Norwich Cathedral: A History

South transept of Norwich Cathedral


West Front of Norwich Cathedral

Norwich Cathedral of the Holy and Undivided Trinity, begun in 1096, is one of England’s finest Norman buildings. Whilst altered over the years, it remains relatively untouched since 1480.

Conveniently located in the center of the city, you can reach Norwich via the A47 and ring road, the A146/A1042.

Trains from London leave from Liverpool St. and take approximately 1 hour and 50 minutes.

Norwich Cathedral is one of the first cathedrals I had the pleasure of visiting in England, and it remains one that is very close to my heart. I look forward to sharing its history with you!

Pre Foundation

East Anglia has a history of Saxon Christian worship, with the original cathedral being

From the Cloisters

located in Dunwich, dating to about 630AD.

Soon after the Norman conquest in 1066, the Bishophric was transferred to Thetford.

In 1091, Herbert de Losinga was appointed Bishop of Thetford. He was of Norman origin, and was born and educated in Normandy.

He came to England at the invitation of the King, William Rufus and was initially appointed the Abbot of Ramsey Abbey

His appointment as the Bishop of Thetford came about through his paying  King Henry II for the position, a total of £1,900. (this was a huge amount, more than £1 million in today’s money)

The Nave looking East

This act of paying for the position is called Simony, and was against ecclesiastical law.

In 1094, de Losinga traveled to Rome to ask Pope Urban for forgiveness and on his return shifted the Bishophric to Norwich.

It has been said that building a new cathedral was  his repentance for the sin of simony.

The land that de Losinga marked out for the new cathedral was already in use, it contained the homes of the local people and these were destroyed along with two churches, St. Michael Tombland and Holy Trinity. This can’t have impressed the residents very much!

The foundation stone of Norwich Cathedral, was put in place in 1096, and formally

The High Altar

dedicated to the Holy Trinity in 1101.

The Benedictine monastery was also founded in 1096, with monks coming from Canterbury.

There is a surviving medieval painting depicting the story of Herbert de Losinga in the south side of the Nave.


Painting Depicting the Story of Herbert de Losinga

Building the Cathedral

The Nave looking West, with the 15th Century West window

After the foundation stone was laid in 1096, building work began and the cathedral was faced with Caen stone, bought in from Normandy.

A canal was dug from the River Wensum to allow the easy unloading of materials.

Most Norman builders began a church from the East end as it is the most sacred part of the church.

Therefore, its probable that the foundation stone was in the eastern wall of the original Lady chapel. This chapel was demolished to make way for the 13th century chapel that was destroyed during the reformation.

It is thought that the choir, transepts and associated chapels were built during Losinga’s

The High Altar

bishopric, plus the first bays of the nave.

Herbert de Losinga died in 1119, he never saw the completion of the great cathedral. He was laid to rest in front of the high altar.

His successor Bishop Eborard de Montgomery completed the nave. The nave consists of seven double bays from the west end to the tower crossing. If you look up at the ceiling, you can see 328  amazing medieval bosses.

The tower was completed under Bishop Eborard’s successor, Bishop William de Turbe, and by 1140, the cathedral was complete.

The floor plan of today’s cathedral is almost the same as the original Norman plan. The Nave is long for the size of the building, with beautiful marching arches.

The Crossing

At the East end is an apse with an ambulatory, and the crossing tower was the last part of the cathedral to be completed.

It gained it’s spire in the 15th century and is the second tallest in England, behind Salisbury Cathedral.

Other additions to the cathedral post the 12th century included a Lady Chapel (ca. 1230 – sadly destroyed in the reformation), the Cloisters

(ca. 1300) the West Window (ca. 1440) and the glorious stone vaulting in the Nave (ca. 1450).

Turbulent Times

In 1272, the Prior of the Cathedral introduced a toll at the annual fair in Tombland. The

The Cloisters

towns people reacted angrily and it ended up in armed conflict. The Prior ordered his forces to engage in the conflict and they pillaged the town, enraging the towns people further, driving them back to the monastery precincts.

The towns people set the cathedral roof on fire, and this left the cathedral roofless.

A sentence of excommunication was passed on Norwich and Henry III arrived to preside over the trial of some of the towns people. Many citizens were hung, drawn and quartered and the city was levied a large fine of 300 marks to pay for the repairs.

The 15th Century Spire from the Cloisters

The cathedral was reconsecrated in 1278, with Edward I in attendance

In 1463, lightning struck the Spire and set the roof on fire again!

The roof you see today is in part a result of the rebuild, with its introduction of the amazing vaulted ceiling.

Previously, the roof would have been similar to the wooden roof of the nave at Peterborough Cathedral.

Reformation and Civil War

In the mid 16th century, Henry VIII ordered the Dissolution of the Monasteries and in 1538,

The Quire

the Benedictine monastery was closed and the Dean and Chapter created.

Whilst the reformation was disruptive, it was the beginning of the damage that Norwich cathedral would face.

During the reign of Edward VI, it was whitewashed, destroying beautiful paintings and statues considered idolatry would have been damaged.

The Organ, dates from 1899 with a rebuild in the 1940’s

However it was during the English Civil War that the cathedral would see the most destruction.

Supporters of Oliver Cromwell ransacked the church, smashing the windows, defacing remaining wall paintings and destroying or defacing tombs and monuments. The soldiers treated the cathedral with no respect, often practicing their shooting skills, including firing their muskets inside.

Its also horrifying to learn that Cromwell was asked if the cathedral could be pulled down so its stone could be reused. I am grateful that he didn’t decide to allow this.

After the chaos of the Civil War, the cathedral was abandoned and was ruinous for 20 years. Thankfully it was restored after the restoration of Charles II

In closing

Norwich Cathedral is beautiful. The interior is just magical and there is so much to see, despite its turbulent past. Next few blogs will be about some of it’s points of interest.

If you would like to see more photos of Norwich Cathedral, please visit my flickr


Bell’s Cathedrals: The Cathedral Church of Norwich, A Description of Its Fabric
Wikipedia – Norwich Cathedral
Norwich Cathedral Website
Britain – Norwich Cathedral
Wikipedia – Herbert de Losinga
Currency Converter – Norwich Cathedral – Norwich Cathedral – The Ancient Parish of Norwich – Norwich




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