Welcome to St John's Cathedral
St John’s is the second largest Catholic cathedral in the UK. After nearly a century as the parish church of the Catholic community in Norwich it became the mother church of the new diocese of East Anglia in 1976.
It now takes its place with its ‘elder sister’, the Anglican cathedral which is located in the centre of the city. Norwich is one of the few English cities to have two cathedrals and, over the last 30 years, we have grown closer in a spiritual and practical partnership.
As well as being a beautiful building St John’s is a place of prayer that is open every day to all who come in search of peace and tranquillity. It is also the home of a large parish community.
I warmly welcome you to our website. I hope that it will give you a taste of the splendour of the building as well as the spiritual atmosphere which sets it apart as a house of prayer.
History and Future of the Cathedral
Click here to see a specially commissioned video to illustrate the forthcoming projects in the Cathedral.
The Cathedral is the Mother Church of the diocese, embracing Norfolk, Suffolk, Cambridgeshire and the Unitary Authority of Peterborough. It is the seat of the Bishop of East Anglia, providing a fitting setting for great diocesan liturgies. It is the focus of a thriving parish, where over 1,000 people worship regularly. And it is a place where many more from all over the world come to visit, either to find a quiet place of prayer or to appreciate its architecture and marvel at its famous stained glass.
This great church was a gift to the city of Norwich of Henry Fitzalan Howard, 15th Duke of Norfolk (1847-1917). The Howards had preserved their Catholicism over the centuries, at times at great material cost to themselves. Duke Henry was a shy but immensely determined young man whose faith had developed under the influence of Cardinal John Henry Newman. By the nineteenth century, Catholics were once again free to practice their faith in public and a Catholic hierarchy had been restored to England.
Conscious of his role as Premier Duke, Duke Henry's personal mission was to bring Catholicism into the centre of English life once more and to break down the prejudices against his faith that had existed since the Reformation. Throughout his life, he was a prodigious benefactor of the growing Catholic community, helping churches, schools, seminaries and convents.
His real passion was for building. He had a profound love and understanding of medieval architecture and many of his buildings reflect this. In thanksgiving for his coming of age, he had set in hand the building of the vast church in his home town of Arundel in Sussex. The influence was French Gothic and the soaring building, now also a cathedral (of the Diocese of Arundel and Brighton) reflects the lightness and hope of his youth. It was consecrated in 1873.
Since the Reformation, the Catholic faith had survived in small communities and a few great houses in Norfolk, such as Oxburgh Hall and Costessey Hall struggling against persecution. Even after Catholics became free once more to practise their faith, their numbers in East Anglia remained few. They worshipped in a small chapel dedicated to St John the Baptist in the Maddermarket, now the Maddermarket Theatre, and in the Jesuit Chapel dedicated to Saints Peter and Paul in Willow Lane which subsequently became a Catholic school and now houses a firm of solicitors. The second Bishop of Northampton, Francis Amherst, estimated in 1875 that his entire flock in seven counties numbered just over six thousand.
In 1877 Duke Henry married Lady Flora Hastings and his thanksgiving for this happiness was to be the building of another great church. 'Shortly after my most happy marriage, I wished to build a church as a thank-offering to God' he wrote. This time he chose the city of Norwich in the county of Norfolk, the origin of his ancestry and title. A number of sites were considered, before land was purchased on the site of the old city gaol just outside the medieval city walls, and the building programme commenced. The building of so magnificent a church in Norwich showed enormous faith in the future.
Of all his churches (and the Duke was to build many in his life) his great church in Norwich dedicated to St John the Baptist was to be his favourite. Norwich had a wealth of medieval architecture, in particular from the Norman (eleventh and twelfth centuries) and Perpendicular (fifteenth century) periods, yet of all its fine Gothic churches, the Duke felt it had no surviving worthy example of Early English. Even though six hundred years had passed, it was not too late to fill the gap.
The site which was eventually chosen was that occupied by the old city gaol, just outside the medieval city walls, described by Percy Lubbock, a relation of the Gurneys as 'a terrific old place of black gates and bulging towers and high blind walls' which made him shudder when he passed it as a young child. The site had a very commanding position overlooking the city although there were some misgivings about its proximity to the Jesuit Church in Willow Lane and several other sites had been considered, including one in Duke Street, before the final choice was made.
As his architect, the Duke chose a convert to Catholicism, George Gilbert Scott, the son of Sir George Gilbert Scott whose contribution to the Victorian Gothic revival had been considerable. Amongst the younger George's commissions had been St Agnes, Kensington and All Hallows, Southwark. He was chief architect until 1887, but then his health broke down and the project was completed by his brother, John Oldrid Scott. The Duke made his own contribution. The triple lancet window in the north transept (known as the Queens' Window) is said to be his design.
