Recent Excavations at Norwich Castle

Recent Excavations at Norwich Castle

Elizabeth Shepherd Popescu

Military Studies in Medieval Europe – Papers of the ‘Medieval Europe Brugge 1997’ Conference – volume 11


Norwich, the largest city in medieval England, dominated East Anglia from the eleventh century onwards. As a centre of both royal and ecclesiastical power it developed a sophisticated economy and social structure. In spite of fluctuating economic fortunes it flourished throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries as the country’s ‘second city’.

Scheduling was extended to the area surrounding Norwich castle in 1979, following recognition of the site as one of national importance. The castle precinct was known to overlie a substantial part of the pre-Conquest settlement of Norwich, one of the largest towns in England by 1066. The castle was an early Norman royal fortification which was first besieged as early as 1075. Although some truncation was evident in the form of landscaping for a Cattle Market (established in 1738) the site had largely remained open space since the laying out of the castle’s defences.

In response to the threat of redevelopment for a retail centre, a large scale excavation (c. 2.5 hectares/ 6 acres) was undertaken by the Norfolk Archaeological Unit between 1987 and 1991. This paper will focus on the evidence for the impact of the castle’s imposition on the Saxon town, the arrangement, alteration and subsequent abandonment of the fortifications, together with the development of the medieval city on the fringes of the castle precinct.


Summary of Evidence

The Late Saxon Settlement

Although a few stray finds of Middle Saxon date were recovered, it is likely that settlement of this part of Norwich began during the tenth century. Evidence for Late Saxon occupation was found across much of the site although the quality of survival varied significantly. Several types of pre-Conquest building were identified, including examples of post‑hole, post‑in trench and sunken featured construction. Associated with these were cess, storage pits and refuse pits, many of the latter relating to craft or industrial processes. Environmental evidence indicates that some of the buildings had been used for grain storage.

A Late Saxon cemetery was found beneath the later southern bailey rampart, from which eighty-five articulated and twenty-nine disarticulated skeletons were recovered. The cemetery appears to have remained in use until the construction of the Norman castle after which burial may have moved to the cemetery of St John de Berstrete to the south (described below). No church relating to this Saxon cemetery has been identified. Another pre-Conquest cemetery and associated church were recorded beneath the subsequent defences of the north-east castle bailey (Ayers 1985) and yet another may be suggested by the presence of scattered human remains in the northern part of the site. These disturbed burials, which were redeposited in later pits, indicate the presence of approximately forty-three individuals. Dating is at present uncertain and the results of radio-carbon analysis are awaited.

The Defences of the Norman & Medieval Castle

Earlier buildings were apparently demolished or abandoned as part of the clearance of the site for the construction of a timber castle and its defences. Domesday Book (1086) refers to ninety-eight properties being enclosed by the defensive circuit. The impact of the imposition of the castle on the preexisting town can be compared with similar occurrences at, for example, Lincoln and Chester. The first castle was established in 1067 or 1068, perhaps even before William I’s return to Normandy. The site selected was a natural ridge overlooking a river valley (now the River Wensum) to the east, with a small stream to the west (the Great Cockey). Norwich was to remain the only royal castle in Norfolk and Suffolk until the construction of Orford in 1165.

A large area of crown land (the Castle Fee or Liberty) was defined. Part of a ditch, perhaps both delimiting the Fee and the extent of the defences, was recorded to the south. Elsewhere, the Fee boundary may have been marked by posts bearing plaques showing the royal arms. Four such bronze roundels were recorded in 1964, each decorated with the Arms of England – 1198-1340 (Green, 1965). Crown jurisdiction was maintained over the Fee until 1345.

A masonry keep replaced its timber forerunner and was probably constructed between c.1094 and 1122. The earliest use as a royal residence is documented in the early twelfth century. Henry I lodged at the castle in 1103, 1108 and 1122, the latter visit for his Christmas Crownwearing.

Excavation of the southern bailey ditch and the construction of a stone bridge between the bailey and motte may have been contemporary with the erection of the masonry keep. The motte bridge remains substantially intact beneath refacing and its constructional details will be summarised in a forthcoming article (Shelley forthcoming). The bridge was first documented when it was repaired in 1172-3, invasion from France being threatened. Excavations adjacent to the bridge footings indicate that it was founded nearly five metres below the present day base of the motte ditch. A series of nine chamfered plinths were recorded, these and the exposed original bridge facing being dressed in Caen stone.

