Built around 450BC and lasting until 391AD when the newly-Christian Romans had it closed up, the Statue of Zeus at Olympia, clad in a robe and sandals made of gold, and set in a mighty temple, soared 40 feet above his worshippers, the head almost touching the temple roof. Also soaring high above its worshippers is Norwich Anglican Cathedral, which has already lasted longer than the statue to the king of kings.
In 1996 the diocese celebrated the 900th anniversary of this outstanding and beautiful building, dating from the day its foundation stone was laid by its creator, the formidable Bishop Herbert de Losinga. The story of how the cathedral came about is legend and not strictly honourable.
Apparently Herbert paid 1000 marks for the Bishopric of Thetford from the Crown, something that was frowned upon, and in a rush of conscience travelled to Rome to offer his resignation to the Pope and to ask the Pontiff’s forgiveness. Instead, the Holy Father confirmed him in his role – on condition he built a cathedral in Norwich.
Three early medieval paintings on the sofit (underside) of an arch in the south aisle of the cathedral are said to tell the story – in the first he’s offering money to become bishop; the second shows him repenting; and the third, him building the cathedral.
The tale adds that the Pope told de Losinga to build the new church at his own expense, and while he certainly contributed, he also leant on the great and good of the diocese.
The Bishop was a master organiser, but a surviving letter from him suggests he had other methods too: ‘The master is served by the compliance of his slaves, and the compliance of the slaves cannot be secured without the lash’.
By the time de Losinga died on July 22, 1119 the eastern end of the building was complete, together with tower, transepts and three bays of the nave.
The Prior and monks of Norwich begged that he be canonised, but there was silence from Rome. Perhaps the Pope already knew Bishop Herbert’s view, expressed in a letter from his later days: ‘From God alone, I expect a recompense for all the good I have done Norwich’.
Bishop Herbert de Losinga’s body lies before the High Altar, under a black slab.