East Flegg Hundred: Great Yarmouth, etymology and origin

An Essay Towards A Topographical History of the County of Norfolk: Volume 11. Originally published by W Miller, London, 1810.

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Francis Blomefield, 'East Flegg Hundred: Great Yarmouth, etymology and origin', An Essay Towards A Topographical History of the County of Norfolk: Volume 11, (London, 1810), pp. 255-260. British History Online https://www.british-history.ac.uk/topographical-hist-norfolk/vol11/pp255-260 [accessed 20 June 2024].

Francis Blomefield. "East Flegg Hundred: Great Yarmouth, etymology and origin", in An Essay Towards A Topographical History of the County of Norfolk: Volume 11, (London, 1810) 255-260. British History Online, accessed June 20, 2024, https://www.british-history.ac.uk/topographical-hist-norfolk/vol11/pp255-260.

Blomefield, Francis. "East Flegg Hundred: Great Yarmouth, etymology and origin", An Essay Towards A Topographical History of the County of Norfolk: Volume 11, (London, 1810). 255-260. British History Online. Web. 20 June 2024, https://www.british-history.ac.uk/topographical-hist-norfolk/vol11/pp255-260.

In this section


Of the Etymology and Origin of Yarmouth.

The name of this town is entirely apposite to its situation, from which, indeed, like many others, it is taken. Yar-mouth is as expressive of the Yare's Mouth, or the mouth of the river Yare, as a compound word can be. The Saxons called it Garmud, and Jiermud; (the pronunciation of their d being somewhat like our th) that is, the mouth of the Garienis, or Yare; which river rises about the middle of the county, and, after receiving into it the Waveney and Bure, here disembogues itself into the German sea. (fn. 1) It had the epithet Great added to it in the reign of Edward I. in order to distinguish it, as some say, from Yarmouth in the isle of Wight, but others, with more probability, make it the distinction between this and Little Yarmouth in Suffolk.

It is still a disputable point whether this be the Garianonum of the ancients or not. Camden says, "I dare not affirm that this was the old Garianonum, where formerly the Stablesian horse lay in garrison against the barbarians; nor yet the neighbouring little village Castor, (formerly the seat of Sir John Falstaff, an eminent knight) famous amongst the inhabitants, on account of its antiquity: though there is another report that the river Yare had another mouth just under it. But as I am thoroughly convinced, that the Garianonum was at Burgh-castle in Suffolk, which is scarce two miles distant from the opposite bank of the river, so am I apt to think, that Yarmouth rose out of its ruins, and that this Castor was one of the Roman castles, placed also at the mouth of the river Yare, now shut up: for as the north-west wind plays the tyrant upon the coast of Holland over-against this place, and has stopped up the middle mouth of the Rhine with sands, in like manner has the north-east damaged this coast, and seems, by sweeping up heaps of sand, to have obstructed this harbour; for the cleansing and keeping open of which, many statutes have passed in parliament, in regard to the great importance thereof, for carrying on the trade and navigation of this kingdom. Nor will it be any injury, if I call this our Yarmouth (so nearly joined to the old Garianonum) Garianonum itself; since the Garienis, from whence it had its name, has now changed its channel, and enters the sea below this town, to which it also gave name; for I cannot but own this Yarmouth is of a later date; for, when that old Garianonum was gone to decay, and there was none left to defend this shore, Cerdick, the warlike Saxon, landed here, from whence the place is called by the inhahitants at this day, Cerdick-sand, and by other historians Cerdickshore; and when he had harassed the Iceni with a grievous war, he set sail from hence for the west, where he settled the kingdom of the west Saxons. And not long after, the Saxons, instead of Garianonum, built a new town in that moist watery field upon the west side of the river, which they called Yarmouth; but the situation thereof proving unwholesome, they removed to the other side of the river, called then, from the same Cerdick, Cerdick-sand, and there they built this new town, wherein there flourished, in the time of Edward the Confessor, seventy burgers."

