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The Norfolk Churches Site: an occasional sideways glance at the churches of Norfolk

St Julian, Norwich

Norwich St Julian


rebuilt after bombing in the garden: I don't know who the fellow pilgrim is, but she doesn't seem to mind being in the photo round tower saxon windows

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    St Julian, Norwich

This crisp little church sits on one of the alleys that ran from Ber Street to King Street below. Its neighbours are mostly new apartments and houses, but for centuries this was Conesford, an industrial quarter and a port, with the tenements, inns and brothels you might expect. In the late Middle Ages, much of East Anglia's stained glass and memorial brasses were made in these narrow lanes. In the 18th and 19th Centuries this was an area of factories and warehouses, tanneries and slaughterhouses, along with the crowded slums of the workers. These days, King Street, the main road that ran through Conesford, is being gentrified, but still the urban decay of centuries clings to some of the old buildings.

St Julian's dedication is an interesting one. The Canon of Saints gives us two St Julians, one of whom was Bishop of Le Mans, who gives his name as the dedication of that beautiful French city's cathedral. A modern image of him is set on the wall inside St Julian's church. But the other saint, St Julian Hospitaller, although almost forgotten today, was a popular figure in medieval legend. He was a nobleman who, out hunting one day, spared the life of a deer which had admonished him. It then went on to make the startling prediction that Julian would kill his parents. By roundabout means, this accidentally happened. Julian resolved to pay penance by establishing a riverside inn for travellers, and a hospital for the poor. So, he was an entirely appropriate choice of patron for the medieval priory established here in the medieval suburb of Conesford on the banks of the Wensum. It seems likely therefore that he was also the St Julian to whom this little church is dedicated.

The Priory has long gone. But although this church is a small and rebuilt building, tucked away in what is still the anonymous and relatively run down inner city, St Julian is one of the most famous of Norwich's churches because it is associated with the mystical visions of the Blessed Mother Julian of Norwich. When Dame Julian came here, the church looked much as it did in the early 19th Century engraving below. By the time the great George Plunkett took the 1937 photographs beside it the Victorians had replaced the chancel, but it was still substantially a medieval church.

before the Victorians, before the bombs... the tower, 1937 (c) George Plunkett view from the east, 1937 (c) George Plunkett

Incidentally, Dame Julian did not actually receive her visions in this church. In fact, we don't know who she really was at all. She was probably a noblewoman, and she fell ill in the 1370s, probably in one of the outbreaks of pestilence which carried off perhaps half Norfolk's population between the late 1340s and the end of the century. In her deathbed delirium she claimed she received mystical visions or showings, which she termed Revelations of Divine Love. On her unexpected recovery, she became an anchoress here, taking the name Julian, the dedication of the church.

An anchoress was a kind of female hermit, walled up in a room on the side of a church with a view of the altar. Meals would be passed to her, ablutions passed out, and she would offer advice to visitors, but her existence was largely a contemplative one. Her male equivalent was an anchorite. There is surviving evidence of anchorite or anchoress cells at half a dozen East Anglian churches, although of course there must have been many more. There was a fashion for anchorites and anchoresses in the late 14th Century, mainly as a result of the way in which the Black Death had concentrated our minds and made us all serious. Dame Julian devoted her time to prayer and contemplation of her visions, which she wrote down in English.

The manuscripts fell into obscurity after the Reformation, and it was really only in the 20th Century that the importance of her work in both literary and spiritual terms was recognised. The most striking thing about the Revelations is quite simply that, at a time when an obsession with death, doom and gloom would have been entirely reasonable, they are optimistic and uplifting, an affirmation of our relationship with God. They suggest that our ultimate destiny is intended by God to be beautiful and glorious, and that life is not a test which sends its failures to hell.

Roger Clarke, a friend of this site, wrote to me to point out that as this has always been a rundown and poor part of Norwich, even in medieval days, I have always felt that this adds to the specialness of the place. Mother Julian's Revelations are highly incarnational and stress the reality of Christ sharing in the messes and confusion of human existence - grace is very much earthed and earthy for her. What better place for the Revelations than a church in a run-down, slightly seedy, decayed, red-light district ? The holy is glimpsed, not in the purity of isolation, but in the ordinary - or, as Mother Julian, would call it "the homely". The Revelations are at the forefront of medieval northern European spiritual writing. Although she has never been officially recognised as a saint, Dame Julian is often treated as one, and her patronal day of May 8th is included in the Ordo of both the Church of England and of the Catholic Church in England and Wales.

The 1905 photograph below of the view east inside shows us that St Julian was spectacularly High Church in its tradition at the start of the 20th Century. The rood beam inscription reads And Incense shall be offered unto My Name and a Pure Offering received. But none of this survives, for during the 1942 air raids on Norwich, St Julian was one of five city churches destroyed by the bombing.

