'As I went my rounds in the bombardments of 1942 I always had a look at the Cathedral, outlined against the humming sky by the light of great conflagrations. The opinion has been advanced that few things would have effected the morale of Norwich more deeply than any damage to the Cathedral spire. It escaped. Incendiaries set light to the roof of the transepts on each side, but they were extinguished and it has remained intact.'
- Ralph Hale Mottram, If Stones Could Speak (1953)
Also known as Norwich Cathedral, the Anglican Cathedral, or officially Norwich Cathedral of the Holy & Undivided Trinity. During the Anglo-Saxon days, the main East Anglian cathedral was in Dunwich, a city that crumbled into the North Sea during the Middle Ages. Then the bishop moved briefly to Thetford, before the Normans demolished the monastery, churches and village to the east of the city of Norwich, and raised a new cathedral on the riverside plain.
The Cathedral spire dominates the entire city, visible for miles. In the Middle Ages, approaching over Mousehold Heath, you would have seen the Cathedral before anything else, commanding the valley where the Wensum meets the Yare. It is the second-tallest spire in England, and to a medieval peasant, especially one who was not well-travelled, it would have looked like a celestial citadel, taller than anything else in the world. An embodiment of divine power and perfection, wrought of cream-coloured limestone. Only as you got much closer would you make out the mass of tiny, crooked buildings huddled along the riverbank, or even the Castle raised on its mound.
Chris Milford commences repair work on the spire, August 2020
Julian of Norwich at the western porch, holding a signed copy of her Sunday Times bestseller,
Revelations of Divine Love.
In 1272, Norwich's annual fair, famous all over East Anglia, was held on Tombland. As usual, the rowdiness and revelry spilled over into violence; this time, the monks from the Cathedral murdered several citizens in an armed street-brawl. Warrants were issued for the monks' arrest, but as members of the clergy they were essentially immune to justice, and barricaded themselves inside the Cathedral Close. This incident may or may not have been related to an ongoing political feud between the Bishop and the citizens, who, in short, were seriously pissed off with the brothers inside the Cathedral Close. The situation degenerated even further when the monks hired private soldiers to attack bands of angry peasants outside the Cathedral walls.
The Norvicians forced their way into the Close, burning the gate and chapel at St Ethelbert's to the ground. The priory was looted, books were burned, relics were destroyed or stolen. Several priory staff were murdered. In the end, the Bishop, Roger Skerning, placed Norwich under interdict, closing every church, and effectively excommunicating the entire city.
King Henry III intervened on the side of the Church, arresting and executing 30 ringleaders from among the citizens of Norwich (despite the fact that the monks had started it). The city was re-admitted to the Catholic Church—on the condition that the citizens paid for a new gate to be built on the site of the plundered chapel: St Ethelbert's Gate.
ABOVE: a disturbing Green Man in the vaultings of the Ethelbert Gate.
BELOW: A vault boss from the cloisters. The Fourth Horseman rides out of the mouth of Hell.
The exterior of the Cathedral reaches up into the clouds. Down below, though, a Stuart worshipper during the Civil War would have found its cavernous interior full of pipe-smoke, shouting, stench and movement in the dim light. Norwich was a Parliamentary city; Cromwell's New Model Army practised with their muskets inside, broke masonry and smashed windows, treating the place as an enormous lads' club. Religious services were limited to one end of the nave. The Civil War left the Cathedral gutted and derelict for two decades. At one point the Protectorate considered having it pulled down and the limestone re-used for other, more important projects.
The soldiers' treatment of the Cathedral may seem callous, but even in the über-Catholic Middle Ages, the building would have been a focal point for the community, a place where people gathered to gossip as well as worship, where monks screwed each other furtively and laymen scratched messages into the walls. Graffiti can still be seen all over the building, particularly at the front of the presbytery screen (see this map, next to the number 19), where you can find a centuries-old drawing of a ship scratched crudely into the stonework, along with Masonic symbols, names, initials, and superstitious sigils.
As well as your standard tags, Messr. Kilroy wof Here, &c., there are other, stranger inscriptions: a musical score, and charms intended to ward off the evil eye. Further down the presbytery wall (near the number 7 on the above map), in an alcove which would have only been used by clergy and clerics, is a name, Keynfford, inscribed upside down over an astrological symbol. This is a curse, placed on the wealthy Keynesford family by an unknown priest in the late Middle Ages. It points to a time when orthodox religion was mixed with folk superstition, when magic was real for most people.
There are other dark decorations in the Cathedral. Among its dozens of tombs, commemorating mayors, bishops, deacons and important citizens of Norwich, there's a curious bit of stonework dedicated to one Thomas Gooding. Readers of a sensitive disposition might like to scroll down slowly—the tomb is quite spooky.
Look!! A skellington!!!
As well as commissioning The Skeleton, as it's known for obvious reasons, and the memento mori poem inscribed underneath, Gooding had himself buried vertically, feet first, so he could get into heaven quickly. Interesting fellow. I couldn't find out whether he's buried beneath the floor in front of The Skeleton, or in the wall directly behind it, his eye-sockets staring through the stonework and the carved eye-sockets of his tomb.
The Cathedral is also home to the tomb of Edith Cavell, a nurse who helped English soldiers flee occupied Belgium during the First World War, was executed by the Germans, and subsequently canonised. She is regarded as a national hero, so much so that she got a steak restaurant on Tombland named after her.
A monument to Cavell outside the Cathedral's western gates, on Tombland. Cavell's grave itself is in a chapel at the rear of the Cathedral.
The choir stalls, carved by some forgotten genius in the 1480s, were used as the titular location for a 1971 BBC film, The Stalls of Barchester, adapted from an M.R. James story. The 'Ghost Story for Christmas' was directed by Lawrence Gordon Clark, and launched a successful Yuletide tradition on British TV in the 70s. Robert Hardy plays a murderous deacon pursued by his own conscience ... and possibly something more tangible ... something ancient ... ooooooh!!
ABOVE: the choir stalls in 2022.
BELOW: Robert Hardy and Harold Bennett enjoy the Gothic atmosphere in The Stalls of Barchester (1971).
As well as the choir stalls, the 45-minute film featured a chilling scene shot in the cloisters and lots of costume-drama posturing around the fancy houses of the Cathedral Close. The Close has remained in the possession of the Bishop of Norwich since long before the Cathedral existed. People have lived on this land for over a thousand years. Today, the Close is all gingerbread houses and trellises of wisteria. There's a waiting list to rent a house in the Close and live out your Poldark fantasy, but I'd imagine it's a long queue. The Close also contains a centuries-old school and the Bishop's palace.