A treasury of churches

St George's, Tombland - one of Norwich's treasury of medieval churches

St George's, Tombland - one of Norwich's treasury of medieval churches - Credit: Steve Adams

Norwich's extraordinary collection of medieval churches is revealing new secrets, writes Rowan Mantell

Norwich is famous for its churches – but not famous enough!

So says a historian helping lead the first comprehensive survey in almost three centuries of what many see as the world's greatest collection of medieval churches.

The people of Norfolk are already justifiably proud of the city's remarkable treasury of churches. Experts, from historians to tourism bosses, wax lyrical about this extraordinary concentration of medieval art and architecture. But the last full survey of every parish church in the city was in the 1740s.

Now a three-year project is underway to log every church, and the treasures inside and out, whether still in use, or even still in existence.

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As well as the 31 parish churches still standing, researchers are including ruins, plus places of worship which have disappeared leaving little more than traces of ancient post holes or names on old maps.

They are also looking at how each church and parish affected the layout of the city growing up around them.

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Kristi Bain, co-ordinator of The Medieval Parish Churches of Norwich research project, said it would help people understand the churches as a collection – and how exceptional it is to have 31 still standing in a single city.

It is almost certain to enhance the reputation of Norwich as home to a uniquely rich collection of medieval art and architecture.

Principal researcher Professor Sandy Heslop said this was not simply an academic exercise, but important to the city today and into the future.

'Already, Norwich is famous for having a lot of medieval churches. But it's not famous enough!' he said. 'People don't think of it as up there with Rome and Venice, and perhaps they should. We are studying all 57 of the parishes which existed in 1270 but paying most attention to those churches which survive intact. The amazing thing is that 31 survive complete with their roofs, so are water-tight. The fabric is more or less as it was in the 16th century. We are looking at documentary, archaeological and artistic evidence related to each church.'

The project is already revealing long-hidden art and architecture. 'The quantity and quality of the surviving painting and sculpture is outstanding, and most of it is unpublished and effectively unknown,' said Sandy.

'The remains of a St Christopher painting at St George Colegate and an alabaster St Christopher sculpture from St Laurence are large-scale examples. But similar quality can be found in many smaller works such as carved corbels, some with original paint, and roof bosses.'

As the literally monumental task of creating the churches got under way new craft industries developed. Researchers will consider why the churches were built and rebuilt, and how styles of architecture that could be described as typical of Norwich emerged.

Sandy said some of the most impressive features of the city's churches are their size, quality and the area of their churchyards.

Today the city centre skyline is still dominated by churches, but they have been just as influential in shaping ground-level Norwich.

The church of St Martin's At Palace, just outside the Cathedral Close, was built on the site of at least two earlier churches and the modern street is still aligned with one of the previous buildings.

Initial information from the research is already being published on the project's website and there will be a conference next year, an exhibition in 2017 and eventually a book, due to be published in 2019.

The exhibition will include medieval treasures which have been in storage for decades.

Four stone figures from an altarpiece created for the Thorpe chapel at St Michael Coslany, off Duke Street, will be reunited for the first time in centuries and huge painted ceiling panels made for St John Maddermarket will go on show for the first time in more than a century.

Cataloguing the churches and their treasures should help people understand their role not just in the past, but into the future too.

The current project builds on research from by a survey begun by UEA researchers in the 1970s.

Four decades later, in 2012, the conference of the British Archaeological Association was held in Norwich.

Sandy said it focused his attention, and that of fellow researchers Brian Ayers and Helen Lunnon, on the importance of the churches as a group. Individually each church is historically and architecturally important; collectively they are unique.

The other member of the research team, Clare Haynes, is investigating drawings, paintings, prints, photographs and archive film of city churches. It is only here, rather than in actual stones, timbers and stained glass, that churches such as St Crowche, also known as Holy Cross, which once stood alongside St John Maddermarket, can be found.

It was demolished 454 years ago. Elsewhere the churches remain, but not the reason why they were built here. Four ancient parishes meet at a spot on Ber Street – where a Bronze Age burial mound was discovered just 12 years ago. Invisible and forgotten for centuries, it could well have been a significant physical feature at the time parish boundaries were being determined.

Some of the unusual dedications of Norwich churches (including St Olaf, St Cuthbert, St Swithin, St Vedast and St Winwaloy) might speak of migration from other parts of Britain and Europe.

Sandy said: 'The longer our work goes on the more we realise just how special the churches of Norwich are in representing the beliefs and aspirations of generations of citizens over the centuries and still having the potential to enhance the identity and attractiveness of the city to those who live here and to visitors.'

As the project reveals how the city, its people and its architecture have shaped each other for more than a thousand years it is likely to become a national model for exploring the importance of medieval parish churches.

The Medieval Parish Churches of Norwich: City, Community and Architecture ranges over the physical landscape of rivers and hills, the built landscape of towers and arches, the spiritual landscape of faith and worship, and the social and cultural landscape of generations of Norwich people.


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