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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

The Canon of Saints gives us two St Julians, one of whom was St Julian of Le Mans, a martyred bishop 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 this church. But the other, 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 rather startling prediction that he 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. In the 18th and 19th Centuries this north bank area of the city was taken over with factories, warehouses and working class housing. They took the place of small artisans' cottages and workshops, some of which survive. In the late middle ages, much of East Anglia's stained glass and memorial brasses had been made in this area, but over the following centuries you would have been more likely to find tanneries and slaughterhouses. Only now is this area undergoing a full-scale regeneration that may see it become the city's artists quarter. 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.

But although this church is a small and rebuilt building, tucked away in what is still the anonymous and 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. Both church and mystic share the name of the adjacent Priory. 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. Some people are disappointed when they discover this. In fact, we don't know who she really was at all. She was a woman, of course, and probably of noble birth. She fell ill in the 1370s, probably in one of the outbreaks of the Black Death which carried off half Norfolk's population between the late 1340s and the end of the century. In her deathbed delirium she claimed she received mystical visions, which she termed Revelations of Divine Love. On her unexpected recovery, she was received into holy orders, taking the name Julian, and becoming an Anchoress.

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 would have been an Anchorite. There is surviving evidence of Anchorite or Anchoress cells at half a dozen East Anglian churches. 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 were scattered to the four winds by 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, points out this has always been a rundown and poor part of Norwich, even in medieval days. Because even in the fifteenth century the Conesford area had a certain reputation, Roger writes, 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, Mother 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 read And Incense shall be offered unto My Name and a Pure Offering received. But during the 1942 air raids on Norwich, St Julian was one of five city churches destroyed by the bombing.

1905, looking east 2005, looking east: the doorway to the cell is on the right

Thanks perhaps to the significance of its most famous resident, it was the only one to be rebuilt, and this was done in the 1950s according to 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. 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, and is now less-convincingly Norman than it was before the bombing.

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 Paul, 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. The Norman doorway on the south side of the nave came from St Michael at Thorn, a few hundred yard to the north-east, destroyed by the bombs and not replaced. George Plunkett photographed it in its original home 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 nun came flying out through the Norman doorway into the body of the church. Not literally flying, of course, but she was certainly fleet of foot. "Hello sister, 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 the breathless nun fled back in, carrying a large consecration host. She skipped back into the transept, and a few moments later we heard her voice begin to intone the third eucharistic prayer. I am not a member myself, but I love the Church of England and its funny little ways.

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 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

I do admire Anglican nuns. Over in the Catholic Church there are thousands and thousands of nuns, mostly now in plain clothes, all over the world. They bestride the globe with their sleeves rolled up, teaching, running hospitals, contemplating, suing for peace in war zones, standing up to Bishops. One critic described them as the shock troops of Vatican II. But at least they know they are at the heart of their Church.

Not so their Anglican sisters. You have to be someone really special to devote your life, quite literally, to a church where you are a tiny minority of the ministry, where half the members of the Church don't even know that you exist, and, worse, some of those who do know about you wish that you didn't. Perhaps it is a comfort for them to be here, and to sense the echo of Mother Julian's words: All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well...

Simon Knott, September 2019

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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