Duke Henry was present in Norwich on 24th June 1882, the Feast of the Birth of St John the Baptist, to whom the church was to be dedicated, to 'turn the first sod'. The building of the church was beset with difficulties. Medieval chalk works had undermined the site and two years of work were needed before the foundation stone could be laid on 17th July 1884.
The nave and aisles were blessed by Canon Duckett in August 1894. Then, after ten years of building, the first stone used, Devon Beer, was found to weather badly and the remainder of the building, its tower and transepts, already well advanced, had to be completed in Ancaster and Clipsham stone.
There had been embarrassment in 1892 when the Duke discovered that he did not have planning permission to complete the full length of the church. He wrote a splendid letter to the City Council, hoping that he would not have to build the second half of his church elsewhere: 'I think that two halves of a church look better when they are joined together than when they are many miles apart.' The matter was resolved and on December 8th 1910, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, the church was finally ready for its opening. There was a private blessing followed by a Pontifical High Mass sung by the Bishop of Northampton, Dr Keating.
The Pope, Pius X, sent a personal message of thanks to the Duke of Norfolk, appointing him a member of the Order of the Golden Spur. He received the Insignia on the opening day. After a celebratory luncheon a second service, attended by an immense congregation, was held in the evening.
The Duke was now aged sixty-two and the triumphal opening must have been a time of mixed feelings for him. His marriage to Flora, the inspiration for the church, had ended with her death in 1887, when she was only thirty-four. Their son Philip, the heir to the Dukedom, had been born blind and epileptic. He was devotedly cared for by Duke Henry, but died when he was twenty-three.
However, in his fifties the Duke had remarried. His bride, a cousin, Gwendolen Constable-Maxwell, Lady Herries, had brought him much happiness after years of loneliness as well as a new family, a son, later the sixteenth Duke, and three daughters. She was present at the opening and made her own contribution to the building with a beautiful apsidal chapel dedicated to Our Lady of Walsingham off the north transept.
In his address to the congregation the Bishop of Northampton said, 'This is no ordinary church. Its magnificent proportions the majesty of its architecture, the vastness of its spaces, the endless charm of mighty pillar, soaring arch and triumphant vault, grouping and regrouping themselves to the delighted eye, recall the masterpieces of the Ages of Faith and challenge comparison with them'.
FROM PARISH CHURCH TO CATHEDRAL (1910 - 1976)
The Catholics of Norwich now had the largest parish church in England. From its earliest days, the church hosted great occasions. In 1912, the Third National Catholic Congress met in Norwich and a Pontifical High Mass was celebrated by Cardinal Bourne and following the revival of pilgrimages to the medieval shrine at Walsingham the church welcomed two thousand pilgrims at a great mass in 1934. The parish, part of the Diocese of Northampton, grew from strength to strength and 'St John's', as it was known by locals, was the scene of many public acts of Catholic worship, unknown in Norwich since penal times.
The city had another fine landmark, rising above the horizon. During World War II it was used as a turning beacon for planes returning to Norfolk after bombing missions in Europe, especially by members of the USAF 7th Air Force. Many of them were married here, as testified in parish registers of the 1940s. The illustration by Paul Osborne shows a B24 Liberator in the foreground carrying the markings of Aircraft 95108/Z5-B 'Envy of 'em all IF that flew from Horsham St Faiths, Norwich with the 458th Bomber Group. Behind, a B17 carries the markings of Aircraft 42-31053 BX-W 'Stingy' which flew with the 96th Bomber Group based at Snetterton Heath from September 1943 until November 1944 when it was involved in a mid air collision with another B17 with the tragic loss of seven of its crew.
(Further information on the illustration may be obtained from Paul Osborne on 01603 449839.)
The Diocese of Northampton was founded in 1850 with the restoration of the Catholic Hierarchy in England. .Yet there was an older tradition - of a Diocese of East Anglia. In about 630, St Felix, a Burgundian, had become the first bishop of this diocese with his seat at Dunwich in Suffolk. Later bishops of East Anglia held their sees at Elmham and Thetford but in 1094 Bishop Herbert de Losinga set up his see in Norwich. In a few years he had laid the foundation stone of the Norman cathedral which survives today in the centre of the city. Like all great medieval English cathedrals it passed to the Anglican church at the time of the Reformation.
