We only have to look at the amount of Iron Age gold in the Castle Museum in Norwich and the wealth of huge and beautiful medieval churches across the county for evidence that the county was the most wealthy and populous part of Britain for much of the time before industrialisation attracted population away from the arable east to the coal mines of the north.
Much of the prosperity of Norfolk beginning in the 13th century was generated by the woollen industry. Worsted cloth, which takes its name from the village of Worstead in north-east Norfolk is known throughout the world for its fine quality. The reign of Edward Ist (1272-1307) saw royal encouragement for worsted production and European trade. Rights were granted to ‘alien’ merchants who paid taxes for the privilege. After the Black Death of 1348-9 when the population declined by at least a third, previously cultivated land became sheep walk and when the woollen industry reached its peak, as ‘almost like silk’, it found a ready national and export market. It made use of the medium and long staple wool produced in the county.
A second period of prosperity came in the second half of the 16th century when the arrival of religious refugees from Flanders brought new techniques for weaving, producing a cloth known as ‘Norwich stuffs’. A map showing the distribution of weavers recorded in probate records from 1370 to 1857 shows a concentration in the north east around North Walsham and Worstead. In this populous area of fertile soils there was the workforce available for this labour-intensive work and it was only in the sparsely populated west of the county where very few weavers were found). Gradually the centre of manufacture moved away from villages into Norwich.
This medieval wealth is displayed in the flamboyant exterior of the huge churches built by wealthy farmers and wool merchants, and that at Worstead is ‘one of Norfolk’s grandest’ (Pevsner and Wilson 1997, 73). The earlier church was demolished, and rebuilding began in the 1370s starting at the east end taking twenty years to complete. The tower, aisles and even the buttresses are wonderfully decorated with friezes of arcading, quatrefoils, trefoils, fleurons, chequer boards and roundalls infilled with knapped flints, known as ‘flushwork’. The splendid two-storied south porch is a particularly fine example of the technique. The tower, 36m high, is richly decorated with intricate sound holes and at its base is a fine west doorway. Flushwork encircles the battlements, and grotesque gargoyles form waterspouts around the roof of the whole church.
Internally the first impression is of light and space in which, as the church guide says, ‘men appear as grasshoppers’. The nave was heightened when the clerestory windows and the fine hammerbeam roof were inserted in about 1480. The rood screens across both the chancel and side- chapels are early-16th century and survive to full height with coving and delicate tracery within ogee arches. The work is of high quality but there is some 19th-century repainting. Restoration in the 1970s revealed the bright colours and gilding of the original decoration. The screen under the tower arch was built in 1831. Much of the nave is filled with box pews finished at the west end with fluted corner columns. The spectacularly tall wooden ladder dated 1846 is presumably no longer in use!
The church itself stands on one side of Church Plain around which there is more evidence of the wealth the woollen industry brought to this small village. Houses date from the 16th century and later. Some have rooms with very high ceilings (up to three metres) possibly to house looms. A few also have cellars, one at least of which is medieval with a brick-arched opening into the roadway, in which cloth could be baled and stored.
Nearby is Salle church whose 38m high tower is a landmark for many miles around. It is an impressive and complete example of a 15th-century church which has retained many of its original furnishings. It is the sheer scale of the church with its soaring arcades on such slender clustered pillars, the wide chancel and the transepts, all unencumbered by later monuments, which give a feeling of light and space. All this reflects the great wealth of the county derived from the wool trade. It stands almost alone in its landscape with little trace of a village nearby. Surely churches built on this scale were more to demonstrate the wealth and social standing of the donors than to serve the needs of the local community.
It is not only these churches, wonderful as they are, that provide landscape evidence for the past. Our new book, Norfolks’s History in 100 places, provides an introduction to 100 sites, all of which are open to the public, or visible from public roads and footpaths, where evidence of the county’s varied history dating from the prehistory to the present day can be seen.
By Susanna and Peter Wade-Martins