Saturday, February 19, 2011

Here be Dragons! The Guildhall & Dragon Hall, Norwich

Last week I was telling at Dragon Hall in Norwich and the Norwich Guildhall and all of it part of the Norwich Dragon Festival in association with Ghent.

Dragon Hall, Norwich

Norwich Guildhall

Norwich is a City steeped in dragons and both these buildings have a strong link to them and the St Gorges Guild that inspired much of the monstrous symbolism in and around Norwich. They are also two of the oldest buildings left in Norwich and both date back to the fifteenth century. Dragon Hall which was built as a merchant's house and shop in the 1400s by Robert Topps, a merchant with strong links to both Norwich and London, although apparently its heyday was short and after Toppe's death in 1467 the hall was divided up. Over a very short time the magnificent roof beams and the carved dragon spandrel (Which gives the hall its name) were hidden and by the nineteenth century buried beneath numerous partitions and false walls that made up a maze of very poor quality housing.

Toppe's 'Crown Post Roof'
A serious case of 15th century showing off!

The Dragon Spandrel, which gives the hall its name

Toppe's Hall with dragon spandrel top left of the picture
Awaiting cubs and scouts who having a sleepover at the hall.

It did at least protect the medieval building until it was exposed again in the 19702 and 80s. Its a restoration project that continues on to this day with the reconstruction and repair of both internal and external features. And what I really like is that the building is continuing to evolve. The worse thing that they could have done was try and 'fix' the building in one particular time period; ignoring all those later phases of pub, shop and poor housing and also ignoring its continuing use into the 21st century. Luckily they did not do that and the building also has a very modern new wing to cater for schools and other events and also a very modern glass gallery at the back of the property which is a beautiful thing in its own right and allows people outside to see the fantastic original wooden arches that help support the great hall.

The 21st century glass walkway at the back of the 15th century hall

Inside the glass paneled walkway

Some people may not approve of this mix of old and new, but I bet you anything you like that Robert Toppes would have marveled at it. He came from a time when glass was hard to produce in any great size and quantity and was an expensive status symbol. Just think what he would have thought of glass panels that reached from floor to ceiling, I feel certain he would have been willing to spend much of his fortune on such a thing and the carved dragon spandrels, well they would have been old news!

The Guildhall also has a carved dragon as one of the bench ends of the Mayor's throne and Alderman's seating in the Council Chamber, otherwise known as the Mayor's Court where many a petty crime of 'ill rule' and 'evil behaviour' was dealt with and to find out more about these crimes , the people who committed them and their punishments, just click here...

The Guildhall Council Chamber & Mayor's Court

Detail of the late medieval/early 16th century Mayor's and Alderman's seating

Carved dragon bench end in Mayors Court

Unfortunately I couldn't tell in the Council Chamber because of ongoing restoration and repairs, and so I told in the Assembly Chamber where the Councilmen of Norwich met and also was the room where the Sheriffs Court took place (There were many courts in Norwich as everyone wanted their fair share of the fines handed out!)

The Assembly Chamber

The Guildhall was built on the site of an earlier Norman tollhouse from where the early market place was administered . The Guildhall itself was built in the early 1400s in recognition of the Charter that made Norwich self governing and replaced the Kings Bailiffs with Mayor, two Sheriffs and Alderman. These men were typically rich merchants and also members of the Guild of St George and prior to the reformation they would celebrate St Georges day by processing about the City with a St George and 'Snap' dragon who made battle. And whilst St George didn't survive the reformation Norwich Snap did as part of the annual Mayor Making celebrations, thus ensuring the close connection between the City and dragons! The Guildhall was then a perfect place for telling tales of the 'Dickfools' who led Norwich Snap about the City and also tales of Death and the Nature of Women. Certainly they knew the nature of women well enough in the Mayor's Court, for one of their main preoccupations trying to control it!

Stairs leading down to undercrofts (storage and prison cells)
Also parts of earlier Norman Tollhouse

An eighteenth century version of the Norwich 'Snap" dragon

Another carved dragon
In the Erpingham Gate that leads into the Cathedral

St Margaret (The patron saint of women in childbirth) bursting out of a dragon
St Helen's Church at the Great Hospital, Norwich

Early 16th century St George mural at St Gregory's church, Norwich

Thanks to Sarah at Dragon Hall for the hot dogs and letting me tell there, and both Laura and Sophie of Norwich 'HEART' for all the work at the Guildhall.

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