Great Yarmouth town wall
Records relating to the wall
Great Yarmouth town wall is one of the few for which contemporary documents survive - there are detailed building accounts covering the years 1336-45.
The wall is also depicted in two fine maps made during the reign of Elizabeth I.
All records are held by the Norfolk Record Office (NRO), unless otherwise specified. Document references are given in brackets.
Great Yarmouth Borough records in the NRO
- Murage rates 1447/8-48/9 on the Borough Court rolls (Y/C 4/155,156)
- Murager's file containing accounts and inventory of munitions 1543/4 (Y/C 45/6)
- Papers re: ownership of the Town Wall 1876-77 (Y/TC 28)
- Photographs of quay and Town Wall in right of way dispute 19th-20th centuries (Y/PH 842-75)
Records held elsewhere
- Murage disbursement rolls 1336-45 in the British Library (Add. Mss. 1576-86).
- Perspective drawing of Yarmouth showing walls and towers, late 16th century. Original at Hatfield House. There are copies in A W Ecclestone, Henry Manship's Great Yarmouth (1971) and in Norfolk Archaeology, xxviii (1945).
- Plan of Yarmouth showing walls and towers, late 16th century. Original in British Library (Cott. MS, Aug. 1,74). Copy in C JPalmer, Manship's History of Great Yarmouth (1854)
History of the town wall
Thousands of people visit Great Yarmouth each summer, but very few probably notice the old town wall.
It is among the best preserved in England and stands comparison with those at York and Chester.
Henry III granted permission in 1261 to enclose Great Yarmouth with a wall and ditch. However, work did not start until 1285.
It was paid for by a tax called ‘murage’, levied on goods brought into the Borough. Many Yarmouth citizens also made a voluntary contribution to the wall’s construction by leaving money in their wills.
The wall is not a complete circuit. It encloses the town on three sides, with the river being the defence on the fourth side.
Its construction took many years - the main part was finished in 1346, but work continued until about 1400.
The wall was more than 23 feet high and 2,280 yards long, with 10 gates and 16 towers. The front of the wall is of cut flint and most of the towers are 'D'-shaped.
Although the wall's main purpose was military, it also served as a customs barrier. Restricting access in and out of the town made it easier to regulate traders and make sure all tolls were paid.
The upper parts of the wall and the tops of the towers were rebuilt in the 15th or early 16th century, probably to take cannon. The work of this date incorporates very attractive panelling in flint and brick.
From 1545 onwards the wall was rampired: that is, backed with banks of earth to strengthen it to withstand artillery fire.
The section of the wall east of Friars' Lane collapsed in 1557. It was rebuilt by the town using stone from the nearby Dominican friary, which had been dissolved in 1538.
You can still see a good deal of reused medieval freestone in the wall between Friars' Lane and the South East Tower.
Yarmouth was noted for its town wall in the 16th century. The dramatist Thomas Nash, writing in 1558, described Yarmouth as a:
“Flinty ring of 15 towers which sent out thunder whenever a Spaniard dared to come near.”
The wall was maintained until the 17th century and was last manned during the Civil War.
Buildings against the wall were cleared, guns were placed on it and a ditch built around the most vulnerable part - the north wall and the east wall as far south as Pudding Gate.
The ditch was 60 feet wide and eight feet deep.
After the Civil War, the wall was allowed to decay and people again began to put up buildings against it. Most of the rampires were removed.
Between 1776 and 1812, all 10 gates were pulled down as the roads out of the town were widened.
As late as 1902, a section of the wall between Northgate Street and the North West tower was demolished. However, this act of destruction upset many people who cared about the history of the town.
Great Yarmouth town wall is still remarkably complete, both in its length and in its height: the section north of the South East Tower even retains its battlements.
Substantial remains of the 'wall-walk', arches on the inner side of the wall, still exist: they can be seen in the Dissenters' Churchyard and where the wall runs under Market Gates shopping centre.
Eleven of the 16 towers have survived, seven largely intact:
- Palmer's Tower
- The tower on Blackfriars Road
- The South East Tower (now incorporating an exhibition centre and pottery)
- Hospital Tower
- King Henry's Tower (the only octagonal one)
- The North East Tower
- The North West Tower (now isolated on North Quay)
The wall is also one of the few to have associated earthworks surviving. These include the rampires in the churchyard and behind the section of wall facing Blackfriars Road.
The Borough Archivist stated in a report of 1966 that there were still “some vestiges” of the South Mount: this was an earthwork on the South Quay, between the river and the site of the South Gate. This area is now covered by the Mayer Parry recycling plant.
The historian St J O'Neill considered Yarmouth to have the only remains still existing in England of a ravelin - that is a triangular defensive outwork in front of the wall.
This is just to the east of St George's Church, but only boundary walls now mark the site. It can best be seen from St Peter’s Plain, where a plaque is attached to the wall about 12 feet above the ground.