Twelve large fragments of a gatehouse originally positioned at the southern end of the bridge were recorded, having later collapsed into the barbican ditch (described below). The surviving masonry indicates an originally square or rectangular structure, with walls about two metre’s thick. Some blocks retained hinges, two of which still had their pins. The collapse of this gatehouse has been attributed to the activities of individuals quarrying for sand during the post-medieval period.

Lying within a small courtyard at the foot of the motte bridge was a substantial well which may date to the twelfth century. A masonry shaft formed the upper part of the well, surviving to a depth of nearly ten metres. Two timber frameworks were represented by putt log holes, one forming an access ladder and the other presumably acting as constructional scaffolding. The shaft held back deposits of natural sand and gravel, although from the point at which natural chalk was reached an unshored circular well shaft was dug. The total depth of the well was about thirty metres.

During the thirteenth century a massive barbican ditch was excavated, the keep and inner bailey apparently being maintained as a fortress. Similar developments took place at many castles during the thirteenth century, with a barbican or outwork added to defend the castle gateway, culminating in the gatehouse/barbican complexes of the fourteenth century (Cathcart King 1991, 156). There is no documentary evidence for improvements to the ditches of Norwich castle at this date. King John (1199-1216) spent relatively little on his castles, but ditchwork at five of them was carried out during his reign (Colvin 1963, 79). The Norwich barbican may have replaced an earlier ditch in the same position and it has been suggested that this enlargement may have been in response to the capture of the castle in 1216 by Louis the Dauphin of France. The actions of the Dauphin are held responsible for similar alterations at other castles including Oxford (Kenyon 1991, 79). Alternatively, the ditch enlargement at Norwich may have taken place later in the thirteenth century.

Only a small part of the defences of the northeastern bailey has been examined archaeologically. This bailey was known as the Castle Meadow throughout the medieval period and beyond (the first documentary reference being 1351-2) and may have served a similar function from its outset.

The keep was used mainly as a prison from c.1300, a role which was to continue until its conversion to a museum in 1886. Prisoners had been held there, however, since the reign of Henry I (1100-1135) if not before. The southern bailey appears to have declined in defensive significance during the thirteenth century, the construction of the city walls taking place between 1297 and 1344. Encroachment by the townspeople into the castle precinct began, initially illegally. This encroachment increased with the granting of the baileys to the city by Edward III in 1345. Flom this date, the city was free to lease or sell unusable land around the perimeter of the Fee, a process which was completed in 1397.

The Medieval City

The medieval walled city covered an area measuring one and a half miles from north to south and one mile from east to west, making it larger than contemporary London. The walls enclosed a Benedictine monastery and cathedral, four large friary precincts, nearly seventy churches, several hospitals, a thriving commercial waterfront and numerous markets.

The recent excavations revealed evidence for activities throughout the medieval period on the edge of the castle precinct and in the churchyard of St. John de Berstrete (now St John the Baptist, Timberhill). The earliest reference to this church dates from 1157, although architectural details may suggest an origin in the Late Saxon period. It is said to have been built by Wodowin the priest and was given to Norwich Priory soon after its foundation. The line of the cemetery’s northern boundary ditch continued to influence property layout well into the modern period.

A total of one hundred and eighty-nine articulated and forty-two disarticulated skeletons were recovered, although the precise dating of the burials remains to be established (radio-carbon analysis pending). Up to thirty-five of the skeletons showed evidence of leprosy although there are no records of particular links with any of the lazar houses or hospitals in and around the city. The nearest leper hospital lay outside St Stephen’s Gate to the south-west.

A wealth of documentary evidence exists for the development of medieval tenements in the excavated area, over sixty being studied as part of the current project. The sequence of tenement deeds and records begins in 1297.

The site yielded evidence of a variety of crafts and industries, notably bell founding and other forms of metal working, as well as the normal range of domestic refuse. The evidence for bell founding is of particular importance, Norwich having been prominent in bell founding techniques. A bell pit excavated to the east of the Timberhill cemetery dated to between 1250 and 1400, although mould fragments from fifteenth century fills of the barbican well indicate that bell founding continued on or close to the site at a later date.

The Late Medieval /Post-Medieval Transition

The late medieval to post-medieval periods saw the decline of the castle and the further growth of the city. In the documentary record the decline of the castle is represented by court cases. Many of these involved the unlicensed dumping of refuse, the erection of booths selling food and drink while the assizes were in session and the grazing of animals in the southern bailey. A number of these activities were represented archaeologically, notably the continued disposal of refuse and the exploitation of the castle ramparts as quarries, providing building materials for the expanding city.

