The medieval defences of the City of Norwich

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Text © Copyright Evelyn Simak, October 2018
Images are under a separate Creative Commons Licence.


TG2307 : Plaque on part of the old city wall by Ber Street Gate by Evelyn Simak

The medieval City of Norwich was surrounded by high flint walls equipped with doorways, arrow loops, battlements and crenellations, and a deep outer ditch running alongside it, in all areas where it was not protected by the River Wensum. A fortified gatehouse had been built on Bishop's Bridge (see below), the then only bridge over the river along this stretch. The walls incorporated towers at regular intervals and were linked by a wall walk, and twelve gates, some substantial and others narrow porterns only, protected each one of the main roads leading into the city. Construction of the walls commenced at around 1294 and the work, which lasted 37 years, was completed by the mid-14th century. Richard Spynk, a wealthy private citizen, paid for the final stretches out of his own pocket.

An earlier Anglo-Saxon settlement which had sprung up in the vicinity of the 11th century Castle had already been protected by ditches, banks and a palisade, and some of these defences were later incorporated into the medieval defence structure. The protective circle formed by the city walls was approximately four kilometres (2.5 miles) long and is believed to be the longest stretch of medieval defences in England, and it enclosed an area measuring nearly 2.59 square kilometres (one square mile), which at the time was an area larger than that of the then City of London. Since no houses were permitted to be built outside the walls until the late 18th century, the living conditions within became rather cramped over time, considering that by the early 1670s Norwich had a population of around 21,000 and was probably the largest provincial town in England.

TG2308 : Norwich Castle as seen from Castle Meadow by Evelyn Simak
At least 98 dwellings were demolished when in 1067 the Normans built their first castle, a wooden fort, at this site. In 1094 the construction of the stone keep seen here was started by King William (Rufus) II, and completed in 1121 by his brother King Henry I. Designed as a royal palace rather than a fortification, no Norman or other kings ever lived in it, however. The stone for building the keep came all the way from Caen in France, just like the stone used for the construction of Norwich Cathedral. From the 14th century until 1793, the keep served as the city's gaol. The keep was refaced with Bath stone in the 1830s and in 1894 it opened as a museum.
by Evelyn Simak


The defences are said to have been constructed primarily at a time when war with France and hence direct attacks by the French army posed a serious threat. The Commission of 1385 at the time of the French Invasion is also documented to have ordered that a wall be constructed along the Wensum to fill up the gap in the already existing wall, but this apparently never materialised. However, the defences turned out to be rather ineffective in fending off the enemy during Litester's Rising in 1381 and again in 1549 during Kett's Rebellion. Nevertheless, the city's gates and walls provided an important measure of control over the movement of goods and subsequently the collection of tolls and taxes, and they also helped to prevent the spreading of infections, and especially that of the bubonic plague, during the 16th and 17th centuries, with the first outbreak in 1579 followed by more outbreaks in 1625 and 1665 and killing more than a third of mainly the poor population. In addition, the two boom towers positioned at the south-eastern corner of the city's defences controlled all traffic entering the city via the river.

Most of the city's gates were demolished in 1793/4 in order to encourage trade, but also because of the increasing cost of their maintenance. The outer ditch had by then silted up or was filled with rubbish and it was eventually filled in during the 19th century. Over time buildings had moved increasingly closer from either side, and sections of the wall had either collapsed or they had been plundered for building materials and some sections were incorporated into the walls of houses or yards. In the 20th century some wall sections were demolished to make way for redevelopment and road schemes.

Fifteen substantial sections of the walls have, however, to date survived. The wall defending the north of the city starts with a tower, the remains of which can still be seen on the north bank of the River Wensum together with a section of wall, the latter following the course of River Lane, a now overgrown and impassable path once linking Barrack Street and the river, skirting the former Jarrold's printing works. Much of this tower was destroyed when the river bank was restored and today a footpath known as the Riverside Walk passes through its remains.

