St Andrews Hal, Part of what remains of the first University in Norwichl

St Andrews Hall, Part of what remains of the first University in Norwichl

The University of East Anglia was set up in Norwich in 1963, and my memories of it from its earliest days may be found in my blog of April 2014. What few people realise (and I did not know myself until recently) is that in medieval times Norwich was one of seven studia in England. This Latin word denoted a place of learning that was to all intents and purposes a University. Oxford and Cambridge were referred to as studia generalia, major universities that pursued a wider curriculum, and these two institutions alone among the English Universities survived the Reformation.

Because the studia were under the control of the friars they were abolished along with the friaries, monasteries, abbeys, canonries, priories and of course nunneries in England. Nearly all the schools in the country were similarly abolished, as schools too were almost entirely run by members of the religious orders. Norwich School was one of the very few to survive. The Great Hospital also managed to continue and was run by the same trust as Norwich School; perhaps not even the most devout Protestant could have seen the aged and infirm residents thrown out onto the streets of Norwich, although most hospitals in remoter locations were closed regardless of need. The more I learn about the disastrous policies of Henry VIII, the more appalled I become by this autocratic monarch.

It took at least two hundred years to repair the damage caused to education by this king, compared to the two years it took Henry and his henchman Thomas Cromwell to destroy centuries of intellectual endeavour. In tending the old it took even longer to establish the workhouses, and the ethos behind them was inhumane. It took the social conscience of many good individuals– now mostly forgotten – to rebuild the grammar schools of England. These grammar schools have mostly now either vanished or been elevated to the status of Public Schools, but originally they were intended to provide free education for any local boy who was bright enough to benefit from it. In this they were carrying on the educational intentions of the medieval church.

Note that I have said boys, not children. Girls who had been entitled to an education by the Catholic church were left out of consideration by the new Protestant elite. It is true that to be educated as a girl you had to give up all thoughts of marriage and enter a nunnery, unless you were very lucky and had rich and liberal parents who could educate you at home. For boys it was easier to acquire an education without fully committing oneself to a life in holy orders. Those who studied Law and Medicine at the Universities often went on to be family men, but those who attended the studia, where the subject was Theology would have been members of the church. After the Reformation  parsons and bishops were encouraged to marry, but the teaching staff at the Universities had to remain single until well into the nineteenth  century.

But I must return to my original subject, the University of Norwich. This must have been centred on the friaries in the city, as friars were the intellectual elite of medieval Europe. These were the Franciscans, the Carnelites and the Dominicans, who were especially keen to stamp out heresy. They punningly called themselves Domini canes, the hounds of God, hunting down unorthodox believers. The Dominicans were living in the area around St Andrews Hall. The adjoining hall which was once the chancel of the friars’ church is still known as Blackfriars Hall. By happy chance the former friary is now the site of Norwich’s newest University which I will always know as the Norwich School of Art. Here studio has replaced studium. St Andrews Hall is still the place where important cultural events are staged, whether it is a classical concert, a visit from Question Time – or the Norwich Beer Festival!

Perhaps the most important order of Friars were the Franciscans or Greyfriars, who took their name from the original friar, St Francis of Assisi. Much less of their house in Norwich survives, only the crypt of Howard House in King Street. This is doubly inaccessible, being underground and beneath a dilapidated house that has been boarded up for many decades. These places, and perhaps the site of the Whitefriars of which just an arch still stands near the river were once the site of Norwich University.

Religion was not the only subject studied in medieval universities; law and medicine also played a part, and the languages of Latin and French (the language of British law until the Commonwealth) were naturally taught. Theology was however the most important of these subjects, and it was the only one studied in Norwich.

The other studia in this country were London, York, Newcastle, Stamford, Coventry and Exeter. In the whole of Catholic Europe (i.e. all Christendom excluding Orthodox Greece and Russia) only 21 studia were listed in the papal edict of 1336; one third therefore were in England. That number of Universities does not include Oxford and Cambridge which swell the total of in England to nine. Even Italy and France could not equal this exceptional concentration on the intellectual life. Scotland, Wales and Ireland did not have any universities at all, even minor ones like Norwich, and sent most of their students to places like York and London to further their studies. Exeter was the most convenient for students in Ireland, while I suspect that Norwich saw a number coming from the Netherlands, Denmark and Norway, which similarly had no Universities of their own. Having an international reputation was an important part of being a studium.

Norwich was involved in the most intimate way with the international intellectual elite of the medieval church. Alexander V, Greek by birth, became Pope of the Western Schism (a division he trie to heal) in 1409. He had begun his studies at Norwich, before moving on the the Universities at Oxford and Paris; Norwich was no provincial outpost but a major centre of learning.

None of this highly important information would ever have reached me had not my sister – herself a retired university professor – recently observed to me that in the time of Julian of Norwich, that well known mystic of the middle-ages, there was a studium generale in Norwich. We have lost most of the buildings where this learning was carried out, but we are very fortunate in retaining  St Andrews and Blackfriars Halls. There are more medieval churches in Norwich than any city in England,  which demonstrates the importance of the city in the middle-ages. We probably have more of these churches than anywhere in Europe, and that of course means in the world.

When the Reformation ended England’s previously highly developed intellectual sophistication, what I can only characterise as the English genius reinvented itself in more practical ways. Only after it became a Protestant country did it excel in such things as Empire building, the Agrarian Revolution (particularly relevant in Eastern England) and of course the Industrial Revolution.




One response

  1. Fascinating piece on Norwich as a university town. I had no idea about the Franciscan origins of the crypt of Howard House, less than half a mile from my home. I seem to remember it was once a fish and chip shop, though 🙂

    Best wishes Tim


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