The city of Norwich, chapter 8: Of the city in the time of King Stephen

Pages 24-29

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.

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Chapter VIII.


In the year 1135, at the death of King Henry,

Stephen de Blais, or Blois, was crowned King of England, (fn. 1) who immediately confirmed

Hugh Bigot in the custody of this castle, (fn. 2) the said Hugh being in great favour, (for he was one of the principal persons that advanced Stephen to the crown,) by coming directly from Normandy, where Henry I. died, and averring that he on his deathbed, upon some dislike to his daughter Maud, the Empress, did disinherit her, and appoint Stephen Earl of Boloign to be his heir.

The citizens therefore taking this opportunity, made what interest they could with the King, to have a new charter, and to be governed by coroners and bailiffs, instead of their provost or port-reeve, but the affair took a contrary turn to what they expected, for before the close of this year, the King fell into a lethargy, which occasioned a report that he was dead, upon which Hugh came to his castle here, and refused to render it up to any but the King only: the bottom of it was, he found that William de Blois, natural son to King Stephen, (fn. 3) was about supplanting him, and getting the castle for himself, so that instead of being able to carry the point for the citizens, who had an absolute refusal, he could not long hold out his own, (fn. 4) for under pretence of Hugh's holding it in this manner, he seized the castle, and all that belonged to it, and all the liberties of the city from the citizens, and took them into his own hands; and soon after he granted to his natural son,

William, for an appennage or increase of inheritance, the town and borough of the city of Norwich, (fn. 5) in which there were 1238 burgesses, that held of the King in burgage tenure, and also the castle and burgh thereof, in which there were 123 burgesses, that held of the King in burgage, the whole rents of the city of Norwich were then 700l. per annum, (the rent of fee-farm of the citizens being included,) and also all the royal revenue of the whole county of Norfolk, unless what was granted to, and then belonged to, the bishoprick, religious houses, and other earls, and especially excepting the tertium denarium, or third penny, of the profits, by reason whereof Hugh Bigot was Earl.

Whence it appears, that to satisfy Hugh, the King made him Earl of the East-Angles or Norfolk, and granted the third part of the profits of the county to him in inheritance, and the two parts which always belonged to the Crown, to his son William and his heirs; this was done in 1140, (fn. 6) the 6th of King Stephen.

During this time, namely in the 4th of King Stephen, Ao 1138, the citizens sued earnestly to the King for a regrant of their liberties, and neither William nor Hugh, both whose interest it then was to favour them, gainsaying it, they had their ancient liberties granted them, but were to be governed by a prevost or port-reve, as heretofore.

In 1139, the citizens paid into the hands of the sheriff 25l. as a composition aid to the King, for their pardon and restoration of their liberties. (fn. 7)

In 1140, Baker in his Chronicle (fn. 8) says, that "the King gave license to the city of Norwich to have coroners and bailiffs, before which time, they had only a serjeant for the King, to keep courts." But I know no authority for it, for the tenour of every thing that I have seen is against it; not so much as finding mention of any such office as a serjeant, but that the provosts always from their first establishment had the sole management of the affairs of the city; but they enjoyed their liberties a very little while, for Hugh Bigot, this very year, being much displeased with the loss of the castle, and not thinking his being made an earl was a sufficient recompense, declared for Maud the Empress; (fn. 9) and upon his being summoned by the King to yield up his castle at Bungay, which he then kept in favour of her, and absolutely refusing, the King came with his army and took it: (fn. 10) and upon this revolt the liberties of Norwich were seized again; but it is plain they were accorded soon after the taking of this castle, for Hugh Bigod, in 1141, was in the battle on the King's side, against the Empress, (fn. 11) in which the King was taken; and after that it seems he was one of those that deserted him; however, we find in 1145, he was reconciled again, being then witness to the King's laws, (fn. 12) and continued some time in favour, for in the 17th year of King Stephen, 1152, by his interest with the King, the citizens were restored to all their liberties, and had a new charter granted them, but I imagine had no enlargement of privileges, for they were now governed by a Provost as heretofore: and now the city flourished again so much, that Cambden says (fol. 387,) that Norwich was built anew, was a populous "town, and made a corporation." And in the following year, Hugh was so strenuous for Stephen, that he held the castle of Ipswich for him, (fn. 13) against Henry Duke of Normandy, son to Maud the Empress, and afterwards King of England; but Stephen not sending him relief in time, he was forced to yield it up, and then he became one of Henry's party; but yet I do not find the city was affected by it, but that their provost paying the yearly fee-farm to the King, they peaceably enjoyed all their liberties to his death.

