Heritage Highlights: Site of Julian of Norwich's 14th century cell
Julian of Norwich
Julian (1342-1413) was a 14th century mystic, an anchoress, or female hermit, who lived in a small cell attached to St Julian's church, next to one of the busiest roads in medieval Norwich. Strangely, we do not know her real name; she is only known by her association with the church of St Julian.
In truth we do not know much of anything about her, except that she almost certainly was not a nun, but a lay person who chose a life of contemplation. She was also not the first person to use the anchorite cell attached to St Julian's church; it was used before her time and again after her death.
Julian is remembered at Norwich Cathedral with a statue on the west front and a pair of stained glass windows. One of the windows, in the Bauchon Chapel, portrays her as a Benedictine nun, which she was not. She is often called a saint as well, and she's not that either!
Anchoresses could not leave their cells; essentially they were walled in, so the decision to become an anchorite or anchoress was a serious one, and required a lifetime of dedication and commitment.
On 8 May 1373 the anchoress Julian was struck by a severe illness which left her close to death. During the illness she had 16 visions, visions which she was moved to write down after her recovery. These writings took 20 years to complete, and are recorded in two stages. Immediately after her visions Julian wrote down a brief account. One can imagine her quickly scribbling down details of her impressions before she could forget them.
Unlike many religious teachings of her day, Julian did not write of a vengeful or judgemental God, but a God with an all-enveloping love, like a tender mother or father. This message of Divine Love ran counter to many religious teachings both at that time and since, but the simple, clear way she expressed her ideas continue to find an audience today, and her writings have been published in a multitude of languages and remain in print today.
The church was rebuilt using the original materials, so that it is essentially the 'same' medieval church, just reordered. Norwich did not really need another parish church; it has plenty to spare, but the church was rebuilt in part to act as a focus for the shrine of Lady Julian of Norwich. The north wall of the nave is largely original, with several small round windows suggeting a construction date sometime in the late 11th century.
Just one footnote to the rebuilding story; there is actually no firm evidence that the foundations discovered on the south side of the church were those of Julian's cell. It would have been much more commmon fore an anchoress cell to be built on the north side of the church.
From the nave a Romanesque doorway leads down a few steps to the hermitage, where you will find a separate altar and a small shrine against the north wall. This is, as closely as we can tell, where the original cell connected with the church. The best historic features inside the church are a 15th century octagonal font, brought here from All Saints church in the city centre after the original 15th century font was destroyed in the bombing.
Another historic feature is the Romanesque doorway, which has very nicely carved capitals, though rather worn with age. But most people don't come here for the architecture, though it is interesting, but for the connection with Julian.
St Julian's is not the easiest place to find! The church is on a small lane called St Julian's Alley, off KingStreet and Rouen Road, south east of the city centre, about a 10 minute walk from the castle. The church is just around the corner from Dragon Hall on King Street. There is a paid car park opposite the Julian Centre on Rouen road.
It is not immediately obvious that you can walk around the exterior of the church and see Julian's cell from the exterior. But immediately to the left (east) of the entrance porch is a wooden door in a high fence. This gate, as I discovered, is normally unlocked during the day, and gives access to a quiet churchyard, more like a small garden, where a bench has been set so you can enjoy the birds and butterflies flitting about. This small area bends around the south side of the church and you can examine the exterior of Julian's cell.
It is not often that I visit an historic site and am moved to simply sit and soak in the surroundings. Julian's cell is such a place. The cell was empty when I visited, and as soon as I stepped inside it was as if the noise of the city outside disappeared. It is a place to contemplate, and sit quietly, to enjoy the stillness and sense of peace. If you are bent on simply seeing an historic attraction, St Julian's will not take long to see, but if you want to truly experience it, set aside a few minutes to just sit and enjoy the stillness.