'The Church of St Nicholas' by J.S. Cotman

AT THE TIME of the great Domesday survey there was already a church in Yarmouth, built by Almarus, one of Edward the Confessor's bishops, and consecrated to St Benet. The exact location of this church is in some doubt. It may have been situated well to the north by Grubb's Haven, in which case it was probably used only in the herring season, or on the high ground at Fuller's Hill. In any event its presence was resented by the barons of the Cinque Ports, who saw in it a threat to their rights and privileges. The second year it was in use they came prepared; they expelled the priest sent from Norwich and installed their own chaplain in his place.

yar_IMAGE0670.jpgThe first church of St Nicholas was founded in 1001 by Herbert de Losinga, the first Bishop of Norwich, and consecrated in 1119, the year in which he died. Herbert de Losinga was created Bishop of Thetford by William Rufus "after much flattery and fat payment", if Bale and the other early chroniclers are to be believed. He then obtained the pope's permission to transfer the see to Norwich, and was told to make amends for his acts of simony by building splendid churches to the honour and glory of God. Norwich Cathedral, St Margaret's, Lynn, and St Nicholas, Yarmouth, are all founded in this way. This story seems a little improbable, particularly as it was not circulated until after the bishop's death. The soubriquet of "Losinga", meaning "the flatterer", was not used in his lifetime, and it now seems likely that his real name was William Herbert and that he was an Englishman. In any event he was educated in France, and as Prior of Fecamp must have played an important part in the great Cluniac Revival. He was well liked by William Rufus and his rise was rapid. His visit to Rome was probably motivated not so much by his desire for forgiveness as to heal the breach that had arisen between the pope and the kings of England, as a result of the dispute between Anselm and William Rufus. Moreover, he himself was in receipt of the fruits of office, but he was still bereft of his spiritual rights and these could only be obtained from the hands of the pope.

Revolving bookcase which was destroyed in
an air-raid on St Nicholas's church in 1942

yar_IMAGE0671.jpgWhatever his motive, the church of St Nicholas was built, but it bore little resemblance to that noble structure which was gutted by the fanaticism of the German Luftwaffe in 1942. It was very much smaller and consisted of the existing nave and central tower with a chancel in the form of an apse. When it was completed, this church was annexed to the monastery of Holy Trinity at Norwich, but little now remains of Norman workmanship, except some tufa stone at the foot of the tower which was probably imported from Caen, for no building stone could be obtained nearer than Northamptonshire.' As the town developed, so the church was enlarged, and by the middle of the thirteenth century the aisles had been widened and contained some nineteen side chapels for the use of the guilds.

The Market Place, 1799, after Thomas Rowlandson
These aisles were about 13 feet wide, and in consequence were wider than the nave-a most unusual arrangement. Later small transepts and two chapels were added and it became a typically Norman church. On the cruciform, schemes for adding to the grandeur of the church were constantly being put forward, and it was decided in 1330 to erect a stately west front flanked by noble towers. Money and labour for the enterprise were to be provided by the unmarried men of the town, and in consequence the aisle which was planned to measure 107 feet in length and 47 feet in breadth was to be called the Bachelors' Aisle. The coming of the Black Death in 1348, which reduced the population from about 10,000 to less than 3000, however, caused the abandonment of the project. By this time the building was some 40 feet high and remained standing for about 200 years, but then the materials were carted away and used for such secular purposes as the building of houses and the maintenance of the haven and walls, but some were used on the erection of St George's Church in 1715. A wooden spire 186 feet high, together with four pinnacles, was added in the fifteenth century. Then in a great storm in 1683 this was struck by lightning and the twisted spire remained until 1803 as a testimony to the fright which the citizens had suffered 120 years previously. But coming events cast their shadows, and some years before the Reformation there had been disturbance and stormy scenes in the midst of the divine service. On 1 November 1535, for instance, twenty-four persons caused a riot by interrupting the sermon and complaining of papal practices. Six years later four merchants behaved "in a tumultuous manner speaking heretical words and swearing by all the members of Christ to the great disturbance of the congregation". The violence and frequency of these outbreaks is, in part explained by the fact that Yarmouth had given refuge to many of the followers of Calvin who had fled before the wave of religious persecution sweeping over the Low Countries, and these newcomers, in their turn, popularised the new teaching. It was not surprising, then, that at the Reformation St Nicholas fared badly. The fine glass windows were smashed, the side chapels were swept away and their rich plate and vestments sold. The rood-loft was demolished and the magnificent reredos erected by Roger of Haddiscoe in 1400 was completely destroyed. The Corporation itself played no small part in this desecration and in 1551 ordered the monumental brasses to be converted into weights and measures for the use of the town.

The control of the church and priory was now vested in the newly constituted Dean and Chapter of Norwich, who began to misuse the churches' revenues. When Mary Tudor incorporated the Mass once again into the service, they appointed officiating ministers of the most orthodox type. This was bound to cause controversy and the Corporation, by every means at its disposal, attempted to control the choice of minister. When it failed in this it hired learned and fiery preachers, noted for the broadness of their views, to come to the town. The refusal of successive bishops to license these preachers mattered not at all, for in 1573 a minister was engaged in defiance of the Dean and Chapter at a stipend of £40 per annum.

