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Norwich Heart, Heritage Economic & Regeneration Trust

Norwich in the Civil War

Norwich during the English Civil War


Early Modern Norwich

Norwich in the 17th century was one of England's most important towns. Its vibrant marketplace, productive agricultural land, and thriving textile industry fed the busy seaports of Kings Lynn and Great Yarmouth whose trading vessels served the Low Countries. The region's textile industry was further bolstered by the new spinning techniques introduced by migrants from the Low Countries (mostly Dutch, Flemings and Walloons) which helped make Norwich one of the most prosperous towns in early modern England. The "strangers" (the local name given to migrants from the Low Countries), most of whom were Protestants fleeing religious persecution in their homeland (especially during the Dutch Revolt) also fostered a movement towards religious reform in the City as well as leaving their mark on the political and economic life of the town.

As well as constituting a largely economically autonomous area, Norwich and Norfolk at this time was also said to constitute, due to its closed off nature from the rest of the country (hardly surprising since rudimentary transport links meant that it was easier and quicker to travel by ship to the continent than it was to for example London) a different way of life and a typically "Norfolk" character. Norfolk man was said to be dour, stubborn, inward looking, argumentative and strongly puritan in his religious views (many Puritans who left for the New World on the Mayflower were from Norfolk and other parts of East Anglia). Such views about the essentially closed off nature of Norfolk exist to the present day with no motorways and the alleged dislike of "foreigners"[i] amongst its natives. It was a combination of these alleged characteristics that would have a direct impact on the role of Norwich and its surrounding area during the Civil War.

The causes of the English Civil War

Whilst the people of Norwich went quietly about their daily business, events in other parts of the country took a turn for the worst. Although Norwich was situated away from the main seat of power at Westminster there were a number of issues that meant that when war did break out, Norwich would come to the aid of Parliament not the King. These events in question hinged mostly on the notion of the "divine right of kings" and questions regarding what constituted an abuse of power on the part of the King and under what circumstances it was justified to stand up to a tyrannical or incompetent ruler. These questions were hotly debated as King Charles I enacted a series of arbitrary and unpopular laws mostly relating to the collection of taxes. Although Parliament was an advisory body that convened only when asked to by the King and subject to dissolution when he saw fit, Charles I nevertheless needed the support from the gentry who were responsible for the collection of taxes and who largely made up Parliament for the smooth collection of taxes. Although Charles' support for the French Huguenots was popular in Parliament his marriage to the Roman Catholic Henrietta-Marie de Bourbon was less so. Moreover these expensive forays into foreign affairs meant that Charles was almost constantly short of money which meant that he was liable to raise taxes.

In 1628 Parliament, drew up the Petition of Right which also referred to Magna Carta and declared that taxes could only be levied through Parliament. In response to this Charles avoided convening another Parliament for about ten years (known as the ten years of tyranny) in which the King's chronic lack of funds determined his behaviour. Unable to raise funds through Parliament Charles resorted to other means such as calling a levy on the inland counties to fund the Royal Navy and introducing a number of fines for petty offences. Norwich and Norfolk was one of many areas of the country that was adversely affected by this. In 1635 the county of Norfolk was required to find £8000 (of which Norwich was to contribute £1100) to the upkeep of the Royal Navy.  Similar sums were levied in 1637 and 1638 and 1640. This aroused much resentment amongst the local authorities as well as questions regarding their legality. To compound matters many people who protested these levies lost in court and were subject to further penalties.

Another controversial issue was Charles' belief in High Anglicanism which brought accusations from Puritans that Charles was reintroducing Catholicism by the back door. In Norwich there was a small but vocal community of Puritans who strongly disapproved of this new strand of Christianity. The protests were mostly aimed at the new Bishop of Norwich; Matthew Wren. Bishop Wren worked tirelessly to establish order and conformity in his diocese, but his views on religious practice which he outlined in his twenty-eight articles which included amongst other things the requirement that the communion table in every church should stand close under the east wall of the chancel caused offence. Although this sounds like quite a minor alteration, to the Puritans it meant a return to the pomp and rituals of the pre-reformation church especially when it became clear that members of the congregation were to kneel at the table to receive the sacrament instead of having it bought by the minister to their seats. Many questions regarding church practices were as controversial in Norwich as they were throughout the whole of England.

