Cow tower & Bishops bridge, historic Norwich.

Cow tower

I could very easily turn this into a total overview of the defences of the city of Norwich, from its beginnings ( most likely a small Anglo-Saxon settlement) to the construction of all the cities walls and towers from C.1297-1350. However i want to concentrate on the “cow tower” as it is quite an individual structure. Encompassing bishops bridge, a key element to the area of the tower.

As stated, Norwich’s city underwent massive changes to its defences, thick stone walls, defensive towers and ditches were added over the years. At this time England was in a very turbulent time, the hundred years war with France and many homegrown problems, most notably the peasants revolt of 1381, in which Norwich was looted by the peasants (despite the cities defences being completed) after the people opened the gates to let them in, maybe out of fear of a siege or maybe they felt empathy with the peasants. Adding to the fears of the city officials was an event that took place in c.1338 in the port town of Southampton. Reports stated that the towns walls were in a poor state and orders to repair them had been ignored. In the year 1338 the french navy launched a combined attack from sea and land, consisting of approximately 7000 men they sacked Southampton. It is clear why the officials of Norwich were eager to construct better defences. You may think that it took them a long time to act upon their fears, but remember things took a little longer, permission must be granted, building materials collected and also money raised, which is no easy thing given the already high taxes to raise money for the ongoing efforts in France. Even in times of “peace” during the hundred years war the army was well manned and well prepared for the inevitable.

But eventually Norwich was well defended, within the completed walls was an area larger than the city of London, Norwich was, at this time, one of the most important cities in medieval England. This all brings us to the cow tower ( the meadow in which it was built was called “cowholme” which is where the tower’s name derives from), built C.1398-99, its main purpose for being built was to cover the high ground on the opposite side of the river Wensum, this is where the cow tower becomes original to medieval England, its primary use was as an artillery tower, but it was not directly connected to the already existing walls, it stood alone, connected to the walls by a wooden palisade  that ran down to bishops bridge, the palisade would most likely be between 3-4 meters high with deep ditches running down either side, a formidable obstacle for infantry, but very vulnerable to siege weapons. In the 1380s cooling castle was built-in Kent, this was the first castle built in England with gunpowder in mind, given that the cow tower was built within 10 years of cooling castle it really was the height of medieval defensive fortifications, and gives testament to the wealth of Norwich.

Bishops bridge, one of the oldest bridges still in use in England. 

It was built as close to the river as possible, enabling greater range to the   opposing high ground. This high ground would have been an ideal place for a sieging army to place its siege weapons. With the use of gunpowder becoming more popular on the medieval battlefield the defenders would have more defensive weapons to add to their arsenal, thus making Norwich a formidable target for a siege. Before i get ahead of myself i will quickly point out a few key facts of the tower, it stood approximately 50 ft high and had 3 storeys, and a roof (which is where the bombards, early cannons, would have been placed, the other stories would have had gun ports where hand cannons, a crude form of handheld firearm could be fired from, and most probably an area for the towers garrison)

The gun ports, the lower floor has none, so is most probably where the garrison would have stayed while manning the tower.

Before its construction there are accounts of an already existing tower in the area, its exact location is not know, it was there for the collection of tolls ( so i would assume it was closer to the bishops bridge, unless it was adjacent to an earlier timber bridge or ferry crossing). This earlier tower was also reputed to be used as a prison, which could be why the cow tower was originally called “the dungeon”. It may be that this original tower is what we know as the cow tower today, and that it was adapted to house artillery at a later date. However, i doubt that an early tower built without gunpowder in mind would be sufficient.

I doubt the garrison would have been permanently stationed in the tower, what is more likely is that teams of gunners would be on a rotation between the tower and the city, however in times of unrest the tower would most likely be fully manned 24/7. You can only imagine what it was like when all guns were blazing, the sound must have been deafening, the tower would very quickly fill up with the putrid smell of smoke, misfires with these early firearms were not uncommon, also the garrison must have felt uneasy about being cut off from the main defensive walls, and the urge to run back down the palisade to the fully manned walls must have been very tempting when an enemy was encircling the city. This would have been the case in c.1549 during Ketts rebellion.

Spiral stairs in the tower




I will only briefly cover ketts rebellion as i would like to do a full article on it someday. It began in 1549 during the reign of Edward VI, it all started with a land dispute and when the rebels arrived at William ketts, a local yeoman, he offered to lead them. By the time the rebels arrived at Norwich they numbered about 16000, on the evening of July 21st rebel artillery positioned on and beneath mount surrey, the high ground opposite bishops bridge opened fire, the defenders artillery was positioned in the meadows south of the tower and around the tower, i would imagine that as field guns had advanced since the towers construction they were too large to fit atop the tower. As this was the case the defenders could not bring their guns on the rebel artillery, the rebels charged between the cow tower and bishops bridge, swimming the river they eventually breached the city. Eventually as the city expanded in the 18/19th century’s the walls and towers were pulled down. Luckily the cow tower survived, and still dominates its position to this day.


Bishops bridge


Bishops bridge, you can see the coat of  arms of Norwich in the centre. 

Built in c.1340 during the reign of Edward III it remains in use today, and is one of the oldest bridges still in use in the UK. Before the bridge was constructed it is likely that an older timber bridge existed, and before that probably a small ferry crossing. The bridge was owned by the monks and they charged travellers seeking entry to the city, you can imagine that the various festivals and markets throughout the year would have attracted a lot of traders, and the monks would make a pretty penny  from collecting tolls, you can only imagine the politics that would come with all this money exchanging hands, and I bet someones pocket was getting full. Before all the walls and towers were demolished during the industrialisation of Norwich the bridge would have has a gatehouse and towers at the entrance. It’s hard to imagine how it would have looked back then, the smell of the city, the constant flow of comings and goings of carts and travellers.


The view from the cathedral down bishopgate road to bishops bridge, note the high ground in the distance, this is where some of William Ketts artillery was positioned.


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