As we sojourn through East Anglia, we’ll travel through two English counties with long and illustrious histories. Norfolk and Suffolk are among the longest-inhabited areas in England — in fact, in 2005, archaeologists found evidence of habitation in Norfolk up to 700,000 years ago. Through Romans, Angles, Saxons, Vikings, Danes, and Normans, these areas remained vital for their fertile farmland and their proximity to the European mainland.
Norwich Cathedral, pictured above, is an excellent example of East Anglia’s long and sometimes turbulent history. It stands in an area once inhabited by the Iceni — the famous Celtic tribe whose Queen Boudicca rebelled against the Romans in the first century. Because of the disruption caused by frequent Danish raids (like those seen in Edmund Ironside, a play in the Shakespeare apocrypha), no permanent cathedral could be established until after the Norman Conquest. Work began in 1096 and continued through 1140, using cream-colored Caen limestone brought up the river through a purpose-built canal.
The cathedral was damaged during riots in 1272 and repaired over the next two decades. After that, work began on cloisters, but interruptions to building (including the Black Death visiting England in the 1340s) meant that they were not completed until 1430. Many of the ceilings were redone in the 14th and 15th centuries, and the spire was rebuilt completely after being struck by lightning in 1480. Like London’s theatres, the cathedral fell victim to the Puritans during the English Civil War. A mob stripped the building of its Catholic adornments, destroyed stonework, pulled down monuments, and even fired their muskets into the walls; at least one musketball remains lodged there to this day. Repairs began during the reign of Charles II, and other additions and renovations have continued to the modern day, making Norwich Cathedral a quilt of English architecture through the ages.
Norwich Cathedral also has an unexpected Shakespearean connection in one of the men buried there: Sir Thomas Erpingham, who lends King Henry his clothes to go among the men in disguise in Henry V, was a major benefactor in the 1420s.
We’ll also travel to Norwich Castle, built by the Conqueror himself sometime before 1075. Norwich Castle was for many years the only castle in the region, and it played a role in the Revolt of 1173-1174, when Henry II’s sons rebelled against him (an event some of you may remember being referenced in The Lion in Winter). Converted to a prison in the 1220s, the castle then became a prison in the 13th century. It retained that usage until it’s conversion to a museum in the 1880s — following some alterations made in the late 18th century by Sir John Soane, whom some of you may remember from visiting his house in London during our 2013 trip.
Fittingly for such an important region of England, the Dukes of Suffolk and Norfolk have been influential throughout the centuries. You might remember Thomas Mowbray, Duke of Norfolk, in Richard II, or the Suffolk who begins as a Marquess in Henry VI, Part 1, is made a Duke in Part 2, becomes Queen Margaret’s lover, and is then murdered by pirates.
Come, soldiers, show what cruelty ye can,
That this my death may never be forgot.
Great men oft die by vile bezonians:
A Roman sworder and banditto slave
Murder’d sweet Tully; Brutus’ bastard hand
Stabb’d Julius Caesar; savage islanders
Pompey the Great; and Suffolk dies by pirates.
The Dukes of Suffolk and Norfolk were important in the Tudor Era as well: Charles Brandon, the first duke in the title’s second creation, was a close friend of Henry VIII and later his brother-in-law, after he married Henry’s youngest sister, Mary. (Fans of The Tudors will remember the handsome Henry Cavill in the role). All of Brandon’s sons died either before him or shortly thereafter, and the title was briefly recreated for Henry Grey, father of Lady Jane Grey — who was executed for treason a mere three years later, after trying to place his daughter on the throne.
The Dukes of Norfolk were, if anything, even more notorious during the Tudor reign, patriarchs as they were of the tumultuous Howard dynasty, a wide-spread, highly politically-involved, and recalcitrantly-Catholic family. The first duke (of this, the third creation of the title) died at Bosworth Field, fighting on the side of Richard III; his son eventually got the forfeit title restored to him. The third duke (pictured below in a portrait by Hans Holbein) was among those who maneuvered to make his niece, Anne Boleyn, Queen of England — as depicted in Shakespeare and Fletcher’s Henry VIII — and who then turned on her when Henry tired of her, even presiding over her trial. Another niece, Catherine Howard, became Henry’s fifth wife — and also fell from grace, almost taking the entire Howard family down with her.
What finally landed the third duke in the Tower was his connection to the Earl of Surrey, who tried to overthrow Henry late in his reign. He narrowly escaped execution for treason, saved only when Henry VIII himself died before the sentence could be carried out. He remained in the Tower throughout the reign of Edward VI, only released and restored to his properties by Queen Mary. The fourth Norfolk couldn’t keep out of trouble, either: in 1569 he was imprisoned for plotting to marry Mary, Queen of Scots, and in 1572, he was implicated in the Ridolfi plot to put King Philip of Spain on the throne with Mary, restoring Catholicism to England, and was subsequently executed. The title lay in abeyance until restored to the Howard family by King Charles II.
We’ll finish the day with tea in Lavenham, a sweet little village in Suffolk known for its well-preserved medieval and Tudor architecture. Once one of the wealthiest merchant towns in England, thanks to its wool trade, Lavenham is now a prime day trip destination for anyone exploring East Anglia.