TG2309 : Remains of an ancient tower by Evelyn Simak
None of the surviving documents mention this tower on the bank of the River Wensum, adjacent to the John Jarrold Printing Museum by St James Mill, and it is unclear if the wall and tower were built at the same time; the tower could pre- date or post-date the wall. The tower would appear to have been circular, matching the Boom Towers > LinkExternal link and the towers at Oak Street > LinkExternal link where the walls also terminated on the river bank. The height of this tower is not known.
See also > LinkExternal link
by Evelyn Simak


TG2309 : The Riverside Walk passing through the remains of a defensive tower by Evelyn Simak
None of the surviving documents mention this tower on the bank of the River Wensum, adjacent to the John Jarrold Printing Museum by St James Mill, and it is unclear if the wall and tower were built at the same time; the tower could pre- date or post-date the wall. The tower would appear to have been circular, matching the Boom Towers > LinkExternal link and the towers at Oak Street > LinkExternal link where the walls also terminated on the river bank. The height of this tower is not known. For a view taken from across the river see > LinkExternal link.
See also > LinkExternal link
by Evelyn Simak


From there the wall ran in northerly direction towards the Pockthorpe Gate, the site of which was near the junction of what are now Barrack Street, then known as Via ad Pokethorpe, and Silver Road which had not existed in the Middle Ages.

TG2309 : George VI pillar box on Barrack Street by Evelyn Simak
The site of Pockthorpe Gate, one of twelve such gates in the medieval defences of the city, was where the traffic lights are now.
See also > LinkExternal link
by Evelyn Simak


Pockthorpe (also known as Barre) Gate was situated in the parish of St James, at the north-eastern edge of the city just below Mousehold Heath. Evidence suggests that this gateway, which is documented to have been extensively damaged during Kett's Rebellion in 1549, had not been built until 1338. It was demolished in 1792 and no trace remains. Immediately north of it stood a defensive tower, part of which has survived, together with a section of wall along Bull Close Road.

TG2309 : Bull Close tower and wall by Evelyn Simak
This is one of the defensive towers in the old city wall and is located 16 metres north of the modern line of Barrack Street and 130 metres north of the River Wensum, by the junction of Bull Close and Silver roads. The tower is polygonal on the outer sides and has bricks laid as quoins at each of the angles to reinforce the flint work and is currently just under eight metres high but originally had chambers on two floors, with narrow openings on both levels looking out to the north and the east.

This tower is situated immediately north of the site of Pockthorpe Gate. The section of wall connecting tower and gate has, however, not survived but the wall immediately adjacent in the west of the tower is still in place up to the height of its wall walk. It is almost 45 metres long and between 1.3 and 2.6 metres high, but the present ground level on both sides of the wall is much higher than it used to be in the Middle Ages. On the south side of the wall there are the remains of the upper parts of ten brick arches supporting the wall walk.
See also > LinkExternal link
by Evelyn Simak


TG2309 : Bull Close tower and wall - the north side by Evelyn Simak
For another view and some information see > LinkExternal link.
See also > LinkExternal link
by Evelyn Simak


Bull Close Road follows the course of the medieval lane which once ran along the course of this section of wall, and the 19th century terrace its south side was built over the infilled ditch. The wall linked Pockthorpe and Magdalen gates and is described as having had six towers, five of which are now lost. Magdalen Gate, the main entrance into the city from the north and one of the principal gateways is said to have been named after the Magdalen Hospital which then was situated just outside (north) of it. Built during the 14th century it was one of the last city gates to have been completed and it was also the last to be demolished, in 1808. It was situated by the junction of modern-day Magdalen Street, then Fibriggate, and Magpie Road.

TG2309 : Site of the old Magdalen Gate by Evelyn Simak
Where the traffic lights by the junction of Magdalen Street (in foreground), Bull Close Road (right), Magpie Road (left) and Magdalen Road (straight ahead) are now situated. The building at right, on the far side of Bull Close Road, is the Artichoke public house > LinkExternal link.
See also > LinkExternal link
by Evelyn Simak


No trace of Magdalen Gate exists today but a 17 metres long and 5.3 metres high section of its adjoining wall has survived at the eastern end of Magpie Road, immediately to the west of the gateway.

TG2309 : A section of the old city wall by Evelyn Simak
The lane running parallel with it is called Wall Lane.
See also > LinkExternal link
by Evelyn Simak


From there the wall ran almost due west for about 365 metres until it reached St Augustine's Gate. Magpie Road follows the course of the medieval lane which used to run along this section of wall, and the houses on the south side of the road were built over the infilled ditch which is documented to have been about 20 metres wide. Another section, 18 metres long, has survived on what is now known as St Catherine Opening, where it has been mostly refaced in brick, with its outer face being concealed by a printing works. St Augustine's Gate is documented to have been rebuilt shortly before 1343 and the antiquary Francis Blomefield (23 Jul 1705 16 Jan 1752) reports that in 1377 it had twelve battlements.

