North Walsham - Its origin and place in history

The anglo-saxon village of ‘Walessam-eska’ is the first recorded settlement in the area, with its name appearing as ‘Walsam’ in the Domesday Book survey of 1080. The derivation of the name itself tells us that it was a small group of dwellings (anglo-saxon: ham) belonging to the Danish ‘Waelsing’ family. The name Waels features in the ancient anglo-saxon poem ‘Beowulf’, written about a sixth century warrior who slayed Grendel, serpent of the Fens. Waels was the father of Sigemund the Waelsing who slayed a hoard keeping dragon. Other settlements of these same families are found locally at Walsingham, Wells, South Walsham and Walsham le Willows. The appearance of the anglo-saxon ‘ham’ tells us that the family settled here sometime in the sixth century AD. Settlement before that time has been proven with the discovery in 1844 of Roman remains on the parish border with Felmingham, a site close to the line of a Roman Road which connected Burgh Camp near Great Yarmouth to the great fort at Brancaster on the northwest Norfolk coast.

With the coming of Christianity to East Anglia, the village was provided with a church, and to that church a portion of land and a priest. When the Vikings later raided the shores of eastern England many a village fell to their hands, including Walsam. It is recorded that during the reign of King Canute, a Norseman named Skiotr gave the village of Walsam along with its church and estates to the Abbey of Saint Benet at Holme, then sited on an island in the Bure marshes near Horning. This Abbey was to become one of the richest Benedictine Monasteries in the land. Much of this wealth was obtained from Walsam, being its principal and most prosperous holding. The Abbot of Saint Benet’s as Lord of the Manor held the rights to all tithes, and as the weaving industry of the area flourished these tithes became lucrative. It was upon this great wealth that the Abbey Church of Saint Benet along with the Parish Church of North Walsham were enlarged on a grand scale in the fourteenth century. Through this the town can now boast the largest church in Norfolk that has always been solely a parish church. (Note: Both King’s Lynn Minster and Great Yarmouth Minster are larger buildings but were originally conceived as priory churches. Great Yarmouth Minster holds claim to being the largest parish church in England.)

Records throughout the ages mention the town as Walsham Market and Walsham, the ‘North’ being added within the last few hundred years. The Domesday book tells us that a church existed in North Walsham and that it belonged to Saint Benet’s Abbey. The tower of this ancient church still exists today, being the oldest building in the town at well over a thousand years old. It was incorporated into the present church building and stands to the immediate north of the present tower ruin. Most of the town was built of wood at this time, being thatched with the reed that grew in the water meadows of the River Ant on the east side of the town. The town’s arable land was divided into three fields; Southfield, Millfield and Northfield, and were subdivided into strips allotted to the townsfolk. This was a system common throughout the country, with one field sown in wheat, another in beans, with barley for brewing, and the third left fallow for sheep to re-fertilize the land. Year by year this system was rotated so that all fields had equal usage. The outskirts of the town were well wooded and provided rough grazing for wild boar.


Weaving and ‘Walsham’
Flemish weavers came to England in the twelfth century and settled in Norfolk, the low lying landscape being reminiscent of their homelands. Their weaving capitals were sited at the twin-towns of Worstead and Walsham; weaving the country’s finest cloths of ‘Worsted’, still famed for its quality worldwide, and ‘Walsham’; which was a lighter cloth for summer use. By the beginning of the fourteenth century a market of these cloths was well established in Walsham. This new prosperity was proudly flaunted with the building of vast new churches for the two towns. More Flemish weavers moved to the district at the invitation of Edward III, and the town flourished at an incredible rate until 1348 ... the coming of the ‘Black Death’.


