We have tried to avoid writing about commerce on this site, being sworn anticapitalists, but obviously an article about the Market doesn't leave us much wiggle-room. The Market is the place where Norvicians have shopped for almost one thousand years. For much of its lifespan, they would have been looking for cheap groceries—fish and crustaceans from the coast, local meat, Norfolk fruit and veg, more exotic items imported from places they would never see—but nowadays a visitor to the Market can look for more frivolous items: incense sticks, kaftans, harem pants, 'vintage' shell suits, and artisanal gins.
Norwich first grew up around a market at Tombland—which, as the article under that name will tell you, was an open space where the Vikings and Anglo-Saxons would trade. Then, in 1066, the Normans arrived to subjugate East Anglia and the mishmash of nationalities and identities that had made Tombland home. They built a Cathedral over most of the Tombland area, to ensure the masses were properly doped up with scripture (joke!—at any rate we got a beautiful building out of it), and then colonised an area of fields and farms to the West, known as ġemǣne croft, or 'Mancroft' (see the entry for St Peter's Street). This area had a handy pre-made defensive fortification, built by generations of Roman and Anglo-Saxon occupiers, so it made sense for the Normans to plonk their castle there.
Next, they needed a way to supervise trade and, pardon my Norman French, tax the merde out of it. They made a new market in the Mancroft, and the traders of Norwich haven't looked back since.
For a long time, the Market was surrounded by cramped slums and yards, and overlooked by the Guildhall on Gaol Hill, the street that ran downhill on the north side. The church of St Peter Mancroft, added later in the Middle Ages, improved the aesthetics a bit. There was a huge, elaborate market cross—a mix of a chapel, a waymarker and a general public hangout spot—on the east side, along the row of buildings which was then called the Cordwainery and now goes by Gentleman's Walk. Ralph Hale Mottram, the local historian whose writings inform much of this site, describes 'a black market in corn and beer, "by which the Bailiffs lost their custom or Toll" '.
An illustration of the Market in the 1930s, by Ralph Hale Mottram's brother Alfred.
Within Mottram's lifetime the City Council, the modern equivalent of those Norman colonial bailiffs, still held its meetings on the same spot as they had done for five hundred years. Now they're only a few hundred yards away, on the other side of the Market, which the Normans made irreversibly the centre of urban life here.
The Market was supposed to be completely re-developed around the turn of the current millennium, but this was met with hearty opposition from basically everyone, and the Council, which had brought all of the stalls into public ownership in the 30s and then leased them back, now opted for a more conservative design: rows of permanent metal-sided stalls with distinctive striped roofs. This makes Norwich Market one of the biggest permanent markets in Europe.
These metal walls have been augmented in the last few years by murals and other art. One stencil piece by Amy Fellows, on the east side of the Market by Gentleman's Walk, celebrates Pablo Fanque, the first black circus owner in Britain. He operated out of Norwich in the golden age of circuses, the Victorian era, and is also commemorated by the Beatles song 'Being for the Benefit of Mr Kite', whose lyrics John Lennon stole wholesale from an old circus poster advertising one of Fanque's performances.