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Norwich Heart, Heritage Economic & Regeneration Trust

Norwich Cathedral

Norwich Cathedral      

Norwich Cathedral of the Holy and Undivided Trinity was founded in 1096 by the first Bishop of Norwich, Bishop Herbert de Losinga, as penance for buying his Bishopric from the King five years earlier. In order to create his new cathedral, priory and precinct, Bishop Losinga acquired land at the centre of the ever growing town of Norwich. The land already contained the churches of St Michael Tombland and Christ or Holy Trinity church, and the homes of many Norwich townsfolk, but all were swept away to make way for the cathedral. Although the cathedral then took on the dedication of one of the demolished churches, the intrusive beginnings of cathedral and priory did not bode well for good relations with the citizens of Norwich.

The Close

The cathedral precinct or 'Close' is the largest to survive in England and also has the largest number of residential houses within it. These houses range from eighteenth-century townhouses to homes converted from what remained of the fourteenth and fifteenth century monastic buildings. The Close is generally entered by one of two main gates in the western wall: the Ethelbert Gate to the south or the Erpingham Gate to the north. 

Ethelbert Gate

The Ethelbert Gate was built in about 1316 after the original gateway and the nearby Anglo-Saxon church of St Ethelbert were destroyed during an uprising in 1272. At the Tombland fair, just outside the gates to the priory, a disagreement developed between the monks and some citizens. Citizens were killed and a warrant was issued for the arrest of the murderous monks. The monks argued that they were exempt from city laws and locked the gates to the Close, their hired men attacking passers-by. When the hired men went on a rampage into the city, the trouble escalated and the aggrieved Norwich citizens retaliated. They set fire to the Close, the church of St Ethelbert and the cathedral, as well as plundering the priory and persecuting its supporters. Several were killed in these attacks and more deaths followed when Prior Brunham strengthened his side with hired men from Great Yarmouth. King Henry III had to intervene, fining the citizens and putting many to death. As part of the settlement, the citizens of Norwich paid for and built the Ethelbert Gate with a chapel at its first floor to replace the former church of St Ethelbert. 

Architecturally the Ethelbert Gate is of great importance. All four of its sides are decorated in flushwork, which is a decorative technique developed in Norfolk. The technique uses hard to come by freestone, such as limestone, to edge panels of the more readily available knapped flint. As with the Ethelbert Gate, the decorative panels are often in a geometric design and the work on this gate probably represents the earliest known example of this technique. It is also one of only nine gatehouses with flushwork on them.

Erpingham Gate

The Erpingham Gate has less violent origins. Sir Thomas Erpingham was high in the Kings regard and as an important Norwich figure he often helped the city in its dealings with the King. He made substantial donations to the city's religious institutions and also distinguished himself when in charge of the King's bowmen at the Battle of Agincourt in 1415. French records show puzzlement that he ordered his bowmen to 'Nestroque!' but anyone familiar with the Norfolk dialect would recognise this as the order to 'Now Strike'! 

The Erpingham Gate was built after Agincourt, between 1420 and 1435 and is generally thought to have been donated to the cathedral by Sir Thomas. However, the name 'Erpingham Gate' was not used for the gate until after the mid eighteenth century and the statue of Erpingham kneeling that sits above the entrance arch was not placed there until the late 1600s at the earliest. Nevertheless, the gatehouse is decorated with the coat of arms of Sir Thomas plus those of his first and second wives so it is probable that he did pay for it. Erpingham may have donated the gateway to the cathedral as thanksgiving for his success and survival at Agincourt. Alternatively it may have been given as a way of currying favour with the cathedral where he hoped to be buried or perhaps it was built as his memorial when he died in 1428. The motto 'Yenk' is carved onto the gate and has been given opposing interpretations by scholars as meaning 'thank', that is for Erpingham's success at Agincourt, or 'think', asking visitors to the Close to remember Erpingham. Whatever Erpingham's reason for building the gate, it is a splendid structure. There is fine carving of foliage and birds as well as twenty-four niches containing statues of the twelve apostles and twelve female saints and, although he may not be original, the kneeling statue of Erpingham looks down on those entering the cathedral precinct.                 

Chapel of St John the Evangelist

On entering the Close through the Erpingham Gate, heading towards the west face of the cathedral itself, one must take note of the Chapel of St John the Evangelist on the left. Restored in 1941, the chapel is now part of Norwich School and is used by staff and pupils who welcome anyone who wishes to worship there. The building is said to stand on the site of an early charnel house. The charnel house was probably a two-storey building with a chapel above an undercroft that housed exhumed bones from the city's overcrowded graveyards. This was replaced by Bishop Salmon in 1316 with the College and Chapel of St John the Evangelist. The chapel was built within the lay cemetery and the new undercroft of the chapel continued to be used as a charnel store. The building was designed with low round windows that allowed people to look into the undercroft and view the collection of bones. The chapel also still contains an early fourteenth-century porch door that may be original as well as its original roof constructed in 1316. This roof is therefore the oldest roof in the whole cathedral precinct.