‘Black Death’ and Peasant Unrest
The Bubonic Plague or ‘Black Death’ ravaged England in 1348, and recurred in 1361 and 1369. With it came the death of thousands, resulting in a loss of labour needed to farm the land, and work on Walsham’s incomplete church; the original plans had to be altered, and beautiful decorated window tracery was substituted for simple intersected tracery. With the economy of the country in turmoil an Act was passed in 1351 that no man should refuse to work for the same rate of pay as before the Black Death. Extra revenue was also generated by the imposition of a Poll Tax on the people. The arable fields were laid to pasture, and common land was enclosed for sheep farming. This was less labour intensive with more profit being made from wool production. This caused great unrest of the peasants, which led to the famous ‘Peasants’ Revolt’ of 1381 when John Litester, assisted by amongst others a man called Cubitt of North Walsham, led a rebellion of many thousands who seized the city of Norwich, killing the mayor in the process. Henry De Spenser, Bishop of Norwich, and a man with much experience of war abroad, was able to raise enough forces to drive the rebels from the city and they retreated to a camp at Bryant’s Heath near North Walsham. Despite the peasants elaborate makeshift barricades, they were ousted from their camp by the Bishop and his now numerable forces, and battle commenced. Many hundreds were slain and the defeated peasants fled towards to the town desperately seeking their right of ‘sanctuary’ in the church, however, it was still incomplete and yet to be consecrated. The Bishop followed, Litester was captured, and the church witnessed a massacre of hundreds of peasants. De Spenser heard Litester’s confession, gave him absolution and then had him dragged to his public execution. Three stone crosses were soon erected marking the site of the battlefield, as a permanent reminder of the consequences of such uprisings.


The Parish Church
It is probable that the incomplete church only needed repair after the turmoil of the Peasants Revolt, and not complete re-building as local legend states. In fact it was that same Bishop Henry De Spenser who consecrated the building within twenty years of the battle. This is the edifice seen today, the largest ‘Wool Church’ in Norfolk, built from the profits of the wool and weaving industries. The church is noted for its spacious interior, the lofty columns and absence of chancel arch making it seem light and airy. Many interesting artifacts remain in the church including the fifteenth century font cover, richly carved decorated with fascinating telescopic mechanism, it hangs from a carved oak beam. Of a similar date are the remains of a wooden screen which separated the clerical chancel from the people’s nave. its mediaeval panels are carved and painted with an array of saints. The south chapel contains an unusual sixteenth century Communion Table; unusual because of the ‘corrected’ inscription along its front panel made after an alteration of the Prayer Book. Another treasure is the unique Royal Arms Board at the west end of the church, one side with the arms of Cromwell’s Commonwealth, and the other with the Arms of Charles II. Also to be seen are an Iron Bound Chest, two remaining tip-up seats from the monk’s mediaeval quire, and a wooden Armoury Chest - the churchwardens had prepared for the coming of the Spanish Armada by buying six hundred corselets!

The church is entered from the Market Place through a magnificent pinnacled porch, with rich carving and heraldic shields. The colourful statues are replacements, showing Saint Benedict (with St Benets Abbey and Norwich Cathedral at his feet); Saint Nicholas (the present day dedication of the church) and in the centre niche, the Virgin Mary with infant Christ (the church was originally dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary).

The once magnificent tower is now reduced to a ruinous mass, a rocky crag standing sentinel over the town; its strange shape draws many people into the town centre to investigate it.


The Ruined Tower
From whichever direction you enter the town, the building that dominates more than anything else, is the ruined tower of the church. In the early eighteenth century the town boasted a glorious, soaring tower and spire, the tallest construction locally, being second in height only to Norwich Cathedral. It is known that the parapet reached a height of 147 feet, with a spire later added to compete with the then new church tower at Cromer. This spire may have taken its height to around 180 feet. A heavy ring of six bells was hung in the tower which also housed a chiming clock. These bells caused a dispute in 1616 between the townsfolk and the sexton whose duties caused him to ring the Great Bell “... orderly and full out one halfe hour at the least ...” every morning at four o’clock!

Friday 15th May 1724 saw the town’s Ascensiontide Fayre, and the bells were rung for many hours. The ringing of the bells combined with a rather windy day caused a vibration to occur in the tower. This was noticed by the verger when he ascended the tower in the evening to wind the clock. He was so alarmed by the distressed state of the tower that the clock remained unwound as he fled to warn people away.

