October 23 2014 Latest news:
Wednesday, April 14, 2010
Artists, city fathers, dead criminals and the founders of the Eastern Daily Press have played a part in the colourful story of this Norwich church .
Built in the 13th century the church in Colegate provided an alternative place of worship to the more imposing cathedral. Today it is one of a handful of medieval churches still used for its original purpose in Norwich. This part of the city has a long history; known as Norwich Over The Water for its position north of the Wensum, it was part of the Viking expansion of the city from the late ninth century. The church may have been an offshoot of the older, but now redundant, St Clements Church just up the road, which was founded in the 1040s evidence of long settlement in this area. Following the completion of the city walls in the late 13th century the area took on a distinctive character .The church was founded during the crusades, which may explain the adoption of the popular Middle Eastern Saint George as its patron .
Worshippers tended to be merchants and artisans living nearby. As the city recovered from the effects of the Black Death (1349) its economy improved St Georges golden age was probably in the 15th and 16th centuries when wealthy patrons included a number of mayors of Norwich. Only the richest and most respectable citizens aspired to the role; the likes of William Norwich and Robert Jannys lavished care and money on the church. Norwich, mayor in 1461, established the Lady Chapel where there is a brass to him and his wife Alice .Jannys, a grocer by trade, left the impressive sum of 350 to the poor on his death in 1530. This period also saw a programme of rebuilding in the perpendicular style, made possible by generous patrons. The nave and tower date from 1459, the chancel and porch from 1496, while following a damaging fire in the early 16th century the south aisle, sacristy and roof were all rebuilt .Craftsmen came from Italy as well as being recruited locally .
The churchs fortunes mirrored those of the city. During the later 16th century many Protestant refugees from France and the Netherlands settled in Norwich .These Strangers, many of them Walloons, were often poor. Many worked as hand-loom weavers, and in 1569 246 out of 800 inhabitants of the parish were classified poor. Happily, their skills eventually helped create a new era of prosperity. A further 10 mayors were supplied by St Georges between 1701 and 1799. These included Daniel Fromanteel, the first Walloon mayor of Norwich, who is buried at St Georges. Honest John Herring was a friend of the poor who became mayor later in the century; he twice turned down a knighthood as he thought himself unworthy
As well as attracting the elite of the city, the church also fulfilled the slightly less savoury role of mortuary to executed prisoners. Following their hanging, the corpses were brought to St Georges to await burial. In 1286 Norwich man Walter Eghe was hanged for handling stolen goods. Brought back to the church, Walter surprised everybody by regaining consciousness. With commendable awareness of mind he immediately claimed sanctuary from the law. Shortly afterwards he gave his guards the slip and made it to the cathedral. The monks were in one of their occasional periods of conflict with the city; just 14 years earlier the cathedral had almost been destroyed in a town vs gown riot. They happily protected Walter until the king decided he was not guilty and acquitted him of the charge. A lucky man, Walter went free. Another macabre tale is told by an inscription in the entrance to the nave. It tells of a Mr Bryant Lewis who was barbarously murdered on the heath near Thetford, September 13, 1698. Fifteen wounds this stone veils from thine eyes, the legend reads .Frustratingly, we know no more about this murder .
John Crome, one of the founders of the Norwich School of artists, lived at 83-85 St Georges Street from 1802 until his death in 1821. Born and bred in the city, his works included many watercolours and sketches of Norfolk scenes. A likeable and convivial man, Crome was often to be found in The Rifleman tavern in Cross Lane, off St Georges. A memorial was dedicated to him in the church in 1868..
By the mid-19th century St Georges parish had once again fallen on hard times. With the decline in the textile trade many people were out of work, although shoemaking was gradually redressing the balance. But the church building was suffering decay; the 1851 census recorded that the fabric is in a dangerous state and the doors must be kept shut on a windy day lest an accident occurs. The Church wanted local parishioners to pay for the upkeep of the building the so-called tithe but many were non-conformists who resented paying money to the Church of England. A subsequent court case forced them to pay. Feeling the local press had not reported the story fairly or accurately, businessman JJ Colman and others started up a new, initially weekly, newspaper based on principles of freedom of conscience in spiritual and economic matters. In 1870 it became the Eastern Daily Press .
Last year part of the church tower collapsed, highlighting the difficulties of maintaining a medieval building. St Georges is not alone in needing help English Heritage has launched a campaign aimed at persuading people to help preserve these architectural gems in our midst, but raising such large sums of money will be easier said than done.
Tiny St Clements Church is at the junction of Colegate and Magdalen Street. Since becoming redundant in the 1960s this Saxon church has been used for counselling and pastoral work. It is open every day for anyone wanting peace and quiet and to appreciate its understated charm.