As numbers of Catholics in the diocese grew, so did hopes that the vast diocese of Northampton would be divided. In 1961 Charles Grant was appointed Auxiliary Bishop with responsibility for East Anglia. His successor as Auxiliary, Alan Clark, finally saw the re-creation of the Diocese of East Anglia, announced by Pope Paul VI on 13th March 1976. Duke Henry's great church was designated its Cathedral. On 2nd June 1976, Bishop Alan Clark was installed as its first bishop by Cardinal Basil Hume, Archbishop of Westminster. Among many dignitaries present was Miles, 17th Duke of Norfolk, cousin and successor of the founder. Norwich had a second cathedral. It remains for you to enjoy today.
A TOUR OF THE CATHEDRAL
At first sight, the exterior of the Cathedral, with its dominating tower and massive nave appears rather forbidding. Look more closely. One of the glories of the building is its stone carving and there is a wealth of sculpture for those who look for it in the mass of mouldings, flying buttresses, pinnacles and gargoyles. The entrance portals on the north and west sides are particularly impressive. Note especially that on the west side of the north transept, its magnificent tympanum restored for the 2000 Jubilee Year. The metalwork decoration on the external doors sets the tone for the whole building: the quality of the craftsmanship and attention to detail is evident throughout the cathedral. Fine craftsmen, many of them local, brought a devotion and care to their work seldom found in large building projects today.
Once inside, we enter an atmosphere of medieval splendour - an echo of the great English churches of the thirteenth century, just as they might have appeared all those years ago. Remember that most medieval churches existing today have either been 'improved' in accordance with fashion, or vandalised over the centuries. This church is architecturally much as it would have appeared had it been built in 1200, although in those days it would have been highly decorated with elaborate wall paintings.
Stand for a moment at the west end of the Cathedral and experience the true majesty of the building. The nave consists of ten bays supported by massive cylindrical columns with capitals and plinths richly carved by local sculptor, James Ovens. From these spring moulded arches leading to a magnificent triforium, above which is the clerestory, consisting of plain, wide lancets .The whole of the nave, over 49 metres long and 18 metres high is richly decorated with dark Frosterley marble from Durham, seen in the shafts, the abaci and the string cornices. Take a closer look at these marble columns and notice the thousands of fossilised creatures embedded in the limestone.
Dominating the crossing is the magnificent wooden painted rood, carved by Peter Rendl of Oberammergau, one of the principal players in its Passion Play early in the 20th century. Look beyond the crossing and notice that the chancel at the east end is slightly off-centre. Medieval churches were most frequently cruciform, representing Christ on the Cross. The chancel leans slightly to one side, as does Christ's head on the cross.
Continue eastwards up the north aisle. Notice the memorial to the Polish men and women of East Anglia who died in the 1939-1945 War and the copy of the painting of Our Lady of Czestochowa blessed by Pope John-Paul II during his visit to Britain in 1982. There is a thriving Polish Community in the diocese which meets regularly at the Cathedral.
The carved wooden tableaux - the Stations of the Cross are by Ferdinand Stufflesser of Ortesei in the Italian Tyrol. The Stations represent significant moments in the Passion of Our Lord and are found along the north and south aisles. During the 1970s several more Stufflesser works were commissioned, including fine statues of St John the Baptist, the Risen Christ (bearing an East Anglian crown), Our Lady and the Infant Jesus, St Joseph and some crib figures.
Farther along the aisle, you will find a shrine dedicated to St Antony of Padua and a beautiful icon of Our Lady and the Child Jesus in the Byzantine style, referred to in earlier times as Our Lady of Perpetual Succour. The figures on either side of the Virgin and Child bear the instruments of Christ's passion, foretelling his death.
Stuflesser's carving of St John the Baptist, the Cathedral's patron looks down the nave from the first bay of the north aisle.
The stone carving in the plinths and along the string course is very medieval with mythical beasts and flowers, and fine portraits, although being Victorian Gothic, without characteristic medieval lewdness! Sadly there appears to be no definitive record of the portraiture, although anecdotal evidence has enabled us to identify one or two figureheads, notably Cardinal Manning and Cardinal Newman who can be seen facing one another across the front of the nave. Both were in office during the period when the Cathedral was under construction.
The north transept of three bays has on its west side two fine entrance doors. These were restored for use as the Jubilee Doors during the year 2000 and the plaque in the floor commemorates the opening of that Holy Year by Bishop Peter Smith, second Bishop of East Anglia.
We have already heard that Duke Henry probably designed the fine north transept window. Known as the Queens' Window, the centre-piece is Our Lady Queen of Heaven, enthroned with the Christ Child. She is prefigured in the top of each of the three lancets through the lives of great women of the Old Testament, Esther, Judith and the Queen of Sheba. A detailed description of the imagery is given beneath the window. Tragically, the original glass here, and elsewhere on the north side, was destroyed during bombing raids in the 1940s. Fortunately, John Hardman & Co of Birmingham, who made most of the stained glass in the Cathedral were able to reproduce the window faithfully after the war from original design sketches.
