St. Felix and Norwich Cathedral

When Herbert de Losinga became the first Bishop of Norwich and began building his new cathedral, he did so with an eye to history.  Keen to demonstrate his succession in line from the first Bishop of East Anglia,  he had a statue of St. Felix placed above the Bishop’s Entrance.

Herbert, a Norman, who had been prior of the Abbey of Fecamp,  already had some experience of the English Church.  William Rufus brought him to England to be Abbot of Ramsey Abbey in Huntingdonshire and to be a servant of the crown.

Nothing remains of  the once mighty abbey.  In its day, it was a great collector of relics; sadly,  in that regard, Ramsey was overshadowed by other great abbeys of eastern England.  Peterborough had the arm of St. Oswold;  Ely, a whole phalanx of East Anglia’s sainted royal ladies;  Crowland had the body of St.Guthlac;  and St. Edmundsbury , had Edmund and several other male East Anglian royal saints.  Ramsey could only rally St. Ivo,  whose body was miraculously discovered,  miles away from Cornwall, in the Fenland town that now bears his name!   They also had the relics of St.Felix, whose body the monks had retrieved  from the ruins of the Viking ravaged monastery of Soham.

Herbert was already well acquainted with St.Felix before he came to Norfolk.

It has been suggested that the Norwich statue is a copy of an original piece from St. Felix’s shrine. It certainly looks the part, but nothing remains of the abbey, save for the gatehouse,  and we are left with no clues.  Relief sculptures from the minster at Breedon on the Hill, have survived to find a place in the church that replaced it.  They have  similar Roman arches framing their saints.

 Saints, framed by arches are also a common place in Anglo Saxon illuminated manuscripts.  Here is a full page sketch from the 10th Century,  “Cambridge, Corpus Christi College, MS 389: Lives of the Hermits Paul and Guthlac”.

In many ways, the Burgundian, St. Felx, who had brought the Gospel over the sea to England, made a great patron for, the Norman, Herbert.  He too had come over the sea to be a bishop. He too had been an adviser to the king.  Continuing the theme of good things from abroad, the fine Caen stone for Herbert’s new cathedral also came from  across the sea .

As if to emphasise his links to East Anglia’s past, the Bishop’s Entrance in the North Transept of the cathedral was deliberately built in an old fashioned Saxon style, with triangular headed arches,  three beastly heads  (reminiscent of the beasts at Deerhurst)  jutting into the building; and a doorway with a plain, undecorated arch.

 

The statue of Felix, in the same Saxon style,  was set on the outside of the cathedral above the door through which every future  bishop would come and go.

It was only in the 20th Century that the statue was brought inside to protect it from the elements.  Today it is in the Ambulatory.

 

 

One can see a similar arrangement,  contemporary with the cathedral, in situ, at the church of St.Mary, Haddiscoe.

 

 

As I read the iconography, it seems to say, “You cross this threshold,  into this holy place, through the work/generosity/ kindness/ministry of the one whose image is above.”  Only, in the case of Haddiscoe,  it is not  clear who the person might be.  It is certainly not the church’s patron saint,  St. Mary!  Christ in majesty, perhaps? A bishop ?

 

Some have suggested, St. Peter, others Gregory the Great, but it might, equally, be  St Felix.

 

Like the North Transept of  Norwich Cathedral, Haddiscoe church has a mix of Norman and Saxon architecture.  Its round tower is a typical Saxon tower,  with triangular headed openings; but it is not, necessarily, older than the Norman doorway.  At Haddiscoe they may have simply got one of  them new fangled Norman masons to do their swanky door!  And there are a lot of swanky Norman doors in neighbouring parishes.

 

Applying a similar interpretation to the figure of St.Felix above the Bishop’s Entrance,  it says,  “You come into this cathedral church, through the mission to the East Anglians, started by St. Felix in the 7th Century.”  To every subsequent bishop the  sub-text reads  ” I , Herbert, built this cathedral, placed this statue above the door; and, as Bishop of Norwich, you follow in my footsteps!

 

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