THE TRAVELLER in Norfolk is soon aware that he is treading on ground over which the Roman legions tramped, but no Balbus or Julius spent his hard-won leave tasting the flesh-pots of Yarmouth as does the modern American service man. In the far-off days of the warlike Boadicea, the soil on which Great Yarmouth stands was still beneath the sea, and the legions at Burgh Castle were separated from their fellows at Caister, not by 6 miles of land but by 6 miles of water. This part of the coast was one huge estuary many times longer than Breydon Water is today, for it stretched from Caister in the north to Corton in the south, and into it flowed the rivers now known as the Waveney and Wensum. Over the years a sandbank formed at the mouth of the estuary and slowly it became an island stretching for some 8 miles in a north-to-south direction. The waters of the mighty estuary surged through two main channels and joined the open sea at Caister and Corton. The northern channel known as Grubb's Haven soon became choked with sand, and the river followed the southern outlet to the sea. Yarmouth now stands on the peninsula so formed.

It is difficult to give a precise date for the formation of the bank, but one authority says it was the scene of a fierce skirmish in about the year 500 between the Britons and an army of marauding Saxons led by one, Cedric. After their victory, the invaders did not plunder the surrounding countryside and then beat a hasty retreat to their galleys before reinforcements could be brought up to meet them, but formed a settlement on this sandbank at the mouth of the River Jier. The evidence for this is admittedly only slight, but incidents like it were taking place all round the eastern seaboard and it is unlikely that we shall ever know the truth of the matter.

Very little is known about the growth of Yarmouth over the next 500 years, but the surrounding seas were teeming with herring, and these attracted fishermen from far afield. In the wake of the fishermen came the small traders and businessmen to sell the necessities of life to the seafarers; and so the settlement grew. Not until the life of William I is there documentary evidence as to this growth. William the Conqueror was anxious to know the extent of the riches of the kingdom which he had won, and to this end carried out the great Domesday survey. With the valuable information which this revealed, he was able to levy taxes over the whole country systematically. From the survey of 1086, it can be seen that Yarmouth with its 70 burgesses was much less important than Norwich with 665 burgesses, Ipswich with 110, or Thetford, one of the most important towns in the kingdom, with 720.

Yarmouth differed from most towns, however, in that it was owned in its entirety by the king, and not by a lord of the manor. Nevertheless, the same medieval dues were demanded and each property owner paid to the king's sheriff (who was the official tax-gatherer) his share to the Royal Exchequer. They were the king's men, not freemen, and they were compelled to endure all those restrictions imposed upon personal freedom, which were inherent in the feudal system. Taxes were paid before a son could inherit or a marriage take place. Tolls were paid before business could be done in the markets. Levies for the maintenance of the army were frequently demanded, and Yarmouth's share of the "geld", as it was called, was to provide one man complete with arms and armour, or pay to the king's officer a fine of one pound, which was of course a considerable sum in those days. The administration of justice was rudimentary. The sheriff presided at the king's court, and there was little control of his authority, so that all men were at his mercy. The punishment for most crimes was almost inevitably the payment of money, and it was the sheriff who, in a very rough-and-ready way, decided the amount of this fine. This was normally based on the prisoner's ability to pay, and part of all this revenue passed directly into the king's coffers. Life was hard in this town, but it was very much easier than in the neighbouring agricultural districts. There serfs were sold for little more than the price of a couple of oxen, and villeins were compelled to do service on the lord's land. With the gradual breakdown of the feudal system and the development of trade and commerce, Yarmouth began to prosper so that in the time of Henry I a port reeve was appointed to help the sheriff in his official duties. It was he, now, who collected the king's dues. Consequently with another of the king's officials living among them it became increasingly difficult for the tolls to be evaded. Local merchants were also beginning to feel the pinch through their inability to capture markets in other towns, for on all sides they were being asked to pay local tolls before they were permitted to do business. This was a perfectly legal extraction authorised by the king and the great feudal overlords who had granted these and other privileges to many towns in the form of a charter.

This was most galling to the Yarmouth merchants, but the position could only be remedied if their own town were itself to become chartered. A non-chartered town laboured under a further disadvantage, for its burgesses were unable to form themselves into a merchants' guild. This was most important, for by so doing, burgesses could keep the control of the town's trade in their own hands, and create a virtual monopoly. Thus Yarmouth, despite the most strenuous efforts, was unable to share fully in the wave of comparative prosperity which was becoming apparent in the country. There was one solution to all her problems—the granting of a charter—and this she successfully obtained from the hands of King John in 1209.

The king was not the loser either, for he traded his rights in the town for an annual fee-farm rent of £55, whereas previously his income from the town had been approximately £40 per annum and he, himself, had been compelled to defray the costs of collection. The privileges which were bestowed upon Yarmouth, however, were of inestimable value. The handicap under which her merchants laboured outside of the town were removed, and she was able to control markets in Yarmouth through her merchants' guild. Yarmouth was declared "a free borough for ever", and this relieved the citizens of many of the feudal demands made upon them. They now owned the freehold of their own land. Moreover, they were now freed of the tyranny of the king's officers, for it was now they who administered the king's justice in the local court, and burgesses involved in suits in other towns could demand that charges against them be heard in Yarmouth courts. The charter of 1209 not only allowed the town to be self-governing, but by granting responsibilities as well as privileges, created a sense of unity. It was something of importance to be a Yarmouth man—you could hold your head high! You were not just a man living under the command of a reeve or sheriff, whose very livelihood could be held in forfeit for little more than a whim. You were a member of a self-governing community!

The Hutch Map
This is an unknown Elizabethan cartographer's conception of what Yarmuth was like in the year 1000. It is called the Hutch Map because many years later it was found by an archivist in the town's chest or hutch.