The city of Norwich, chapter 1: Of the original and name of the city

Pages 1-4

An Essay Towards A Topographical History of the County of Norfolk: Volume 3, the History of the City and County of Norwich, Part I. Originally published by W Miller, London, 1806.

This free content was digitised by double rekeying. All rights reserved.


In this section



So many are the fables, and so various the accounts that we have, of the origin of this city, that it would be trouble to no purpose, to recount them all; to pass by therefore the stories of King Gurgunt's founding the Castle, and calling it after his own name; (fn. 1) or that of Julius Cæsar's building the walls thereof, and naming it BlancheFlower, from Blanche, his kinswoman, whom he is pretended to have married to King Lud's son; (fn. 2) or to follow the traditions of Polidore Virgil, and others, recited by Nevil, who pretend to find something of Norwicus, in the name of [Ordoviches], or Ordovices, a people of Britain, far enough distant from hence; I shall rather choose to give such an account of it as is most consonant to reason, and agreeable to truth, as far as is evident from such records as we have left us.

Claudius Cæsar the Emperor, in the 4th year of his reign, and the 46th year after Christ, entered this land, and subdued it to the Roman empire, and he was the first of that nation that got footing in these parts; (fn. 3) and that he did is plain, because the potent nation of the Iceni, at first sought alliance with the Romans, which being accepted, he soon returned, leaving Ostorius his proprator or lieutenant, who perceiving he began to be not much liked by his new allies, took occasion to disarm all he was suspicious of; but the inhabitants being at that time powerful, having not yet been diminished by wars, would not brook that proceeding, but immediately rose against him, and were overthrown by the Romans, who took this opportunity to fortify themselves against any future attempts, by fixing garrisons and habitations, best suitable to their securities. (fn. 4) From this time then, I date the ori ginal of Castor by Yarmouth, and Burgh-Castle in Suffolk, (fn. 5) they being placed on either side of the entrance of the Yare, to guard the river from any naval enemy, and to be, in case of necessity, places of retreat for themselves, where they might receive succours either from sea or land, for at this time, and many ages after, the Garienis Ostium, or mouth of the Yare, extended in breadth from the island of Lothingland (in which Burgh-Castle is placed) to Castor in Flegg, where the opposite camp was made, the name of which it still retains, Castor or Castre in our language being the same as Castrum, a camp, in the Roman tongue, the very place on which Yarmouth now stands being then sea, the arm of which (and that a very large one too) extended all over the marshes, from thence to the place where Norwich now is, and much higher that way, as also to Castor by Norwich, and up those flats as far at least as Taseboro, if not further, where the Romans afterwards raised a fortification to guard that stream: and indeed, Norwich, (as I take it,) long after this, had its original much in the same manner as Yarmouth had, by fishermen and merchants fixing here for traffick sake; for it is plain that it was a fishing town, even in King Canute's time, for then Alfric the Bishop gave to the abbey of Bury, his hagh by Norwich, (on which St. Laurence's church was after built,) which paid to that abbey a last of herrings every year; (fn. 6) so that the account of the Danes coming with their ships to the castle here, which some look upon as a fable, was certainly fact, the sea (if I may so call it, or rather a very extensive arm of it) coming hither till the Conqueror's time, (fn. 7) when the sand at the mouth of the river on which Yarmouth now stands, grew fleeter, and the water did not cover it, as heretofore it had done, (fn. 8) "And then there became two channells for shippes and fishermen to passe and enter into that arm of the sea, for utterance of their fishe and marchandises, whiche were conveyed to divers partes and places, as well in the countye of Norfolke, as in the countye of Suffolk, by reason that all the whole levell of the marshes and fennes whiche now are betwixte the towne of Yermouthe and the citie of Norwiche, were then all an arm of the sea, enteringe within the land by the mouth of Heirus" (or Yare.) But when this grew firm ground, and Yarmouth was built, the course of the sea was then hindered, and the marshes, rivers, &c. settled in the manner they now are, soon after the Conquest. This being the case at that time, the Romans, we see, followed the course of the water, as is plain by their camp at Castor by Norwich, where they certainly had a station fixed; and if that place was not the Venta Incenorum, as most imagine it to have been, it was certainly the most considerable fortification and station in these parts, and was doubtless made to guard that river, which winds southward into the country, as well as to be a commodious situation for pleasure and profit, in the inward part of the land, which they by degrees penetrated into, and fixed camps or places of defence, to keep what they got as they went forward; thus advancing into the country more south, Taseboro was fixed on as a proper place to guard that stream, called anciently Tese, and the station ad Taum, advancing further into land by the northern stream, past that place where now Norwich stands, they went as far as the river held large and good, to Elmham, which, I rather think, was their Venta Icenorum, and that for these reasons, because it every way answers the Itinerary as well as Castor, as to distance, the road besides is much more direct, and this place is very near the middle of the county; add to this, that the Roman coins and prodigious number of urns that are daily dug up here, must convince us that it was a place of principal note under the Romans, if not a city with a general burial place. I own here do not seem to have been any considerable fortifications, but that makes me rather inclined to this opinion, the city being so numerous, and every way defended by stations, camps, &c. from the sea thither, that they did not think it necessary; but what confirms me most in this, is the name of the river, on which this and Norwich stands, which is always called Wentsum or Wensum, (fn. 9) and lately Wensar; now this is plainly no more than the way or passage to Venta, the city's name; and here I cannot but observe the errour of Mr. Cambden (fn. 10) and others, concerning the situation and names of these rivers, which may in some measure occasion this mistake; he places Taseboro and Castor upon the Wensum, when they are plainly upon the Tese, as the name of Teseboro, or ad Taum, according to Mark Velser's Chorographical Table plainly proves, and makes Norwich, Attelbridge, &c. to stand on the Yare, which all evidences whatsoever agree stand upon the Wensum, which takes its name from Venta, (fn. 11) and if so, Elmham alone is the place that can challenge that appellation. Thus far I am certain, that the river which divides at Trowse from that place, was never called Wensum, for in the Norwich evidences mention is often made of the water from Trow's Bridge, leading to the river Wensom, a plain argument that that was no part of that river; at first it might be, that the two rivers Wensum and Tese being joined, might take the denomination of Garienis, Yarienis, or Yare; but I do not much think it, the river keeping the name of Wensum, till it meets the Waveney, and they being joined, become the Yare; for all lands on the course of this river are bounded by the Wensum, (fn. 12) the city being never, but by our late writers, placed on the Yare, but on the Wensum, and indeed not upon the confluence or joining of the Wensum, and Yare, as Cambden, Spelman, (fn. 13) and others would have it; though the latter of these was sensible that the Yare never came up to the present site of the city.

