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Decoding the Architecture

Decoding the Architecture


Three key factors influenced the design of Norwich Cathedral:

  • the particular architectural style favoured when the Cathedral was built,
  • a number of practical considerations, such as how to support the weight of the roof, and
  • symbolic reasons, such as the tradition that Christians churches face east when they worship.

In the pages that follow you will find information about architectural points of interest. More information, as well as lots more photographs, can be found in the Cathedral Guidebook available from the Cathedral Gift Shop in the Nave or online.

The purpose of this page is to set the rest of this section in the context of

Norwich Cathedral as a Norman building

Norwich Cathedral is one of the most complete and unaltered Norman buildings in Europe. There have been changes, most importantly replacing the wooden roof with stone and adding a spire to the Norman tower. However when you step inside the Nave the impression of tiers of semi-circular arches resting on powerful pillars and drawing your eye towards the altar has changed little since the Cathedral was dedicated in 1145. The main difference is that originally much of the stonework would have been painted.

‘Norman’ is the term given to a style of architecture brought to England by the Norman invaders of 1066. The style is also known both here and on the continent as ‘Romanesque’ meaning derived from the ancient Roman architectural style. In England this style is mainly found in cathedrals, churches and castles built between 1066 and around 1190.

Norwich Cathedral as a Christian building

The paragraphs below are not concerned with the architectural merits of different parts of the Cathedral. They describe the purposes they serve and the symbolism behind them. All are shown on the architectural plan.

  • Shaped like a cross

    Norwich Cathedral is built in the shape of a cross. There is a symbolic significance in this shape in that it reminds us of Jesus Christ dying on a cross. However there are also good practical reasons in that the crossing and transepts are necessary to bear the load resulting from building a tower above.

  • Facing east

    The early Christians met in private homes or public places. However once they began building it quickly became the norm to orientate the building so that the altar, and thus the congregation also, face east. The practice of facing east to worship probably pre-dates Christianity since there are references in the Old Testament to God being in the east.

  • The Nave

    The western arm of the cross is called the Nave. The word nave comes from the Latin for ship, navis; the concept of the cathedral as a ship conjures up a picture of the clergy and people travelling together towards God.

    When the Cathedral formed part of the Benedictine monastery, the monks held their daily services in the Choir and Presbytery, focusing on the Sanctuary at the High Altar. The Nave was used for the great processions which were a feature of monastic liturgy.

    Today the Nave and Presbytery are used flexibly. Some services, such as Choral Evensong, are held in the Choir with the congregation sitting in the Choir stalls and transepts. Holy Communion is still celebrated at the High Altar but also at the altar in the second Sanctuary which has been built at the east end of the Nave.

  • The Transepts

    The north and south Transepts were originally built to act as gathering spaces for the monastery on the south side and the Bishop’s palace to the north. They also housed side chapels on two levels as well as helping to bear the thrust of the great tower over the Crossing. Two such side chapels remain where Holy Communion is still often regularly celebrated.

    Today the Transepts are also used for exhibitions and as informal meeting spaces, for example to serve coffee refreshments after major services.

  • The Crossing

    This is the area at the crossing point between the two Transepts and is directly beneath the tower, the highest Norman tower in England.

  • The Choir Screen – also called the Pulpitum

    The Cathedral was built as a series of interelated rooms for different purposes. The Pulpitum marked the major division between the Choir where the monks sang their services and the more public area of the Nave. This solid screen gave privacy and shelter from draughts to the monks at prayer and, in the spiritual journey imaged by the building, marked the point of intersection between earthly life and that of heaven. It probably supported an organ from early times and provided an elevated platform from which the gospel could be read on great occasions. Between the Pulpitum and the Nave Altar of the Holy Cross stood a further wooden screen which bore the great Rood or figure of Christ crucified.


  • The Choir

    It is here that services have been held daily for over 900 years. The seats are nearly all hinged; when the seat was in a tipped-up position a ledge was exposed on which the monks could take some rest while standing for the eight services each day. The ledges came to be known as misericords from the Latin word for mercy misericordia, acknowledging the comfort they brought to the monks.

    The misericords are beautifully carved and more details can be found in a later section of the site. We recently commissioned two new misericords featuring Norwich City Football Club and the University of East Anglia.

