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Norwich Heart, Heritage Economic & Regeneration Trust

Cathedral of St John the Baptist

Cathedral of St John the Baptist

The architect Patrick Palgrave-Moore has described the Cathedral of St John the Baptist in Norwich as 'perhaps the finest example of Victorian Gothic revival in this country'.  Additionally, it is the second largest Catholic cathedral in the country. 

It was gifted to the city of Norwich by the fifteenth Duke of Norfolk. At the Duke's request it was designed in the Early English style of the thirteenth century. Work began on the former site of the City Gaol in 1882 but by 1884 its architect, George Gilbert Scott Jnr., had been certified insane, dying just thirteen years later. His brother, John Oldrid Scott, continued his work completing the building in 1910. St John's remained the largest Roman Catholic church outside London until 1976 when, during a reorganisation of the Roman Catholic Church, Alan Clark became the first Bishop of East Anglia and St John's became the Cathedral Church of the Roman Catholic diocese of East Anglia.


The then Duke of Norfolk had a passion for building, and hoped the construction of this new church would act as a tool for reintegrating Catholicism into English life. Since the Reformation there continued to be prejudices towards the Roman Catholic Church which were, as the Duke saw it, outdated and uninformed, and he had hoped his actions would work towards dispelling these thoughts. This he felt was particularly important in Norwich, where there were few Catholic worshippers. Although they were free to use the Church of St John the Baptist (in the Maddermarket) and the Chapel of St Peter and St Paul (in Willow Lane), the Catholics of the city did not have a central church of their own.

The construction of the church was rather problematic. Medieval chalk mines beneath the site had to be secured, resulting in 2 years work having to be completed even before the foundation stone could be laid in 1884. Furthermore, ten years into the project, it was discovered that the stone used (Devon Beer stone) was not weathering well. It was decided that the remainder of the construction should be carried out using Ancaster and Clipsham stone. Rather embarrassingly the Duke had discovered that he did not have planning permission to complete the church to the full length. After negotiations with the City Council the matter was resolved.

By December 1910 the church was ready to be opened. In his opening speech to the congregation, the Bishop of Northampton said 'this is no ordinary church...the majesty of its architecture, the vastness of its spaces, the endless charm of the mighty pillar, soaring arch and triumphant vault...recall the masterpieces of the Ages of Faith and challenge comparison with them'.

The building

Opinion is however, divided as to the beauty of the cathedral. At the time of its construction some found it grotesque and out of keeping with the character of Norwich. Some also find it dark and forbidding. Its great size and majesty often mean that it is mistaken for Norwich's medieval cathedral. To many it is a beautiful and peaceful place for quiet reflection. Whatever ones view, the cathedral remains an amazing feat of Victorian engineering and design.

One of the first things that you notice as you walk up the steps into the churchyard are the thousands of fossils contained within the stone steps. Once inside, this element is continued with more fossils speckling the black Frosterley marble pillars surrounding the nave. The nave consists of ten bays, supported by massive cylindrical columns. It is over 49 m (160 ft) long and 18 m (60 ft) high. Also of note are the great number of attractive sculptures and some of the finest nineteenth century stained glass in Europe. In particular the windows of the Sunken Chapel, or the Chapel of St Joseph, need mention. They depict Saints Flora, Pauline, Ester and Barbara; the four names of the Duke's first wife Lady Flora Abney Hastings.

In the north aisle there is a memorial to the Polish men and women of the region who were killed during the Second World War. The Polish community continue to meet regularly at the Cathedral.

Similarly to the Anglican Cathedral, St John's Roman Catholic Cathedral is richly decorated with skilfully carved roof bosses. Exceptionally detailed, the bosses also have a practical function, acting as keystones to hold the stone ribs of the ceiling in place. The bosses teach moral lessons or tell religious stories - for example, depicting Adam and Eve being tempted by Satan, Adam and Eve being banished from the Garden of Eden, the Nativity of Jesus, or Elijah being fed by angels in the desert. There are also a number of bosses dedicated to St John the Baptist, the Cathedral's patron.  

The construction of the Church of St John and the tribute to Lady Flora in the Sunken Chapel was completed by the Duke in thanks for his marriage and in the hope of a bright future with his wife Lady Flora. Unhappily, the couple only had one son who was born blind, epileptic, and with learning difficulties and Lady Flora was dead by the time of his eighth birthday. The Duke later married Lady Gwendolen Herries who added the chapel in the north transept, whose windows depict the story of the shrine at Walsingham.   


Norwich Catholic Cathedral has been the home for a number of events. In 1912 it was the venue for the 3rd National Catholic Congress, a great honour for the Catholic community. By this point, the Catholics of Norwich were lucky enough to have the largest parish church in England.

During the Second World War the church was used as a turning beacon for planes returning to Norfolk after bombing assignments in Europe.   

In 1976 the church was consecrated as a cathedral - it provided the seat for the newly reinstated Bishop of East Anglia, previously the church had been part of the diocese of Northampton. 

References and further reading:

  • Pevsner, Nikolaus, The buildings of England: North East Norfolk and Norwich, 1997
  • Marshall, K. G., The Duke of Norfolk, Biographical Magazine, vol. 15, no 1, 1902
  • Palgrave-Moore, Patrick, The Catholic Cathedral of St John the Baptist, 1982
  • Rossi, Anthony, Norwich Roman Catholic Cathedral: a building history, 1998


Victoria Golden

September 2007