In this King's reign, the Jews, who dwelt here, upon Easter-Even (fn. 14) crucified a child named William, in this city: Weever, fo. 377, says, that "the Jews inhabiting within the prime cities of the kingdom, did use sometimes to steale away, circumcise, crown with thornes, whip, torture, and crucifie, some one of their neighbours male children, in mockery, dispite, scorn, and derision, of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, crucified by the Jews in Jerusalem." Most historians say, it was done in 1144, but the Saxon Chronicle, p. 240, places it in 1137, and gives us this account of it, "at this time the Jewes at Norwich, before Easter, bought (fn. 15) a Christian child, and tormented him in the same manner our Lord was, and to shew what sort of love and respect they had for our Lord, on GoodFriday they hung him on the cross, and afterwards buried him, and hoped to conceal it, but our Lord declared that holy martyr, and the monks took him and buried him honourably in the precinct of their monastry, and by our Lord's grace, he works many great miracles, and is called St. William." He was about 12 years old, as I find in several kalendars, where the day of his passion is noted to be kept holy, which was the 24th of March. The mistake of historians as to the year seems to be this, he was martyred in 1137, according to the Saxon Chronicle, the author of which was alive at that time; in 1144 being found, he was removed into the cathedral churchyard, and, as Cotton the monk of Norwich says, in 1150 was translated from the churchyard into the choir, or chapterhouse. (fn. 16)

In the New-Legend, printed at London 1516, fo. 309, we have the Life of St. William the Boy and Martyr, the substance of which (omitting the miraculous part of it) in English is, that he was son of Wenstan, and Elwina, daughter of Wlward the priest, who lived in the adjacent country, and was bound to a tanner at Norwich, and soon after, about Easter, the Jews that dwelt near him enticed him to their houses, and seizing him, gagged him, bound, mocked, and crucified him with great torment, wounding him on his left side; and on Easter-Day they put the body into a sack, and carried it to Thorp Wood to bury it, but as they entered the wood, Eilward, a burgess of Norwich, saw them, and went silently after them, out of curiosity to know what they had got, and coming near, he perceived it was a human body; but they discovering him and fearing they should be taken, fled into the thickest part of the wood, and there hung up the body on a tree; and returning home, took counsel with the rest of the Jews, and went to the sheriff, and promised him an hundred marks if he would free them from this danger; the sheriff immediately sent for Eilward, and forced him to swear, that as long as he or the sheriff lived, he would never accuse the Jews, or discover the fact, but above five years after, when he laid on his death-bed, affrighted with the imagination of seeing the boy, he discovered the whole matter; and the body being found in the wood, (fn. 17) it was taken and buried in the churchyard of the monks, but many miracles being wrought by it there, it was in the year 1150 removed and enshrined in the church, and this boy-saint became so famous for the many miracles said to be wrought here, that Thomas, a monk of Monmouth, (fn. 18) who was by his abbot assigned to write history, pitched upon this fact, it being done in his own time, and accordingly he wrote seven books "about William the Boy and Martyr," and one about "the Miracles done by him," and dedicated them to William Turb Bishop of Norwich.

