Being a fan of the medieval visionary writers Julian of Norwich and Margery Kempe, and assuming that many others across the globe shared my fandom, I expected at least a minor crush of tourists when I recently visited these women’s hometowns of Norwich and King’s Lynn, England. I was disappointed but not surprised to find no mention of either Julian or Margery in the official tourist literature for East Anglia despite their renown in religious and scholarly circles. Emphasis in promotional brochures was rather predictably placed on shopping, nightlife, restaurants, “family fun,” and local football.
It’s hard for long-dead religious figures to compete, however deserving: Julian (ca. 1342-ca. 1416) wrote the Revelations of Divine Love, a hopeful meditation on the tender love of God and the first known book by a woman in English. The Book of Margery Kempe, published in 1436, has less spiritual heft than Julian’s book—its protagonist being more boisterous and less stable, in every sense of the word—but is nonetheless full of theological and cultural interest and arguably the first autobiography written in English.
Norwich was up first on my trip: Only brief notice appears in a city-sponsored brochure of “numerous medieval churches” (there are, in fact, thirty-one). This paucity of boosterism, in addition to the fact that St. Julian’s Church and the Julian Centre are off the beaten path and in a rather seedy part of town, might explain why I was the only visitor there in late June.
I received a very gracious welcome, however, from the two women running the Centre (library, gift shop, and adjoining guest house), who reasoned that the recession also had something to do with the downturn in visitors; although, on a good day, they might have half a dozen. The church itself, now part of the Anglican Diocese of Norwich, is small and cozy, formally outfitted for Anglo-Catholic mass held there on Mondays and Fridays and solemn evensong on the first Sunday of each month. But the church primarily functions as a shrine to Julian, an anchoress whose small cell was attached to the south end, near the altar. An annual Julian festival and lecture are held on the grounds each May.
The south side of St. Julian’s Church, Norwich (the reconstructed anchorhold at center)
St. Julian’s Church is not far from the River Wensum, which runs through Norwich. The church can be accessed by foot by crossing the new Lady Julian Bridge (opened in 2009 and named at the behest of local Anglican nuns) over the river from a commercial district. From the quieter and older King Street on the other side, where sits a medieval trading hall, a new sign points the visitor to St. Julian’s Alley, which leads to the church.
The church and Julian Centre can also be reached by car along Rouen Road, lined with government housing, car shops, and graffiti-covered walls, just south of the city’s red-light district. Another Anglican church two blocks away serves as a drop-in counseling center for area prostitutes. Some beer cans and empty cigarette packs littered the otherwise lovely and steadfastly maintained churchyard, watched over by the Friends of Julian of Norwich and a stray white cat.
The Lady Julian Bridge, crossing the River Wensum
The neighborhood around St. Julian’s Church (not visible here, but across the street from the medieval trading hall and center)
Julian settled into her cell in 1373, at age 31, and remained there for the rest of her life. Here she led a life of prayer and devotion; wrote her Revelations, or >em>Showings; and counseled visitors who came to the south window of her cell. Another opening on the north side of the cell, toward the altar, was her window to the Blessed Sacrament; and a third allowed communication with a servant.
The original church building may have been erected in the tenth century; but the anchorhold was pulled down after the Reformation. The church was bombed and severely damaged in World War II, but it was rebuilt afterwards, including a new replica of the anchorhold based on the ancient footprint. The cell is now, however, a small carpeted chapel, so one has to mentally strip away the modern accoutrements to imagine what the space looked like when Julian lived there.
Julian’s cell as it looks now
Among the other medieval buildings of note in Norwich are the imposing Norman cathedral and castle, some distance from St. Julian’s Church but no doubt visible from it in Julian’s day. Less imposing, but important as a religious landmark, is the timber-framed Briton’s Arms, now a restaurant but once a beguinage for a small community of semi-religious women—the only surviving medieval beguinage in England, built probably in the first half of the fifteenth century. The Carmelite solitary and scholar Elizabeth Obbard is reportedly writing a book on Julian’s connection to the beguinage, possibly as a resident there before she became an anchoress. Some scholars also speculate, given Julian’s maternal sensibility, that she may have been a wife and mother before she became an anchoress. There is no evidence that she was ever a nun.
