Friday, 17 March 2017

Some quirky bits of Norwich Cathedral

OK - I am not in the least bit religious and if I am honest, up until recently, religion has deterred me from exploring the wealth of quirky history that is to be found in - say - a cathedral that is more than 900 years old! I have always loved Norwich Cathedral as it is beautiful and atmospheric. But it turns out that it is also loaded with a hotchpotch of history as building started in 1096.

The more I learn about it, the more fascinated I become. So here are my recommendations for what to look out for should you ever visit the cathedral.

1) The Elizabethan grave of Thomas Gooding

Thomas was a mason of the cathedral. He paid a fair amount of money to be buried upright because he believed this would give him an advantage come judgement day. At the base of his memorial is a typically Elizabethan, poignantly death-focused inscription,

'All you that do this 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
Wayting for God's judgement day,
2) The grave of the baby that died before she was born.

I have been told that this is because of the shift in the Gregorian Calendar but I have yet to stumble across something that explains this fully. However, the dates certainly show a death date (February 20th 1736) before the birth date (April 13th 1736).
3) The musket ball still lodged in the side of a grave.

This is said to be from the civil war (1642 - 1651) when in 1643 a mob of city folk broke into the cathedral and removed pictures, books and statues, took them to the market place and burnt them. The effigy on the tomb - along with the font in a nearby chapel - were also vandalised at this time. The grave is of Bishop Goldwell (bishop from 1472 until 1499) and he was responsible for some significant rebuilding of the cathedral.
The bashed up effigy...
....the smashed up font.....things did well to survive the Civil War!
4) The steps worn down

- by many, many years of use.
5) The scandal of the pregnant nun.

Or so I was told! When I originally posted this I received feedback that the pregnancy was nonsense and that she wasn't a nun! However, what I find fascinating is that such a rumour existed, that I heard it from a choral scholar at the cathedral and looked at and believed the subtle 'pregnancy bump'! This rumour might have come about by the fact that this young woman had affection for the Bishop Bertram Pollock (1863–1943) (as demonstrated in several poems she wrote about him) that caused him some embarrassment. Things get twisted! Her name was Violet Vaughan Morgan and she died of Spanish flu in 1919 aged just 20. Her parents commissioned the statue two years after her death.
6) The bosses in the cloisters.

There are loads of bosses decorating these monks' corridors. They vary from pagan to completely bizarre. For example - from the green men....
....to strange goings on....
...to the downright bizarre.
I like the bosses along the south (and to some extent the west) side of the cloisters best as they seem to particularly unworldy. I think it's because they are meant to be depicting scenes from Revelations which (without much knowledge of the Bible) I understand to be one of the more sensational books in the New Testament! This first one is supposed to be a horse riding out of hell. The last one is heaven fighting with hell. Smashing stuff.
Lions were as mythical as dragons to the medieval person.
7) The graffiti.

There is a lot of graffiti and a guide told me he was still discovering more. The medieval attitude to graffiti did not replicate our modern approach to it and it was far more usual and acceptable to carve your initials into a cathedral wall.

Here are some examples. There is the Elizabethan man - with ruff, buttons and doublet. (You need a torch to be able to see it).
...the North Sea cog (boat)...
...a music stave...
... many initials and dates...
....churches or houses?...
This is a curse apparently.
And some more modern graffiti (from 1968)
8) The copper font

This is a relatively modern addition. It was once used in the process of toffee making in the Norwich Rowntrees factory before it closed down.
9) The most 'bitty' stained glass window

- put together with 'important medieval glass' from the cathedral, patchwork style. It commemorates Sir Thomas Erpingham who fought at the Battle of Agincourt. I wonder if he would have liked it.
10) The 'off' pillars

I was told years ago that these were not centralised but that I cannot see as wonky - despite looking many times. I put it in here so it can torment you too!
11) The new stained glass windows....

....that I know nothing about - but I rather like because they cast a strange light down this part of the aisle.
12) The shrine to William

A 12 year old Christian boy was found murdered on Mousehold Heath. There was much controversy at the time and the local Jews were ultimately blamed for the murder. It is an interesting story. This part of the cathedral is know as the 'Chapel of the Holy Innocents' - a space dedicated to the victims of cruelty, persecution and intolerance - which you could argue William was - though whose intolerance it was is not certain.
13) The pretty weird carvings

There are many strange carvings dotted around he place. There are some great faces high up in the Presbytery near the alter - one of a really happy face and another, opposite, of a tragically sad face. (I have merged the two photos of them together here - they are actually on separate pillars). Please forgive the poor quality of my photos - I ran over my camera with my car.
These animal-like heads (eating other heads) are very odd. They are found in the north transept. They (and another one like them) are particularly significant because they go against the Norman principle of using carvings to support and complement architecture - thus it represents that fact that Christianity reigned strong long before the Normans arrived.

14) The misericords.