TG2209 : St Augustine's Gate (site of) by Evelyn Simak
The gate in the ancient city wall was situated on St Augustine's Street where a gap between two buildings can be seen in mid-distance (left). The gap denotes the eastern end of St Martins at Oak Wall Lane which follows the course of the city wall and emerges on Oak Street, further to the west.
See also > LinkExternal link
by Evelyn Simak


From St Augustine's Gate the wall continued to extend in westerly direction and here its remains can still be seen by walking along St Martin's at Oak Wall Lane, although a 100 metres long section between St Augustine's and the site of St Martin's gates on Tothille (now Oak Street) is missing. A line of cobbles however outlines its course.

TG2209 : St Martin's at Oak Wall Lane - a section of the old city wall by Evelyn Simak
The lane links St Augustine's and Oak streets, following the course of a section of the ancient city wall and traversing locations formerly known as the Folly Grounds and the Jousting Acre at its western end. On the 1885 OS map its name is given as 'Under the Wall'.
See also > LinkExternal link
by Evelyn Simak


TG2209 : Terrace of houses in Bakers Road by Evelyn Simak
As seen from St Martin's at Oak Wall Lane. The wall seen in the foreground is part of the ancient city wall. This part of the wall, on the north side of the city, is at the east end of Bakers Road and starts 24 metres to the west of the site of St Augustine's Gate. The main section is 19 metres long and 4.4 metres high at its highest point. On the inner (south) side there are the remains of two arches and the start of a third arch of the arcade that supported the wall walk here. Both the complete arches have an open loop.
See also > LinkExternal link
by Evelyn Simak


St Martin's Gate is described as having been situated on a ridge above the River Wensum at the north-western corner of the city's defences. It is first mentioned in 1275, when it was referred to as Porte de Coslayn, and in ca 1461 it was known as Coslany Gates. The gate is documented to have had ten battlements in the 14th century. It was demolished in 1808 and no trace remains.

TG2209 : Course of the ancient city wall by Evelyn Simak
The western end of this section of wall that ended at St Martin's Gate on Oak Street and the site of which can be seen in mid-distance.
See also > LinkExternal link
by Evelyn Simak


A short section of adjacent wall, which includes the remains of a tower, is however still in place immediately to the west, beside a short path leading down to the bank of the River Wensum, where the northern defence wall ended with another tower which unfortunately no longer exists.

TG2209 : Path to the River Wensum - Oak Street Tower by Evelyn Simak
The path which turns off Oak Street between the properties at 165 and 176 Oak Street > LinkExternal link follows the remains of the ancient city wall (at right) until it reaches the River Wensum. The remains of one of the defensive towers > LinkExternal link in this wall can be seen in the foreground. This short section of wall runs down from (the site of) St Martin's Gate to the river, closing this section of the defences with a single round tower which was originally situated on the river bank. Due to the water courses having changed since the Middle Ages and the river having been constricted into a tighter channel, the tower, of which only the circular base has survived, is now set back over 40 metres from the river. It was 15 metres distant from gate and three metres lower than the level of the road. There is also some indication that the internal floor level of a lower chamber survives in part and is just above the present ground level.
See also > LinkExternal link
by Evelyn Simak


From here onwards the River Wensum provided the only protection, running almost due south for about 400 metres along the city's north-western edge to Heigham Gate, where the wall started again. Heigham Gate, a postern (small gateway), was situated on Vicus de Hegham, today's Heigham Street, where at its eastern end it met Nether Westwik (Westwick Street). No trace remains of Heigham Gate, which had been built on low ground on the west bank of the river. In the Middle Ages this gate was known as Portae Inferni (Hell Gate) and later as Blake or Black Gate. The locality of the gate is described as having been very narrow with tall houses on either side, and the gate as having been so narrow that only small carts were able to pass through. A short length of now lost wall is documented to have extended to a circular tower (also lost) situated on the river bank near where the Wensum was joined by the stream of a water mill known at the time as the New Mill. This area is still known today as the New Mills Yard.

TG2209 : New Mills pumping station by Evelyn Simak
For another view and some information about this building see > LinkExternal link.
See also > LinkExternal link
by Evelyn Simak


From Heigham Gate the wall continued in southerly direction on a course followed by the modern-day Barn Road, until it connected with St Benedict's Gate. No road existed in the Middle Ages where Barn Road is now, and in medieval times only the Via sub Muros, literally translated the Walk (or Way) under the Wall, ran alongside it not only here but along the whole length of the wall. The section between Heigham and St Benedict's gates was approximately 235 metres long and is recorded to have had 79 battlements and two intermediate towers. Only short fragments, formerly incorporated into houses which had been built here, immediately adjacent to the site of St Benedict's Gate, now remain.

