Tuesday, March 23, 2010

The King of Hearts Arts Centre, Norwich

The King of Hearts Art Centre

Last Friday week I was telling the various tales of Agnes Leaman and others who were punished in Tudor Norwich in a renovated Tudor house; the King of Hearts Cafe and Centre for the Arts. The building stands next to Fye bridge where Agnes and many other women were ducked upon the cucking stool in the late fifteen and early sixteen hundreds. But when first you look at the outside facade of the King of Hearts you would think it no more than a nice example of a Georgian shop front like many others to be seen along the historic Magdalen street.

Original Tudor mullioned widow taken from inner courtyard

But as you can see from the photos, beneath the facade is hidden a fantastic example of a late medieval and early Tudor merchants house. One of many built at this time. For some Norwich is now a bit of a jokey place, a bit of a backwater, but in Tudor times it was second city in the kingdom whose wealth was built on textiles and reflected in the large number of merchant's houses built in the 15th and 16th centuries. Although many of these were lost in two great fires during the 1500s and later 'improvements' to the city. That's why the King of Hearts is so important, because there are so few buildings like it left in the City. And like the other still remaining it has been home to Sheriffs and Mayors whose own fortunes and in some cases misfortunes reflected the turbulent history of Tudor times. These include Edmund Wood, a wealthy merchant grocer who became Sheriff, then Mayor of Norwich in 1548. His son Robert was also Mayor and in 1578 he received Queen Elizabeth I when she visited Norwich, entertaining her with "a Loyal Latin Oration", for which she knighted him. Also Thomas Toft who was also a grocer and Mayor (1654) and a man of extreme Puritan views who took an active part in the destruction of statues and "superstitious pictures and reliques of idolatry" in churches and in the Bishop's palace.

In truth I'm really into history from below, the history of everyday people like Agnes Leaman, but the fortunes and misfortunes of one group impacted on the other, especially when it came to the ideas and beliefs of extremists like Thomas Toft, for in his times the punishments for all sorts of petty crimes became all the more frequent and harsh. No more than you'd expect from any kind of intolerant regime!

The house does also has another link to the ordinary citizens of Norwich, for like a lot of large houses in Norwich as the City grew in population it rapidly became overcrowded and it was subdivided up into tenements and shops, whilst the 'great and the good' got fed up with living cheek by jowl with the rest of us and moved out to the grand houses on the outskirts of Norwich. And so it was by the the last quarter of the 20th century the street frontage was occupied by 3 shops, the upper level by small flats and the whole was described as being in a "dilapidated condition".

The Music Room
where many a storytelling performance also takes place

It was however completely renovated over a ten year period into the 1990s and transformed into the arts centre and cafe and I suspect that now it is a much more relaxed place than ever it was in Toft's day! It also includes a Contemporary Art Gallery, a Music Room, Craft Shop and four Meeting Rooms. And its one of the few venues regularly putting on storytelling performances in the city. Although sadly its underused by the locals and tends to be another of those hidden gems I've mentioned before.

Doorway into cafe from inner courtyard

Hidden both in terms of local community involvement, but also with regard to its history. For much was found during the renovation including many original mullioned windows. And in the Music Room where I was telling a painted ceiling with moulded beams was revealed that had been long hidden beneath a Georgian plaster ceiling. There was also a door from the inner courtyard blocked up long ago but now reopened for all to see. A doorway with a fine painted carving set over it. On one side are the initials TTS and on the other side a portrait of a lady. I'm assuming that the initials are linked to Thomas Toft, although the I can't be sure, for the lady on the other side with her long flowing and very loose locks looks far to racy for any self respecting puritan!

Rediscovered carving on top right of courtyard doorway

Many thanks to Anita and all the staff at the King of Hearts for a great evening...