North Walsham's early history
The appearance of 'Walsham' in the Domesday Book survey of 1080 tells us that it was a small settlement belonging to the Danish 'Waelsing' or 'Waels' family, the anglo-saxon 'ham' indicates that the family settled here sometime in the sixth century AD. The village was later provided with a Church, a portion of land and a priest. Walsham was captured during the raids of Viking Norse and Danes, and during the reign of King Canute, a Norseman named Skiotr (Sket) gave the village of Walsham along with its Church and estates to the Abbey of Saint Benet at Holme, near Horning. St Benets was a rich Benedictine Monastery with much of its wealth coming from Walsham. The flourishing weaving industry of the area brought great wealth to Abbey and town and the Abbey Church of Saint Benet along with the Parish Church of North Walsham were enlarged on a grand scale. North Walsham boasts the largest non-conventual Parish Church in Norfolk.
The Battle of the Peasants Revolt.
The famous 'Peasants Revolt' of 1381 saw a battle in North Walsham when John Litester, assisted by amongst others a man called Cubitt of North Walsham, led a rebellion of many thousands who seized the city of Norwich. The combined forces of Bishop Henry De Spenser, forced the rebels from the city and they retreated to a camp at Bryant's Heath near North Walsham. They were confronted by the bishop's forces, and it is said that thousands were slain as the peasants fled to the town where they barricaded themselves inside the unfinished church. Litester was captured, and the church witnessed a massacre of hundreds of peasants. Litester was publicly executed and three stone crosses were erected to mark the site of the battlefield.
During the fourteenth century North Walsham was at the heart of the woollen and weaving industry. At the invitation of the King, Flemish weavers had settled in Norfolk in the 13th and 14th centuries. Their weaving capitals were Worstead and Walsham; weaving the countrys finest cloths of the still famous 'Worsted' cloth, and 'Walsham'; a light-weight cloth for summer use. By the beginning of the fourteenth century a market of these cloths was well established in Walsham. This new prosperity was proudly flaunted with the building of vast new churches for the two towns, and North Walsham's Church of Saint Nicholas is the largest 'Wool Church' in Norfolk.
The Church was originally dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary. It is famed for its unusual design with a vast spacious interior and lofty columns. The building contains many fascinating artifacts which include a richly decorated telescopic font cover from the fifteenth century, and an ancient wooden screen, carved and painted with an array of saints. The south chapel contains an unusual sixteenth century Communion Table. The unique Royal Arms Board at the west end of the church, has one side with the arms of Cromwell's Commonwealth, and the other with the Arms of Charles II. Also to be seen are an Iron Bound Chest, two remaining tip-up seats from the monk's mediaeval quire, and a wooden Armoury Chest. The rich carving, pinnacles and heraldic shields of the architecturally acclaimed porch, are often admired from the market place.
The Ruined Tower.
In the early eighteenth century the church was crowned with soaring tower and spire, easily the tallest building in the locality, being second in height only to Norwich Cathedral. Its parapet reached a height of 147 feet, the spire (probably added after the 160 foot church tower at Cromer was completed) took its height to around 180 feet. A heavy ring of bells was hung in the tower which also had a chiming clock. In 1724, a rather windy day greeted the town's annual Ascensiontide Fayre, and the bells were rung for many hours. This caused a vibration to occur in the tower which was noticed by the verger when he ascended the tower in the evening to wind the clock. Between nine and ten o'clock the following morning, Saturday 16th May 1724, the south and west sides of the steeple collapsed in front of a horrified town. In the years that followed the weather further weakened the ruin, and in 1835 small falls indicated the weakness of the upper stonework. February 17th 1836 saw the biggest fall when heavy northerly gales blew down the north side of the steeple into the chasm below. The crash sent an earthquake-like tremor through the town. The remaining east wall was later lowered as a safety precaution. In 1939 stabilisation work was carried out on the tower, in the hope that one day rebuilding will be possible. Plans were drawn up and one version of a new tower (minus a spire), by the eminent architect Sir Charles Nicholson, can be seen at the Parish Church.
The Great Fire of Walsham.
On the 25th June 1600, North Walsham was razed to the ground by a fire, which began at around six o'clock in the morning in the house of a person by the name of Dowle. One hundred and eighteen houses, seventy shops, and countless other buildings were destroyed along with the Market Cross and stalls. Although catching alight in five places the church escaped much damage, and it provided shelter for the townsfolk while the town was rebuilt.
The Market Place is where people from the town and surrounding villages sold their produce, livestock, wool and cloths. Shops in the Market Place still occupy their narrow ancient plots, built tightly against the churchyard. In the fourteenth century, the charter to hold a weekly market was granted by Henry III. The rent for the stalls was collected in the 'Old Tollhouse'. As time went by a larger tollhouse was provided, and a new market 'cross' was built. This was built between 1550 - 1555 during the reign of Edward VI by Bishop Thirlby of Norwich. Destroyed during the Great Fire of 1600 it was rebuilt by Bishop Redman in 1602 to an unusual Palladian design. In 1855 the Ecclesiastical Commissioners formally presented the Market Cross to the town. In 1899 it was provided with a chiming clock and since then has often been referred to as the 'Town Clock'.
Sir William Paston founded his free Grammar School in 1606. A new School House was built in 1765, the one seen today, and shortly after in 1769, the school received the brothers William and Horatio Nelson as boarders. It was from here, in March 1771, a young Horatio Nelson set out on his legendary career. The school boasts other fine scholars, including Archbishop Tenison, who crowned Queen Anne & George I. The founder's amazingly elaborate tomb can be seen inside the Parish Church. The School is now part of a Sixth Form College for the local area.