TG2208 : A section of the old city wall beside Barn Road by Evelyn Simak
This section of the surviving wall is located at the north-west side of the city, to the south of the site of Heigham Gate and 19 metres north of the site of St Benedict's Gate. The standing section is 57 metres long, with the remains of six arches. The remains of an intermediate tower can be seen on the west (outer) side of the wall.
See also > LinkExternal link
by Evelyn Simak


St Benedict's Gate, also known as Porta de Westwik (Westwik Gate) and Gate of Heaven, was situated at the western end of Over Westwik (St Benedict's Street) by the junction with modern-day Barn Road at Grapes Hill. This gate is described as having been unique in that it was the only one to have had a square crenellated stair turret built against its west side which rose above the gate itself in order to provide access to the roof. It is also documented to have had an inscription which read 'Tempore Henrici Watts Maioris civitatis Norwici Anno Dom'ni 1646'. St Benedict's Gate was demolished in 1793 although its south side, which had been incorporated into the side of an 18th century house built against it, survived until WW2 when it was damaged by bombing. Today, no trace remains.

TG2208 : Pedestrian crossing at the western end of St Benedict's Street by Evelyn Simak
This was the site of St Benedict's Gate.
See also > LinkExternal link
by Evelyn Simak


The next section of wall, still running in southerly direction for a length of about 275 metres, linked St Benedict's and St Giles' gates, with the ground here rising steeply up Grapes Hill to Upper St Giles. This section is described as having had 100 battlements and three intermediate towers, none of which have survived. Immediately south of St Benedict's Gate, however, a ca 50 metre long section of wall is still in place, with the second tower said to have been situated roughly where modern-day Pottergate now joins Wellington Lane (formerly known as Duck Lane). By the middle of the 18th century the ditch on the outer side of this wall had been filled in and gardens were laid out over the site.

TG2208 : Pedestrian crossing at the western end of St Benedict's Street by Evelyn Simak
This was the site of St Benedict's Gate. Part of the old city wall can be seen in the foreground at right and it continues on the other side where it runs parallel with Wellington Lane, up Grapes Hill to the site of the St Giles' Gate. The wall in the foreground (at right) is located immediately south of the site of St Benedict's Gate and just under 37 metres long and 4.6 metres high at its highest point.
See also > LinkExternal link
by Evelyn Simak


TG2208 : Seat by (the site of) St Benedict's Gate by Evelyn Simak
Part of the old city wall can be seen in the background.
See also > LinkExternal link
by Evelyn Simak


St Giles' Gate, one of the main portals into the city, was first mentioned in 1288 and situated at the western end of Over Newport, now known as Upper St Giles Street. It led from the west of the city directly to the market place at its centre. St Giles' Gate was also known as Port.S.Egidii and as Newport Gate, and is reported to have been rebuilt in the first half of the 14th century. It was demolished in 1792. Its coat of arms, inscribed 'Adornata Tempore Maioraltis Henrici Crowe Armigeri 1679', was rescued and can be seen in the Castle Museum.

TG2208 : Ramp to Grapes Hill by Evelyn Simak
This is the site of the medieval St Giles' Gate, demolished in 1794, which was one of the principal gates into the city from the west.
See also > LinkExternal link
by Evelyn Simak


From St Giles' Gate the wall turned south-easterly on a course now followed by Chapelfield Road, and extended to a length of about 655 metres, which was the single longest stretch of wall before it connected with St Stephen's Gate. The now lost section between the site of St Giles' Gate and the nearest surviving tower by Chapelfield Gardens is documented to have had six intermediate towers and altogether 229 battlements. Evidence suggests that this may have been the oldest section of the city's defences.

TG2208 : Chapelfield Road - a section of the old city wall by Evelyn Simak
At Chapel Field the surviving section of wall, which formed part of the defences between St Giles' Gate and St Stephen's Gate, is situated west of Chapelfield Gardens and forms the boundary between the park and the inner ring road that was built over the line of the outer ditch. It 137 metres long and 4.75 metres high at its highest point, and at its north end incorporates a substantial part of an intermediate tower.
See also > LinkExternal link
by Evelyn Simak


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