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Historian tells the story of Norwich in new biography

PUBLISHED: 08:39 24 January 2012

Author Chris Reeve out and about in the city with his notebook researching 'Norwich, the Biography'. Photo: Bill Smith

Author Chris Reeve out and about in the city with his notebook researching 'Norwich, the Biography'. Photo: Bill Smith

Archant © 2011

We all know that Norwich is a special city — and a new history by Christopher Reeve shows just how special. TREVOR HEATON reports.

In 1662 the Dutch artist William Schellinks paid a visit to Norwich. “The town,” he wrote, “is three miles is circumference, is very populous and prosperous, and has beautiful churches, houses, and streets.”

Norwich is still a city of churches and of lovely streets, though not, sadly, as many as there were thanks to the ravages of war and redevelopment. That means, for the historian, the temptation is always there to want to tell the city’s eventful story through its remaining buildings and streets.

But local historian Christopher Reeve has chosen a different path for his account of Norwich’s story. The book’s subtitle gives the clue: The Biography. For this is the story of one of England’s most historic cities told through the lives of its people.

Those folk range from the anxious wife of a rebellious Norman lord (awaiting the inevitable royal backlash) to a Tudor servant running away from his master (so he can play the guitar!). Forget dry-as-dust textbooks, Christopher brings a literary style to the subject. He is interested in people, and it shows.

And it is also clear that his regard for the city is deep.

“I have always loved it as a place,” he said. “It always feels like coming home when I come here, and that affection has grown considerably while I’ve been doing my research. It is such a great city.”

Norwich has been interwoven through his life, from when he lived as a 16-year-old in a bedsit, doing his A-levels at City College, and including returning to the city to do a degree in art history at UEA and a stint working at Jarrold’s. His career eventually led him to work as keeper of art at St Edmundsbury Council, from where he took early retirement in 2000.

Now semi-retired, he is a community projects worker for the area around his Bungay home, and has found time to write a number of books including Bungay Through Time and The Town Recorder.

And when he was approached by his publishers to write a book on Norwich history, he jumped at the chance. “They were looking for something pitched between all those books of photographs and the academic works out there. I’ve tried to write something to fill that gap,” he explained.

The author is not afraid to reach forward as well as back. When discussing, for example, about what Norwich’s medieval streets were like he begins by looking at today’s version. “Today,” he writes, “as you wander about... everyone seems affluent, well-dressed, wellfed, and with plenty of money to spend. The exception is the few who beg or busk at street corners... They are largely ignored by the passers-by who, intent on shopping, don’t like to be reminded about poverty in the prosperous city streets...”

Now contrast this, he says, with what life was like before the 20th century and the modern welfare state.

“You would be keenly aware that most of the people around you, men, women, and children were pitifully poor: ragged dirty, half-starved, even barefoot... Their lives were mere subsistence. Like sparrows, they survived by pecking up discarded crumbs from the pavements; and like the sparrows, they often died quietly in a garret or gutter during a freezing winter night.”

That passage also shows Christopher’s fine literary style allied with his erudition. Not for nothing is he the author of several entries in the current Dictionary of National Biography.

Christopher contrasts the lives of the rich and the poor through the centuries. The well-fed aldermen sitting in their elegant houses, while yards away the poor struggle to survive from one day to the next. In Norwich, like many other cities, affluence has lived well-scrubbed cheek by grubby jowl through the centuries.

“The whole story of Norwich is about terrible poverty and punishment living side by side with the great and the good riding round in their carriages,” Christopher explained.

For some of those poor there has always been one option available as a last resort – offering their own bodies. His trawl of the city’s records have shown that in almost every age the authorities have been (in public at least) disapproving of those loose in morality. In 1563, Margaret Bundey, condemned as ‘a scold and bawd’ had to spend time in the stocks before being ducked in the Wensum. Such action did little to put people off, which suggests that centuries of moral crusades have always been half-hearted affairs. In 1681 Norwich was being described as a place “swarming with alehouses... and every one they tell us is a bawdy house”. Even in 1970, a writer could say (with what sounds like, you’d have to say, a degree of wistfulness): “Norwich has the jolliest harlots of any city I know”.

“I was particularly struck by the story of the prostitute who was escorted out of the city by a man playing the bagpipes,” Christopher said. “The idea was to make her punishment as public as possible.”

And any of the city shoppers who’ve witnessed (or rather heard) the occasional visit from that piper near the market place can testify to its, er, publicity value.

And then there is another common theme in Norwich’s story: The mob. That shape-shifting and often violent factor in history features too, from the ransacking of city churches by Puritan zealots and beating up dissenting Quakers, to rioting over the Young Pretender’s claims to the throne and, in 1740, because of a shortage of bread.

Some stories are familiar, such as the 1272 cathedral riot, Kett’s rebellion (he is the real hero of Norfolk, not Nelson, the author suggests), or the ransacking of the cathedral by Cromwellian sympathisers in 1643 during the Civil War.

We also meet plenty of less-known characters too, such as the late 17th century clergyman Dean Fairfax, of which a visiting cleric sighed: “I am now at Norwich, where the Dean behaves himself more like a beast than ever, and is so obstinate and perverse in his own humours, which are indeed intolerable, that there is no ending of them.” Those ‘perverse humours’ including not being able to sleep at night ‘until dosed with drink’. The book is full of such racy characters.

Norwich’s ‘fighting bishop’ Henry Despenser couldn’t have been a bigger contrast. When Geofrey Litester led local peasants in revolt in 1381, it was left to Despenser to crush the uprising. And he did. When the last of the rebels had been beaten, their leader was dragged from a field of corn where he had been hiding.

“In his role as a priest, Despencer heard the victim’s confession of guilt, and absolved him from sin. Then in his role as military commander, he had him savagely hanged, drawn and quartered and finally beheaded on the spot.”

Christopher makes extensive use of that treasure trove for historians, the city records. In one matter-of-fact entry from 1427-28 the records list, among entries for wine and bread, payments to one John Jekkes “for the carriage of the wood from the city to Bishop’s Gates for burning William Waddon and Hugh Pye, heretics... 16d”. Elsewhere in the same passage Edmund Snetysham receives 6d for providing the logs to which the doomed men were bound, and Master John Excetre 18d for the 50 faggots of wood used in their terrible death.

It is a horrible business, which still shocks today, and is all the more so because of the passage’s matter-of-factness. Christopher included that passage because he was struck, on a deeply personal level, by the human story behind it. It’s that ‘people thing’ again, you see.

“I wanted to be like a tourist, seeing these places for the first time. So I took a notebook with me when I walked round the streets to record the immediate impressions I had.

“I wanted to do something distinctive. I very much wanted to to give an impression of what a visitor would see walking round the city today.”

He loves the modern and old, perfectly encapusulated in the area around the market place.

“You have four magnificent buildings in a row – The Forum, St Peter Mancroft, City Hall and the Guildhall,” he said.

This is more than a history book – it’s a love letter to a great city.

l Norwich: The Biography is published by Amberley, priced £16.99.

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