BALH – The Local Historian – Review – THE NORWICH CHAMBERLAINS’ ACCOUNTS 1539–40 TO 1544–45

The British Association for Local History recently published a review of THE NORWICH CHAMBERLAINS’ ACCOUNTS 1539–40 TO 1544–45 edited by Carole Rawcliffe in The Local Historian (Journal of the British Association For Local History), Volume 50, No. 3 (July 2020) and has given us permission to reprint that review on our website.


The Norfolk Record Society’s latest volume presents transcripts of six chamberlains’ accounts from sixteenth-century Norwich, at that time England’s largest provincial city. The editor, Carole Rawcliffe, will be familiar as a renowned medievalist, both as Professor of Medieval History at the University of East Anglia, and as the author of a significant corpus of work broadly related to medicine, disease and human welfare in the late medieval period. At first glance, therefore, this volume on Tudor records would appear to be something of a new area for Professor Rawcliffe, but as a sizeable proportion of the accounts deal with the ongoing problem of sanitation in the city it can partly be viewed as a return to a theme she has frequently encountered in her earlier work.

The comprehensive introduction places the chamberlains’ accounts in a variety of relevant historical and administrative contexts, with care taken to consider wider perspectives: for example, the editor frequently compares practices in Norwich with those of other cities, particularly York and Winchester. She provides an extended history of the management of the civic accounts in Norwich-not only for the period covered by the transcribed documents of the volume-and then explores in some detail the various sources of income due to the city, and the wide range of expenditure. There follows a discussion of the activities and obligations of the chamberlains themselves and then a focus in greater detail on some of the topics referred to in the accounts. Although Rawcliffe has highlighted just two-the conversion of Blackfriars and the use made by the chamberlains of men and materials for the building and maintenance of civic projects-the wealth of detail contained in the accounts is such that many other topics could have been chosen (presumably word-length was constrained). The introduction concludes with an explanation of the editorial methods and two maps. The accounts are then presented in a transcribed format with comprehensive footnotes. The volume concludes with three appendices, a very comprehensive 35-page glossary, a guide to saints’ days and festivals, and a bibliography.

Without doubt, this volume will be of significant value to local historians with an interest in Norwich and Norfolk-for example, the accounts document in some detail the conversion of the Dominican friary of Blackfriars following the Dissolution and its subsequent use by the civic authorities for a variety of purposes including a free school and communal granary. The Blackfriars complex remains a significant attraction within the modern city; by contrast, the accounts record other structures which are long gone, such as Greyfriars and Carrow priory which were plundered for building materials, some of which went into the work at Blackfriars, particularly ‘freston’ and ‘marbylles’ from the Greyfriars site. There are many other references to features and buildings including the guildhall, market and city walls, all of which are meticulously recorded in a comprehensive index.

While the sixteenth century was a turbulent time for the whole nation, the city of Norwich had more than its share of challenges. On the one hand the accounts show how national events impacted on the financial management of the city, including the Dissolution, the Reformation, the French and Scottish campaigns and the debasement of the coinage. On the other they indicate the effects of significant local events, particularly Kett’s Rebellion, and also fires (which destroyed 40 per cent of the city’s housing stock) and floods. The expenses created by Kett’s rebellion are covered in an appendix which includes the chilling entry for the payment of 3s 9d ‘for the chargis of beryeng of xlix men that war hangyd at the crosse in the market, for makyng pyttes and caryeng to them’.

The accounts contain much detail that will be of interest and value to historians other than those focused on Norwich and Norfolk. They show how a city administered its resources and used them for the benefit of its citizens. Managing the urban environment in the pre-modern era was particularly challenging and throughout the accounts payments are recorded for the ‘caryeng’ of ‘mucke’ out of the streets, market and prisons, which is occasionally more fully described as ‘stynkyng fylth’ or ‘wonderfful noysfull’. This also required the ongoing maintenance of the ‘cokeys’, the eighteen streams which formed an essential part of the city’s sanitation system and which required regular repair as well as the clearing out of accumulated debris. While keeping the city free from waste was an ongoing concern, other entries illustrate that the range of duties and responsibilities undertaken by the chamberlains were considerable. In 1543-1544, for example, payments are recorded for making and erecting a new cross at Hardley Cross to mark the boundary of jurisdiction between Norwich and Great Yarmouth (it still exists, albeit heavily restored and repaired). These included 4s 3½d to the engraver Nycholas Marry for carving the cross ‘with the city arymys, with a fynyall and other antycke worke’. Shortly after these entries are others relating to the upkeep of the civic regalia including the making of a new scabbard and 15s paid for ‘blewe velvet’ bought in London. The accounts also show that the chamberlains were keen to bring some enjoyment to the lives of citizens. In 1544, money was spent on civic processions, bonfires and barrels of beer to celebrate the king’s Scottish campaign and his (ultimately short-lived) triumph at Boulogne. The chamberlains were equally keen to look after their own comfort: in 1542 a total of 22s 8d was paid for covering the benches in the council chamber with bolsters stuffed with feathers and lined with woollen cloth.

This volume is highly recommended to both local and social historians. The transcribed documents give a fascinating insight into urban government in the challenging environment of the sixteenth century, and are effectively supported by an excellent and thoroughly researched introduction, appendices and indexes.

This review was written by JOANNE SEAR who teaches at the Institute of Continuing Education, Cambridge, but spent many years living in and around Norwich and remains a frequent visitor to the city. Her research focuses on late medieval consumption and trade and she was particularly interested in the references to the organisation of the market, the merchant guilds and the variety of occupations in this volume.