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Page last updated at 11:55 GMT, Wednesday, 22 April 2009 12:55 UK
Prose: Ethelbert Gate

By Jeremy Noel-Tod
Blogging Norfolk contributor

Elthelbert Gate, Norwich
Elthelbert Gate - older, shorter, darker

My father, who lives in Dereham, is moving house this month. A book found in his charity shop boxes has solved a mystery for me about a piece of public art in Norwich, which, it seems, may also have been a public warning.

I suspect if most people on Tombland were asked, they would guess that the 'Great Gate' to the cathedral was the Erpingham: tall, crowded with statuary, and giving directly onto the west window.

In fact, it is the older, shorter, darker Ethelbert Gate, now half-hidden behind a pizzeria and a toilet block. The decoration of this entrance, however, is remarkable.

Stalking in the left-hand spandrel is a square-jawed man, drawn sword pointing towards the apex. Crouched opposite is a cat-like dragon, baring square teeth. Both are in profile, one eyeball eyeing the other.

Behind them, the spandrels' wide angles are filled with winding vines and heavy glove-like leaves. Beneath them are smaller creatures: a climbing lion and a curling basilisk, half crested bird, half snake.

The vividness of this sculpture has always struck me as unusual.

The primal boldness of the design seemed genuinely medieval. Yet the stone is so deeply and crisply carved, and the detail on chain-link and scaly wing so cartoonishly clear, that it could not be a survival from seven hundred years ago.

The book that I found at my Dad's house - Medieval Sculpture from Norwich Cathedral - explains. It is the catalogue of an exhibition held at the Sainsbury Centre at UEA [University Of East Anglia] in 1980. The section on the fourteenth century focuses on the gate, and the restoration of its stonework between 1963 and 1966.

By the early twentieth century, smoke and rain had worn the soft Caen stone of the carving away. The sympathetic 1960s work restores something of what it must have been like to see it in the fourteenth century, when Tombland (meaning 'open land') was a market place. Yet a mystery remains.

The catalogue comments that 'the precise meaning of the Ethelbert Gate scene is hard to pinpoint'. The man is not obviously Saint George, and Saint Ethelbert never fought a dragon. Given the history of the Great Gate, however, its point may well be the tip of his sword.

An earlier structure was destroyed in 1272, when fighting between the men of Norwich and the 'men of the priory' broke out during a summer fair, and a citizen was shot with a cross bow.

A revenge attack set fire to the cathedral and the monastic buildings of the close. Thirty men were hanged, and the ceremonial gate was not rebuilt until 1316. When it was, the fearsome symbolism - beneath a statue of Christ displaying his wounds, now lost - seems perfectly deliberate. Touch me not, says drawn sword to dragon's tooth.

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