Poems from the East: Norwich

This is the fourth in our series of poems about East Anglia to mark National Poetry Day on 7th October. It is a response to the great fire which devastated Norwich “England’s chief ornament” in 1507

16th Century Norwich
16th century Norwich: edited by Georg Braun engraved by Franz Hogenberg, CC Wikimedia Commons

John Skelton was a clergyman born in Diss, where he was Rector for 30 years. He was tutor to Henry Tudor (who became Henry VIII). Later he was disciplined by the Bishop of Norwich for living with a woman as man and wife (which was illegal for clergymen) after he held up his baby in the pulpit and invited anyone to condemn him. He took sanctuary in Westminster Abbey, where he died. He wrote extensive poetry in English and Latin.

This short poem marks the 1507 great fire of Norwich. Fires were common in medieval cities, with many thatched timber buildings. Norwich had major fires in 1004, 1272, 1413 and 1505.

The 1507 fire started on Easter Tuesday and burnt for four days, destroying 718 buildings. As a result, very little of the medieval city remains, and the city decreed that all houses should be tiled, not thatched. The map shows Norwich after its restoration.

O sad calamity, O fate most dire!

A venerable city razed by fire.

Through love’s fierce lightnings, or the Fates’ stern hand,

Norwich, so long the glory of our land,

In the consuming flames of Vulcan dies;

England’s chief ornament in ashes lies;

O city, what of thee can now be said?

A few fair things survive that thou hast bred;

All life is brief, and frail all man’s estate.

City, farewell; I mourn thy cruel fate.

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