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Fires, riots and natural disasters

The Riot of 1272

Relations between the Cathedral priory and the growing city of Norwich outside were not always good. There were many disagreements over rights, duties and boundaries, which often led to friction and sometimes open hostility between the religious men and their lay neighbours.

The worst riots occurred in 1272 when a mob set fire to the great gates of the monastery, broke in and destroyed the church of St Ethelbert. Almost all the Norman monastic buildings were consumed by the flames and the Cathedral itself was grievously damaged by fire. The detached belfry was also burnt because the citizens said the Prior had installed mercenary soldiers on it to shoot at passers by with bows and giant catapults called ballistae. This picture shows the Cathedral as it might have looked at the time of the riots; you can see the detached belfry with the catapults on top and the Norman cloisters on fire.

Most of the monks fled, but were killed and others dragged off into the city. For three days, chaos reigned and the Cathedral was plundered of books, gold and silver and silk vestments (clothing).

Did you know?
When the riots were over, King Henry III came to Norwich and blamed the citizens. They were severely fined to pay for the repairs and rebuilding, and they had to send a representative to Rome to ask for Pardon from the Pope. However, the Cathedral did not escape punishment for its role in the riots, and Prior de Brumham was imprisoned.

It took many years to repair the deliberate damage done during the riots of 1272. The Norman Cloister had been badly damaged and so a new Cloister was begun in 1297. Progress was slow, with the final stones not being laid until 1450!

Did you know?
The work on the Cloister took so long because on a number of occasions the builders were asked to work on other projects. Also in 1349 - 1350, the Black Death killed many of the workforce. In fact, it wasn't until five years later (1355 - 1356) that work on the Cloister could begin again.

The Cloister was beautifully decorated with roof bosses showing a wide variety of subjects from the crucifixion of Christ to a medieval thief stealing some washing! You can see some of these images if you go to the Art in Architecture section.

In January 1362, a hurricane whipped its furious way around the city of Norwich. It reached the Cathedral and brought the wooden spire crashing down through the roof, almost destroying the original Norman building.

The 1463 fire

The worst natural disaster was probably the fire of 1463, which was caused by a lightning bolt striking the wooden spire. The spire caught fire, and it then collapsed through the Nave roof which was also wooden and which also caught fire.

Burning debris showered down into the Nave where a violent fire now raged. In fact the temperatures became so hot that it turned the original creamy stone to a fiery pink; for this to happen, scientists estimate that the temperature must reach 1000-1500°C which shows how powerful the fire was! You can still see this pink stone in many parts of the eastern end of the Cathedral today. Following this disaster, Bishop Lyhart covered the Nave with a beautiful and fire resistant stone vault. The next bishop, James Goldwell, ordered the construction of a stone spire in about 1480 and this is the spire which you can see today.

However, the Cathedral is always at risk from such natural disasters. In the autumn of 1999, a lightning bolt struck the spire again. This time the lightning conductor did its job and prevented any damage to the building itself. However, the incredible electric charge that ran through the building put the Cathedral's electrical system out of action for a while!

Did you know?
Although not strictly a 'natural' disaster, on 9th April 1938 fire caused major damage to the Cathedral organ during Evensong. The fire was caused by an electrical fault, and was so destructive that major repairs to the organ were necessary. Rumour has it that on the fiftieth anniversary of this fire, a ghostly burning smell was coming from exactly the same place - although this time there was no actual fire!

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