On the western side of the lay cemetery and built against the precinct wall was the main hall of the college. Eventually this hall was altered and extended eastwards so that it joined onto the chapel. By the mid sixteenth century the chapel became part of the college, which with reference to its former use as a charnel house became known as Carnary College. In the late eighteenth century Horatio Nelson was one of its pupils and a monument to this great naval hero can be found nearby in the Close.

Through the West door

The cathedral itself is entered from its western side. This west front is often considered rather poor in comparison to the west fronts of other English cathedrals probably because it has suffered from alterations during the fifteenth and nineteenth centuries and the differing styles do not marry well. The front is dominated by the massive fifteenth century window inserted above the rather ornate fifteenth-century west porch. Recently the porch has been complemented by the addition of two beautiful statues to celebrate the new millennium. On the left, within an original statue niche, is a statue of Julian of Norwich, an anchoress who lived in a cell attached to the church of St Julian at King Street. Julian wrote a book about a series of holy visions that she experienced and this is thought to be the first book to be written by a woman in the English language. Within the right hand niche is a statue of St Benedict who established the rules by which Benedictine monks live including those at Norwich cathedral. Both statues are the work of David Holgate, a local sculptor.                 

The interior

Inside, the cathedral is much more impressive. The founder Herbert de Losinga had the cathedral church and cloisters designed as a whole. The first phase of building was begun at the eastern end of the church so that the essential ecclesiastical elements of the church were in place and it could be consecrated as soon as possible. This phase, up to the fifth bay of the nave and the tower to the top of the church roof, was built in Quarr stone from the Isle of Wight and was completed by 1119 when Losinga died, never seeing his design fully realised. The western portion of the nave, the remaining nine remaining bays and upper storeys of the tower, were completed by Bishop Eborard in Caen stone brought from France and Barnack stone from Cambridgeshire. The whole church was built in just fifty years.

At its completion the cathedral was the largest building in East Anglia and measuring 141m (461ft) long and, with the transepts, 54m (177ft) wide. The church has the second longest nave and the largest and most beautifully decorated Norman tower in England. It also had more patrons than any other cathedral in England. Today the building still retains its almost entirely unaltered original Norman ground plan, despite the havoc wreaked on the building over the years by devastating gales, fires, riots and wars. 

Fire and lightning

Just twenty-three years after the completion of the building, in 1169, the first disaster befell the cathedral. Lightning struck the tower and set fire to the building. The chapel of St Saviour at the eastern end of the cathedral was particularly badly damaged but repairs were soon made by Bishop de Turbe. Lightning struck again in 1271 but damage was minimal as a rain storm doused the fire. Such luck was short lived as one year later, during the riotous conflict between Norwich citizens and the priory that resulted in the building of the Ethelbert Gate, the citizens set fire to the cathedral precinct. The timber roofs and timber furnishings caught fire and the repair work meant that the cathedral could not be reconsecrated for six years.  The remains of a consecration cross dating to the 1278 reconsecration can be found on the north wall of the nave in the fifth bay from the west. 

Repair work continued well into the fourteenth century and several additions were also made to the cathedral and the buildings within the Close. One of these additions was a wooden spire, erected in 1297 on top of the Norman tower.  Unfortunately the spire was to be the cause of yet another disaster when it was blown down by severe gales in January 1361 or 1362. The fallen spire badly damaged the presbytery and this allowed Bishop Percy to bring more light into the presbytery by rebuilding the upper half with the soaring windows that we see today.  Unlike the west front of the cathedral, Percy thankfully ensured that the design of the new windows married easily with the earlier Norman architecture below. The spire was also rebuilt but this time in stone. The spire was rebuilt but in 1463 it was damaged by fire. Bishop Goldwell rebuilt it again, this time in brick with a stone facing, and it survives today as the second highest spire in all England. At 96m (315 ft), only the spire at Salisbury Cathedral is higher.   

When lightning struck the spire in 1463, the nave was severely damaged when fire spread throughout the wooden roofs. Evidence of this and later fires that ravaged the cathedral can still be seen on some of the stonework in the walls, the stone having turned pink through the heat of the fires. In the 1460s Bishop Lyhart took substantial measures to stop such fires ever taking hold again and completely replaced the nave roof with a beautiful stone vault, adding the spectacular west window to light the beauty of his roof and its colourful bosses.

