - Behind Anglia TV Studios a small Scandinavian church, made from timber was found.

A Scandinavian Burial Cross - On the site of a former church in Rose Lane, a 10th-century Scandinavian burial cross discovered.

Some Viking swords - A Viking sword found in the River Wensum. After the death of the owner of the sword, they had bent the sword it order to make it unusable.

Trefoil Brooch - During an archaeological dig at a mound of Norwich Castle Museum in 1989. The design of the one found at this dig was of the acanthus design type, but that one had the same design fault as others found around England [13]. 

It is unfortunate that with the work that the Vikings did with merging villages into and expanding Northwic. That so little remains to teach us about what happened during this period. 

I would guess that most of what the Vikings had planned for the area was cut short by the Anglo-Saxon retaking of Norfolk. Which occurred less than fifty years after the Vikings had conquered the land.

Anglo-Saxon's Retake and Control Norwich (917 to 1017)

Even though the Danish people settled with the locals across East Anglia, the same was not true for the other parts of British Isles, where the Saxons and Vikings waged war against even though there was a peace agreement between them.

Despite being able to give away land, they did not even own, as with East Anglia.

That did not stop King Alfred and his Kingdom of England from trying to take control of the areas his kingdom had given to the Vikings in that peace agreement [

In 917, after a series of lost battles for the Vikings against Edward the Elder and his army. The Vikings would lose control over East Anglia, ending nearly fifty years of Viking rule over East Anglia.

Late-Saxon Northwic (918 to C.970)

One of the first things that the Kingdom of the West Saxons did after taking control of this area was to dissolve the entity of the Kingdom of East Anglia itself and merge the counties that made up East Anglia into the Kingdom of the West Saxons. That kingdom would itself end nine years later in 927 by the "new" Kingdom of England.

After East Anglia merged into the rest of England. the area that would become Norwich changed at a rapid pace. This post-Viking era would see the upcoming town grow both financially and in population. 

This era would also see Tombland become the main focal point of Northwic. A market would be created at Tombland in 924.

 The good access to rivers and the sea would allow the market to trade in many things, from local produce to exotic furs imported from Scandinavia and Russia and everything between [

Around the time that the market opened, the first industrial sites appeared in Northwic. these historic sites mainly involved pottery and metal works. These "works" would have almost certainly produced products for export, either locally or even with other countries [

In the Late-Saxon era, coins were still being minted regionally while other former kingdoms had multiple mints, East Anglia only had one.

The mint in Northwic started producing coins in 924, the same year the market started. An interesting thing is that there was a preference for coins with the King's head on them. Something that would catch on in the rest of the country later on [

That Northwic was chosen to have the mint rather than somewhere in Suffolk. Which was the power centre of East Anglia in previous eras is a big sign of the local economic power that Northwic and by extension Norfolk were becoming by this point.

Sources for this article:

[1] Atkin, M., 1993. Norwich. Dover, NH: A. Sutton, p.6.

[2] Atkin, M., 1993. Norwich. Dover, NH: A. Sutton, p.7.

[4] 2020. MNF45256 - Norfolk Heritage Explorer. [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 29 August 2020].

[5] 2020. Norwich-(Saxon-Period)-(Parish-Summary) - Norfolk Heritage Explorer. [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 30 August 2020].

[6] Ward, K., 2004. A History Of Norwich - The Iceni And The Romans. [online] Available at: < > [Accessed 31 August 2020].

[7] Ward, K., 2004. A History Of Norwich - The Saxons And Vikings. [online] Available at: < > [Accessed 31 August 2020].

[8] Eastern Daily Press. 2010. 63: Viking Norwich. [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 1 September 2020].

[10] unthank, r., 2019. City Hall Doors # 2. [online] COLONEL UNTHANK'S NORWICH. Available at: <> [Accessed 7 September 2020].

[11] n.d. Tnf1508 - Norfolk Heritage Explorer. [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 7 September 2020].

[13] Kershaw, J., 2009. Culture and Gender in the Danelaw: Scandinavian and Anglo-Scandinavian Brooches. Viking and Medieval Scandinavia, 5, p.314.

[14] Mason, J., 2013. THE END OF THE KINGDOM Of EAST ANGLIA. [online] joemasonspage. Available at: <> [Accessed 11 September 2020].

[15] Norwich, D., n.d. History Of Norwich. [online] norfolk & Norwich. Available at: <> [Accessed 12 September 2020].

[16] Blunt, C., 1981. The Lincoln And Stamford Mints In The Tenth And Eleventh Centuries. [ebook] Lincoln: Lincolnshire County Council, p.3. Available at: <> [Accessed 13 September 2020].

[17] 2020. Mnf59 - Norfolk Heritage Explorer. [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 14 September 2020].