The Battlefield

North Walsham in 1381 formed part of the estate of the Benedictine abbey of St Benet at Holme, which was situated on the River Bure to the north east of Norwich. Threats by rebels between 18 and 20 June forced the abbot and monks to surrender their manorial records, which were then burned. These included the records for North Walsham although court rolls survive for 1377-82 (Norfolk Record Office MS 6152 16D2). In a court held on 31 October 1381 we find the entry concerning John Buk who attacked (‘insultum fecit’) Bishop Despenser at North Walsham whereupon he was killed by the bishop (‘occisus fuit’). A court roll for Hoveton St John (1 August) includes mention of Nicholas de Orforde being killed at North Walsham at the time of the rising (Norfolk Record Office MS 6148 16D2). Such references, discovered by Herbert Eiden, combined with Walsingham’s narrative, usefully confirm the location as North Walsham.

The battlefield is marked on Ordnance Survey maps by the crossed swords marker, about a mile to the south of North Walsham. This is largely accepted to be the location of the battle, although there is another local tradition which places the action slightly to the north-west at Bryant’s Heath. Given the approach of Despenser from Norwich, a battle on North Walsham Heath as marked by the Ordnance Survey is more likely. This location is further supported by the presence of three ancient crosses, or at least the remains of these. Traditionally, these are assumed to mark the battlefield, possibly erected as an act of penance, as grave markers or as a memorial, although they may be earlier, or else were erected later as parish boundary markers, particularly the southernmost of the three, which was originally sited at the point where the three parishes of North Walsham, Worstead and Westwick meet. The presence of three such crosses in such close proximity does suggest an unusual purpose, with the battlefield providing an obvious explanation for them.

The remains of the three crosses are shown on Ordnance Survey maps, with their positions likely to have been moved slightly over time. The most complete of the three is just to the east of the B1150 a few metres down a lane beside Tollgate Farm, although it is likely it was originally sited about 400m to the west beside a trackway. The second, consisting of a stump with socket for the cross shaft, along with a commemorative plaque, is close to the water tower on the current southern edge of North Walsham. This cross was also commemorated in the nearby pre and post enclosure field names of Stump Cross Five Acres, Stump Cross Piece and Stump Cross Close. The third is on private land and is inaccessible. It was moved some time before 1926 from its original position at the intersection of three parish boundaries.

In Christabel Hoare’s view (1918) ‘an ancient stone cross on the road from North Walsham to Westwick and Norwich commemorates the defeat of the rebel peasants, although it has been removed from its original position, which was about a quarter of a mile to the west, nearer to Felmingham and North Walsham Heath, were the fight probably took place.'

The land-use of the battlefield has changed since 1381, with the heath of the time now only commemorated in names of woods and fields, apart from remnants of Bryant’s Heath to the north-west. Much of the landscape was altered with enclosure, the turnpike and changes to the Westwick Estate, most notably with the creation of numerous lakes, ponds, woods and plantations. These changes need to be borne in mind when viewing the battlefield from the public rights of way along the edges of late 20th century field boundaries. Other changes are also taking place, and are likely to increase during the first half of the 21st century as North Walsham expands, with a new link road skirting the south-west of the town being mooted. These developments would adversely affect the setting of the battlefield, but could also provide opportunities for on-site interpretation, and the battle and battlefield gaining better public recognition.

If the rebels used an existing bank or erected one, it is possible that archaeological survey could reveal its location. The account written by Norris in the 18th century claims that ‘there are now to be seen marks and traces of their camp on the Heath, such as entrenchments which they had thrown up to defend themselves, there are some of them in a plantation belonging to P. B. Petrie esq. to the right hand of the stone cross, erected I doubt not to the memory of that battle, and probably in the place where the slain were buried.’ Such remains could no doubt have several other explanations for their existence, although these claims were repeated by Dr. William Hewitt in 1857.

As claimed by Starling in an unpublished account: ‘when the road to Norwich [the current B1150] was made a Turnpike and its course across the heath altered, many fragments of leather, and some human bones as well as brass buckets, studs, pieces of arrows and various other things belonging to armour’ were apparently recovered.

The Battlefields Trust and The People of 1381 Project have jointly funded an information board at the likely site of the battle where the probable course of the movement north of Despenser's troops crosses the circular 'Peasants Revolt' signposted walk.


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