Norwich Cathedral

A curious story is told in explanation of the origin of Norwich Cathedral. During the reign of William Rufus, Herbert de Lozingia, an eminent ecclesiastic, attracted towards himself a degree of unpleasant attention from his spiritual superiors, which ended in his being cited to appear before the Pope at Rome, to answer for simoniacal practices, among which in particular was alleged against him his purchase of the see of Thetford. The punishment was at once characteristic and sensible, and involving what we call poetical justice; he was commanded to build various churches and monasteries at his own expense, and thus Lozingia found enforced upon him a very arduous undertaking for the good of the church, when he had been intending to pursue what he conceived to be more peculiarly his own good. Among the buildings so erected, it seems, were the earliest Cathedral of Norwich, and the Monastery, both commenced in 1094. Many of our important cities and foundations are accustomed to boast of the public spirit and liberality of their founders or early promoters; the City of Norwich, it will be seen, may date much of its prosperity to qualities of a very opposite kind. Lozingia, however, appears to have been a shrewd—perhaps, after the shame of the exposure, a repentant—man, and to have performed the penance imposed upon him in so creditable a spirit, that he was ultimately allowed to transfer the bishopric of which he had been deprived, Thetford, to Norwich, and was there consecrated the first bishop in the Cathedral of his own erection. Of this structure it has been supposed by some that we possess no remains, on account of the presumed general destruction of the pile in the extraordinary events that mark the history of Norwich in connection with the year 1272. It appears that, from a very early period after the establishment of the monastery, quarrels had broken out between the monks and the citizens, the former asserting their entire independence within their own precincts, the latter maintaining that the charter granted by Henry I. in 1122 gave them right over every part of the city without exception. There was a fair then held at certain times on a piece of ground called Tombland, which lay directly before the gates of the monastery; this spot formed a very bone of contention between the two parties, and at last the bad feelings excited broke out in sudden violence and bloodshed. The monks or their retainers, it matters little which, fell upon the citizens, and killed several. The people of Norwich were exasperated in the highest degree. An inquest was held upon the bodies of the dead, a verdict of murder returned against those who had killed them, and a warrant issued for their apprehension. The monks—who seemed to have felt themselves quite safe through the whole proceedings—now thought it necessary to resort to more decided warfare; so having let loose the spiritual artillery at their command, in the shape of a sweeping excommunication of the entire body of citizens, they then took more ordinary weapons into their hands, and amused themselves by picking off a passing citizen every now and then, by a well-directed shot. If this was their reading of their religious duties, it was only in strict keeping that they should prefer the holiest day for the more important deeds. On the Sunday before St. Lawrence’s-day, tired of this desultory warfare, the monastic belligerents sallied forth from their high-walled monastery, with a “great noise, and all that day and night went in a raging manner about the city,” killing here and there a merchant or other inhabitant, and plundering here and there a house. They finished by breaking open a tavern kept by one Hugh de Bromholm, where they drank all the wine they could, and left the rest to run to waste from the open taps, and then these good and faithful servants returned to their admiring Prior. The citizens appear to have remained more patient than one might expect under their provocations, till this last and worst of all. But then the magistrates assembled, word was sent to the king of what had taken place, in order that he might give them redress, and in the mean time a general assemblage of the people was called for the next morning, to arrange measures of defence. They met—an army in numbers, though unfortunately not in discipline. Before the chief persons of influence could instil into their minds the indispensable qualities of order, patience, and firmness, they were borne away by some uncontrollable impulse of anger towards the monastery, where they Hung themselves tumultuously against the gates, and endeavoured to force an entrance. The Prior resisted for a while the raging storm of assailants, but at last they burnt down the great gates of the Close, with the church of St. Albert that stood near, and then swept on, with redoubled energy and determination, to fire the chief conventual buildings. The Almonry was speedily in flames, then the church doors, then the great tower. Many of the people ascended the neighbouring steeple of St. George’s, and from thence, by means of slings, threw fiery missiles into the great belfry, beyond the choir of the Cathedral, and thus in a short time the whole building was enveloped in flames. Besides the injury done to the building, the monastery lost all its gold and silver ornaments, its costly vestments, holy vessels, and library of books; for what the fire spared, was carried off’ by the incendiaries. Most of the monks fled, but the sub-dean, and some of the clerks and laymen, were killed, where they were met with, in the cloisters and in the precincts; others were hurried into the city, to share the same bloody fate; and some were imprisoned. The Prior fled to Yarmouth, but it was in order that he might return with fresh strength, and take full vengeance for the sufferings his own disgraceful conduct had brought upon the monastery. He entered Norwich with sword and trumpet in hand—what a picture of the priest militant!