The Civil War Comes to Norwich

The Great Blow:

Examinations and Informations relating to the Great Blow in Norwich, 1648

On 24 April 1648 a rioting crowd unwittingly unleashed the largest explosion in seventeenth-century England, detonating ninety-eight barrels of powder in the house rented to Norfolk’s County Committee, very close to Norwich market place. The blast was heard throughout Norfolk and caused damage to many of the city’s buildings. It occurred when the nation was poised on the brink of the Second Civil War. Despite it being such a dramatic moment in Norwich’s history, the episode has been overlooked by many national narratives of the Civil Wars. Norwich is usually considered a strongly parliamentarian city, ‘puritan’ in its sympathies and deep within the powerful Eastern Association, a distant backwater from the theatres of war in which armed royalism presented a military threat. The evidence generated by the ‘Great Blow’ challenges that perception.

The subsequent investigation by city magistrates ensured that the ‘mutiny’, ‘crack’ or ‘blow’ as contemporaries called it, became the best documented riot of the century. The justices were determined to identify the ringleaders and participants in the riot, many of whom they strongly suspected of acting upon royalist sympathies. This investigation included 278 witness statements in the form of informations and examinations taken between April and December. These are among the Norwich City Records collection in the Norfolk Record Office. They form the largest single archival collection for studying popular royalist insurgency in Civil-War England.

Testimonies were shaped by the questions put to witnesses by the magistrates. Therefore they reveal much about the anxieties that disturbed Norwich’s justices. They show how the rioting crowds mobilized through well-established tools of popular politics: petitions, inflammatory words and gestures, swearing, health-drinking, gunshots as signals, all these preceded the eventual resort to riot and violence. The evidence shows that the magistrates treated the affair as a royalist uprising and the testimonies inform the following brief narrative.

A crowd one thousand strong gathered at the Market Cross at 9am to threaten Parliament’s messenger, who was conferring with the Mayor in the King’s Head Inn. Drums were struck up elsewhere in the city, whilst watch words such as ‘for god & kinge Charles’ rang out along Ber Street. The crowds converged on the houses of leading city parliamentarians. These included the home of Alderman Adrian Parmenter on Hogg Hill, which doubled as the hated Excise Office. The house of the sheriff and militia captain, Thomas Ashwell, was plundered. Helmets, armour, half pikes, muskets, swords, bandoliers, gunpowder, a buff coat, drum and swede’s feathers (stakes to hamper cavalry attack) were all thrown out from the broken windows and ushered away. Several pikes were found concealed in a false roof and distributed amongst the crowd.

The site of Sheriff Thomas Ashwell’s House, one of the targets of the rioters on 24 April 1648. According to Francis Blomefield, this stood as the corner house against the south side of St Michael at Plea Church, by the Red-wall. Prior to 1648, it had been used as meeting house by the Independent congregation in Norwich.
Photograph, Professor Andrew Hopper’s own private collection.

Around 2pm crowds converged on the Committee House, a symbol of Parliament’s power over the city and the arsenal for the county arms magazine. Breaking through the bolted doors, the rioters ascended to the armoury, where Samuel Cawthorne, the armourer was assaulted for having shot a boy in the scuffle. By 4pm three troops of Colonel Charles Fleetwood’s parliamentarian cavalry regiment converged on Norwich. Riding down the crowd, they sent many of the inhabitants scurrying indoors, while a firefight developed around the Committee House during pouring rain. In the excitement, the rioters were careless with the gunpowder. One swept it from the stairs, another took a hatful home. The result was St Stephen’s and St Peter Mancroft lost their windows, along with most other glazed buildings in the market place. Total damage was later estimated at the colossal sum of £20,000.

The Bethel Hospital, built in 1713, now occupies the site of the Committee House, the location of the explosion.
Photograph, Professor Andrew Hopper’s own private collection.

The parliamentarian aldermen in Norwich used the whole affair to purge their opponents from the aldermanic bench and from the common council, deeming them to be royalist sympathisers who had connived with or encouraged the rioters. They also ejected several city clergymen from their livings for similar reasons. 108 individuals eventually stood trial in Norwich Guildhall in December 1648. 26 were fined £30, 7 were imprisoned and 2 were whipped, while 8 men were hanged alongside 2 witches in the Castle ditches in January 1649.

The deaths of the rioters in the blast, alongside the supposed miraculous preservation of innocent bystanders, were celebrated afterwards in London’s newsbooks. One of these reported that ‘a very great (but yet unceartaine) number of those wretches’ were ‘executed by their owne hands and not dying the ordinary death of men: but behold here armes and there legges of dead men scattered: everywhere some tokens of Gods Justice on these wretches and mercy to his poore people’ (British Library, Thomason E438(6), A True Relation of the Late Great Mutiny which was in the City and County of Norwich (1648), p. 5.

By seizing control of the gates and key buildings in the city, the crowds saw themselves as taking action to preserve their city’s honour, liberties and self-government. But many of them voiced a politics of popular royalism. Subscriptions to petitions, inflammatory speech and gesture, encouraged those most disaffected and excluded by the parliamentarian regime to vent their frustrations with violence. These testimonies demonstrate to us today that an empowered, independent and active citizenry emerged from the Civil Wars, not just in London, but in England’s provincial cities as well. It should also remind us that such forces did not always militate in a parliamentarian or Whig direction.

There is no contemporary representation of Norwich after the Great Blow but this view of Delft illustrates the devastation following a similar explosion: Egbert van der Poel, ‘A View of Delft after the Explosion of 1654’ (National Gallery, London).

The Great Blow: Examinations and Informations relating to the Great Blow in Norwich, 1648 was edited by Andrew Hopper, Jean Agnew and Emily Alley (Published October 2018) and is available from the Norfolk Record Society.

This blog post was written by Andrew Hopper