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History: Norwich Cathedral and the Norman Conquest

Tucked behind the choir of Norwich's Norman-built Anglican cathedral is a carving once thought to show Norwich's first Norman bishop, Herbert de Losinga, but now identified as Saint Felix. This carving was moved indoors in the twentieth-century, but had for centuries been above the door used by the bishops, acting as a reminder and a blessing on them as they came and went.

A carving of St Felix in Norwich Cathedral. He holds a hand up in blessing, framed under a Romanesque arch.
Wikimedia image of St Felix https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:F%C3%A6

St. Felix

St. Felix, known for converting the pagans of East Anglia from around 630CE, might seem an odd decorative choice for the Normans of the 1090s. A generation after 1066, the conquerors and the conquered were adapting to a new political, social and cultural arrangement, while the Burgundian St Felix was a decidedly historic figure, and a foreigner.


But actually that was St Felix's attraction. For the Normans, he was an important link to pre-Conquest England and a useful point of continuity who also embodied a Christian history shared by Normans and natives. His legacy appealled to the English, while Normans could identify with his mission to civilise England.


St Felix's blessing over their doorway legitimised the bishops' ecclesiastic rule over East Anglia, just like St Cuthbert's shrine legitimised Norman rule in Northumbria. In Norwich as elsewhere, the Normans took over a saint's local legacy to co-opt native Christian sentiment.


The carving's location in the ambulatory behind the choir

Church-building as state-building

While St Felix represented some continuity with the past, the cathedral itself was something new. Before 1066, East Anglia's bishops had been based at Elmham in Norfolk, and around 1070 they moved to the more significant town of Thetford. Then there was a failed attempt in the 1080s to move to Bury St Edmunds, and absorb the town's wealthy abbey. When Losinga was appointed bishop in 1090, however, he received permission to move to Norwich. His appointment was slightly controversial; Losinga built the cathedral partly as a penance for the sin of simony he committed by paying the king for the job.


Building work finally began around 1096, on the site of a former parish church dedicated to the Holy Trinity. Norwich had by then overtaken Thetford as East Anglia's principle town, and soon became a regional capital.


The cathedral was constructed during what I consider the Norman Conquest's second phase. The first (shorter and more well-known) phase involved years of violence and destruction as William and his lieutenants crushed rebellions and Danish invasions. Military action eventually gave way to a decades-long process of cultural conquest that gradually reconciled conquered to conqueror; by the 1130s, the populations were broadly integrated. The replacement of older structures like Holy Trinity was part of a Norman hearts and minds campaign to consolidate the Conquest's tactical victories. This was a state-building, soft power counter to the Normans' famous martial strength, and was vital for maintaining control in the English regions. Church-building was just the most visible and enduring example.


Norwich Cathedral's tower, from within the cloisters.

A Nexus of Power

Norwich was one of several towns to gain importance after 1066. The Normans restructured England to shift the centres of administrative, military, economic and ecclesiastic power, and concentrate them in regional capitals. This accelerated after 1075's Synod of London pushed cathedrals into the larger urban settlements.


The Romans famously built straight roads across their empire, and the Normans left a similarly possessive mark on the conquered British landscape. They built castles for military power, towns and markets for economic and demographic power, and monasteries and cathedrals for the soft power benefit of local education and for demonstrating piety. These fortified boroughs could be defensive strongholds as well as forward staging posts for further conquest, across England and the contested Welsh and Scottish borderlands.


A view of Norwich Castle from the marketplace below

You can still see this in modern Norwich. The Norman marketplace sits under the watchful gaze of the square, Norman-built castle, high above. Visitors to the medieval market, which was driving Norwich's eleventh-century commercial growth, would be observed and reminded exactly who was in charge. Castles weren't just symbols of military repression, but were also administrative centres of the fairly autonomous local lords on whom the Norman authorities relied for regional security.


The Norman Conquest

While the conquerors transformed England's political and material landscape, and forever shifted the focus of foreign relations towards the Continent, it would probably not be fair to see the Conquest simply as a rupture. For one thing, the Normans had been present as royal advisors to Edward the Confessor, and their influence was clear in his new abbey at Westminster. The arrival of the Norman duke with his followers probably just accelerated some pre-existing trends.


Although the previous ruling elite was largely wiped out, their roles as noblemen, officials and bishops were filled by new men. Normans simply took over the vacancies in existing power structures. This had an effect on artistic patronage too, with Norman direction apparent even in the work of native craftsmen and artisans.


Norwich Anglican Cathedral's nave, from the crossing

The story of the Norman Conquest is often told, but there are some important details worth re-visiting.


Duke William's invasion in 1066 was triggered by a succession crisis in England, and his claim rested on the contested assertion that the Confessor had named him heir, with the sworn backing of Harold Godwinson. After a few years, the Normans came to rely instead on the right of conquest, but the idea that William was and always had been the legitimate king was still important. It was this legitimacy and continuity with the reign of the Confessor that the Normans stressed when placing St Felix on Norwich cathedral, or when filling Durham Cathedral with pre-Conquest artistic motifs.


The cathedrals and monasteries built following the Conquest were also necessary to justify the pope's blessing on the invasion. That blessing was granted in return for William's promise to reform the English church and bring it more in line with European practice. That meant more monasteries and stricter observance of rules within them.

But the change that really brought post-Conquest England in line with William's duchy was that consolidation of hard and soft power in the proximity of castle, borough, and cathedral in regional capitals like Norwich.


 

Further Reading:

Ian Atherton et al, Norwich Cathedral: church, city and diocese, 1096-1996, 1996

Meg Bernstein, 'A Bishop of Two Peoples: William of St Calais and the Hybridization of Architecture in Eleventh-Century Durham' in Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians 77, 2018

Susan Crane, 'Anglo-Norman Cultures in England, 1066-1460' in The Cambridge History of Medieval English Literature, 1999

Oliver Creighton, Castles and Landscapes: Power, Community and Fortification in Medieval England, 2005

Barbara Dodwell, 'The Foundation of Norwich Cathedral' in Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 7, 1957

Peter Doll, The Story of Norwich Cathedral, 2017

Eric Fernie, 'Architecture and the Effects of the Norman Conquest' in England and Normandy in the Middle Ages, 1994

Michael Fradley, 'Scars on the Townscape: Urban Castles in Saxo-Norman England' in Archaeology of the Eleventh-century: Continuities and Transformations, 2017

Brian Golding, Conquest and Colonisation: The Normans in Britain, 1066-1100, 1994

John Goodall, The English Castle, 1066-1650, 2011

Judith Green, The Normans: Power, Conquest and Culture in 11th Century Europe, 2022

Elizabeth Carson Paston & Stephen D White, The Bayeux Tapestry and its Contexts: A Reassessment, 2014

Richard Plant, 'Ecclesiastical Architecture c.1050 to c.1200' in A Companion to the Anglo-Norman World, 2007

Lisa Reilly, The Invention of Norman Visual Culture: Art, Politics, and Dynastic Ambition, 2020.

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