When rebellion broke out in Scotland and Charles needed money to fight it he turned to Parliament in order to raise funds. This Parliament however proved even more hostile than the previous one and the ten years of tyranny brought forth a long list of grievances that the King was compelled to listen to. Furthermore laws were drawn up that forbade the King from imposing taxes and dissolving Parliament without consent. Things came to a head in January 1642 when accompanied by 400 royal troops the King attempted to arrest five members of Parliament on charges of treason which failed after the speaker in the House of Commons refused to reveal the whereabouts of the five wanted men. By now it was clear to those in Parliament that the King had no intention of adhering to the new laws passed by Parliament.

Norwich's role in the English Civil War

Although no MPs from the county of Norfolk played a conspicuous role in the so called "long Parliament" there were as we have seen a number of issues that cemented Norwich's position as staunchly pro-Parliament. After his failure to capture the five MPs wanted on charges of treason, Charles and his family moved out of London amidst fears for their safety, eventually moving the centre of Royalist power to the Northern city of York whilst Westminster was the seat of power for Parliament. In the following months the towns and cities across England declared their sympathies for either Parliament or the King. Norwich, due to its vocal Puritan community, and the resentment caused by "ship money" threw in its lot with Parliament and in December 1662 Parliament decreed that the counties of Norfolk, Suffolk, Essex, Cambridgeshire, Hertfordshire, the Isle of Ely and "the county city of Norwich" would club together in the name of mutual aid, defence and preservation. This unified bloc became known as the Eastern Association which would prove to be a vital source of manpower and resources throughout the Civil War. On a local level support for the Association was maintained by the enthusiastic Puritan Preachers and efforts were made to raise funds as well as troops (initially on a voluntary basis) for the war effort despite the protests of the Royalist Bishop Matthew Wren. Norwich's contribution to the Parliamentarian war effort came in the shape of the eleventh troop of the Ironsides known as the "Maiden troop" whilst the craftsmen of the city were kept busy supplying horses, shoes, muskets, pikes and swords to their local regiment. Although initially, a subject of derision by the Royalists due to their name (a Royalist pamphlet forecasted dubious marriage prospects for "these busy girls"!), the maiden troop soon proved themselves on the field of battle and the troop retained a largely East Anglian complexion for many years to come.

Although Norwich played an important role in offering men and materials for the Parliamentarian war effort it would be wrong to assert that the whole of Norwich was pro-Parliament. For instance after the King was defeated and imprisoned and the first civil war had ended,  Norwich like many towns and cities still retained Royalist factions, and like other towns and cities experienced instances of rioting during the Second Civil War. Inter-factional tensions in Norwich culminated in the "Great Blow" of 1648 when, after attacking the houses of the leading Puritan Aldermen as well as that of the Sherriff Thomas Ashwell, Parliamentarian troopers were called in to quell the rioting which led to confused fighting along St Stephens Street. Whilst this was happening the barrels of gunpowder stored at the Royalist Committee House on Bethel Street exploded, killing several people, shattering the windows of nearby churches and showering debris throughout the city. Even though Norwich was a city well garrisoned and protected by Parliamentarian forces there was still a Royalist faction present in the city as well as pubs where the health of the King was drunk to and the name of the Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell subject to choruses of abuse.

The story of Norwich during the Civil War is one which was shaped both by the political, religious and economic makeup of the town as well as the events that took place throughout the country at the time.  

For further reading see:

  • Ketton-Cremer R W, Norfolk in the Civil War, a portrait of a society in conflict, Norwich, 1985
  • Hooper A, "The Civil Wars" in Norwich since 1550, London, 2004

William Adcock

September 2011