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A Dictionary of British History

John Cannon


was the fourth largest of the traditional counties. From Yarmouth in the east to Sutton Bridge in the west is over 70 miles. From Yarmouth round to the Wash is coast, lashed by what Camden called that ‘great, roaring ocean’.

The county takes its name from the North‐folk of the Saxon settlement. In Roman times it was in Iceni territory. It then became part of the Saxon kingdom of East Anglia, which retained some independence until the 9th cent., when it fell under Danish control. Despite severe depredations—Thetford and Norwich were sacked by the Danes in 1004—the region grew in population and prosperity. Thetford, Yarmouth, and Norwich were flourishing towns by the time of the Domesday survey in 1086. Thetford gained a temporary advantage in 1072 when the bishopric was moved there from North Elmham, but in 1094 it was transferred again, this time to Norwich, where it stayed. The great cathedral was started in 1096. Bishop's Lynn, which became King's Lynn at the time of the Reformation in 1536, may have existed before the Norman Conquest, but its development as a major port was in the 11th and 12th cents.

Norfolk's prosperity owed much to its geographical position. The long coastline, though hazardous, promised abundant fish. Yarmouth bloaters soon acquired a national reputation and the town remained in the top ten until the later 18th cent. Unlike Northumberland or Herefordshire, Norfolk did not have to face Scottish or Welsh border raids. Kett's rising in 1549, mainly a protest against enclosures, did little permanent damage, though Norwich was taken and retaken. In the south‐west of the county, schemes of improved drainage turned thousands of acres of fen into good agricultural land. Norwich became one of the great centres of the cloth industry and by Tudor times was the second town in the kingdom.

By 1800, the county's relative prosperity was over. As colonies were established, the ports of the west coast—Bristol, Liverpool, and Glasgow—had the advantage, and, in population, Norwich was surpassed by the new industrial towns of Manchester, Sheffield, and Leeds. Competition from the Yorkshire woollen industry and then from Lancashire cotton was severe.

In the 19th cent., Norfolk became something of a backwater. The growth of seaside holidays brought modest prosperity to Hunstanton, Cromer, and Sheringham and the Broads developed from the 1870s as a playground. But in more recent decades the pace has quickened as industry diversified—Colman's mustard, Matthews's turkeys, the Norwich Union—and the flight from London gathered pace.