Norwich Cathedral is among the most well-preserved Norman cathedrals in England. At over 900 years old, this inspiring building is a triumph of Norman architecture and is one of Norwich’s twelve heritage sites. It has the second largest cloisters in England after those at Salisbury Cathedral and its spire stands at 315ft.
Norwich Cathedral History
Work began in 1096 and was initially overseen by the First Bishop of Norwich, Herbert de Losinga. De Losinga had previously held the bishop’s seat at Thetford, before moving it to Norwich.
The cathedral was built primarily in the Norman style using flint, mortar and Caen limestone. To assist in the construction process, a canal was cut to accommodate the boats bringing in vast quantities of materials along the River Wensum. An Anglo-Saxon village and two churches also had to be demolished and the sloping ground terraced in order to make way for the expansive site.
In 1118, at which point the project had extended to the Nave Sanctuary area, De Losinga passed away. Nevertheless, construction resumed under his successor, Eborard de Montgomery with the church, bishop’s place and various monastic buildings completed by 1145.
Spanning 461ft in length and with transepts expanding its width to 177ft, Norwich Cathedral was the largest structure in East Anglia.
The floor plan, which is largely the same to this day, comprises a long central nave of fourteen bays. At the eastern end is an apse with an ambulatory that leads to two chapels. The crossing tower, with its carved lozenges, circles and interweaving arches, was the final section of the cathedral to be completed.
Norwich Cathedral has undergone numerous alterations and renovations over the years. Some of these have been by design, others out of necessity. In 1171 the nave was damaged by fire.
Then, in 1272, after civil disorder broke out in Norwich, rioters set fire to the nave roof as well as many of the adjacent monastic buildings. The belfry and cloisters were also consumed by flames – the latter was so badly damaged that it had to be totally rebuilt.
In 1297 work on the new cloisters commenced. However, progress was slow and sporadic with an outbreak of the Black Death severely delaying construction.
It wasn’t until 1430 that the cloisters were finally completed. The final two-storey structure comprised beautifully-carved vaulted walkways and medieval roof bosses depicting scenes from the Book of Revelations and the life of Christ.
Further misfortune befell the cathedral when in 1362 a violent hurricane caused the timber spire to collapse, damaging the presbytery and clerestory in the process.
A little over 100 years later, a lightning strike destroyed the spire completely along with most of the nave roof.
Bishop James Goldwell eventually commissioned a taller replacement that was made from brick and encased in stone. It stands to this day and is supported by the Norman crossing tower with its impressive interlaced arcading.
Reconstruction of the Nave Roof
In 1472 the reconstruction of the nave roof was finished and replaced the flat timber ceilings of the old roof with a majestic, intricately-carved system of stone vaulting. 225 elaborately-carved gilded bosses were also included illustrating a variety of Biblical stories. By 1480, another one thousand ornately-crafted bossed had been added to the Presbytery vault.
Civil War Plunderers
During the civil war, roving mobs of puritans laid waste to much of the cathedral, destroying all of the Roman Catholic symbols found therein. The building was eventually abandoned and lay in ruins for around twenty years.
To add insult, many of its materials were also stripped from the cathedral and used to build workhouses and other local construction projects.
18th and 19th Century Renovations
The cathedral underwent extensive renovations in the early 18th century which included a remodelling of the south transept by architect, Anthony Salvin. In 1930, a new chapel was built at the cathedral’s east end, on the site of its 13th century predecessor.
At the turn of the millenium North transept windows were installed to commemorate the millennium. These were followed, two years later, by the addition of a garth labyrinth to mark the Queen’s Golden Jubilee.
In 2004, a new refectory and library reading room opened on the south side of the cloisters. Soon after, work commenced on a new hostry that was eventually opened by the Queen and Duke of Edinburgh.
Present-Day Norwich Cathedral
As well as being a place of worship, the cathedral is perhaps most important historical site in all of Norfolk. The sublime architecture that graces both the nave and cloisters provides fascinating insights in to the long and turbulent history of this magnificent structure. Here are some of the highlights.
The Romanesque nave, with its stone-vaulted ceilings, Norman arcading and colourful roof bosses, is of course the main attraction. The pulpit, altar point and 14th century pelican lectern are also of major historical significance. Many of the artefacts found within the nave have remained unaltered for hundreds of years.
Norwich Cathedral’s cloisters are the largest of their kind in the United Kingdom. They are also the most well-preserved structures on the site.
Set adjacent to the cathedral, they date from 1297 and comprise four vaulted walkways with more than 400 medieval roof bosses. Unlike the nave, the work that went into the creation of the bosses is easier to appreciate, given that roof is that much closer to the ground.
The West Window
The stained-glass West Window exemplifies the Victorian revival of earlier medieval techniques for producing brightly-coloured glass.
