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"Cow Tower, Norwich - the first pillbox?" Topic

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Warspite109 Nov 2018 5:30 p.m. PST

Today the Cow Tower stands in the north-east corner of Norwich like a lost red brick Roman 'Pharos' or lighthouse, yet it has two possible claims to fame. Firstly it may be Britain's oldest 'pillbox' or defensive bunker for the firing guns, secondly it represents one of the first extensive uses of structural brick in Britain. Externally it resembles a Martello Tower or a Pictish broch; it even has the same tapering sides as both types of buildings. Yet other features, such as the cross-shaped gun loops, place it firmly in the Medieval period.

link to see the full set. The page is thumbnails and all shots open up bigger on a double-click.

The Cow Tower was built between 1398 and 1399. Norwich was a prosperous city in the late 14th century, with a population of around 5,000 involved in key medieval industries and forming a centre for international trade. Between 1297 and 1350 the city had erected a semi-circle of defensive stone walls and ditches which assisted with collecting taxes, advertised the status of Norwich as a great city and also defended it against invasion or civil disorder. Remember that the Peasants' Revolt of 1381 was within living memory when Cow Tower was built and Norwich had suffered during that.

Gunpowder weapons had begun to be introduced into England in the early 14th century, initially being used as battlefield or siege weapons but rapidly being adapted for defensive purposes from the 1360s. Although they were expensive, by the 1380s their potential value in defending castles and city walls was well understood and specialised features had begun to be built. By 1385 Norwich had fifty artillery pieces for use along its walls. In Kent, at Bodiam, Cooling and the West Gate at Canterbury, gun loops had been added to new buildings between 1380 to 1385. Firearms were here to stay. Cow Tower is a logical development. A free-standing tower just for gunpowder weapons.

The stone walls of Norwich describe a rough letter 'C' with a bend in the River Wensum covering the north-east gap in the 'C'. The tower stands in the middle of this gap. When first built Cow Tower was called the Dungeon (from Donjon) but was then called the "tower in the Hospital meadows", as the surrounding land was then part of St Giles' Hospital. It was intended to function as a specialised artillery and handgun tower, housing gunpowder weaponry capable of suppressing attackers on the far side of the river and disrupting any assault river crossing.

There are fragmentary references to an earlier tower in the area, responsible for collecting tolls and acting as a prison. This prison function could be the origin of the 'Dungeon' name but it is unclear if this was on the same site as the Cow Tower or merely refers to a different tower in the general area. Although the Cow Tower was not directly attached to the city walls, a protective timber palisade did link the tower with the city wall to the north-west, and ran south to meet Bishop Bridge. With the eye of faith today it is still just possible to see an raised bank fringing the river to the south of Cow Tower which was either the earth revetment to this palisade or else a simple earth bank to prevent flooding. It may even have functioned as both. The present footpath runs along the top of it and is about seven feet above the adjacent former meadow, now a sports field.

The city's accounts show details of payments for the construction of the tower between 1398 and 1399, including charges for 36,850 bricks, stone, sand, lime, a hoist and various equipment. One reason for the tower's height is that it stands on low-lying meadow facing a steep rise about 300 metres away on the other side of the Wensum. The city fathers may have feared that an attacker would set up camp on this rise and use artillery to bombard the city. In 1549 Robert Kett exploited this very weakness when he led an uprising in Norfolk. His army camped on the north-east side of the river, overlooking Cow Tower. Two rebel attacks were then made across the river into the hospital meadows, in an attempt to take nearby Bishop Bridge. Kett had brought artillery, which he turned on the Cow Tower, damaging the latter's parapets. The rebellion failed and the tower does not seem to have required extensive repairs. The hill opposite is now called Kett's Hill.

Cow Tower is a three-storey circular building with a protruding stair turret at the rear, the main building being 11.2 metres across and 14.6 metres tall, tapering towards the top. The walls, 1.8 metres thick at the base, are made of a core of flint rubble stone, faced on the inside and outside with brick. Various putlog holes can still be seen in the walls.

The brickwork, particularly on the stairwell, is well executed. Archaeologist T. P. Smith considers the tower to feature some "of the finest medieval brickwork" in England. It is the earliest known use of brick in an external load-bearing capacity in Norwich. The use of brick in this sort of fortification was both prestigious and practical, as brick absorbed the impact of artillery fire better than stone.

The quatrefoil gunports in the lower levels could have been used for both handgonnes and crossbows with some overlapping fields of fire. The roof was reinforced with large timber joists and could have supported heavier bombards; the tower's considerable height would allowed these bombards to reach across the river to the higher ground (Kett's Hill) which overlooks the city.

The parapet was crenellated with nine wide splayed embrasures and those embrasures facing out across the river were constructed flush with the floor of the roof, giving the bombards plenty of room to fire and the ability to depress to hit the river in front of the tower itself. Cow Tower has a simple ground floor entrance next to the stairwell turret and while this is relatively poorly defended objects could have been dropped from the roof on to anyone trying to force these doors. This is not a castle, it was a local defence 'hard point' capable of proving a severe nuisance to an attacker… and thus my analogy to a modern pillbox in the opening paragraph.

The interior has fireplaces and toilets. The ground floor may have formed a dining area with the floors above being used for military purposes and sleeping. The walls of the ground floor have curious diagonal chasing and sockets cut into them. These may have contained timbers to support brickwork that in turn supported the first floor or they are the remains of a magazine retrofitted in the tower in the 16th century.

Cow Tower is managed by English Heritage and Norwich City Council. The tower is now only a shell as the floors and the roof have been lost. The interior is visible through an iron gate. The riverside walk goes past and around it.

Warspite109 Nov 2018 5:39 p.m. PST

This is the second attempt to post this, the first crashed with alien text in it last night. My thanks to the editor for deleting the earlier disaster.

A version of my text first appeared in Hobilar, the Journal of the Lance and Longbow Society which I write for occasionally.


RJT200310 Nov 2018 10:48 a.m. PST

interesting article, thanks for posting.

Personal logo ColCampbell Supporting Member of TMP10 Nov 2018 12:46 p.m. PST

Yes, very interesting! Thanks,


Warspite112 Nov 2018 8:47 a.m. PST

Thank you both. I estimate about 60 people have viewed it based on the number of hits on my Flickr group.

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