In the north-east corner of the Cathedral you will find a beautiful apsidal chapel. The Walsingham Chapel, donated by Gwendolen, Duchess of Norfolk in 1909, is French in design, modelled on a chapel from the magnificent cathedral at Laon in Picardie, and is one of the features by J. Oldrid Scott, George Gilbert Jr's brother. If you have been to Walsingham you may notice a similarity between the reredos here and the one in the Slipper Chapel. Both are by Lilian Dagless, who is buried in Walsingham parish church and who also designed the fleur-de-lys backdrop in the niche behind the statue of St Antony in the north aisle.
The original glass here was also lost during the war and replaced in the 1950s. The first window on the left is known as the Lady Window. This light replaces a window showing boy saints, known as the Children's Window which was destroyed in 1942.
The remaining windows tell the Walsingham story and a detailed description is displayed close to the chapel. The restoration of the damaged windows after the war allowed a new installment of the Walsingham story to be told. In 1934 Cardinal Bourne visited the slipper Chapel, following the reinstatement of the national Catholic shrine at Walsingham. This visit is pictured in the window and the squirrel on the ground is probably a reference to Mgr Harold Squirrell, Rector of St John's between 1934-42.
Peter Rendl's Magnificent Rood
with the great east window behind
and medallions from the window
The small chapel along the north side of the chancel is dedicated to Christian Unity. The glass here depicts symbols of the Precious Blood: Christ treading the grapes above a wine press and his Blood at the Crucifixion is gathered into chalices.
The east end of the cathedral consists of four bays raised above the nave. Here a rather later more decorated architectural style has been adopted, with richer mouldings and a more liberal use of Frosterley marble. The great glory of the chancel is the triple lancet Holy Trinity window by Dunstan Powell. Each part portrays a member of the Trinity - God the Father on the left, Christ the Son in the centre and the Holy Spirit on the right with the Council of the Trinity shown at the very top of the central lancet. The three corresponding themes are Creation, by God the Father; Redemption, by Christ; and Sanctification by the Holy Spirit. There are many images to explore within each lancet. See how Adam toils and Eve bears the pain of childbirth in the lower left light after banishment from the garden.
The chancel was never furnished as the architect originally intended. The high altar was re-sited under the tower in the 1970s following changes to the Liturgy after the Second Vatican Council. The Cathedral Architect has produced a design for reordering of the sanctuary to give the high altar more dignity and prominence and this scheme will be implemented gradually as funds permit.
The three modern paintings were a gift from the Cathedral Friends and show the secondary patrons of the diocese - St Felix, St Etheldreda and St Edmund. The primary patron is Our Lady of Walsingham, commemorated in the Walsingham Chapel.
The Blessed Sacrament Chapel on the south side of the sanctuary is set aside for private prayer. Please approach this area quietly. The window depicts the Blessed Sacrament surrounded by angels with symbolic representations below, including the Paschal Lamb and manna.. The window to the right shows early English martyrs above and post-Reformation martyrs beneath them, with Pope Leo XIII, the Pontiff responsible for their beatification, kneeling below.
The chapel at the south corner of the south transept is dedicated to the Holy Souls and is a special focus of prayer during the month of November when we remember those who have gone before us. Here are memorials to those in the parish who gave their lives in the First World War. John Powell's window shows Our Lady of Mercy above a scene from the marriage feast at Cana.
The decorative gallery in the transept is anecdotally referred to as the 'Duke's Gallery.' It is unlikely that it could have been used as a private viewing gallery as, at the time of building, the altar was tucked away at the east end of the chancel, and hence out of vision. Beneath the gallery we find three original confessional boxes still used for the Sacrament of Reconciliation.
The magnificent window in the South Transept above the gallery tells the story of Pentecost - the Birth of the Church. In the upper part of the window seven figures are shown, bearing scrolls inscribed with the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit. Below them the twelve Apostles, represented as twelve mitred Bishops are seated on thrones with a white tongue of fire above each of their heads. St Peter stands in their midst, wearing the papal crown and bearing the keys of his office.
From the west corner of the transept, a processional corridor leads through to the sacristies, not open to the general public.
Moving to the crossing, look above you at the massive tower lantern. Tours of the tower, from where there is an unrivalled view of Norfolk are possible at certain times, starting in September 2005. Further information will be found at the west end of the Cathedral, including details of the cost, health and safety information and the number of steps to climb!
