Castle Corner: Why does Norwich have so many churches?

The Matlask reliquary, c. 1475-1500, possibly worn to protect the wearer against the disease ergotis

The Matlask reliquary, c. 1475-1500, possibly worn to protect the wearer against the disease ergotism. Picture: Norwich Castle Museum & Art Gallery - Credit: Archant

Norwich is known for its multitude of historic churches, most of which date back to the medieval period and many of which now have a spectrum of different uses.

An alabaster carving of St Peter, Thomas Becket, and the head of St John the Baptist, 15th century.

An alabaster carving of St Peter, Thomas Becket, and the head of St John the Baptist, 15th century. Picture: Norwich Castle Museum & Art Gallery - Credit: Archant

Andrew Ferrara, Project Curator, Norwich Castle: Royal Palace Reborn, explains more about the importance of religion during the Middle Ages.

He hints at what visitors to the new British Museum medieval gallery might expect to discover in the fascinating Those who Pray section.

Picture: Norwich Castle Museum & Art Gallery

Picture: Norwich Castle Museum & Art Gallery - Credit: Archant

Q: What can you tell us about Norwich’s historic churches?

There were 58 individual parish churches within the walls of Norwich during the medieval period. Of those, 31 have survived but very few are still used as active places of worship. All the medieval churches in Norwich have their own fascinating characteristics and attributes. St Peter Mancroft has an incredible surviving collection of 15th-century stained glass, for example. Some of these panels were commissioned by Robert Toppes, the prominent Norwich merchant who built Dragon Hall. Then there is St Gregory’s, which was converted into an antiques’ centre and has an amazing wall painting of St George slaying the dragon from around 1500. It is the height of the entire church wall, with astounding colour and detail.

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Q: Why was the building of churches so prolific during the Middle Ages?

The number of churches really reflects the size and importance of Norwich during the medieval period. The population of Norwich grew in the years after the Norman Conquest and was composed of a large number of parishes each of which had its own church. In the later centuries, the increased wealth of many citizens saw them donate large amounts of money to their churches. This often resulted in new construction projects contributing to the longevity of these buildings and giving the city many of the dynamic structures and towers which exist today.

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Q: Tell us a little about the religion of the era.

In medieval Norwich, Christianity was a fundamental facet of everyday life. Churches were central sites for communities, with people attending regularly and gathering for festivals, feast days, baptisms, marriage, and funerals. The city would have been filled with vast numbers of priests, friars and canons. There were four different friaries, nunneries and the cathedral, plus several hospitals. There was also a Jewish population in Norwich by the 11th century. It was one of the most prominent Jewish communities in England and played an important role within the civic community. They were, however, often persecuted and, in 1290, the whole Jewish population in England was expelled under Edward I.

Q: Were there any famous religious figures?

Perhaps the most famous is Julian of Norwich who was a 14th-century anchoress – a religious figure who withdrew from society to focus on prayer in seclusion. She wrote a book called the Revelations of Divine Love about the religious visions she had. The bishops of Norwich were also very interesting. Herbert de Losinga was the first Bishop of Norwich, having moved the bishopric from Thetford in the 1090s and initiated the building of Norwich Cathedral. Then there was Walter Lyhart, who commissioned the current ceiling vault of the cathedral nave in the 15th century and whose liturgical vestments (or rather fragments of the vestments) will be displayed within the gallery.

Q: What else will we be able to see in the gallery?

A fantastic number of objects which explore the ideas and practices of religion and belief in the Middle Ages. They range from items that show the sculpture and colour that would have decorated the churches to very personal objects. These include pilgrim badges, mementos that people purchased when visiting shrines and religious sites, and individuals’ reliquaries owned to provide support and protection to the wearer. One of these, the Matlask Reliquary, was probably specifically to protect against the disease ergotism, a fungal poisoning causing the burning and convulsion of limbs.

Q: Will there be any activities associated with religion in the Middle Ages to take part in?

Next year Norwich Castle and Norwich Cathedral will showcase a contemporary reflection on medieval mystery plays. Mystery plays were popular productions in the Middle Ages, presenting religious and moral tales in lively theatrical form. Stories from the bible were acted out to entertain and make people think. They reinforced Christian ideas about how the world was created, justice, and the nature of life and death.

Castle Corner: related articles in our 6-part series:

Who was the greatest Knight?

Top 5 famous medieval fighters

How were medieval structures built?

Five interesting jobs of medieval times

Following the recent government announcement, Norwich Castle and our other museum sites have closed and will remain closed until further notice. However, construction work on the Royal Palace Reborn project can continue during lockdown, in line with government guidance. Keep in touch with the project via our social media feeds and explore fascinating stories on Norwich Castle’s YouTube channel.

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