views updated

Norfolk was the fourth largest of the traditional counties. From Yarmouth in the east to Sutton bridge in the west is over 70 miles. The county is separated from Suffolk in the south by the rivers Waveney and Little Ouse, and from Cambridgeshire to the west by the river Nene. Much of the eastern half is drained by the river Wensum, which rises west of Fakenham and flows through Norwich to join the Yare, which is joined by the Bure just before it enters the sea at Yarmouth: the western rivers Wissey and Nar are tributaries of the Great Ouse, which flows into the Wash at Lynn. From Yarmouth round to the Wash is coast, lashed by what Camden called that ‘great, roaring ocean’: the coast was so dangerous that when Defoe visited Cromer in the 1720s he noticed no barn, shed, or pigsty which was not ‘built of old planks, beams, wales and timbers, the wrecks of ships and ruins of mariners' and merchants' fortunes’. The shire is mainly flat, a county of vast horizons and of nippy salt breezes blowing off the sea.

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


views updated

Norfolk County of e England; the county town is Norwich. The region was home to the Iceni tribe in the 3rd century bc. After the departure of the Romans it became part of the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of East Anglia. In the Middle Ages, Norfolk was a centre of the wool industry. The land is generally low-lying and is used mainly for agriculture. The region is drained by the rivers Waveney, Yare, Bure, and Ouse, and by the Broads. Today, Norfolk produces cereals and root vegetables; poultry farming and fishing are also important. Area: 5372sq km (2073sq mi). Pop. (1996 est.) 777,000.

About this article

Norfolk (England)

All Sources -
Updated About content Print Topic