- Credit: IAN BURT
Swaffham market is celebrating a very special birthday this year – the 800th anniversary of buying and selling in its historic square
As medieval townsfolk took to the bustling market place to buy and sell produce, few could have imagined that hundreds of years later, it would still be such a vibrant and important part of the fabric of the town.
This year marks the 800th anniversary of the earliest official documents issued by King John referencing the market – although it is thought to have existed many years before that in some form.
The Swaffham Market 800 Project, which was supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund, has led the celebrations by organising a number of events and exhibitions happening throughout the year.
Dr David Bek, co-ordinator of the 800 Project, says the market remains as much a vital part of the town today as it was in the 13th century.
Today, Swaffham’s Saturday market bustles with visitors, with stalls selling everything from meat, fish, fruit and vegetables, bread and cheese to an array of clothes, homewares, bric-a-brac, antiques and plants.
“It is very much central to Swaffham’s identity and a reason people give for visiting the town,” he says. “People know there is a market and that it has a long history, but many aren’t aware of just how fascinating its past is.”
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The earliest written documents referencing the market date back to June 1215. Not only do they confirm its existence, they also highlight its near demise. The letter from King John directs the Sheriff of Norfolk to abolish the market if it is found to damage the market at nearby Great Dunham. At the time the law stated that no market should be within six miles from one already established. However, it was obviously deemed no threat and the market lived on.
The market’s long history is rich with fascinating stories and colourful characters.
“There have been some amazing finds which really bring the past 800 years of history to life. You take so much of your local history for granted, but it was so interesting seeing how historical events impacted on the town,” says David. “It is extraordinary when you learn more about the brutality of some periods of that 800 years, and how hard life would have been, with the reliance on the seasons for food and the impact of disease, such as the Black Death, and war. It makes you really think about the things we consider struggles today.”
As part of the celebrations, there have been a number of talks and lectures in the town revealing more about the market’s history, and there will be a permanent digital exhibition at Swaffham Museum, heritage trails and a visitor information board and commemorative plaque.
“We want this project to be something which continues to benefit the town for years to come, both educationally and for tourism as well,” he adds. “In terms of the market itself, we see the project as a very important opportunity for promoting the market and looking at what is the future of a typical Saturday market in a 21st century town. Many have folded, so you need to think about how to maintain these hugely important markets. I think the key is to hold a couple of big events a year, to reinvigorate things, remind people how good it is and to attract new customers to the town.”
One such event organised by the Swaffham Market 800 Project was a huge medieval festival in July, taking the town back to 1215 with re-enactments, traditional music, archery, minstrels, roving storytellers, a film festival, public talks, lectures and a festival of markets.
“The medieval festival drew thousands of people to the market place and people said they were thinking about the town in a different light, which was incredibly positive. It’s about towns as centres for community life, where everyone can come together, and you have to protect that.”