Here’s a challenge for you: try to find a horizon that isn’t punctuated by a church tower. It’s said that Norfolk has a greater concentration of medieval churches than anywhere on earth – there are over 650 of them, every one of them with a treasure to discover and a fascinating story to tell. To know why is to understand a lot about why Norfolk is still so unspoilt.
For many centuries the weaving industry, which nurtured towns like North Walsham and Worstead (yes, that’s where the cloth gets its name from), brought immense wealth to the region.
The Norwich cathedrals are two visible landmarks in the city. The Roman Catholic Cathedral of St John the Baptist is at the highest point in the city, but the Anglican Cathedral of the Holy and Undivided Trinity boasts the highest spire.
This very fine example of early medieval architecture stands in the heart of the city. Norwich Cathedral (or the Anglican Cathedral of the Holy and Undivided Trinity) boasts many treasures from the Bishop’s Throne, high above the Eastern Apse to superb stained glass, an amazing collection of roof bosses in the cathedral building itself and in the cloisters and much more. It is well worth a visit and is a haven of calm in a busy city.
The ground plan is almost unchanged from the Romanesque original, with fourteen bays making up an unusually long aisle. One feature to watch out for is the shape of the radiating chapels, which consist of two intersecting segments of a circle. Two of the chapels here also postdate the original building, the Bauchon Chapel dating from 1329 and St Catherine’s Chapel from about 1375. About a hundred years later, the 315 foot spire was added – among the English cathedrals, only Salisbury’s is bigger. Norwich comes second only to Salisbury in the size of its cloisters, too. These date from the 13th to 15th century – work was slowed down by financial problems and the arrival of the Black Death in 1349.
Cathedral of St. John the Baptist
Built in the 19th century as a gift from the 15th Duke of Norfolk, as a sign that Catholics could now practice their faith openly, the Roman Catholic Cathedral of St. John the Baptist is a fine example of Victorian architecture and contains some fabulous carvings, metalwork and stained glass. This fascinating building is well worth exploring, with great city views from the tower.
Once inside, you enter an atmosphere of medieval splendour – an echo of the great English churches of the thirteenth century (although, if you look closely, you can see the stone is a façade, the cathedral is mostly made of Victorian brick). Remember that most medieval churches existing today have either been ‘improved’ in accordance with fashion, or vandalised over the centuries.
Dominating the crossing is the magnificent wooden painted rood. Look beyond the crossing and notice that the chancel at the east end is slightly off-centre. Medieval churches were most frequently cruciform, representing Christ on the Cross. The chancel leans slightly to one side, as does Christ’s head on the cross.
Tours include going up the tower, which provides one of the best views in Norwich.
Round tower churches
Round-towered St Mary’s Church at Haddiscoe.
East Anglia is well known for its round tower churches, and Norfolk alone has over 120 of these, more than three times as many as other counties.
Built in the 100 years after 1050, round towers were probably built for cultural reasons, when Norfolk had stronger trading links with the Baltic and North Sea communities than with the rest of England. Round towers are also seen in north Germany in Lower Saxony and Schleswig Holstein and parts of Sweden (once Danish), Norway and The Orkneys. Don’t believe anyone who says they’re old lined wells, revealed after a great flood when the land level fell.
Look closely and you’ll see subtle differences in the stone the flint knappers used. Around Fakenham the flint is brownfield, there’s black flint around Thetford and Swaffham, chalk-covered grey flint above North Walsham, light grey around Holt, and rounded beach flints near Wells-next-the-Sea, Sheringham and Cromer.
Salle church, built by the Boleyn family of Anne Boleyn family who had their family home at Blickling Hall.
The profits of the medieval wool trade fuelled an extraordinary ecclesiastical building boom in Norfolk.
At St. Mary’s Church at Worstead, the village which gave its name to the cloth, the village church built by local weavers in the fourteenth-century towers over the small community, its tower jutting strikingly above the landscape. Wymondham, Diss, North Walsham, East Harling, Attleborough, Aylsham also have good examples of wool churches.
The remains of Wymondham Abbey, one of Norfolk’s many wool churches.
Even in Norwich, which boasts more medieval churches than anywhere in Europe, it was wool money that got the stone lifted, the glass stained and the panels carved.
Norfolk wool was best suited to heavier cloth, and so Norwich and Norfolk eventually gained almost a complete monopoly on worsted.
St. Agnes’s Church at Cawston is also well known as a wool church. Its fifteenth century nave and western tower were financed by Michael de la Pole, Earl of Suffolk, who had grown rich from the wool business. Typical of a wool church, St. Agnes’s scale is far grander than what the modest medieval village required. And the Earl of Suffolk spared no expense in embellishing the interior: the de la Pole crest is carved above the entrance; French stone was used for the tower and nave; the roof, although the typical wooden East Anglian style, is an elaborate hammerbeam confection with elaborate angels curving off the beam ends, and a trio of angels on outstretched wings hovering over each clerestory window.
You’ll also see many plague churches across Norfolk – they’re often the ones standing out in the middle of nowhere, after villages were left unviable following the Black Death of 1349.
Read more about them and other reasons for Norfolk’s deserted churches here.