—and fell upon the people in their own way, with fire and sword; and having satiated himself, withdrew, to wait, and consider, like the men of Norwich, now that all was over between themselves, what would not both have to answer for to a third party, the government of the country—in other words, the king. Even-handed justice was undoubtedly to be dreaded by both; but that was just the sort of justice that was seldom dispensed when Church and laity stood as the disputants on either side of the judgment-seat. Henry’s first proceeding was enough to show the citizens what they might expect. He summoned a meeting of the hierarchy, at Eye in Suffolk: and the result was, that an interdict was laid upon the town generally; all persons directly concerned in the riots were excommunicated; thirty-four persons were drawn through the streets by horses, and dashed to pieces; others were hanged, drawn, and quartered, and afterwards burnt; and a woman who was recognised as having set fire to the gates, was burnt alive. And, as on all such occasions in the middle ages, there must be a something forthcoming for the royal treasury, why, twelve of the men of Norwich, no doubt the very richest that could be in any way implicated, were mulcted of their possessions. Such was the punishment of the people; what was the sentence against their opponents and oppressors, who had so recklessly provoked their fury? The Prior’s conduct was evidently too bad to be altogether looked over, so he was sent to prison for a short time, and whilst there resigned his priory. And that was all. The Church did not even suffer in its revenues. Before the interdict was taken off, the citizens were compelled to pay three thousand marks towards the re-edifying of the Cathedral, and one hundred pounds in money, for a pix, or cup of gold, weighing ten pounds.

It is strange and lamentable that, after this tragical event, no wise and statesman-like measures were carried into effect to prevent their recurrence for the future; and although the scenes of 1272 were never repeated, the cause of all the jealousy and ill-feeling remained in active operation down to the time of Cardinal Wolsey, when the city formally resigned all jurisdiction within the Priory walls; and the Priory all power without them. That was just before the Reformation, which settled the matter in its own summary fashion, by quietly doing away with the monastery altogether. It had been supposed, we repeat, that the church built by Loziugia was entirely destroyed in this fire, and that the present must have been erected in its place. But it is astonishing how any one who had even looked at the Cathedral could allow himself for a moment to doubt that the original edifice is still preserved to us. The wood-work, decorations, &c. must certainly have been destroyed, and the structure, generally, seriously injured; but not so seriously as to involve anything like a rebuilding of the whole, for a more characteristically Norman edifice does not exist in the country than the present Cathedral of Norwich; and it would be absurd to suppose that such a style would have been adopted at the close of the thirteenth century, when pointed architecture was giving us some of its most exquisite examples of the perfection to which it had attained. The very plan of Norwich is as unmistakable Norman as the buildings erected on it,—transept without aisles or pillars, choir extending beneath the tower in the centre of the structure, into the very nave itself, circular eastern extremity, forming within a chancel •with side aisles running round it, and circular chapels. It is, in a word, the very decided Norman character of Norwich that makes it, notwithstanding its smaller size and comparatively undecorated aspect, its decayed surface, and cramped position, one of the most interesting of our Cathedrals. The length of the whole building is four hundred and eleven feet; and the tower, one of the finest specimens of decorated Norman extant, rises with its spire, which is of later date, to the great height of three hundred and thirteen feet. One single ancient statue tomb of an enriched character, and one such only, is to be found in the church—Bishop Goldwell’s, shown in Fig. 620. The plain aspect of the Cathedral may, no doubt, be in a great degree attributed to the injuries done in the time of the civil war. Bishop Hall, the Satirist, who suffered from both parties, not being apparently partisan enough for either, has given us an interesting account of what took place. In his ‘Hard Measure,’ he says, “It is tragical to relate the furious sacrilege committed under the authority of Linsey, Tofts the Sheriff’, and Greenwood; what clattering of glasses, what beating down of walls, what tearing down of monuments, what pulling down of seats, and wresting out of irons and brass from the windows and graves; what defacing of arms, what demolishing of curious stone-work that had not any representation in the world, but of the cost of the founder and the skill of the mason; what piping on the destroyed organ-pipes. Vestments, both copes and surplices, together with the leaden cover, which had been newly cut down from over the greenyard pulpit, and the singing-books and service-books, were carried to the fire in the public market-place; a lewd wretch walking before the train in his cope, trailing in the dirt, with a service-book in his hand, imitating in an impious scorn the tone and usurping the words of the Liturgy. The ordnance being discharged on the guild-day, the Cathedral was filled with musketeers, drinking and tobacconing as freely as if it had turned alehouse.