The alteration and present situation of the rivers being thus fixed, the next enquiry will be, at what time we may expect this city to take its beginning, which I date from the time of the Romans universally leaving this island, and that was as the Saxon Chronicle says, in 418, (fn. 14) at which time the camp or station at Castor being deserted in a good measure, the remaining Romans and natives joined together, and became one people; and the situation of Norwich being much better than than at Castor, many of them retired thither both for the better convenience of fishing, as well as that of carrying their goods, and going themselves, higher up into the heart of the country, even to Venta, which though it was then also deserted, yet remained a place of some note, till the water retiring, cut off all commerce with it, by that element, and then it wasted almost at once, and the new-founded city of Norwich not only got all its trade, but suddenly sprang up to great maturity, out of the ruins of the ancient Venta and Castor.

After the desertion aforesaid, the Saxons made themselves masters of the land, and to them we owe the chief rise of this city, as well as its present name, Norðwc or North-wic, signifying no more, than a northern situation on a winding river; and because they usually placed castles at such situations, the word wic indeed was used for a castle, so that Norwich may signify, the northern castle at the winding of the river, it being north of the ancient station at Castor.

And thus having shown you the rise of the city, and the original of its name, let us see, in the next place, how it fared under its Saxon founders.


  • 1. Norwich is by some called Caer or Kair-Gunt, as it is pretended from this King; but I imagine this a corruption only of Caer-Vent, or the City Venta.
  • 2. Browne's Hydriotaphia, p. 7.
  • 3. History of Norff. vol. i. fo. 479.
  • 4. Browne, ibid. p. 6.
  • 5. This was called by the Romans, Gariononum, in which the Stablesian horse laid in garrison, and took its name from its being placed by the Garienis or Yare. Salmon's Roman Stations, p. 5.
  • 6. Norwiz. ancientement fust un lieu de grand fishing. vide Cart. Alfr. Est-Anglorum Epi. Sco. Edo. viz. Mansuram suam in Norwico, que annuatim reddit unum lastum de halecibus. sc. herrings. Coll. Watts. Mon. Ang. vol. i. fo. 294. Regr. Alb. fo. 26.
  • 7. MSS. folio penes me, cui tit. A Booke of the Foundacion & Antiquitye of Greate Yermouthe, fo. 7.
  • 8. As the north-west wind plays the tirant on the coast of Holland, over against this place, and hath stopped up the middle mouth of the Rhine, by heaping in sand, just so hath the north-east plagued this, and by sweeping up heaps of sand, seems to have stopped this mouth, as Cambden rightly observes. Edit. Gibs. fo. 390.
  • 9. Cart. Civitatis. Placita Corone coram H. de Bathonia, &c. 34 H. 3. Aqua de Wensum extra pontem Episcopi, &c. Nevil, p. 94 of his Norwicus, places it upon the river Baraden, but gives us no authority, which river is also mentioned in Cambden, who took it from Nevil.
  • 10. Fo. 386.
  • 11. There are plain vestigia of the name Venta, in the river Wensum, as Burton in his Comment on the Itinerary rightly observes, at fo. 228.
  • 12. Walterus filius Wimeri de Suthwode, concessit Johanni de la Lee de Tunstale, unam peciam juncarie in marisco de Limpenhowe—et abuttat super Wensum versus austrum. Cart. 14 E. 1.
  • 13. In Wenti et Hieri commissura, et Wento magis quam Hiero, Norwich assidet, says Spelman in his Icenia.
  • 14. Cron. Sax. p. 10. Hist. Norff. vol. i. fo. 381.