How the Jews came off as to this fact I cannot say, but many forfeited their fortunes, both money and houses, many of which, and some of the principal ones in this city, belonged to them, though I do not find they had any lands, and but very few were executed, they understanding how to buy peace of the King, by giving large sums of money for that purpose. John Bale, in his "Actes of English Votaryes," (fn. 19) speaking of the injustice of the law which hindered the marriage of priests at that time, and to show that it was an innovation, priests being anciently allowed to marry, hath this that follows in proof of it, "Saint William of Norwyche a martyr, whych was ther shryned in Christes Church Abbeye in the yeare of our lorde, a M. a. C. and xliiii. (1144,) was crucifyed of the Jewes, dwellyng than in a place called Abrahams-Hawle, (Abraham's-Hall,) Elwina thys S. Wyllyam's mother, had a prest to her father, whose name was called Wulwarde, whyche was a man famouse, the storye sayth, both in good lyfe and learnynge, plentuously havinge the gyft of expowning secrete misteryes, her other syster Livina, beynge also this prestes daughter, was joyned in lawful marryage to an other preste, called Godwin; this prest had a son called Alexandre, whych was a married deacon, and loked after the decease of his father to enjoy his benefyce, by inherytaunce: either must thys Legende of S. William, written of Thomas Monmouth, a monk of the same abbeye, (fn. 20) be a wycked thyage, for allowynge these two prestes marryages, eyther els that cytie of Norwyche hath had most wycked and tyrannouse rulers in thys our tyme, &c." (fn. 21)

About the year 1150, (fn. 22) the King sent William Martel, his sewer or steward, to Norwich, as his deputy and judge, who summoned the chief of the two counties of Norfolk and Suffolk, to come to him there, to discuss certain affairs, for the benefit of the kingdom; who came accordingly, and at the appointed day met in council in the Bishop's garden, the said William sitting as judge, William Turb Bishop of Norwich, Nigel Bishop of Ely, Ording Abbot of St. Edmund, Daniel Abbot of Holm, with most of the barons of the two counties, viz. Walter Fitz-Robert the King's Sewer, Rob. de Vere the King's Constable, Reginald de Warren, Fulk De'olly, Hugh son of Eudo, Will. de Chetney son of Robert, Henry de Rhye, and others, being present. Upon which, Jordan de Blossevile, and Rich. de Waldar, two gentlemen of the court, introduced a certain youth called Herbert, and placed him in the midst of the assembly, telling them, that the youth there present had intimated to the King, that last year he was servant to Sir Robert Fitz-Gilbert, who, (as he says,) when the King went against his enemies that held Bedford castle against him, at the time he talked with his barons in a meadow near that city, was in the army there, and did then join with Sir Adam de Hornyngesherth, who was also in the said army, and held correspondence with Ralph de Alsted and Roger his brother, who were the King's enemies, and with them conspired to deliver up the King to his enemies, or murder him, and that the said Ralph and Roger came privately out of the city into the King's army, and changed horses, shields, and saddles, with the said Robert and Adam, in order, under colour thereof, to come at any time into the King's army, to put in execution whatever should be agreed upon, and that this youth was there ready to prove it, for which reason the King had sent him down to hear the matter, that the two knights might be lawfully heard and judged by their country. As soon as the Abbot of St. Edmund heard this, he stood up, and made a speech; in which he told them, that these were two of his knights, that were men of the blessed martyr St. Edmund, and therefore could not be brought or made to answer in this place or city, the liberty of St. Edmund being such, that no man belonging to it could be forced to answer to any one, in any place, but in the court of St. Edmund at Bury, and for the truth of it, he appealed to all the bishops, abbots, barons, knights, and gentlemen, there present, for which reason he demanded respite of judgment, till he could talk with the King; which was granted, and the Abbot with his barons, monks, and friends, went directly to the King, and showed his Majesty their charters and privileges, upon which the King said, that all justice originally belonged to the county and court there, and therefore he sent them back again to the county and council they came from, and whatever they did, as to allowing the liberties or not, he would stand by it: returning therefore to Norwich, they produced their charters and liberties to the shire-mote of the county, or county-court, upon which, Sir Hervy de Glanvil rose and made a speech in the assembly, telling them he was a very old man, having constantly attended the county and hundred court, for above 50 years, with his father, before and after he was knighted, as they all knew, and he assured them, that in the time of King Henry (sc. I.) when justice and equity, peace and fidelity, flourished in England, though now, alas! war silenced justice and the law, he remembered that a question of the like nature, concerning the liberties of St. Edmund, and the eight hundreds and an half, arose then in the shiremote or county-court, and the Abbot had it then allowed, that all pleas, suits, and actions of what nature soever, concerning any person in the liberties of St. Edmund, except the pleas of murder, or treasure found, belonged to the court of St. Edmund, and were to be tried either by the Abbot, his steward, or other officer: upon which the bishops and barons present, with the consent of Roger Gulafer and Will. Frechnei, then sheriffs, and of Hervei son of Hervei, and Robert de Glanvil, and many others, of the honours of Warren, of Earl Hugh Bygod, and of Eye, presented the liberties to be good, and delivered their testimonies of it to William Martel, the King's justice, who notified it to the King, who immediately confirmed it, and ordered the Abbot's to appoint a day, that he might have justice done him in the Abbot's court, which the Abbot did: immediately after this, Walter Fitz-Robert, the King's sewer, came into the court, and demanded justice against William de Howe, who had entered his liberty of warren in his manor of Hemenhale, as he proved by producing the nets taken upon the men of the said William, in the manor; which cause the Abbot also claimed to belong to his court, for the same reason as before, and it was allowed him; and a very little while after, the King came to Bury, and there, by the mediation of the barons of the church, and the King's barons, the said knights and William de Howe were pardoned by the King, and so the matter ended: which is worth observation, as it shows us how speedily and well justice was administered even in those troublesome times, as well as the authority of the shire-motes, county and hundred courts, which were the fountains of all justice, and so much valued, that the King himself referred justice to them, the principal of the county, both spiritual and temporal, sitting there to do justice, the sheriff as judge, representing the King, pronounced the sentence the court gave.