The Briton’s Arms: once a medieval beguinage, now a restaurant
Whatever the case, we know that fourteenth- and fifteenth-century Norwich was a tumultuous place: the Black Death struck there at least three times during Julian’s lifetime and wiped out half of the city’s population, perhaps including (although this is entirely speculative) Julian’s own family members. Norwich also felt the effects of the Hundred Years’ War, the Peasant Uprising of 1381, ongoing theological strife (a pit for burning Lollards stood not far from St. Julian’s Church), and papal schism. Julian’s presence must have been an eye in the storm, her cell a place of reassurance and stability. The mission of the church hasn’t changed; in its brochure, the Julian Centre says that it aims “to be a place of quietness and prayer in the midst of a busy city.” One hopes the new bridge and signage will help them fulfill that mission.
Next up on my trip was a train ride to King’s Lynn, 44 miles to the west of Norwich, on the River Ouse. Here the medieval historical sites are somewhat more front-and-center, as the town is smaller and the monuments thus loom larger. The city tourism center also offers a “pilgrimage trail” map for those wishing to see the medieval sites. On these two rainy days in early July, however, my husband and I were the only pilgrims in sight.
No one knows exactly where in the city Margery Kempe (ca. 1373-1440) lived, but her home was likely not far from the river in the market district where the well-established, wealthier families lived. (Her father was the mayor, her husband a merchant.) As in Norwich, King’s Lynn—called Bishop’s Lynn in Margery’s day, or just Lynn—is crammed with old churches and the ruins of medieval religious communities, some of them repurposed for modern non-religious use.
In contrast to Julian, Margery gave a lot of attention to physical space and movement, with vivid accounts of the many cities to which she traveled in Europe and the Holy Land. The place that features most prominently in Margery’s biographical account, however, is her home church in Lynn: St. Margaret’s, founded in 1101 and still an active (Anglican) parish church now formally named King’s Lynn Minster.
St. Margaret’s, in contrast to St. Julian’s Church, is enormous—the architectural centerpiece of the town as well as the spiritual centerpiece of Margery’s lively and sometimes tortured spiritual narrative. Margery spent hours praying there, receiving visitations and instructions from Christ, engaging in pastoral tasks, shedding her signature tears, sometimes receiving support but often noisily irritating the people around her. By her own account, she saved the church from fire by her intercessions, which were followed by a timely snowstorm. Another time, she was allegedly hit by a heavy beam that fell from the ceiling of the church, and yet was miraculously unharmed.
St. Margaret’s Church, King’s Lynn
Interior of St. Margaret’s Church
The narratives of Julian of Norwich and Margery Kempe come together briefly in Margery’s Book (1:18). During a visit to Norwich around 1413, Margery visited the cell of the renowned anchoress, who for three days gave her much needed reassurance, encouraging confidence in God and fearlessness in trouble. Margery in fact made more than one trip to Norwich, crossing the boggy expanse of Norfolk to receive the counsel of those celebrated for their piety, seeking as she did always and everywhere both peace and vindication.
Via Brother Leon of Walsingham, at St. Michael and All Angels, Brighton
Contemporary icon of the meeting between Julian of Norwich (left) and Margery Kempe
Nothing beats religious tourism for the church historian. Seeing a place, rather than just reading about it, gives a sense of scale and proximity and provides a total sensory environment. Despite the centuries of change, and sometimes neglect, that overlay historical sites, there is no better way than an on-site visit to absorb the spirit of the place and the people who lived there. In Norwich and King’s Lynn, as in so many historical religious sites, one can still perceive the spiritual liveliness and perseverance of the inhabitants.
Even in the faded and damaged places, one can get an immediate whiff of the long-term narrative and appreciate the vacillating fortunes and failures of religious institutions and people, even to the present day. For anyone who seeks them out, these places still convey a comforting sense of stability amidst chaos, whatever it may be.
Donna Ray is a lecturer in History and Religious Studies at the University of New Mexico, Albuquerque.