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Bar Man: Jeff Hoyle discusses recent stay in Norwich pub and the history behind it

In his weekly column, Jeff Hoyle discusses the history behind a pub he has recently stayed in…

Just across the road from the cathedral in Norwich, on the corner of Tombland is the Maids Head Hotel.

If you linger outside for a minute before entering you may spot the blue plaque by the door which states that Matthew Shardlake stayed here in 1549.

Jeff Hoyle
Jeff Hoyle

The hotel is certainly old enough, with evidence suggesting that the site was used for hospitality by Herbert de Losinga, the first Bishop of Norwich in 1094, though as far as I know, nothing remains of the building from this time.

By 1287 it was the Murtle Fish Tavern and was mentioned in a theft case in the court records.

By 1472 John Paston was recommending travellers ‘’it were best to sette hys horse at the Maydes Hedde.”

So, on the face of it, Shardlake’s stay is not unreasonable…except it did not happen, as he is a fictional character created by the author C J Samson.

Protagonist of seven novels to date, Shardlake comes to Norwich to investigate a murder and is caught up in the events of Kett’s rebellion.

Inspired by a stay at the hotel during the Norwich Beer Festival, I read the book and became fascinated by Robert Kett.

While Sampson’s novel is fiction, he goes to great lengths to set it in an authentic historical world and includes extensive appendices describing what is known of the real events.

Kett was a landowner from Wymondham who ended up leading a rebellion of about 16,000 men who were protesting about the enclosure of common land which they relied on for their livelihood.

The rebels set up camp on Mousehold Heath overlooking the city and while there, petitioned the King for reform.

When this was refused and an army was sent against them, Kett’s men were victorious and captured Norwich before eventually being defeated by an army led by John Dudley, the Earl of Warwick at the battle of Dussindale at a site the outskirts of the city, yet to be located.

Over the period of the rebellion, the Maids Head was occupied by both the rebels and the King’s army.

Kett and his brother William, who also took part in the rebellion, were both executed.

This was just one of many uprisings across the country and is marked by Ketts Hill in Norwich which runs up to Mousehold Heath from the river crossing and entry to the city at Bishopgate.

Kett set up his headquarters in a ruined chapel called St Michaels, which became known as Kett’s Castle and this name was adopted by a pub on the hill in the 1820’s which later became Kett’s Tavern.

Sadly, this closed around 2015 and was converted to housing.

In Wymondham, Kett’s home town, a new build pub which opened in 1974 was named the Robert Kett and is still trading.

There is also a primary school and an apartment complex named after him in Wymondham.

Woodforde’s did produce a limited-edition ale, Kett’s Rebellion about 10 years ago.

Personally, I think it is great to see an historical figure from Norfolk, other than Nelson, receive a bit of publicity and one might argue that a man of the people such as Robert Kett has more claims to be on the signs as you enter the county than Nelson (though I would still choose Thomas Paine).

Top marks to the Maid’s Head for their plaque which inspired me to follow up such a fascinating and little-known story and for those who have kept alive the memory of Robert Kett by naming their pubs, beers, schools, houses, and streets after him.

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