Norwich’s medieval churches

Highly decorative medieval church

St Stephen  (Shame about the wheelie bin)

In a previous post we looked at why some of our historic English towns/cities had so many churches, and some of the implications of that for our family research.  I explained then that it was a chance entry on the 1861 census about one of the parishes within the city of Norwich that had brought all this to my attention.

Since discovering my Norwich ancestry, I’ve had several opportunities to visit the city and to photograph all the churches of interest in my family research.  On my last visit my trusty camera and I covered about 40km on foot, so I think by now I’m quite familiar with the lay of the land!  I can personally attest to (a) the beauty of these churches, and (b) the fact that often they’re situated literally paces from each other.  (How I came to cover 40km, then, in this area of a little over one squre mile, I can’t explain.  But the iPhone Health App doesn’t lie….)

Why were so many of these churches such fine buildings?

To answer that we must travel back in time to the origin of the English textile trade.  A significant part of this trade was based in Norwich and the surrounding lands, from where large quantities of woollen cloth were exported to Flanders in exchange for the finer and better finished cloth produced by the Flemish weavers.  Norwich’s geographical location was an important factor in its success.  Not only did the city’s proximity to the North Sea coast facilitate easy export of goods to the continent, but also Norwich benefited from several waves of migration, initially from the Low Countries, later also including Huguenot silk weavers from France.  There is evidence of the presence of migrant settlers in nearby Worstead as early as 1134.  However, it was the second wave of migration, dating from the 14th century, when Queen Philippa, wife of Edward III, invited the ‘goode and trew weevers’ of Flanders to come over in large numbers, that helped to establish Norwich as England’s second city.  Thanks to these people, who became known as the ‘Strangers’, the early, primitive manufacture of woollen cloth in England was gradually transformed, with new techniques and higher quality standards.  Eventually, the manufacture of linen and woollen textiles in England would reach such a level of perfection that it was acknowledged throughout Europe as the best available, preferred to that of any other country.  Textiles woven in Norwich were considered the crème de la crème.

Fine medieval great church overlooking colourful market stalls

St Peter Mancroft, Norwich’s ‘Greater Church’, overlooking the market square which has been in continuous use for almost 1000 years

It was the wealthy cloth merchants who built the churches, clearly as a demonstration of their social standing and wealth; and as a reflection of the size, wealth and importance of the city; but also undoubtedly as a means of easing the way to heaven when the time came.  The distinctive feature is that most of the churches were built from locally found flint.  Several combine this with highly skilled, elaborate limestone flushwork.

Inside, too, the wealth of the merchants was amply demonstrated.  By the second half of the fourteenth century, an inventory of the ornaments of all the churches in the archdeaconry of Norwich shows the abundance of silk vestments and high altar palls owned by 46 of the churches.  By the time of the Reformation these treasures had increased many times over.  Norwich’s civic and ecclesiastical records show that following the decision of Parliament in 1643 to rid the nation’s churches of the last vestiges of Roman Catholicism, many fine paintings, crucifixes, statues, stained glass, seating, vestments and organ pipes were removed, smashed, destroyed and publicly burnt.  For the most part, though, the churches themselves remained standing.

Baptismal font with highly decorative wooden canopy

Baptismal font inside St Peter Mancroft where my 3xG grandfather was baptised. The highly decorative wooden canopy is an 1887 reconstruction

T. Kirkpatrick’s sketch of the North East Prospect of the City of Norwich gives an idea of what the city looked like in 1723.  Although several of the 63 original churches had been demolished in the 16th century, and a further one would follow in 1887, Hochstetter’s map demonstrates that by 1789, 36 churches remained.  That was also the year my 4xG grandparents were married at St Peter Mancroft.  Their son, my 3xG grandfather, would be baptised there six years later.

During the Second World War, Norwich’s beauty and historical significance, as highlighted in Baedeker’s guide, marked it out as a target for the Luftwaffe High Command.  The raids on the city that took place between 27th April and 19th October of 1942, continuing sporadically until 6th November 1943, became known as the Baedeker raids.  Accounting for 60 per cent of lives lost through air raids in Norwich during the war, and causing damage then requiring £1,060,000 worth of repairs, the raids were also responsible for the loss of five of the medieval churches, although St Julian, of particular historical significance as the late 14th century residence of Dame Julian of Norwich (whose work The Revelations of Divine Love is the first known book to be written in English by a woman) was rebuilt.

Today, then, 31 of the historic churches remain within the ancient, crumbling city walls, and Norwich can claim the largest collection of urban medieval churches of any city in Western Europe north of the Alps.  However, the majority of them no longer serve as chuches.  Three are under the care of The Churches Conservation Trust (search for ‘Norwich’ to find them) and one is in private ownership.  Since 1973, a further eighteen, managed by the Norwich Historic Churches Trust, have been brought back into use as community, cultural and arts centres.

St Michael Coslany church, showing richly decorated facades

Nicholas Groves has written an excellent book about The Medieval Churches of the City of Norwich, which has accompanied me on all my meanderings across the city.  It’s widely available in Norwich bookshops.  I bought my copy in the little bookstore within St Peter Mancroft.

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