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. The difference between Norfolk and Suffolk was acknowledged early: the whole area was under the diocese of Dunwich until 673, when a new diocese was establish at North Elmham, near East Dereham. 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, probably as a place where salt was made, but its development as a major port was in the late 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. After the Danish attacks had ceased the county was free from marauders. Unlike Northumberland or Herefordshire, it did not have to face Scottish or Welsh border raids, and during the Civil War, though there was skirmishing and King's Lynn suffered a month's siege in 1643, there was no fighting on the scale that Gloucestershire, Somerset, or Worcestershire saw. 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 in the 17th and 18th cents. 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. Norfolk's nearness to London gave it great opportunities as the capital grew to unprecedented proportions and East Anglia became London's larder.
Defoe's visit in 1723 came when Norfolk's prosperity was still at its height. He was amazed at the ‘prodigious number’ of turkeys and geese driven up to London in vast droves of 1,000 or 2,000 birds. At Norwich, the clothiers ‘employ all the country round in spinning yarn for them’: nobody was unemployed who wished to work. At Yarmouth, so many vessels were crammed in by the quayside that ‘one may walk from ship to ship as on a floating bridge’.
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, though connected by rail to London in the 1840s via Cambridge or Colchester. The growth of seaside holidays brought modest prosperity to Hunstanton, Cromer, and Sheringham and the Broads developed from the 1870s as a playground. Pevsner wrote in 1962 that parts of Norfolk remained curiously secluded, ‘with many stretches and patches so remote that one cannot believe one is only one hundred miles from London’. 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. Population growth is well above the national average and Norfolk once more faces the problems of areas of outstanding beauty and tranquillity in a teeming nation.
J. A. Cannon
Norfolk (county, England)
Norfolk (nôr´fək), county (1991 pop. 736,700), 2,054 sq mi (5,320 sq km), E England. The county seat is Norwich. Administratively, Norfolk is divided into the districts of Great Yarmouth, North Norfolk, Broadland, Norwich, South Norfolk, Breckland, and King's Lynn and West Norfolk. The region is one of flat, fertile farmlands, with a long, low coast bordering on the North Sea and the Wash. The principal rivers are the Ouse, the Bure, the Yare and its tributary the Wensum, and the Waveney. A series of connected shallow lakes, known as the Broads, occupies the eastern portion of the county.
Norfolk produces cereal and root crops and supports extensive breeding of cattle and poultry. Fishing, the manufacture of agricultural machinery, and light industries are also important. Numerous vestiges of habitation dating from prehistoric times remain. After the Anglo-Saxon invasion of England, Norfolk became a part of the kingdom of East Anglia, the home of the "north folk" of that region (thus its name). In 1974, Norfolk was reorganized as a nonmetropolitan county, and a small area of NE East Suffolk was added to it.