Roof bosses

The cathedral bosses total some 1106, including those of Lyhart's nave roof; those of the presbytery vault, added in 1480 by Bishop Goldwell; those of the transept vaults, added in 1509 by Bishop Nykke after a further fire; and those in the cloister. The bosses represent the largest collection of decorative roof bosses in Christendom, and depict scenes from both the old and new testaments. Carved into the stone vaulting and then painted, each boss would have taken almost two weeks to complete. They represent a Christian view of the history of the world including carvings of Noah and the flood, the Nativity, the Crucifixion, the end of the world and the tales of judgement day. There are also bosses depicting mythical beasts and figures like the Green Man. It is thought that roof bosses such as these provided one of the earliest forms of theological education, at a time when illiteracy was high.                    

Henry VIII's Dissolution of the Monasteries brought an end to Bishop Losinga's Benedictine priory. In 1538 the Dean and Chapter was established but this did not herald less turbulent times for the cathedral. The Reformation, where the Roman Catholic faith was rejected and the official faith of the country became Protestantism, brought more trouble for the cathedral. During Edward VI's reign (1547-1553) the building was pillaged and many wall paintings whitewashed over. 

Defilement and threat of destruction

More disastrous though were the years of the English Civil War (1642-1651). In May 1643 the cathedral was ransacked by Puritans who demanded further reform of the English Church and who supported the Parliamentarians and Oliver Cromwell. The inside of the cathedral was destroyed, the window glass was smashed, the wall paintings defaced, the vestments and books stolen, the tombs and monuments defaced or demolished and gunmen filled the cathedral drinking, smoking and shooting. Cromwell was even asked by the Puritans of Great Yarmouth whether they could pull the cathedral down so that they could use the stone to strengthen their harbour and build new workhouses. Thankfully Cromwell refused!

St Luke's chapel

St Luke's chapel on the south east side of the ambulatory or walkway around the presbytery contains clear examples of the turbulence of the Civil War. At this time the fifteenth-century Seven Sacraments font, originally from the church of St Mary in the Marsh, was defaced by the Puritans. The Despenser Retable, the painted screen behind the altar, was only saved from the Puritans by clever-thinking clergy who disguised it as a table top. The stunning retable, one of the finest fourteenth-century painted panels in Europe, was only rediscovered in 1847 and was restored to its current glory in 1958. The tombs and monuments dedicated to many of Norwich's bishops and most prominent figures were also damaged during the attack. The only early tomb to survive almost intact is that of Bishop Goldwell and even this has a musket ball lodged in it.

Unlike many of the churches in Norwich, the cathedral managed to escape the devastation caused by the 1942 Baedeker raids of the Second World War.  This we owe to the dedication of the teams of 'fire-watchers' who dealt with any incendiary bombs that fell nearby.   

Nine hundred years

It is astounding that having gone through such a turbulent history Norwich cathedral and its Close survives to this day, let alone in so much of its original Norman splendour. When marvelling at the cathedral buildings' unique survival it is worth noting some of the more unusual features. In the nave there is a large brass font. This was once a boiling pan used at the Nestlé chocolate factory that stood on the site of what is now Chapelfield shopping mall. The font was given to the cathedral when Nestlé closed their factory and moved from Norwich in 1996, the 900th anniversary of the foundation of the cathedral. There are also two curious barley-sugar twist piers in the nave. These represent the original western extent of the first nave sanctuary and the location of the nave altar. The piers two bays east are also barley twist but they are now concealed by a later covering. On the north side of the sanctuary a small chapel to Norwich's own saint would have stood. St William would have provided the cathedral with a source of revenue from visiting pilgrims. 

Blood libel

William was a twelve year old boy who disappeared in March 1144. The Jewish community of Norwich were accused of abducting him to re-enact the Crucifixion and gain blood for their Passover feast. A few small miracles were attributed to St William but the cult did not gain in popularity until five years after his death when the murder of a Jew called Eleazer stirred up memories of William's death. Thomas of Monmouth, at this time a monk of the cathedral-priory, wrote about St William and along with the prior and bishop encouraged the cult. The cult was disapproved of by the Pope because of its anti-Semitic origins and eventually the cult lost popularity. More recently a chapel of the Holy Innocents has been established in the cathedral to pray for those who have suffered at the hands of others and for the reconciliation of the different faiths.

