Norfolk has more than its fair share of impressive ecclesiastical buildings, not least cathedrals, shrines and minsters, many of which we have to thank the Normans for and one in particular, the first Bishop of Norwich, Herbert de Losinga…
Largest cloisters in the country, second tallest spire after Salisbury, and built more than 900 years ago, the Cathedral – and also the Castle – dominate the skyline, as the Norman Conquerors probably intended.
The story of how it came about is, however, rather less glorious. Herbert de Losinga bought the Bishopric of Thetford for 1000 marks from the Crown, an act of simony. He immediately felt a pang of conscience and offered his resignation to the Pope. The Pontiff thought about it and gave his forgiveness – on condition Losinga built a cathedral in Norwich.
There is a foundation stone in the cathedral laid in 1096 by its creator and the formidable Bishop’s body lies before the High Altar.
Norwich Catholic Cathedral of St John the Baptist
The second largest Catholic cathedral in the UK after Westminster Cathedral, St John the Baptist was designed by George Gilbert Scott, paid for by Henry Fitzalan-Howard, the 15th Duke of Norfolk, and is a fine example of 19th Century Gothic Revival.
A letter of 1892 from the Duke to the City Corporation suggested the style was chosen because the city had a Norman cathedral and many Perpendicular parish churches, but ‘no examples of the pure and noble Early English style’.
Incredibly, it was originally built as a parish church but consecrated as the cathedral church for the newly elected Diocese of East Anglia and the seat of the Bishop of East Anglia in 1976.
The Nave is outstanding, the building has some of the finest 19th Century stained glass in the country and the stonework grand but, if you look closely, behind the façade you’ll see the framework is actually Victorian brick!
Tours of the tower, with fabulous views across the city and, on a good day, to Happisburgh lighthouse, are currently unavailable but look out for an update – it’s well worth it, as this film shows…
Walsingham has been a place of pilgrimage since the Middle Ages — one of the four great shrines of medieval Christendom, ranking alongside Jerusalem, Rome and Santiago da Compostella.
In 1061 the lady of the manor, Richeldis de Faverches, had a series of visions of the Virgin Mary, who showed her the house in Nazareth where the angel Gabriel made his revelation of the forthcoming birth of Jesus. Our Lady asked Richeldis to build a replica of the holy house here in Walsingham.
Founded at the time of the Crusades when it was impossible to visit the Holy Land, English Christians were able to visit ‘Nazareth’ in their own country. Walsingham became the premier shrine to Our Lady and around it grew a large monastery.
The entire medieval village was dominated by ecclesiastical buildings and fine medieval timber-framed jetted buildings — still visible today — that provided hostelries and shops serving the pilgrims who poured into the village.
Then came the Reformation in 1538. Walsingham’s principal trade came to an abrupt end. The priory and the friary were dissolved and all property handed over to the King’s Commissioners. The famous statue of Our Lady of Walsingham was taken to London to be publicly burnt.
The pilgrimage revival began in the late 19th century with the arrival of the railway.
St Benet’s Abbey
The only monastery in England to survive the Dissolution of the Monasteries, St Benet’s Abbey ruins lie on the river Bure outside the village of Ludham in the heart of the Broads National Park.
St Benet’s was the first Benedictine monastery in Norfolk, founded on an island site surrounded by marshes around AD 1020 by King Cnut. The king may simply have been acknowledging the already sacred nature of a site where Christian hermits appear to have lived since the 9th century.
Construction of the monastic buildings began in the early 11th century, with the first stone church probably built by Abbot Aelfsige during Cnut’s reign and completion at the end of the 13th century.
The monks of St Benet’s also helped found the important Benedictine Abbey at Bury St Edmunds.
One of the late medieval patrons of St Benet’s was Sir John Fastolf, the model for William Shakespeare’s Falstaff, who was a successful knight in the wars against the French and built Caister Castle.
The abbey also managed extensive peat diggings throughout the medieval period – the same peat excavation that helped create the Norfolk Broads.
When Henry VIII decided to break from the Catholic church in Rome, one of his decisions was to dissolve all monastic houses in England. Except St Benet’s Abbey, which escaped as Henry appointed the Abbot the new Bishop of Norwich and told him to keep some monks at St Benet’s to pay for the Bishopric.
In 1915 St Benet’s Abbey became one of the first Scheduled Ancient Monuments in Britain and today it is the one consecrated monastic building in the country, with the Bishop of Norwich still the Abbot of St Benet’s.
King’s Lynn Minster
King’s Lynn Minster, formerly St Margaret’s Church and founded in 1101 by Herbert de Losinga, dominates Saturday Market Place in the heart of the medieval town.
One of the largest parish churches in the country, St Margaret’s church was granted the honorary title King’s Lynn Minster in 2011 by the Bishop of Norwich.
A terrible storm in 1741 caused the spire of the south-west tower to collapse, and the nave and aisles had to be rebuilt. Most of the Georgian furnishings were removed in the Victorian period under the direction of the famous church architect Sir George Gilbert Scott (remember him?).
The 14th-century chancel stalls are decorated with carved heads, including Edward, the Black Prince, and Henry Despenser, Bishop of Norwich.
Look out for the flood level markings by the west door and the unusual 15th-century rounded east window.
Great Yarmouth Minster
The third largest parish church in the country, the former St Nicholas Church was founded in 1101 by, yes, you know who, our friend Herbert de Losinga.
Possibly the oldest building in Great Yarmouth and certainly its most visible and historic landmark, it sits close to the market place and the home of Black Beauty author Anna Sewell.
A considerable expansion was planned in 1330 but abandoned when the Black Death came to visit – it’s said that had the changes happened the church would have been made a cathedral.
In 1942 the church was completely gutted during a German air raid leaving only the Norman tower and the walls standing and was reconsecrated in 1961.
Like King’s Lynn above, it was officially designated a Minster Church in December 2011 by the Bishop of Norwich.
In 1107 a priory was founded at Wymondham as a daughter house of the Benedictine Abbey of St Albans.
The abbey church was built with stone specially imported from Caen in Normandy, and was originally modelled on Norwich Cathedral.
Though the priory was a Benedictine monastery, the founder, William d’Aubigny, who served Henry I as Chief Butler, insisted that the church should also serve as the parish church for Wymondham.
Unfortunately, an argument ensued over who had control of the Abbey and, referred to Pope Innocent IV in 1249, he wisely divided responsibility equally.
In 1538 the abbey, like other monastic houses in England, was dissolved by Henry VIII, who appointed a local man John Flowerdew to administer ‘his’ abbey.
This Flowerdew allowed his men to destroy parts of the church which the townsfolk had raised money to purchase and preserve for their own use.
Flowerdew’s actions helped galvanise support for the short-lived Kett’s Rebellion of 1549.