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St Julian, Norwich
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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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