An interesting appendage of the monastery remains on the south side of the Cathedral, a cloister, also of later date than the original buildings, forming a large quadrangle with a handsome doorway and lavatories. But the most striking feature of the locality is the Erpingham gateway, a truly superb work. Few but will remember the name of the founder as that of the gallant knight of Henry V.’s army, who, whilst commanding the archers at Agincourt, had the honour of giving the signal for the first momentous forward movement, which he did by throwing his truncheon high into the air, and exclaiming “Now strike!” And they did strike, and with such effect that the French never through the conflict recovered from the blow thus given by the bowmen of England under their grey-headed leader at the very outset. Considering how great a favourite Sir Thomas was with the victor of Agincourt, and the treatment that Lord Cobham. received during the same reign for his religious heresy, it is a curious and noticeable circumstance in Sir Thomas’s history to find that he too at one time had been dallying with the proscribed Lollard principles, and had exerted himself to promote their diffusion. But Henry Spencer, the “warlike Bishop of Norwich,” then ruled over the diocese, who would fain have pursued as short a way with the followers of Wickliffe as he did with those of Wat Tyler. In that most famous of English insurrections, the bishop, unlike many of the more powerful nobles, who shut themselves up in their strong castles, went forth with his retainers to meet the revolters in the field, where he speedily overthrew them; then, having sentenced them in crowds to the scaffold, he laid aside the warrior and judge, and became the ministering priest to his own victims, and exerted himself as busily to save their souls as to destroy their bodies. When such a man declared that if he found any Lollards in his diocese, he would make them hop headless, or fry a faggot, to use his own suitable mode of expressing his benignant sentiments, there was no possibility of mistake as to the matter. Lollardism might be safe enough, but it was assuredly a dangerous time and place for the Lollards. Sir Thomas Erpingham seems to have felt this, and to have desisted in time, when he found that not all his popularity deterred the bishop from throwing him into prison: so he agreed, as the price of his release, to erect a gatehouse at the entrance of the precinct, over against the west end of the Cathedral, and renounce all heresies for the future. Hence the erection of the gateway shown in our engraving (Fig. 609).

The matter altogether was deemed of such importance, that Henry IV. took steps publicly to reconcile the knight and the bishop, first by declaring in parliament that the proceedings had been good, and that they had originated in great zeal, and then by directing them to shake hands and kiss each other in token of friendship, which they did. The reconciliation, unlike such forced ones generally, turned out real, for Sir Thomas became a willing, as he had already been an unwilling, benefactor to the Cathedral; and one of the bequests of his will was a provision of three hundred marks to the prior and convent of Norwich, to found a chantry for a monk to sing daily mass for him and his family before the altar of the holy cross in the Cathedral. It has been supposed, from the circumstance that his wife, who died four years after Sir Thomas’s imprisonment, made no mention in her will of saints, as was usual, that it was her influence which had led the knight towards Lollardism, rather than any powerful inherent convictions of his own. If so, it ought to be no imputation on his moral courage that he declined making a martyr of himself. One should be very sure what one does think, when stakes and bonfires begin to argue. The interest attached to this gateway, as well as its remarkable beauty, induce us to dwell for a few seconds on its details. Mr. Britton, in his work on Norwich Cathedral, thus speaks of it:—“Amongst the great variety of subjects and designs in the ecclesiastical architecture of England, the Erpingham gateway may be regarded as original and unique; and considering the state of society when it was first raised, and the situation chosen, we are doubly surprised, first at the richness and decoration of the exterior face, and secondly, in beholding it so perfect and unmutilated after a lapse of four centuries. The archivolt mouldings, spandrils, and two demi-octangular buttresses, are covered with a profusion of ornamental sculpture, among which are thirty small statues of men and women, various shields of arms, trees, birds, pedestals and canopies; most of these are very perfect, and some of the figures are rather elegant. The shields are charged with the arms of Erpingham, Walton, and Clopton, the two latter being the names of two wives of Sir Thomas Erpingham. In the spandrils are shields containing emblems of the Crucifixion, the Trinity, the Passion, &c, while each buttress is crowned with a sitting statue, one said to represent a secular, and the other a regular priest, &c.” The first of these priests has a book in his hand, from which he appears to be teaching the youth standing at his side. The regular priest has also his book, but appears to be making no use of it, and turns his eyes idly upon the passengers who may go through the gate. Bloomfield, the historian of the county, thinks this was subtilly designed by Sir Thomas “to signify that the secular clergy not only laboured themselves in the world, but diligently taught the growing youth, to the benefit of the world; when the idle regular, who by his books also pretended to learning, did neither instruct any nor inform himself, by which he covertly lashed those that obliged him to their penance, and praised those that had given him instruction in the way of truth.” Sir Thomas himself kneels in effigy in the pediment of the gateway, a remarkable instance to after-times of the power exerted by the clergy of his own day.