The anglo-saxon village of Walessam-eska is the first recorded settlement in the area, with its name appearing as Walsam in the Domesday Book survey of 1080. The derivation of the name itself tells us that it was a small group of dwellings (anglo-saxon: ham) belonging to the Danish Waelsing family. The name Waels features in the ancient anglo-saxon poem Beowulf, written about a sixth century warrior who slayed Grendel, serpent of the Fens. Waels was the father of Sigemund the Waelsing who slayed a hoard keeping dragon. Other settlements of these same families are found locally at Walsingham, Wells, South Walsham and Walsham le Willows. The appearance of the anglo-saxon ham tells us that the family settled here sometime in the sixth century AD. Settlement before that time has been proven with the discovery in 1844 of Roman remains on the parish border with Felmingham, a site close to the line of a Roman Road which connected Burgh Camp near Great Yarmouth to the great fort at Brancaster on the northwest Norfolk coast.
With the coming of Christianity to East Anglia, the village was provided with a Church, and to that Church a portion of land and a priest. When the Vikings later raided the shores of eastern England many a village fell to their hands, including Walsam. It is recorded that during the reign of King Canute, a Norseman named Skiotr gave the village of Walsam along with its Church and estates to the Abbey of Saint Benet at Holme, then sited on an island in the Bure marshes near Horning. This Abbey was to become one of the richest Benedictine Monasteries in the land. Much of this wealth was obtained from Walsam, being its principal and most prosperous holding. The Abbot of Saint Benets, as Lord of the Manor held the rights to all market tithes, and the flourishing weaving industry of the area meant that these tithes were great indeed. It was upon this great wealth that the Abbey Church of Saint Benet along with the Parish Church of North Walsham were enlarged on a grand scale. Through this the town can now boast the largest Church in Norfolk that has always been a parish church. (Note: St Margarets Church in Kings Lynn and St Nicholas Church in Great Yarmouth are larger but these were originally conceived as Priory Churches. Great Yarmouth holds claim to being the largest parish church in the Britain.)
Records throughout the ages mention the town as Walsham Market and Walsham, the North being added within the last few hundred years. The Domesday book tells us that a church existed in North Walsham and that it belonged to Saint Benets Abbey. (The tower of this ancient church still exists today, being the oldest building in the town at well over a thousand years old. It was incorporated into the present church building and stands to the immediate north of the present tower ruin.) The rest of the town was built of wood at this time, being thatched with the reed that grew in the water meadows of the River Ant on the east side of the town. The towns arable land was divided into three fields; Southfield, Millfield and Northfield, and were subdivided into strips allotted to the townsmen. This was a system common throughout the country, with one field sown in wheat, another in beans, with barley (for brewing), and the third left fallow for sheep to re-fertilize the land. Year by year this system was rotated so that all fields had equal usage. The outskirts of the town were well wooded and provided rough grazing for a herd of pigs which wandered wild.
Weaving and Walsham
Flemish weavers came to England in the twelfth century and settled in Norfolk, the low lying landscape being reminiscent of their homelands. Their weaving capitals were sited at the twin-towns of Worstead and Walsham; weaving the countrys finest cloths of Worsted, still famed for its quality worldwide, and Walsham; which was a lighter cloth for summer use. By the beginning of the fourteenth century a market of these cloths was well established in Walsham. This new prosperity was proudly flaunted with the building of vast new churches for the two towns. More Flemish weavers moved to the district at the invitation of Edward III, and the town flourished at an incredible rate until 1348 ... the coming of the Black Death.
Black Death and Peasant Unrest
The Bubonic Plague or Black Death ravaged England in 1348, and recurred in 1361 and 1369. With it came the death of thousands, resulting in a loss of labour needed to farm the land, and work on Walshams incomplete church; original plans were altered, and beautiful, flowing, decorated window tracery had to give way to plain, simple intersected tracery. With the economy of the country in turmoil an Act was passed in 1351 that no man should refuse to work for the same rate of pay as before the Black Death. Extra revenue was also generated by the imposition of a Poll Tax on the people. The arable fields were laid to pasture, and common land was enclosed for sheep farming. This was less labour intensive with more profit being made from wool production. This caused great unrest of the peasants, which led to the famous Peasants Revolt of 1381 when John Litester, assisted by amongst others a man called Cubitt of North Walsham, led a rebellion of many thousands who seized the city of Norwich, killing the mayor in the process. Henry De Spenser, Bishop of Norwich, and a man with much experience of war abroad, was able to raise enough forces to drive the rebels from the city and they retreated to a camp at Bryants Heath near North Walsham. Despite the peasants elaborate makeshift barricades, they were ousted from their camp by the Bishop and his now numerable forces, and battle commenced. Many hundreds were slain and the defeated peasants fled towards to the town, seeking refuge in the incomplete church. The Bishop followed, Litester was captured, and the church witnessed a massacre of hundreds of peasants. De Spenser heard Litesters confession, gave him absolution and then had him dragged to his public execution. Three stone crosses were soon erected marking the site of the battlefield, as a permanent reminder of the consequences of such uprisings.