Looking west, the great west window features St John the Baptist, patron of the Cathedral foretelling the Messiah. In the centre light, Christ on the Cross is surrounded by prophets with the Holy Spirit and the Eternal Father above. Below the Cross, John the Baptist points to Christ with the text 'Behold the Lamb of God'. The left hand and right hand lights refer to the Transfiguration. Elijah and scenes of his life are shown in the right lancet and Moses with the tablets of stone and his staff appear in the left lancet. Stories from the Old and New Testaments relating to the three central figures are represented in the roundels in each of the lights.
Beneath the west window is a gallery, originally intended for a pipe organ. An organ was commissioned from organ builders William Hill & Son. Although the specification for the organ was completed it was never built as there were insufficient funds to pay for it. To this day the Cathedral does not have a pipe organ appropriate to its status. For many years it used the small chamber organ by Norman & Beard from the original St John the Baptist Chapel in the Maddermarket which can still be seen next to the Holy Souls chapel. At present a Bradford Computing Organ, a gift of the Cathedral Friends is used to accompany the singing of the choir and congregation.
In 2001, courtesy of a gift from Her Majesty the Queen, the Cathedral received a range of organ pipes from a redundant Hill organ, believed to include some of those originally intended for the Cathedral which were subsequently installed in the church of St Peter ad Vincula in the Tower of London. During the 1990s a new organ was built for St Peter's and the old pipes were stored in Hampton Court. These were later discovered and the Queen graciously presented them to the Cathedral. When funds become available a new organ will be built, incorporating these organ pipes.
The arcading in the south aisle is particularly striking, with its fluted Frosterley marble pillars. On the left is a small chapel which was enclosed in the 1970s to form a daily Mass chapel. It is known as St Joseph's chapel - note the Stuflesser figure of St Joseph on the south wall and his statue of the Virgin and Child by the altar. The chapel is also known as the Sunken Chapel, for obvious reasons.
Duchess Flora is especially commemorated in the glass of this chapel where each window tells the story of the saint associated with each of her four names. On the extreme left of the south wall is St Paulinus of York, representing Pauline; Flora is depicted in the centre; the story of Esther is featured on the right and St Barbara, with her tower is shown in the light on the west end of the chapel.
Look especially for the carved angels in the string course, each bearing a different instrument of passion.
Immediately outside the chapel you will find the arms of Fitzalan-Howard and Hastings in the Grisaille window of the south aisle.
At the west end of the south aisle you will see the plans and dedication stone for the Narthex, a new building which will lead off the south west corner of the Cathedral.
There is a short (two minute) film. The Narthex will be the site of a new education centre, the Cathedral Shop, refreshments and other facilities and accessible toilets. There will be a new, level access entrance into the Cathedral and a link to the Cathedral garden. We are only too aware that we are unable at present to offer the kind of welcome our visitors and congregation deserve and the new amenities will make a visit to the Cathedral even more pleasurable.
The Cathedral has many secrets to discover. Some await the opening of a new treasury so that they can be permanently on view to the public.
Others are high above your head. The nave, transepts and aisles feature most beautifully crafted bosses in the roof vaults, barely discernible to the naked eye. Photographer Nigel Gooch has painstakingly captured images of those in the nave and transepts. Some are shown here.
The nave bosses west to east:
Adam and Eve tempted by Satan
Adam and Eve are banished from the Garden of Eden
Moses strikes the rock at Horeb and brings forth water
Ravens minister unto Elijah in the desert
The Annunciation to the Virgin Mary by the Angel Gabriel
Mary visits Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist
John the Baptist baptises Jesus in the Jordan
John the Baptist is beheaded
The Head of John the Baptist is presented to Herod on a plate
The Second Coming of Christ on the clouds of heaven
In the chancel:
The agony in the Garden of Gethsemane
The Crucifixion of Jesus
The Resurrection of Jesus
The Ascension of Jesus
In the south transept, north to south (Eucharistic analogies)
Jesus shares a meal with disciples on the road to Emmaus
Elijah is fed by angels in the desert
The pelican feeds its brood with its blood
In the north transept, south to north (The Holy Family)
The Nativity of Jesus
The Flight into Egypt
The Holy Family reunited in heaven
This is a fan site for St Johnâ's Cathedral in Norwich.
We are not affiliated with the cathedral itself. Norwich is a stunning medieval city full of cobbled streets and beautiful ancient buildings.
It is also famed for its literature, boasting a rich literary scene and nightlife as well as the University of East Anglia which has a vast alumni of published authors including Ian McEwan and Kazuo Ishiguro. Christianity has a strange relationship with modernity.