Queen Elizabeth, by resolutely curbing the reforming party, prevented the spread of this quarrel, but when Charles I began to appoint bishops who shared the same High Church views as Archbishop Laud, the religious strife and was again in evidence. The Corporation had the right to recommend a person for the living of St Nicholas, but its nominee was almost invariably passed over. When, instead of a Puritan, the Rev. John Bransby, the bishop appointed a High Churchman, the Rev. Matthew Brookes, it seemed the last straw. Quarrels between the two men were inevitable and the Corporation so engineered matters that the Rev. Brookes was sent to gaol for committing a disturbance. There he stayed whilst a Chancery Commission failed to come to a decision and he was only released by direct order of the king. His period of ascendancy lasted, however, only until the Civil War when the Dissenters gained undisputed control. Under Cromwell the church was divided into three separate sections by means of stout brick walls. The chancel was used by the Independents, who made a doorway through the tomb of Thomas Crowmer, a former bailiff of the town, the north aisle by the Presbyterians and the nave and south aisle by the Church of England. For a time the north aisle was even used as a drill hall by the Norfolk Militia!

Although with the accession of Charles II the Nonconformists retired from the church, it remained bricked up until 1847. Meanwhile it had degenerated to an alarming extent, for neither the Dean and Chapter on the one hand, nor the parish on the other would accept financial responsibility. By 1790 the nave and north aisle were little more than ruins and there was talk of pulling down the steeple, but a few unsightly repairs were put in hand instead.

In 1845 the Rev. H. Mackenzie, who was the incumbent at this time, launched an appeal for a thorough restoration. This met with an enthusiastic response, and in 1864, when over £5000 had been raised, the church was once again opened up. The work of restoration still continued, unsightly galleries and pews were removed, new windows were inserted, an elaborately carved pulpit was installed and many other beautiful additions made. By 1901 the grandeur of the church once more matched its historical associations, but it was a far cry indeed from the little church founded by Bishop Herbert, for all the Norman workmanship it contained was in parts of the tower and nave arcading. And so the church stood, dominating one of the finest market places in the kingdom until 25 June 1942, when it fell victim to the might of the German Luftwaffe. The entire building was gutted by incendiary bombs, and for sixteen years the shell remained-a grim reminder of that night of horror. Now it is being restored and soon its doors will be open for public worship once again.

St Georges Church, erected in 1714 and closed
for public worship on 8 March, 1969


It was due to disputes between the Corporation and the Dean and Chapter of Norwich over appointments to the living of St Nicholas, that St George's Church was erected. It was built in 1714 at the expense of the Corporation under powers accorded them by Special Act of Parliament. The cost of £5800 was raised by the imposition of a tax of 1s. 6d. on every cauldron of coals, culm and cinders brought into the port. The stipend was also paid from the proceeds of this tax, but this was later commuted into a lump sum. St George's, which is a chapel of ease to the mother-church of St Nicholas, has an interior strongly reminiscent of St Clement Danes in London.

yar_IMAGE0678.jpgThe Benedictine monks of the priory of Holy Trinity in Norwich were made responsible for St Nicholas by Herbert de Losinga in 11'9 and they immediately founded a cell adjacent to the church. Modern Yarmouth contains few traces of their activities, for the buildings were completely neglected at the Reformation. The great hall was converted into stables with long lofts running overhead and it was not until the nineteenth century that it was restored. The cloisters which led to the church, and which were built with proceeds from many rich endowments, have disappeared long since. Part of the refectory has been incorporated into the assembly hall of Priory School.

There were three further settlements of friars in Yarmouth, but little is known about the Carmelites, or White Friars, except that they lived in the north of the town. The Dominican, or Black Friars, first came to Yarmouth in 1267 and soon became strong and powerful. Their priory once occupied nearly six acres of land between Friars Lane and the town walls, but as a result of the Plague, a great fire and the ravages of the Reformation, they have left no tangible mark on the town other than a street name. The Franciscan, or Grey Friars, settled in Yarmouth about 1270 and soon acquired by endowment considerable property in the Middlegate Street area and soon owned all the land between Rows 83 and 96. The remains of their cloisters, like so many buildings in the town, were sadly mutilated in enemy air-raids, but some traces still remain.

It seems strange that Yarmouth, which bred so many Dissenters, should have been antagonistic to the teachings of John Wesley; but it was so. The first attempt to introduce Methodism was made in 1754 by Thomas Oliver, but he was howled down. Dirty water was poured on him as he walked down the rows, and in the open street he was met with a shower of fruit, sticks, stones and turnips, and was sadly abused. Six years later a further attempt was made and the town prepared itself for another gala occasion, but this time the outcome was quite different. The preacher, Mr Howell Harris, turned up with a company of soldiers to protect him and the tumult subsided. People stopped to listen, were interested, and Mr Harris repeated his performance without interruption for many nights. Subsequently, John Wesley himself was invited to the town and formed the first Methodist Society in Yarmouth. His journal entry for Tuesday, 20 January 1761, is most moving, for his reception was not at all what he had envisaged, despite his opening remarks that Yarmouth was "as eminent both for wickedness and ignorance as ever any seaport in England". Subsequently he visited the town on many an occasion, and just before his death reports that he "found a society in peace and much united together".

Weather vane from Greyfriar's Cloisters