Between nine and ten o’clock the following morning, the doctor of the town was walking through the churchyard, and to his horror, one side of the steeple collapsed before him, his only injury being a cut to his ankle from a flying flint! In the years that followed, monies were raised to reconstruct the tower, but the weather was to weaken the ruin yet further, and in 1835 more falls indicated the weakness of the upper stonework. February 17th 1836 saw the last major fall when heavy wintry gales brought down the north side of the steeple with a crash that sent earthquake-like tremors through the town. The remaining east wall of the belfry stage was then dismantled as a safety precaution. In 1939 stabilisation work was carried out on the tower, in the hope that one day rebuilding might be possible. Plans have been drawn up to this end, and one version of a new tower (minus a spire), by the eminent architect Sir Charles Nicholson, can be seen inside the north porch of the Parish Church.


The Great Fire
In the year 1600, the town suffered a disastrous fire, which began at around six o’clock in the morning on the 25th June, in the house of a “poor and lewd person” by the name of Dowle, who on fleeing was apprehended and put in gaol. One hundred and eighteen houses, seventy shops, and countless other buildings were razed to the ground. The Market with its Cross and stalls were destroyed along with their merchandise. Although reportedly fired in five places at once the church escaped much damage, and one imagines that it provided temporary shelter to the townspeople for many months. A plea was made to the Queen for some timber from the royal estates to rebuild the town. Much town layout was altered; the parallel ‘Lokes’ south of the Market Place may be early attempts at town planning. Sir William Paston used the opportunity to buy up several acres of scorched land at a cheap rate. There he built his famous School.


The Paston School
Sir William Paston opened his free Grammar School in 1606 for “the training, instructing and bringing up of youth in good manners, learning and the true fear, service and worship of almighty God whereby they might become good and profitable members in the Church and Commonwealth”. The school grew until the Civil War when the last of the Paston family gave it up, and a rescue bid was made to preserve it. A new School House was built in 1765, the one seen today, and a new start was made. Shortly after in 1769, brothers William and Horatio Nelson came to the school as boarders, and from here, in March 1771, a young Horatio set out on his legendary career. In addition to Admiral Lord Nelson, the school can boast many a fine scholar, including Archbishop Tenison, who crowned Queen Anne & George I. The School is now part of a Sixth Form College for the local area, and the founder’s elaborate tomb, which he himself had built before he died, can be seen inside the Parish Church. An interesting footnote is that in the early part of the 20th century an archaeological dig found within the grounds of the school foundations of what were thought to be a small monastery, perhaps the town’s cell of the Abbey of St Benet’s.


The Market Cross
The Market Place provided a place where local traders could sell their produce, livestock, meats, and of course the wool and famous cloths. Many of the narrower shops in the Market Place still occupy their ancient plots, in multiples of seven feet, huddled tightly against the ‘foreland’ of the churchyard. The meat markets were in an area known as ‘The Shambles’, mostly lost in the great fire but remembered today in buildings known as ‘The Butchery’. In the mid thirteenth century Walsham was given by Royal Charter of Henry III the right to hold a weekly market. A plot in the market wasn’t free, and the rent was collected in ‘The Old Tollhouse’. The Market Rental Book of 1391 states that the cross fixed the site of the market as being a place where ‘buyers and sellers could lawfully congregate’. This was probably a stone post with the tollhouse located close by. As the market prospered, it was found necessary to provide a larger tollhouse, and a new market ‘cross’ was built.

This cross was started in 1550 during the reign of Edward VI by Bishop Thirlby of Norwich but doesn’t seem to have been completed until 1555. The Great Fire of 1600 destroyed this building along with the Market, but it was rebuilt by Bishop Redman in 1602 to an unusual design. A one handed clock was acquired from Worstead Hall in 1787 and in 1855 its owners, the Ecclesiastical Commissioners, formally presented the Market Cross to the town. A minute hand was added to the clock the following year. In 1899 funds from the North Walsham Steeplechase were used to buy a new chiming clock. During the second world war the weather vane was blown off when a bomb exploded close by. The cross has been restored several times, the latest being in 1984 when the old roof covering was replaced and the clock restored into working order. A piece of ancient oak which was removed from the cross at this time was locally carved and fashioned as a representation of the head of Christ then presented to the people of our twin town of Friesenried in Bavaria. North Walsham’s famous Market Cross is a both a National Monument and a Grade I listed building.