On this subject Sir Henry Spelman, in his Icenia, says, "Yarmouth is neither the real Garianonum, nor different from the real; for the situation of both was at the mouth of the river Garienis, from which, also, both were named; but the one received its name from the old channel, the other from the new; and both in that space of the shore where Cerdick, a Saxon, in the year of our Lord 495, with Cenrick, his son, and five ships, entering the port, put the opposing Britons to flight, and named the port Cerdick-shore, as Ethelwerd relates." And a little after he goes on; "the river (Yare) deserting its channel, has consigned to oblivion the ancient situation of Garianonum. The marks of both the situation and the river are very uncertain. Two places seem to claim it; Burgh-Castle, in the county of Suffolk, which at this day hangs over the south side of the river, and Castor, a little village about 4 miles distant, to the north. Both exhibit something of the Roman: the former a foursided, oblong, pitched camp, crowned with a wall, but two remote from the sea, and in a place so surrounded with marshes and narrow passes, as to be an incommodious situation for troops of horse; the latter, on the shore itself, discovering also the ruins of a wall and fortification, in an open plain, very commodious for the excursion of horse and for the defence of the shore which was given in charge to this count, (fn. 2) and this cavalry; for the interior and midland parts were guarded by another count, and rather with cohorts of foot, than troops of horse. I therefore place Garianonum at Castor, though Camden was pleased with Burgh."

Of these two great authorities I am inclined to favour the latter, as Sir Henry Spelman's reasons seem to be the most cogent and decisive. This Garianonum, which we may conclude was at Castor, was an ancient fortress of the Romans, where their Stablesian horse were stationed, under the command of the Count of the Saxon shore, (who was hence called Gariannonensis) in order to guard the shore from the frequent inroads of the Saxon pirates; he had in all under his command 2200 foot and 200 horse, which were stationed at different places on the coasts of Norfolk, Suffolk, Essex, Kent, &c. which had then the denomination of the Saxon shore, from being situated nearly opposite to the native country of the Saxons, a warlike people of Germany.

Burgh-Castle, however, though we may be disinclined to think it the Garianonum of the ancients, must not be held in less esteem for its antiquity, since it is evident from many circumstances that it was a Roman station, as well as Castor; Romanam ostendunt ambo speciem. This is, in a great measure, confirmed by the many Roman coins and pieces of urns which have been found at both places: but more particularly at Castor, in a place called the East Bloody-Burgh Furlong; and it is observable that the date of the coins found at Castor are more ancient than those at Burgh-Castle; hence it may be inferred, that Castor was the first fortress on this coast, the river Yare emptying itself into the sea, not far from thence, at a place distinguished by the name of Cockle Water, alias Grubb's Haven, many centuries after. But the course of the river shifting more to the south, occasioned by strong north-east winds blocking up the mouth with sand and gravel, it is probable another station might be thought necessary, and one might accordingly be made on the south side of the river.

The situation of these two stations, upon fine eminences on either side of the river, and in sight of each other, was extremely well adapted for the troops, who might, on any emergency, give intelligence to each other, by signals, and so command the adjacent shore, and entrance into the river, to greater advantage than if there had been but one station.

Cerdick-sand, or Cerdick-shore, of which mention has been already made, seems to have been a great sand-bank formed along the shore, between two branches or channels of the Yare, called havens, by which two channels the river then entered the sea; one running near Castor, the other near Gorleston. By the former of which, from many concurring circumstances, it is imagined that Lothbroch, the noble Dane, whose story is related by Sir Henry Spelman, entered, in his passage to Reedham, where he landed. The story has, indeed, something of the marvellous in it, but being so seriously related, and by such respectable authority, I cannot resist the temptation of giving it at length, as it also bears some relation to the topography of the place we are treating of.