  • The Presbytery

    The eastern arm of a cathedral is called the Presbytery from the Latin word presbyter meaning priest. As in Norwich, it is usually shorter than the western arm, the Nave. This area is also sometimes referred to as the Chancel from the Latin word cancellus meaning screen, referring to the fact this area was divided from the Nave by a screen.

    The Presbytery is traditionally the location of the Sanctuary, although in Norwich we now have two Sanctuaries, one at the east end of the Nave directly in front of the screen and one at the High Altar.

  • The Altar

    The altar is the sacred heart of Norwich Cathedral. It is both symbolic and practical. It is

    • the table for the communal meal shared during the service of Holy Communion, and also
    • symbolically a sacrificial altar reminding us of the sacrifice Jesus Christ made in dying for us.
  • The Sanctuary

    This area around the altar is known as the Sanctuary. This the most holy and sacred part of the building where Holy Communion is celebrated. It is separated from the area open to the congregation by a step and altar rail beyond which only the clergy and their attendants are allowed to go.

  • The Bishop’s Throne

    The Greek word cathedra means simply ‘a thing sat upon’. In the Christian world it came to mean the seat or throne of a bishop. A cathedral is that church in a diocese which contains the bishop’s throne, whatever the size of the building.

    Uniquely in England, Norwich Cathedral has retained its bishop’s throne in the apse, behind the High Altar, linking our building to the plan of the great Roman basilicas of the 4th century.

    The modern wooden seat you see today is set over fragments of an earlier stone throne pre-dating the present building.


  • The Ambulatory

    This area was designed as a place for walkingprocessional route and for gaining access to small chapels grouped around the Presbytery. Ambulare in Latin means ‘to walk’.

  • The Cloister

    The Cloister was the hub of the Benedictine monastery. The monks walked through this covered area to reach the areas of key importance to their daily life – the Cathedral for worship, the Refectory for food, the Hostry and Locutory to welcome guests, the Chapter House for meetings of the community and the Dormitory where they slept. All these buildings can be seen on the monastery plan. As you can see from that plan, the Chapter House on the north side of the Cloister no longer exists nor does the Dormitory to the south of the Refectory. However with the building of the new Refectory and Hostry on the sites of their medieval equivalents, the Cloister finds itself once again at the heart of the Cathedral complex.

    However the monastic Cloister was more than simply a conveniently covered walkway between buildings. It was also an important route for liturgical processions and a space for work and study. As such, and it played a key role in the culture of learning that was so important to this Benedictine monastery. Today learning remains one of the three elements of the Cathedral’s mission. Learning takes many different forms in the 21st century, but some of these are still inextricably linked with the Cloister:

    • the Library is now housed on the first floor above the east range of the Cloister,
    • the new Hostry off the west range houses our Education and Community Rooms and the Song School, and
    • the Labyrinth in the heart of the Cloister lawn or ‘garth’ is used as a tool for personal spiritual development.
  • Locutory

    The Locutory lies between the Hostry and the Cathedral. For much of the day the monks remained silent, but the Locutory was the room where they were allowed to talk to visitors, a half-way-house between the monastic community and the outside world.

    In our new Hostry development the Locutory  once again becomes an area that bridges two worlds. 21st-century visitors do not walk straight into the Cathedral; they walk through the original monastic Hostry arch into the new Hostry building and then pass through the Locutory to enter the Cathedral itself.

    The modern Locutory prepares visitors by screening a digital presentation about the life and work of the Cathedral and other Benedictine foundations.

  • The Refectory

    Raised on the foundations of the 12th-century monks’ dining hall, the modern Refectory preserves the proportions of the original room – one of Northern Europe’s largest monastic refectories. Faithful to its original purpose as an eating place, it is now open for all visitors to take refreshment where once only monks gathered to take their food and drink.

  • The Hostry

    The latest addition to the Cathedral complex is built on the foundations of the medieval guest house and mirrors its original internal arrangements with a floor to ceiling hall in the middle between two two-storey sections. The medieval Hostry was the community’s interface with the world; the new Hostry building is the principal entrance for all our visitors.

What's On

October '15

A look at literary form in the Bible: products of their age
Tour of Broderers Guild workshop
Veganism: practice, ethics and challenges
An Evening Tour of the Cathedral
Christian perspectives on War
A very English reformation?
Visiting Choir: Singers Inspired
Come and Sing Mozart Requiem

November '15

Girls' Choir celebration
Mission in the 19th and 21st centuries