Religious preference aside, for the under-70s, cathedrals aren’t everyone’s first port of call. Norwich Cathedral, for all its architectural magnificence and historical importance, is no different in that respect. Funnelling through the doors are herds of brightly-coloured waterproof jackets, city maps and the lingering crumbs of picnics past.
Cathedrals are tourist hot-spots for a reason; they’re beautiful, interesting, filled with stories and history…and there’s usually a reasonably priced cup of tea at the end of it.
Norwich Cathedral, for all its kagools and bored schoolchildren, has some truly fascinating memorials and hidden stories. Trust me.
Building began in 1096 after an anglo-saxon settlement and a couple of existing churches were razed to make room for the huge structure. The poor Saxons didn’t get a penny for their troubles and lost land, having to make do with the assurance that it was for the greater good. The cathedral was eventually completed in 1145, with the Norman spire still intact today. In 1169, the spire was struck by lightning, setting the entire building on fire. Evidence of this can still be seen today inside the church – much of the limestone still bears great swathes of pink discolouration from reactions to the intense temperatures. After a few alterations, and a little riot-recovery in 1272, little has changed since 1480 (although the glass-fronted café is a notable exception…).
In 1643, following the English Civil War, the cathedral was stormed by puritans who systematically destroyed all Roman Catholic symbols they could find. So much architectural heritage, art and literature was lost during this period, the wider cultural impact of the civil war is enormous. In ‘Hard Measure’, bishop Joseph Hall recorded:
“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 …what piping on the destroyed organ-pipes; vestments, both copes and surplices, together with the leaden cross which had been newly sawed down from over the greenyard pulpit, and the singing-books and service-books, were carried to the fire in the public market-place…the cathedral was filled with musketeers, drinking and tobacconing as freely as if it had turned ale-house.”
It was only during the Restoration in 1660 that the cathedral was restored to some semblance of its former self. Somehow, a few patches of medieval paintings survived the centuries and can be seen in the treasury and by the south aisle.
While many centuries have passed since this periodical destruction, there is still evidence of past violence within the cathedral, with musket-holes visible in some of the most prominent monuments.
But to the casual visitor, it’s the cathedral furnishings that are of greatest interest.
Norwich is famous for its substantial collection of misericords, ranging from the 15th– 19thcenturies. Miserichords are substantially cheerier things than their name suggests, being little shelf-seats attached to the underside of folding seats in church. They were intended to be leaned upon, to ease the strain of standing for long periods of prayer. Norwich’s miserichords are beautifully carved things, ranging in subject from mythological creatures to the mundane and even the occasional green man.
In more recent years, the font has been a notable addition. The enormous copper bowl, now the baptismal font, was originally used in the Rowntrees factory. Apparently, the font was used for mixing the caramel to go inside Rolo chocolates!
Norwich Cathedral also has more roof bosses than any other cathedral in the world. Bosses are carved figures made of stone or wood, mostly at the intersection of vaults in a roof. While this sounds rather mundane, its these roof carvings that display some of the most biblically brutal and bizarre scenes. In Norwich, everything from the crucifixion to the apocalypse with all its hellbeasts is depicted, not to mention a thief stealing a washer woman’s clothes.
While the cathedral focuses on its historical prowess and its use as a venue for classical concerts and public events, some of the more overlooked elements are the most fascinating.
There are several large tombs and chapels to wealthy priests of years gone by, including some effigy tombs. The most notable and colourful being that of Bishop Goldwell’s tomb, which is enormous and brightly painted, yet damaged. During the destruction of the Civil War, the priest’s face and hands were destroyed and a musket ball remains in situ in the side panelling.
The skeleton memorial to Thomas Gooding is easily missed, frequently nestled behind visitor’s chairs, paling in comparison to the priestly tombs nearby.
Known simply as ‘the skeleton’, Thomas Gooding was buried vertically inside the cathedral, believing that being stood would mean that he would enter heaven quickly and head-first.
His epitaph is also rather wonderful:
‘All you that do this place pass bye
Remember death for you must dye
As you are now even so was I
And as I am so shall you be.
Thomas Gooding here do Staye
Waiting for Gods Judgement Daye.’
Another oft-forgotten memorial is that to William Inglott, who died in 1621. His memorial is painted on the pier near to the presbytery screen. In life, Inglott was a lay clerk and organist. His memorial depicts him dead, with two members of the choir holding a wreath above him. Also present are skulls, an hourglass, and a paragraph of text, almost too high to read.
In more recent years Norwich Cathedral was chosen as the resting place for Edith Cavell, a dedicated nurse during the first world war. She pioneered modern nursing and saved soldiers from both sides, with no consideration of nationality. She helped around 200 Triple Entende soldiers escape German-occupied Belguim, for which she was executed. Following her death, she became an important propaganda figure for allied forces. Considered a Christian martyr by many, a pilgrim trail leading to her grave is also very popular.
Arguably, the most unusual pieces within the cathedral are those which are not supposed to be there; namely, graffiti.
Medieval graffiti is commonplace in so many British churches. It seems to have been a social norm that parishioners would carve initials and images into the building. There are reoccurring symbols of protection and faith, many of which are covered in depth in Matthew Champion’s exhaustive study of medieval graffiti in churches. However, Norwich was two very odd additions.
To the left of the presbytery screen, before entering the elaborately carved choir stalls, there is a small patch of graffiti. While mainly consisting of initials, surnames and boats, there is a small pattern of interlocking symbols. This symbol is most commonly referred to as a ‘witch mark’ and, according to Champion’s work ‘actually makes up about a third of all the inscriptions recorded across the UK ‘. Despite the name, these symbols have nothing to do with witchcraft and were used as symbols of protection for centuries, acting as a pictorial reinforcement of prayer, and as a means to ward off evil spirits.
While witch-marks provide further goodness within the church, something more sinister lurks.
In an area used by clergy and clerics sits the carved, upside-down name of a local family; Keynsford. But why was the name upside down? And how did it get there?
Colin Howey, alongside Champion explain that ‘in pre-modern English society, to invert something like this is generally acknowledged to be a way of wishing ill-fortune upon a subject’; namely, it becomes a curse. Beside the name is a combination of symbols of the sun and moon. When combines, these form a medieval curse.
Champion explains that the symbol was designed to bring ‘a lot more than bad luck’, in fact it was designed ‘to bring down the gods of wrath on these individuals.’
While we may never know what the Keynsford family did to merit such a curse, we know the sort of person who carved. The graffiti was in a place reserved for clergy and church officials and it was also upside down at a time with incredibly limited literacy; this would have been a task for a highly educated man. The mysteries remain, but with such an enormous space to examine, who knows how many medieval curses are still out there, waiting to be discovered.
For further photographs of memorials, please see the album on my Facebook page
I would recommend taking a free tour of Norwich Cathedral if you find yourself in the area.