1905, looking east

St Julian was the only one of the five lost churches to be rebuilt, and this seems largely down to the fact that the foundations of what appeared to be Dame Julian's cell were uncovered in the rubble. The rebuilding in the 1950s was largely along its original plan, except that the presumed site of Mother Julian's cell was added as a transept, accessed through a massive Norman doorway brought here from the bombed out church of St Michael at Thorn up the road. The steeply pitched roof gives it an attractively rustic feel, and the Saxon windows exposed by the bombing have been left as features on the north side. The tower was left at a lower level.

George Plunkett's 1946 photographs show St Julian in ruins at the end of the war, and reminds us quite how complete the destruction was - far greater than at St Michael at Thorn, for example. By the 1950s, work was in progress. In 1952 he photographed Mother Julian's cell being constructed on the presumed site of its predecessor. On the same day he photographed the north side from the street, and came back in 1962 to see the completed church being landscaped.

1946: the ruins after the blitz (c) George Plunkett 1952: south side under construction (c) George Plunkett
1952: north side under construction (c) George Plunkett 1962: completed church (c) George Plunkett

The twelve-storey council block of Normandie Tower looms over the church, and in this challenging area it was fitting that a group of Anglican nuns from the Community of All Hallows at Ditchingham on the outskirts of Bungay should have set up a community beside the church in the 1950s. In the reorganisation of Norwich parishes, this is one of two churches in the new Parmentergate parish to survive as a working church - the other is St John Timberhill.

You step into a clear, bright interior, crisp in its execution but already with the patina of ageing that half a century has brought. The view east is to the 1962 chancel, devotional and pleasing, full of light despite the lack of an east window. George Plunkett photographed the Norman doorway at its original home of St Michael at Thorn in 1937. Today, it leads through into Mother Julian's cell, a quiet, surprisingly simple space with an altar and a small shrine on the north side. It is a lovely place to sit for a while.

1937: the Norman south doorway in situ at St Michael at Thorn (c) George Plunkett doorway to the cell from St Peter at Thorn shrine of Mother Julian altar in Mother Julian's cell

I remember one of my first visits to St Julian some quarter of a century ago. I had just arrived inside to hear whispered voices coming from the south transept, when all of a sudden a figure came rushing out through the Norman doorway into the body of the church, her robes flying. "Hello, is it all right to have a look around?", I said, because it seemed only polite to ask. "Can you wait a few minutes?" she replied, breathlessly, "we're in the middle of a Eucharist." And then she was gone, out of the north door. Well, what would you do? I thought about it, and began to photograph the font. I had just become engrossed in this when she fled breathlessly back in, carrying a large consecration host. She skipped back into the transept, and a few moments later we heard a voice begin to intone the third eucharistic prayer.

The font I was photographing came from All Saints in the city centre, another example of the way in which surviving Norwich churches have been enriched by those that fell to redundancy. It is similar to one that was in St James, but which has now been moved to a church in Norwich's northern suburbs. There is another in the series at Stalham. It was brought here to replace a 15th Century font with shields that was destroyed by the bombs. The beautiful vine work under the bowl echoes that on the seven sacrament font at Walsoken and on the Trunch font canopy. You can see both fonts below, the earlier lost one photographed in 1937 by George Plunkett.

the original 15th century medieval font, destroyed in the blitz (c) George Plunkett font
font: St Michael and St George font: St James and St James the Less font: St Peter and St Paul
font: St John the Baptist and St John the Evangelist St Paul font: St Thomas and St Matthias
St Michael font St George

Before the many Norwich church closures after the Second World War, the living of St Julian was consolidated with that of All Saints at the end of Ber Street. However, at the time of the 1851 Census of Religious Worship both churches were in the care of a curate, the splendidly named Reverend Washington Shirley Maturin. This state of affairs was not in itself unusual, although it was the kind of thing that the 19th Century Anglican revival would try to put a stop to. However, Maturin recorded in the returns for both churches that in consequence of the non-residence of the rector it has been impossible to ascertain the value of the living, which obviously begs a few questions. Those filling in the returns were expected to report the income from the living, largely to see if the church was providing good value for money. A fair number of rectors refused to give this information, which probably told you all you needed to know about the size of their congregations.

In fact, both St Julian and All Saints were fairly busy churches, each maintaining a weekly Sunday service, and a Sunday afternoon sermon at All Saints. The attendance at St Julian, excluding the scholars who had to be there, was sixty-two, which was pretty good going in an urban working class area where you might expect many people to be non-conformists. The attendance at All Saints was slightly larger, but larger still was the congregation at St Michael at Thorn, a church which stood midway between the two churches, a couple of hundred yards from each. St Michael would be destroyed in the same 1942 bombing raid that did for St Julian, but it was not rebuilt.

Simon Knott, February 2023

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You can see thousands of George Plunkett's other old photographs of Norwich on the Plunkett website


looking east high altar looking west
crucified if I might suffer more I would suffer more pelican in her piety
Blessed Virgin and child St George Christ of the flowers Blessed Virgin and child St Julian


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The Norfolk Churches Site: an occasional sideways glance at the churches of Norfolk