Origins and importance
Norwich Cathedral was one of the great buildings of its time. With construction beginning in 1096 and finishing by c.1145, it was amongst the largest major churches in Europe. The Norman building was an example of that uniquely English phenomenon: a cathedral that was also a Benedictine priory – the bishop’s seat, but run by the prior and his monks. The immense architectural importance of the Cathedral today chiefly rests on the scale of the original Romanesque building and the completeness of its survival. The four arms of the cross-shaped church and the central tower are all largely original and, unusually, the east end of the Cathedral preserves intact its ambulatory and two of its radiating chapels. Losses have been few, and later embellishments include Gothic features such as the high vaults and the spire.
The eastern arm
The building of Norwich Cathedral began with the eastern arm, consisting of the presbytery – with the high altar and the bishop’s throne – flanked by aisles, which continue around the curve of the apse as the ambulatory. Radiating chapels open off the ambulatory, as did a lost axial chapel. The plan of the aisles, ambulatory and chapels is replicated at gallery level. Following the collapse of the spire in 1361-2, the Norman clerestory (or top level of windows) was rebuilt on the grander scale in 1364-86, with the stone vault added in the 1480s.
To the west, the north and south transepts are unaisled volumes, rising sheer to the roof. The Norman clerestory is well-preserved, comprising windows flanked by smaller arches, all connected by a passage. Again, two-storey chapels were provided, although only the lower northern one survives intact. The stone vaults of the transepts were added after a fire of1509.
The crossing tower
At the meeting of the four arms of the Cathedral – the crossing – the Romanesque tower rises still higher, with the upper of its two wall passages having external windows. A spire was first added in 1291-7, collapsed in 1361-2, with its replacement in turn being succeeded by the present brick and stone spire in c.1472-85: it rises to 315 feet (96 metres). Below the tower was the original monks’ choir, which extended westwards into the nave, as do the present choir stalls.
The restored late medieval pulpitum or screen echoes the Romanesque original in dividing the monks’ choir from the lay part of the Cathedral church. It also marks the western extent of the Cathedral as completed by the time that Bishop Losinga died in 1119. When work resumed, the Nave was continued westwards with the church completed by 1145. Like the eastern arm, the Norman Nave has aisles, supporting a wide gallery and a narrow clerestory. The western porch was added to Norwich Cathedral c.1430 and the vast Perpendicular-styled window was inserted above it c.1450. The Nave gained its magnificent lierne vault in 1454-62.