For 900 years Norwich Cathedral has been at the heart of the city – but it has sometimes been a fraught relationship.

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Its a mighty building.

The cathedral has been both a source of pride and dissension for Norwich people. Grafted on to an Anglo-Saxon town by Norman invaders it dominated life in the growing city, which could lead to conflict as well as co-operation. Despite the cathedrals contribution to the economic, educational and artistic history of Norwich a town and gown attitude persisted for generations. The building and its environs have survived fire, hurricanes, riots and revolutions to become the much-loved institution of today.

Start with the Normans.

If Bishop Herbert Losinga had not broken the rules, Norwich Cathedral may not have existed. Losinga was guilty of the sin of simony holding more than one office at a time and the pope was cracking down on the offence. As a penance Losinga vowed to build churches throughout his diocese. By 1096 he had moved the centre of his see from Thetford to Norwich, by now the chief town in Norfolk. He made good his vow by building a huge cathedral and monastery by the River Wensum. An existing church and several buildings were demolished, and the church took over a large chunk of land previously held by English inhabitants. Having torn down houses and levelled the ground, Losinga built in an excellent position... a beautiful church in honour of the Holy Trinity recorded the Chronicles of Stephen. Stone was brought in by sea and river from Normandy and Barnack in Northamptonshire, the other material being local flint. Material was landed at nearby Pulls Ferry. Consecrated in 1101, it was complete within 40 years. Built in Romanesque style, it has long been regarded as one of the finest cathedrals in the country, its dramatic flying buttresses much admired by architectural historians. Bishop Losinga instituted a cathedral school, forerunner of the current Norwich School, and was keen on founding a library; two institutions that thrive to this day.

So, everyone was happy.

The attitude of the citizens is hard to measure. The new cathedral, along with the Norman castle, dramatically changed the topography of their city. At least some of the Benedictine monks brought in to the monastery by Losinga were local men, but the institution was inward-looking. In addition, its many privileges and land holdings were resented. As the city grew in importance, so did friction. It culminated in 1272. Arguments between the priors men and citizens in Tombland, beyond the monasterys remit, got out of hand that summer. The priors hiring of men from Yarmouth to act as security inflamed passions, and hundreds of people, many respectable citizens of good standing, broke down the Saint Ethelbert gate. Almost all the Norman monastic buildings were burned and the cathedral itself was badly damaged by fire. The spire and cloisters were destroyed, monks and citizens alike died and both sides blamed each other. King Henry III took the monks side; executions and excommunications followed, and the whole city was laid under an interdict no priest was allowed to hear confession. A lesser outbreak of violence followed in the socalled Gladman Insurrection of 1443, led by local merchant John Gladman. At the Reformation (1538) the prior and monks gave way to the dean and chapter, and peace broke out for a while. The last prior, William Castleton, became the first dean and most of the monks appear to have been kept on in some capacity. But many of the lay workers would have been laid off, and added to the ranks of the desperately poor unemployed of Norwich.

Any other disasters?

A serious fire broke out in 1170, causing a great deal of damage, the spire was blown down in a hurricane in 1362 and was hit by lightning a century later; the subsequent fire sent the wooden spire crashing and almost destroyed the cathedral. A total of four spires have been built; the current one, built in the 1480s by Bishop Goldwell, at 96 metres (315ft) is the second largest in England, only eclipsed by Salisburys. As recently as 1999 lightning again hit the spire, but a metal conductor did its job. Perhaps the most serious threat came in the 17th century. In Puritan-dominated East Anglia the position of Bishop Joseph Hall was perilous. By 1643 he had been deprived of office and Parliamentarian troops were occupying the cathedral and close, causing massive damage. The bishop was expelled, they had left me nothing he later wrote. Puritans hated cathedrals; during the Protectorate they wanted to demolish it and use the stone to build a pier at Yarmouth. The Restoration of 1660 saved it. By the later 17th century town and gown relations had cooled down, although in the early 1700s Dean Humphrey Prideaux was careful not to meddle in the affairs of the city; he led a separate life in Cathedral Close.

It wasnt all conflict.

The cathedral still dominates the Norwich skyline, and possesses many treasures. Its 250 roof bosses tell the story of the Bible from the creation to the last judgment, all hand-crafted with a depth of detail and colour. Look out for the animal motifs and images of the Green Man, the ancient symbol of renewal. The cloisters, painstakingly rebuilt after the devastation of 1272, are among the most impressive in the country. You can also see the original cathedra the bishops throne from which we derive the word cathedral. Norfolk soldier Thomas Erpingham commanded the English archers at Agincourt in 1415; a gate bearing his name was later built and you can see his statue above it.

Anything else?

Norfolk nurse Edith Cavell was executed by the Germans during the first world war for helping Allied troops escape occupied Belgium. After the war her body was brought back to Norwich and, amid great ceremony, reburied at the east end of the cathedral.


The cathedral is open daily from 7.30am. Telephone 01603 218313.

FURTHER READING Norwich Cathedral, ed Ian Atherton, 1996.


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