Caistor is known to have been the Regional Capital of the Iceni lands in Roman times, and there is a strong supposition that before that it was an Iron Age centre. In the Neolithic Age nearby Arminghall had been the site of the place of ritual that we know of as Woodhenge. With all this pre-history, Anglo-Saxon Caistor gets little attention, in spite of the fact that a large pagan burial site of the early post Roman (i.e. Saxon) period is known to exist in Caistor. The Anglo-Saxon town would have been of wooden buildings that have left little trace of their existence, and the site has not been discovered; it has not even been looked for in any meaningful sense as far as I am aware.
There is a feeling that by the the beginning of late Anglo-Saxon times Norwich had already become the main town in Norfolk, leaving Caistor as the small settlement that it remains today; but Norwich may have taken some years to overtake Caistor. In the ninth century Caistor was perhaps still functioning as a town. Norwich was created by the Vikings who arrived to settle in East Anglia in 880. As a political power the Vikings were defeated by Edward the Elder (son of Alfred the Great) in 917, but as a cultural force their influence endured long after. There are still many roads in Norwich that have Viking names; ‘gate’ is a Norse word for ‘way’, and in the city we have Pottergate, Colegate, Fishergate, Finkelgate, Westlegate and Newgate (now Surrey Street) among others. These are not necessarily all places of late ninth/early tenth century date. Bishopsgate for instance is a good example. This street obviously got its name after the see was transferred to Norwich from Thetford by the Normans at the end of the eleventh century. Before that it had been called Holmstrete. Viking influence on the language thus lasted long after their political independence was extinguished.
The beginning of the end for Caistor came in November 869 when the invading Danes sacked the town. By November the Danes were anxious to find a good secure place to camp down and make their winter quarters, having arrived in East Anglia by ship earlier in that year. The land based Danes on horseback had already made their winter quarters at Thetford as we are told in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. The seamen raiders chose the old Roman town of Venta Icenorum to establish their camp. Even today the ramparts and walls are extensive; over a thousand years ago the walls would have stood tall and almost complete. They would have been easy to defend. It was also accessible by boat, so on both counts it was ideal. It was in a similar riverside position to the walled towns of York and Nottingham where the Danes had camped in previous years. This is not history you will read in any books; it is the result of my careful study of the written medieval accounts and my intimate knowledge of the topography of East Anglia.
The first thing the Danes did when they arrived in Caistor was to massacre the local population. To add to the element of surprise they attacked in the hours of darkness. Men, women and children were put the sword as they slept, and only the old and weak who could not fight and oppose the Danes were left alive. These remnants had their use however, for they were compelled to tell the Danes where their king was hiding. When the Danes found out a messenger bearing the Danish demands was sent to king Edmund who was concealed a few miles away at Hellesdon. The tables had been turned; no longer could Edmund hope to surprise the Danes as they made their progress up river Wensum towards the cathedral at North Elmham that Edmund anticipated they would raid for the rich treasure it contained. Rather it was Edmund himself who was surprised, because the Danish army followed their messenger so closely that they did not even wait for an answer to their demands before falling on the Anglo-Saxon king and his army.
Why are these facts not better known? This account of the attack by the Danish army was written down by a Benedictine monk about a hundred years after the event. He did not mention Caistor by name, although he mentioned Hellesdon, the nearby village where St Edmund was concealed; so we know we are in the right area. But what is the hard evidence for this massacre really happening in Caistor? Evidence there is, but is important to go back to the original Latin which was used by the monk who wrote all this down to find it. This story was translated into English by a nineteenth century scholar and this version is the one we normally read today. The word he used to describe the place where all this happened was city. In the Latin tongue the word for a city is urbs. Although the word urbs is used to describe the place where all this took place, on one occasion the monk uses the word civitas, a word that had a particular meaning in the usage of the time. It meant the regional capital or administrative centre of the province. Thus York would be called the civitas of Northumbria, and Canterbury the civitas of Kent. The word was used in this way by the Romans and it was also used in this sense by the Anglo-Saxons and their contemporaries when writing in Medieval Latin. In East Anglia there was only one place that could be the administrative centre of East Anglia – Venta Icenorum, or Caistor-by-Norwich.
Consider finally the name the village still goes by; Caistor St Edmund. The obvious reason for this name is the dedication of the church to St Edmund. But other settlements nearby also have churches dedicated to the saint, like Taverham, Costessey, Acle and Thurne, and none of these have the saint’s name added. Nor could it be to distinguish this Caistor from Caister-by-Yarmouth, for the very good reason that Caister-by-Yarmouth also had a church dedicated to St Edmund. Caistor-by-Norwich was clearly something special in relation to St Edmund, and I think it was this massacre that took place when the Danes were looking for the king who they also killed shortly afterwards. The fact that the way he died marked him out immediately as a major saint meant that ever since the settlement at Caistor has borne his name in celebration, and as memorial to those who died. The other place in East Anglia which has the saint’s name attached is of course Bury St Edmunds. Everybody should know that this where the saint’s body was translated in the 10th century. By contrast the reason for Caistor having this addition to its place-name has been lost in the mists of time. A theory exists that Caistor was given this name when Edward the Confessor gave he income of the parish to the Abbey at Bury St Edmunds. He certainly did that but there is no evidence that the name dates from that time.
Anybody who wishes to read more on this subject should send for my booklet St Edmund’s Norfolk. This available as a download by email me at the address below.