  • 1. Cron. Sax. 237.
  • 2. Dug. Bar. vol. i. 132.
  • 3. Cambd. fo. 387.
  • 4. Holinshed, fo. 47, shows us, why Hugh Bigot was not so much in favour as formerly, because whatever he pretended, the King thought he was turned to favour the Empress Maud against him; occasioned by his keeping the castle on the rumour of his death.
  • 5. Dug. Bar. vol. i. p. 75. Essay, &c. p. 22.
  • 6. Mat. Paris, anno 1140.
  • 7. Mag. Rot. 5 Steph. Rot. 10. Com. Norff.
  • 8. Edit. Lond. 1653. f. 72. Stow, 147, &c.
  • 9. Chronicle of St. Alban's, wrote about 1475, and printed at London by Wynkyn de Worde, Ao 1502. "and tho' came the Barons that held with Empresse, that is to saye, the Erle Radulphe of Chestre, Hugh Bigot, &c."
  • 10. The King at first licensed all noblemen that would, to build them castles of defence, but now many of them he feared, would side with the Empress against him, and therefore he made them raze them; anno 1140, ad Pentecosten ivit Rex cum exercitu suo super Hugonem Bigodch in Sudfolc et cepit Castellum de Bungey. Annal Waverl.
  • 11. Speed, 459. Hol. &c. Ralph Earl of Chester in his speech to his soldiers before the battle joined, says, "Next comes Hugh By-god, his name merely sounding his perjurie, who thought it not sufficient to breake his oath with the Empresse but that he must be once again forsworne (as all the world doth know) that Henry at his death bequeathed the crown unto Stephen to the prejudice of his own daughter, a man in a word, who accounts treacherie a vertue, and perjurie a courtly qualitie."
  • 12. Dug. Bar. vol. i. 132.
  • 13. Hol. vol. ii. f. 60. Dug. Bar. ibid.
  • 14. Fabian 305. Hol. vol. ii. fo. 60.
  • 15. That is, enticed him with rewards to go with them.
  • 16. The words are, "in capitulum."
  • 17. There was a chapel afterwards built in the place where his body was found, dedicated to his honour, and was called St. William in the Wood.
  • 18. Pitts. de Illustribus Angliæ Scriptoribus, p. 226.
  • 19. Part 2, p. 82, the title of the chapter is, "Prestes marryage at Norwich, praysed and scorned."
  • 20. This expression hath occasioned many to think that he was a monk of Norwich, but "the same abbeye" means the abbey of Monmouth, where he was monk, though it is said by some, that he after removed to Norwich.
  • 21. Under the year 1545, the affair here hinted at, is related at large.
  • 22. E Regro. Chartarnm Abb. Sti. Edi. fo. 60. In veteri etiam Regro. intratur.