"At the confluence of the Yare with the Waveney," says he, "three miles from Yarmouth, the little village of Reedham, the seat of the Barneys, appears just out of the marshes, having its name from its reedy situation; but by the miraculous arrival of Lothbroc, a noble Dane, equally celebrated and unfortunate. I will revive the melancholy tale. (fn. 3) —This Lothbroc, of royal race, after he had begotten two sons, Hinguar and Hubba, and was alone some time in a boat, hawking for birds, by the islands near Denmark, was driven by a sudden tempest over the breath of the sea, and is carried into the mouth of the Yare, as far as Reedham. The inhabitants brought the stranger, as they had found him, alone, with his hawk, to Edmund, King of the East-Angles, whose palace was Castor, 10 miles from thence. The King is astonished at the man's figure and fortune, and receives him with a countenance and manner so engaging, that Lothbroc's affection for his own country was presently alienated. He is also delighted with the diversions of the courtiers, especially hunting; to be more expert in which, he associates with Bern, the King's huntsman; and in so short a time excels his master, that, stung with envy, he privately murdered him in the woods, whither he had seduced him. While Lothbroc was missing, the vigilant greyhound that he had kept, guarded the body of his murdered master; but being compelled by hunger, now and then visits the hall, and being observed by the King's servants, he is followed by them to the body, Bern is therefore found guilty, and by judgment of the King's court, is put into Lothbroc's boat, alone, and destitute of every instrument of navigation; and being committed to the waves and winds, it was his fortune to be carried to Denmark. The boat being there known, he is examined on the rack, concerning Lothbroc's death; and, in order to be delivered from the torture, pretends that he was murdered by Edmund, King of the East-Angles. Hinguar and Hubba now vow the bitterest revenge; and having raised an army of 20,000 armed men, with Bern for their guide, suddenly ravage all East Anglia. They soon after take King Edmund, scourge him, and afterwards wound him with arrows, behead him with a sword, and hack him in pieces, to be canonized. Thus the kingdom of the East-Angles expired with its King, in the year of grace 870, &c. &c."

What Sir Henry Spelman would infer from this story, is, that Yarmouth was not in being at that time, and consequently that Reedham is more ancient than Yarmouth; Magnâ Yermuthâ antiquiorem esse. "For," says he, "if Yarmouth was inhabited when Lothbroch was driven hither, there is no doubt but he would, with his cry, have implored assistance, and, wearied with hunger and fatigue, had proceeded no further up the river." This, however, supposing the story to be true, (which, I must acknowledge, requires a pretty large portion of credulity to admit of,) does not yet amount to a proof; because it must strike any person, that a man half dead with the fatigue of such a voyage, and almost famished for long want of sustenance, on entering a broad river, with a rapid tide, could make but very feeble efforts to go to this or that place, and perhaps so far spent as to be scarce heard at a small distance, should be endeavour to call for assistance, so that it is as probable that Lothbroch should have been driven by the tide, up the river, as far as Reedham, as that he should have made for either Yarmouth or Castor, or it is possible that he might have been driven up the river in the night, and so have escaped observation. I must needs think, therefore, that Sir Henry's tale is more entertaining than his inference is conclusive. But to return to Cerdick shore:

It is said, that after the Romans had evacuated Britain, and the Saxon adventurers had carried the news of their good success here, into Germany, this place was found to be very commodious for landing of troops, and as new adventurers were daily pouring into the kingdom, Cerdick made the first descent in these parts, and, as above related, gave the name to it, which it bears at this time, and which according to Brompton, is our Yarmouth. For when the Saxons had got solid footing in England, and had firmly established their own government, as things began to wear a more peaceable aspect, and trade and commerce began to rear their heads, such a situation as this, so well adapted to foreign and domestic commerce, navigation and trade, could not long escape the penetrating eye of the Saxons; who (as Camden has above observed) built a new town, in lieu of the old Garianonum, on the west side of the river, till the unwholesomeness of so moist a situation, and other inconveniences, induced some of the inhabitants to remove to the opposite bank, (Cerdick shore) already encreased in bulk and firmness, and there laid the foundation of Great Yarmouth.

