Herbert de Losinga was born in Normandy and became a monk and eventual prior of the Benedictine abbey of Fécamp. The abbey at Fécamp was critical in the Norman conquest of England. Edward the Confessor granted the royal minster church in Steyning to the abbey, in gratitude to his Norman protectors during his exile. Herbert was called to England shortly after 1087 by the Norman King William Rufus and made the abbot of Ramsey. When the See of Thetford fell vacant in 1090, Herbert offered King William Rufus £1000 to purchase the See along with the abbacy of Winchester for his father. Herbert was consecrated Bishop of Thetford in 1091 and moved the diocese to Norwich in 1094. He became the first Bishop of Norwich but was not consistently called this until c. 1103.
Herbert was to begin the building of a Cathedral for Norwich, possibly to redeem himself for the perceived sin of purchasing his position. It is said Herbert laid the first foundation stone with his own hands in 1096. The stone used to build the Cathedral was imported from Caen in Normandy. Work continued throughout Herbert’s administration and was finally finished under his successor in 1145. The building is in the Romanesque style or as it was called in England, Norman style. The founding bishop died in 1119 and was buried in a tomb before the High Altar which can still be seen today.
The building that survives remains largely unaltered. There were no relics of a major saint to bring in pilgrims and revenue to remodel the Cathedral. The death of Thomas Becket in 1170 created a huge cult following and there was an explosion of work on major buildings in England, especially to rebuild cathedral east ends. Bishop Walter Suffield (1244-57) wanted to ensure that Norwich joined this trend and raised funds to create the Lady Chapel to accommodate the growing cult of the Virgin Mary. Bishop Herbert’s chapel was demolished and replaced with a new square-ended chapel. The chapel was to be razed after the Reformation but the outlines and ruins can still be seen outside the current Chapel of Saint Savior. The early English work which formed the entrance to this chapel can still be seen and forms the entrance to the current chapel.
In 1272 a series of disputes commenced over the revenue from fairs and grazing rights on land around the city. The disagreements came to a head at the Trinity Fair in June when violence erupted. A citizen was killed by a Cathedral tenant. The tenant was acquitted of all charges by the Church court and the city deeply resented this. When violence threatened the Cathedral, the Prior hired one hundred men from Great Yarmouth who made a preemptive strike in the city, destroying many properties. On August 11, a mass of citizens broke into the monastery and set fire to the church. They managed to completely destroy many of the major monastic buildings, killed both monks and servants and damaged the Cloister. The violence and pillaging lasted for three days and left the Priory a smoking ruin. It was one of the most violent assaults on any religious institution in medieval England.
King Henry III fired the Prior for incompetence and imposed a sizable fine on the city to pay for rebuilding the Cathedral. The new Prior had large amounts of money to spend on rebuilding which progressed rapidly. The Cathedral was ready for re-consecration in the presence of King Edward I and his Queen, Eleanor of Castile in 1278. The Prior also rebuilt the damaged monastic Refectory, Hostelry and Dormitory. None of these buildings have survived.
The damage caused by the riot meant the Cloister had to be completely remodeled. Work started in 1297 but wasn’t completed until 1430. The Black Death arrived in Norwich in 1349 causing a shortage of workers and monks. Funds also had to be diverted to repairing the east end after the spire collapsed in 1362. The Norman tower had a spire made of wood and lead from the very beginning. A hurricane in 1362 blew down the spire. It crashed down into the east end of the Cathedral, destroying the Presbytery roof and Clerestory. The new Clerestory was constructed with new advances that allowed for larger windows creating more light in the building. It had a timber roof and the spire was replaced in wood. The new spire lasted until 1463 when a violent storm hit Norwich and lightning struck, causing the spire to catch fire. It crashed into the wooden ceiling of the Nave. It burned so hot it turned the cream colored stone pink. In the 1470’s a new vaulted Nave was constructed.
Following another fire in 1509, there was a re-vaulting of the Transepts. On May 2, 1538, the Dissolution of the Monasteries would end the 442 years of existence for the monastic community of Norwich Cathedral. When Elizabeth I went on progress through East Anglia in 1578, she worshiped in the Cathedral. She sat in a special throne in the Presbytery erected opposite the tomb of her great-grandfather, Sir William Boleyn. To aid her tour of the Cathedral, a set of steps were cut into the north side of the Presbytery just for her use. There is a painted coat of arms commemorating her visit that is hanging in the Cloister today.
East Anglia was a stronghold of Puritan and Parliamentary forces during the Civil War. In 1643, Puritan mobs broke into the Cathedral and caused damage. The mob removed all pictures, vestments, statues, organ pipes and books, taking them to the marketplace where they were burned in a huge bonfire. The Cathedral was nearly pulled down so the stone could be used to build a new harbor at Great Yarmouth.
During the 19th century, there was a period of restoration and consolidation to the fabric of the Cathedral. Fortunately Norwich was reasonably well preserved and for the most part needed only cosmetic work. The most intense period of restoration was in the 1830s. In April of 1942, the Cathedral Close suffered several hits during German air raids. Several fires were started in the roofs of the Transepts but they were soon put out. The Cathedral celebrated its 900th anniversary in 1996 and has a strong group of Friends who raise funds and support restoration of the Cathedral to this day.