This fantastic view of the cathedral spire framed by the arch between two blocks of council flats in Barrack Street was taken in the early 1970s; it no longer exists. Both the arch and the flats have been demolished. Even while they still stood the view had vanished, blotted out by trees, shrubs and vegetation. But what an inspiration that arch was on the part of the city architect who designed it, sometime in the 1930s. Does anybody remember it?
Norwich cathedral still dominates the city visually even after 900 years, although the spiritual dominance which it used to represent has gone. Most people would now regard it as the architectural glory of the city, but it has not always been looked upon with such affection. In the middle ages it was symbolic of the power of the monks, and on one occasion in 1272 the enmity between the church and the townspeople became so heated that the monastery was attacked and an attempt was made to destroy the cathedral. Much of the surrounding priory which was then built of wood was burnt to the ground. Trouble began with a brawl in June and in August a full scale riot broke out. In the aftermath the people of Norwich were severely punished by the king. The Ethelbert gate was built by the townspeople in recompense to replace the earlier gate that they had destroyed.
During the long reign of Elizabeth I the bishops of England had remained strong, although the priory buildings around the cathedral fell into decay after the dissolution of the monasteries by Elizabeth’s father Henry VIII. The cathedral fell on hard times again in the 17th century. During the reigns of James I and Charles I the increasingly puritanical cast of mind of the people of England put pressure on the bishops. This was particularly true of East Anglia. When the animosities erupted into the Civil War the whole future of bishops and the cathedrals which represented them were thrown into doubt. For about seventeen years the cathedral was not used at all, and although public addresses and sermons were given in the close they took place outside its walls. The city fathers however looked after the fabric of the cathedral to a certain extent, mindful of its value as an architectural feature of the city, if the majority of the religious community were unconvinced of its spiritual significance.
Matthew Wren had been made bishop of Norwich in 1635. He only stayed for two years before being translated to Ely Cathedral, only to loose it five years later. He lived through the Commonwealth and was eventually restored to the bishopric of Ely, having been imprisoned in the Tower of London until Charles II was restored to the throne. Upon his release he made a gift to his old college (Pembroke, Cambridge) of a new chapel which was one of first buildings designed by his nephew Christopher Wren.
Bishops were associated with the Royalists, the losing side in the Civil War, and from 1643 until 1660 the bishops of the Church of England were abolished. The puritan stripped the cathedral of vestements and service books, and monuments were destroyed. Bishop Hall reported how the iconoclasts lounged in the aisles smoking their pipes. The future of all the cathedrals in England looked bleak. Things looked up with the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660.
Once Charles II was safely on the throne the rebuilding of the neglected cathedrals throughout England could start. In Norwich the bishop’s chapel (attached to the Bishop’s Palace) was constructed by Edward Reynolds during this time. In London Edward Reynolds had preached a number of sermons supporting the royal cause from the death of Oliver Cromwell in 1658; as a reward he had been appointed bishop of Norwich after 1660. He was also made Chaplain to the King. The chapel he built in the cathedral close in Norwich for his personal use is now the library of Norwich School. In spite of the Whig triumph in the Glorious Revolution the position of the bishops was no longer in jeopardy, although the “Non-jurors” resigned their positions. These were members of the Church of England who felt unable to accept William III, having sworn allegiance to James II. One of these Non-jurors was bishop of Norwich William Lloyd.
During the 18th century the ruins of the monastic buildings in the close in Norwich were turned into elegant Georgian houses for the married clergy and officials who gathered around the cathedral. After the Reformation the high point for the bishops must have been the nineteenth century. Belief was at its most intense in this period, both in the Established Church and in the many varieties of protestantism which also flourished; but even as the faith of the masses seemed impregnable the seeds of doubt had been planted by Charles Darwin. In 150 years this process has produced a much smaller core of believers today. The Bishop’s Palace is the temporal manifestation of this spiritual ascendancy in Victorian times. The very idea of the bishop living in a palace is rather extraordinary, although the Archbishop of Canterbury still lives in Lambeth Palace. This building in Norwich, although dating in part from the 11th century at the very beginning of Norwich as cathedral city, was restored and given its grandest appearance in 1859. It was still in use by the church in the time of bishop Sheepshanks (retired 1910) although his personal preference was for less grand living quarters. Today’s bishop lives in more modest surroundings and the palace is now a part of the Norwich School where it is used for classrooms.