Portraying the lives of Christ and Moses, the window dates from 1854 and was crafted by George Caleb Hedgeland – the famed stained-glass artist whose work can also be found in Jesus College Chapel, Oxford. The window’s tracery was installed between 1426 and 1436 and is similar to the stonework used at Westminster Hall in London.
Although the cathedral retains very little of its original stained-glass, the Erpingham Window has been glazed with medieval fragments sourced from the cathedral, Bishop’s Palace as well as other collections in Norfolk.
Commemorating English knight Sir Thomas Erpingham, who fell at the battle of Agincourt, these fragments have been pieced together and include images of biblical figures, saints, angels as well as heraldic symbols.
The Choir Stalls
The oak choir stalls and misericords (leaning seats for the clergy) are another highlight. They date from the early 15th century and feature carvings that depict religious symbols, as well as humorous scenes from every-day life. These carvings are among the finest in the entire cathedral.
Norwich Cathedral’s pipe organ is one of the largest in the country. The current instrument is actually a rebuild of a 19th century organ damaged during evensong in 1938. Built by Norman and Beard, it has 105 speaking stops, 4 manuals and pipes that stand at 32 feet.
A set of six bells were added in 1969 together with a rotating star which was installed on its casing. Free organ recitals are held each year – further information can be found on the official site which is included at the end of this article.
Goldwell Chantry Chapel
The Goldwell Chantry Chapel houses the tomb of Bishop Goldwell who oversaw the construction of the presbytery vaulting as well as the spire. He is depicted in his Eucharistic vestments which are covered by a processional cope and fur almuce. Next to him sits a lion. A musket ball, embedded in the tomb offers a stark reminder of the cathedral’s eventful history.
The semi-circular Jesus Chapel is fringed by beautiful 12th century arcading. Its centrepiece is a Norman stone altar slab above which is a 1510 painting of the three wise men visiting Jesus.
St Andrews Chapel
St Andrews Chapel comprises similar arcading to the Jesus Chapel but also features a small 14th century painting of the crucifixion which sits a behind the modern stone altar.
St Saviour’s Chapel and the Grave of Edith Cavell
This chapel was built in the 1930s to honour those who died during the First Wold War. A door leads to the grave of Edith Cavell – a nurse executed by the Germans for giving shelter to Allied soldiers caught behind enemy lines. A large statue of Cavell is to be found near the cathedral precinct.
St Luke’s Chapel
St Luke’s Chapel houses a remarkable historical artefact – a painted medieval altarpiece called the Despender Reredos that depicts scenes from the Crucifixion and Resurrection. It is thought to be among the finest examples of 15th century art in Europe.
There’s also an octagonal font dating from a similar period. Above the font hangs a Chrismatory containing holy oils for healing and anointing – these are intended to signify St Luke’s additional role as a physician as well as a religious figure. A large statue is located outside the chapel that’s set into shallow recess.
The sculpture was originally thought to be that of Bishop Herbert de Losinga. But further research has revealed it to be local Christian missionary, St. Felix.
In the centre of the Presbytery, before the High Altar, lies the tomb of Herbert de Losinga – founder of Norwich cathedral. The current stone slab dates from 1682 and is a replacement for the original 12th century piece. Behind the High Altar is the Bishop’s Throne (cathedra) which made from carved stone and thought to be more than 1000 years old.
Also of note is the cathedral’s coppery baptismal font which stands on a movable base in the nave. Originally used to make chocolate in a local confectionary factory, the container was presented to the cathedral after the factory closed in the 90s.
The Roof Bosses
Norwich Cathedral boasts the largest collection of roof bosses in the world, with more than 1000 gracing the cathedral and its adjoining buildings. Detailed information about these colourful structures can be found via an app which includes photographs and descriptions of every single one. It’s available on Android devices and may be downloaded from the Google Play store.
Norwich Cathedral Close is the largest of its kind in the UK. Spanning 44-acres, this idyllic area comprises two sections: the Upper Close and the Lower Close. The upper section consists of lawns and green spaces which run from the west side of the cathedral.
The lower region largely consists of charming Georgian properties, many of which are officially listed buildings. From here, winding narrow lands lead down to the Wensum and the picturesque Riverside Walk.
The picture-postcard Cathedral Quarter is another must-visit. Here you’ll find an assortment of historical buildings including quaint timber-framed properties as well as a collection of shops, cafes and restaurants. The quarter is also home to the Norwich University of the Arts.
Guided tours of the cathedral are available from Monday to Sunday. Led by knowledgeable volunteer guides, they depart from the rear of the Nave and provide intriguing insights in the cathedrals’ 900 year old history. Visitors can learn about the majestic architecture on display as well as the treasure-trove of historical artefacts found throughout.
Gift Shop and Refectory Cafe
A well-stocked gift shop can also be found on site which sells themed items such as mugs, books and toys. Those looking to take a break can also take advantage of the Refectory Cafe which serves locally-sourced dishes including sandwiches, soups, coffee and cake.
Learn more about Norwich Cathedral at the official website: https://www.cathedral.org.uk
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