These were merciful ledges upon which monks could surreptitiously perch for some relief during sustained periods of prayer in a standing position! They can also be lowered to create full seats. Below the ledges are lots of exampled of beautiful carvings. As one depicts a griffin being speared and another of the local football team - I am guessing they are quite varied in age.
15) The bosses in the nave.

And although they are too far away to photograph (certainly with said poorly camera), the bosses in the nave tell the story of the bible - starting with the old testament at the altar end, with the birth of Christ just over halfway as you travel backwards. There is a book with photos of all the bosses on sale in the cathedral gift shop (see below). I love the fact that to medieval man - a lion was just as mythical as a griffin or a dragon - on account of them being equally unlikely to have been actually witnessed. There are also several medieval 'interpretations'. Without knowing what an Egyptian chariot looked like, for example, the local carver represented one as medieval Norfolk farm cart.

Other things I have learned about the bosses include:
• There are unicorns on Noah’s ark
• The red sea is actually painted red.
• The serpent’s tree in the Garden of Eden is in a pot. This is a clue to the fact the masons based their carvings on the Medieval Norwich Mystery Plays – which would have travelled around Norwich’s Street on a cart – thus the pot!
• Noah plants a vineyard to celebrate dry land after the flood and then proceeds to get drunk
• Jacob has a lot of roof dedicated to him probably because 15th Century Norwich’s wealth came predominantly form the wool trade – so local people would have identified with rural depictions of sheep care!
• The Tower of Babel looks remarkably like one of the medieval city gates of Norwich!
• The current roof was built in 1463 to replace the wooden one destroyed by fire and the spire collapsing onto it.
• Bishop Lyhart sold some of his estate to fund the roof. Medieval stonemasons were in high demand at the time – so there might have been considerable search for the right person to lead the project.
• The bosses were painted over during the reformation (probably too ornate for those lot!) and then uncovered in 1870.
Just three of my favourites from 'Norwich Cathedral Nave Bosses' by Paul Hurst ARPS
The Tower of Babel
The creation of light
The flooding of the Red Sea
The roof!

16) The censing angel hole!

The bosses are interrupted by a hole. As early as 1401 - an angel was hung from here. Apparently it would have been swung over the heads of the congregation. It was also used for releasing doves - apparently!
17) The casual approach to inscriptions

The earliest examples of floor monuments show a very casual approach to letter carving - as replicated in hand-written works of the time. This example shows how there was little forethought to letter placement. See how the word 'departed' is split and the 'th' of the date put over the number.
18) The (illusive) Bishop's Ceremonial Door

This was the door that took the bishops from the palace to the cathedral via the north transept. Originally the effigy of St Felix was positioned outside this door and the strange non-Norman beasts are found above the door inside. This is not coincidental. It was to make a clear statement to the bishop that Christianity predated the Normans. While I was hanging out with clergy and cathedral guides I heard the bishop mentioned twice. 1) It was mentioned how infrequently the bishop could be found in the cathedral (apparently a similar complaint is made about the bishop at Ely Cathedral and 2) there was some laughter about how the bishop was wary of the climb to his throne in the presbytery (at the high altar - boy did I learn a lot of new terms) because it was rather high and he was - in effect - wearing a long skirt when he climbed it.

19) The effigy of St Felix

It was originally believed that this was an effigy of Herbert de Losinga - the bishop who founded the cathedral. However, turns out - it wasn't and it is in fact St Felix: the chap who converted East Anglia to Christianity in the seventh century. It is thought that Felixstowe might have been named after him.

20) The founder's tomb and commemorative slab!

This was made in 1996 to commemorate 900 years of the cathedral. Situated at one end of Herbert de Losinga's tomb it depicts 1) the devil running off with the money de Losinga paid to secure the post of bishop (this 'sin' is called simony - he later asked for the Pope's forgiveness for this) 2) someone carrying the bishop's throne in front of him 3) Norfolk Broads reeds 4) a mason and 5) (I think) a boat carrying the stone than came from Caen to build the cathedral.

21) The raredos that survived the Civil War and Reformation

This is found in St Luke's chapel. It survived the Civil War and the Reformation (when under the Protestantism of Edward VI, images, altars and stained glass were ordered to be destroyed) because it was turned upside down and used as a plumber's table. It includes the colour 'Norwich Red' (like a lot of old paintings from the city)- a pigment that made the city famous until the early 1800s.

22) The Reliquency Chapel

This arches over the ambulatory on the north side. It was was built in 1424 to house the cathedral's relics for pilgrims to visit. The space itself (with its tiny spiral staircase) is more interesting than the objects it currently displays in my opinion. I am sad that the Cathedral's Seal box is not on display here - which is a two compartment box that was the home of two seals that needed four separate keys to open each side - to prevent anyone acting without consensual agreement from others!


3 comments:

  1. I am overjoyed to see your reappearance on my reading list! Thank you for this excellent tour of Norwich Cathedral's quirky bits --fascinating stories of human interest from which centuries fall away.

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  2. Why thank you Geo. I didn't know if there was still anyone out there!

    ReplyDelete

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