Other evidence of the castle’s decline was visible in the backfilling of the deep well in the barbican. This feature was excavated to a depth of over eighteen metres and was sampled by augering for a further eleven. The majority of the excavated fill had accumulated during the second half of the fifteenth century and yielded a finds assemblage of great significance, part of which is summarised here.

Over three thousand pieces of ironwork were recovered, the group being dominated by small annular buckles. The fills from which they came also contained a high proportion of spurs and spur fittings and it is possible that the buckles related to the refitting of spur leathers. The large quantity of leather waste appears to represent the dumping of debris from a workshop, probably of a spurrier or lorimer. Other ironwork includes chain mail, arrowheads, fragments of armour and offcuts from the production of domeheaded mounts. The substantial number of copper alloy finds included numerous mounts and studs (many gilded) which may have served as harness mounts. The significant bird bone assemblage included an unusually large number of goose wings, Norfolk being famed for its geese throughout the medieval period. It is probable that the presence of these bones related to the manufacture of either arrows or quill pens. The most suitable feathers for arrow vanes were goose pinion feathers and these were used in enormous numbers; for example in 1436 the sheriffs of Yorkshire and York were ordered to provide 100,000 goose wing feathers for arrow manufacture.

It seems likely that these various types of debris came from a workshop or workshops repairing armour and weaponry. Overall, this constitutes the single most important finds assemblage from the site with implications which reach far beyond the city of Norwich itself.

The Post-Medieval period

The decline of the castle continued during the post-Medieval period, with the ditches becornfng increasingly infilled and the encroachment of the city into the former castle precincts. The Mayor’s Court spent much of its time during the seventeenth century in dealing with unlicensed quarrying and dumping of refuse within the castle ditches. Many people were imprisoned in the Bndewell for digging sand, thirteen people being accused of this offence in 1633.

Filling of the barbican ditch during the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries was fairly haphazard but became more organised in the early eighteenth century, probably indicating deliberate levelling prior to the construction of the Cattle Market in 1738. In one part of the ditch a plank and post revetment was inserted to facilitate access. A considerable proportion of the total pottery assemblage (over 270 kg) came from this ditch and included a range of local post-medieval wares as well as regional, English and continental imports. The ditch fills also contained a huge assemblage of animal bones, offering the opportunity to examine aspects of animal husbandry during the agrarian revolution of the eighteenth century. In addition the occurrence of articulated remains of animals can be related directly to documentary references to the burial of horses, dogs, cats and pigs in the ditch. This disposal occurred both on a haphazard basis and, in a more organised fashion, during outbreaks of plague such as that in 1666.

From 1564, Dutch and Walloon families – the ‘Strangers’ – were invited to Norwich to produce draperies and textiles. Contacts with the Netherlands are attested by the presence of quantities of Dutchtype pottery and other finds including sledge runners made from the jaw bones of two horses, recovered from fills of the barbican ditch. Only two other fragments of such sledge runners are known from archaeological sites (in Dordrecht, Holland and in York). This sledge is paralleled in sixteenth-century Dutch and Flemish paintings, such as those by Pieter Breugel the Elder.

Perhaps the most unusual find of this date was a parrot, bones of which were found in a seventeenth-century refuse pit. This is the first archaeological site at which parrot bones have been recovered in England.

A small group of burials was excavated at the top of the castle mound and appeared to comprise the remains of seven inmates of the prison (six adults and a child) who had been buried with little ceremony sometime during the seventeenth century. Pathological changes were unusually abundant and indicated a high level of stress-related disorders, as well as a concentration of head wounds.

The modern period

The continued success of Norwich as a centre of marketing and retailing led to an organised attempt to level the remaining elements of the castle’s defences, culminating in the remodelling of the livestock market in 1862.


This paper has sought to summarise the major contributions of the recent excavations at Norwich castle both to the study of urban fortifications and to the understanding of the city’s past. Preparation of the publication is well underway and will appear in the East Anglian Archaeology monograph series.


Ayers B.S. 1985: Excavations within the North-East Bailey of Norwich Castle, 1979, East Anglian Archaeology 28.

Cathcart King D.J. 1991: The English Castle in England and Wales: an interpretative history.

Colvin H.M. 1963: History of the Kings Works I, II

Green B. 1965: Bronze Plaques from Norwich, Medieval Archaeology IX.

Kenyon J.R. 1991: Medieval Fortifications.

Shelley A. forthcoming: Norwich Castle Bridge, Medieval Archaeology.

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