North Walsham & District Community Archive


North Walsham Past and Present. Published 1975.


The development of North Walsham and its farming are dealt with in other sections. A national event in which North Walsham figured prominently was the crushing of the Peasant's Revolt. Wages in Norfolk in the wake of the labour shortages occasioned by the Black Death and subsequent plagues had risen from Id to 2d per day. Landlords tried to enforce feudal labour duties on their peasants, meeting much resistance. In addition the king raised taxes on the basis of cash payment by householder and wife,known as the Poll Tax. In 1377 this was 4d per head or nearly a week's wages for a family. The tax of 1379 had been graduated according to means but the amount it yielded was not adequate for Richard II so the following ; year a flat-rate 1/- per head tax was levied and the tax-collectors pursued their task with great vigour. The sum per family was equal to two weeks' wages fs payable by January 1381, the remainder by June. Evasion and government need made the collectors speed up collection followed by resistance and revolt by Essex and Kentish peasants. Destruction of tax and other documents and the humiliation and dispossession of the rich and powerful seemed to be the main aims 1 of the peasant leaders.

Court records were destroyed, executions carried out and Norwich was plundered. Only in East Norfolk did a leader emerge amid this turmoil, the dyer John (or Geoffrey) Litester. Walter Rye considered that he came from Worstead, the mediaeval chronicler Froissart said that he came from Staffordshire.

John of Gaunt's property at Gimingham was pillaged and Court Rolls were destroyed in neighbouring manors. Litester moved from Norwich on the 17th of June to Yarmouth setting free prisoners and proclaiming the new order of things. He moved from Yarmouth to his village of Felmingham on the 21st and held court at Thorpe Market. Three of his followers, Trunch, Skeet and Cubitt were sent to London with two hostages to obtain freedom from the King but were arrested en route at Icklingham, Suffolk by Henry le Despenser, Bishop of Norwich, who had them executed at Wymond-ham. This warrior-bishop was returning to his see to restore order and there are two contemporary versions of the events leading up to the crushing of the revolt at North Walsham.

1. CHRONICON ANGL IAE:The bishop therefore when he came to the aforesaid place was accompanied by a large body of men;there he found the Commons drawn up like an army, they had a trench round the place in which they were assembled, and above the ditch they had fixed tables,windows and doors together with stakes for their defence. He saw that they had placed in the rear their carriages and wagons as if they had no idea of flight. There was no delay. . . he (the bishop)himself seized a lance. . . spurred his horse. The warrior-bishop stood his ground like a wild boar gnashing its teeth sparing neither himself nor his foes. . . Wherefore the Commons fled in fear; . . . finally having captured the leaders of the mob, including their King, John Lystere, and having slaughtered as many of the Commons as he would, he was enabled to claim complete victory.

Wherefore the bishop condemned the said John, the idol of the people of Norfolk. He heard his confession and absolved him by virtue of his office.

In an uproar of the people, when throughout England ribalds were madly raging, he(Bishop of Norwich)did not limit himself to any half measures. Whilst lords and knights and other members of the nobility were hiding themselves for fear, he went forth openly. . . . That certain men of the basest conition in his flock had risen up in rebellion and had assumed to themselves titles of authority; and that, moreover, they we're riding about with a great mob, making search for men of station, that they might be put to death. Of which the principal were these Jack Litster and 3 others Sceth, Trunch and Cubitt.

.... And they said he was wandering about the neighbourhood of Walsham Market and of Gimingham where he had the largest number of rustics and ribald fellows. . . .And saying this he came to the manor of Felmingham where the said ringleader had a mansion. . . he was at Thorp Market, where he had caused it to be publicly proclaimed that all who desired the welfare of the Kingdom and of the Community should follow him to Walsham where he intended to defend the people against tyranny of the approaching bishop be military force . . . And thus hastening to Walsham he found the openings of the roads blocked with timbers and towers and other impediments. But by the good management of the bishop and of other men who had assembled there, the whole people surrendered, rejoicing that they might withdraw in peace. Jack Litster himself, leaping over a wall, hid himself in a cornfield. And one of the people v perceived this, announced it to the bishop. The traitor was sought and found. . . he was captured and beheaded and divided into 4 parts and he was sent through the county to Norwich.

The brief outburst of the Peasant's Revolt was followed by a period of relative prosperity before the troubled times of the Wars of the Roses, chronicled in great detail in the Paston Letters. Although the Paston family originated only 3 miles from North Walsham and later founded North Walsham's Paston School, there are very few and only passing references to the town in the letters. The most important landlord in the town and parish was the Abbot of St. Bene't s and it was in a clash with that abbot that we first hear of the Pastons. Blome-field wrote: "About the year 1413, Clement Paston Esq. , John Horningtoft of Paston, merchant, Laurence de Thorp and John Parson of Edingthorpe came to this town and entered into the pasture etc. of the abbot, belonging to his manor, with their cattle, fed and trod it down to the damage of 40/-, fished his ponds etc. took 200 roaches, 200 perch and 300 eels, to the value of 100/-and carried them away'.' The importance of the fish and their high value(greater than that of poultry)was due to the customs of eating fish on Fridays and also in the season of Lent. The rise and fall of this illustrious family is dealt with elsewhere.

The rule of the Abbots of St. Bene't was broken at the Reformation in 1539, the land and buildings owned by the abbey were granted to the see of Norwich, the bishop in turn letting the property to farmers and tradesmen. Watermill, market and fair tolls and a rabbit warren were all put up for lease. The town was prosperous, an important wool and provision market in a densely populated district and the best idea one can get of its size and general appearance is to visit nearby Worstead which maintains its original format much more faithfully, having failed to grow very much. The dominant position of the church over the huddle of surrounding buildings is reminiscent of 16th century North Walsham, except that most buildings are now brick.