Hence is evident the futility of some accounts of the origin of this town, which would have it, that in the time of Canute it was a sand in the sea; that it only began to be seen at low water in Edward the Confessor's time, and to be dry land from 1040 to 1090, when it was no longer overflown; that then fishermen began to resort hither, and build tents, in which they resided, at least, during the time of their fishing for herring, &c.

But, however the circumstances of these accounts may be founded in truth, the anachronism is a glaring error, as is plain, from the state of the town, at the grand survey of the Conqueror, as it is preserved in that authentic record of this kingdom, Domesday Book, where we find this account of it.

Hundred of East Flegg.

King Edward held Yarmouth. There were always seventy burgesses. It was then valued, with two parts of the soc of the three hundreds, at 18l. by tale, and the Earl's part was 9l. by tale. The King's two parts are now 17l. 15s 4d. blancs, and the Earl's part is 10l. blancs; and the sheriff has four pounds and one hawk, in the time of King Edward, for a fine. These four pounds the burgesses give gratis and in friendship.

In the same, Almarus the Bishop had, in King Edward's time, a certain church of St. Bennet; William Bishop or the diocese has the same now, and is valued at 20s. The whole pays 12d. gelt. (fn. 4)

"What these burgesses were (that are mentioned in the above extract) the survey itself," says Dr. Brady, "makes no mention; but in a controversy that happened between the burgesses of Yar mouth, and the tenants of the manor of Lothingland, in Gorlestone, and Little Yarmouth, in the 12th year of Henry III. about lading and unlading of goods, &c. it appears that they were merchants and traders at sea. That the kings of England had kept this burgh in their own hands, and received, by their officer, the profits of the port, until the 9th year of the reign of King John." Hence it is observable, that long before that King's incorporation charter, Yarmouth was called a burgh, and the merchants and traders burgesses. And it is remarkable that Domesday Book makes no mention of villains, borderers, servi, &c. whence it might be inferred that the burgesses of Yarmouth were always free, though not in so extensive a manner as after the grant of King John's charter, which gave them liberty to buy and sell without molestation, exempted them from toll, released them of that uncertain custom of rent, &c. and granted them several other immunities, which they had not before.


  • 1. The Bure abounds with excellent perch, as does the Yare with a fish peculiar to itself, called a Ruff, of which latter it may not be unentertaining to give Mr Camden's description: "The colour of the back, says he, is of a dark brown, the belly a palish yellow. Along the jaws it is marked with a double semicircular line; the upper half of the eye is a dark brown, the under yellowish, like gold, and the ball black. It is particularly remarkable for a line drawn along the back, like a cross thread tied to the body; the tail and fins are all over spotted with black. When it is provoked its fins bristle up: when quiet they lie flat and close. It eats like a perch, and is particularly valued for its shortness and wholesomeness.
  • 2. The count of the Saxon shore.
  • 3. This tale is mentioned in page 121, but as it is not here inserted literally from Sir Henry Spilman, who intended it to elucidate the topography of these places, it is again introduced here, to answer the original purpose.
  • 4. Terra Regis. Est. H. de Flec. Gernemwa ten'. Rex. E. semper lxx burgenses. Tunc. val cu' duab; partib; soche de tribus hundretis xviii lib. ad. numerum, et pars Comitis xi lib. ad numerum. Modo due partes Regis xvii lib. et xv sol. et iiiid. blancas; et pars Comitis x lib. blancas; et Vicecomes h't iiii lib. et i accipit'e T.R.E. de gersuma. Has iiii lib. dant burgenses gratis et amicitia. In eadem. habuit T. R. E Almarus Epis. quanda' ecclesiam Benedicti. eandem modo h't W. Ep's de episcopatu et val. xx sol. Totum reddit xiid. de gelto.