The misericords

The choir holds an interesting collection of stalls. Most date to the time of Bishop Lyhart and Bishop Goldwell who restored the cathedral after the fire of 1463, but some date to 1420. The stalls have misericords: folding seats that have built in 'pity shelves' on which clerics could lean during long services. Misericords are often highly decorated and those in the cathedral are carved with a range of designs including the seven deadly sins, St George and the Dragon, a crowned head and a huntsman with stag and hounds. Three misericords were missing so it was decided that they would be replaced by local carpenter Joe Dawes in celebration of the Millennium. The carvings depict The University of East Anglia, Queen Elizabeth II's visit to Norwich to distribute the Maundy money in 1996 and Norwich City Football Club.

At the far eastern end of the presbytery there is a wooden Bishop's throne or Cathedra. More impressive, however, are the pieces of weatherworn stone at the base of the chair. These probably date to the eighth century and are the oldest element of the cathedral church. They are thought to be the remains of a much earlier throne brought from North Elmham, the original centre of the Bishops of East Anglia. Norwich cathedral is also the only cathedral in Northern Europe to have always kept its throne facing the congregation and behind the high altar. Usually the throne is sited to one side of the altar.

The cathedral's treasury.

Directly north of the high altar and spanning the ambulatory or walkway around the presbytery is the reliquary arch. This was added in the late thirteenth century to house the cathedral's holy relics. These relics could include the bones of a saint or holy person, fragments of their clothing or some of their possessions. The room above the arch would have kept the relics safely away from pilgrims or any disturbances - it is likely that the arch was built after the riots of 1272. The room now has a modern set of stairs leading to it and since 1972 has stored the cathedral's treasury. The treasury holds plate from churches throughout Norfolk as well as some twenty-seven pieces of silver from churches within Norwich. This includes spoons, cups, flagons and dishes. 

The reliquary room also contains the most extensive collection of surviving wall paintings within the cathedral. They date from the fourteenth century but much earlier wall paintings, possibly c.1175, can be found in the south aisle of the nave. They are in an area that once housed the Lady Chapel and the fragments show the Nativity scene.


At the south east corner of the nave, next to the south transept, is the more spectacular of two doors leading from the priory cloisters into the cathedral church. This is called the Prior's Door. On leaving the cathedral from this door, look back at its splendour. The door dates to about 1300 and has a finely carved arch decorated with thin piers at its sides and decorated recesses in the arch. These recesses contain statues of Christ at the top, John the Baptist and possibly Aaron to the left, and David and Moses bearing a scroll detailing the Ten Commandments to the right. To the right of the doorway are three sedilia, or seats, recessed into the wall of the cloister. The wear and polishing of the stone from feet and bottoms is very noticeable!

The cloisters themselves have been described as one of the largest and most beautiful surviving monastic cloisters in England. Unfortunately the original single storey Norman cloisters were damaged by fire during the 1272 riots prompting an extensive remodelling. The buildings around the south, west and east sides of the cloister contain remnants of twelfth-century masonry, including arcading, and the western buildings retain five circular windows with splayed openings. The majority of the cloister, however, dates from the late thirteenth to early fifteenth centuries.

The new two-storey cloisters were paid for from the monks' own funds and took 133 years to complete because of lack of money and the outbreak of the Black Death (1347-1350). Bishop Walpole began work on the east walk in 1297 as reflected in the Geometric architectural style of the windows. Walpole's successor, Bishop Salmon, continued building with the south walk and the west and north walks then followed. The cloisters are considered to have been completed by about 1350 in the Decorated architectural style of the late thirteenth to mid fourteenth centuries. The window tracery of the north walk, however, seems not to have been finished until the late fourteenth and fifteenth centuries or was modified during this time as they contain window designs in the Perpendicular style. The north walk contains beautiful Elizabethan wall paintings of the Coats of Arms of dignitaries who were associated with the 1578 visit of Elizabeth I. On the green at the centre of the cloister is a labyrinth built in 2002 to commemorate the Golden Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II.

Benedictine monastery

Around the cloister, buildings would have been laid out in a similar way to every other Benedictine monastery. The north walk gives access to the cathedral and leading off from the east walk was the Chapter House and dormitory where the monks slept. The Chapter House was a very important room as the monks met there daily to listen to a reading from the rule of St Benedict and to hear their duties for the week. The south walk gave access to the refectory where the monks ate and beyond this the infirmary garden and buildings. In line with its original use, the refectory at Norwich cathedral has recently been redeveloped for use as a café. At Norwich the buttery, guest house and locutory were accessed from the west walk. The locutory was a room in which the monks were allowed to talk to one another and is currently the cathedral shop. The locutory, small parts of the refectory and infirmary are all that remain of the monastic buildings attached to the cloister.