The Great Hospital at Bishopgate

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Creative Commons License Text by Evelyn Simak, January 2020 ; This work is dedicated to the Public Domain.
Images are under a separate Creative Commons Licence.

TG2309 : St Helen Bishopgate - kneeler by Evelyn Simak

Site map

TG2309 : The Great Hospital - site plan by Evelyn Simak ---  1789 map

1789 map of the Great Hospital (Norwich Historic Town Atlas) - compare with current site plan (thumbnail at left)


The word 'hospital' comes from the Latin word 'hospes' which means both host and guest and reflects the Christian duty to shelter any stranger, particularly passing pilgrims. In medieval religious houses the passing poor were expected to stay for one night only, but over time the rules were relaxed and they were allowed to stay for longer periods and the sick until they had recovered. Diseases were very common throughout the medieval period mainly due to lack of a proper diet, poor hygiene and living conditions and dirty, over-crowded towns and cities. Some of the most common diseases were dysentery, cholera, typhoid fever, chickenpox, measles, leprosy and the black plague, which in the 14th century causes millions of deaths. Treatment was mostly by plants, herbs and traditional methods such as blood-letting and balancing the four humors: phlegm (phlegmatic), blood (sanguine), black bile (melancholic) and yellow bile (choleric).

The hospital diet was generally good and the surroundings pleasant, but there were strict rules and a relentless regime of prayer and devotion. Soon almshouses were also being built to provide long-term shelter for the disabled and aged infirm, founded and supported with donations from kings, church dignitaries, nobles and merchants keen to ease their passage to heaven with good works, and soon became a common feature of towns and cities. The Great Hospital, as it is called today, is located a short distance to the north-east of the cathedral and was originally known as the Hospital of St Giles. It was founded in 1249 by Bishop Walter de Suffield the second Bishop of Norwich, "for remissions of his sins". Pope Innocent IV confirmed the hospital's foundation in a letter dated 31 July 1251, addressed to the master and brethren of the Hospital of the Blessed Mary and St Giles. The hospital's aim was to care for the sick and for poor people including 'decrepit' priests. Clerics at that time were, of course, unmarried and frequently had no family to support them in old age. Poor scholar boys were selected on merit from local song schools and given a daily meal during term time. Once a boy had achieved a good grasp of Latin he was offered a chance to train as a chorister or even to enter priesthood.

The Great Hospital soon became the richest and largest hospitals in the county. Today, it is one of England's oldest hospitals and the only English medieval hospital whose archives and fabric have survived the dissolution of the monasteries intact, ie the archive was not destroyed or lost and the buildings were not converted to other uses or demolished. The hospital's archive is said to have no rival anywhere in the country and is now held at the Norfolk Record Office. Norfolk Heritage (NHER) describe the Great Hospital as an exceptional set of medieval buildings which have remained in continuous use for more than 750 years, with the buildings comprising church, cloister, refectory, master's and chaplain's lodgings as well as a Victorian hall. The Great Hospital is included in the UNESCO UK Memory of the World Register and also in the 'Norwich 12', a collection of twelve of the most iconic buildings in Norwich. Altogether 15 listed buildings are located on the site, six of which are Grade I, one is Grade II* and eight are Grade 2 listed, with architectural styles spanning the Norman, medieval, Georgian, Victorian and modern eras.

Several entrances, mainly pedestrian, provide access for the hospital's residents (there is no public right of way). The main entrance is at Bishopgate, formerly Holme Street (one of the oldest streets in the city and once forming part of the original Roman road that ran from east to west) and is guarded by gates made in 1799 by John Browne junior, iron founder, and comprising hollow iron gatepieces with lattice panels and ball finials flanking wrought iron double gates. Spearheaded railings with nine cast iron panels and mounted on a stone dwarf wall enclose the forecourt. They were made in 1799 by John Browne. A Boulton & Paul lock can be seen on the gate, presumably a replacement of the original. Smaller gates to right and left are flanked by (later) brick piers with ball finials. The ensemble is Grade 2 listed. Behind the gates is St Helen's Square, a green space flanked by St Helen's House to the west, the Chaplain's House to the north and the Master's House, the refectory and St Helen's church with Derlyngton's tower to the east.

TG2309 : The Great Hospital - Boulton & Paul gate by Evelyn Simak
For information about Boulton & Paul go to LinkExternal link. See > Link for a full view of the gates.
by Evelyn Simak

TG2309 : The Great Hospital - Boulton & Paul gate by Evelyn Simak TG2309 : The Great Hospital - St Helen's House by Evelyn Simak TG2309 : The Great Hospital - The Vicarage by Evelyn Simak TG2309 : The Great Hospital - listed buildings facing St Helen's Square by Evelyn Simak TG2309 : St Helen Bishopgate - door into Derlyngton's Tower by Evelyn Simak TG2309 : The Great Hospital - Infirmary Hall and Derlyngton's Tower by Evelyn Simak

The original hospital precinct used to be much smaller and more compact than it appears today. It extended from Holme Street in the south to the River Wensum in the north and the land belonging to Isabel de Cressy to the east. By 1271, the hospital had taken possession of all the open fields between the hospital and Bishop's Bridge and obtained the Dungeon (now known as the Cow Tower Link - it was handed back to the civic authorities towards the end of the 14th century). By the close of the Middle Ages the hospital grounds encompassed ten acres, including a walled meadow, orchards and gardens, a horse mill, a bakery, a slaughterhouse, a brewery and kitchen, stables, pigsties and a number of workshops. Lay brothers had by then been replaced by paid servants.

The Hospital of St Giles was guided by Augustinian rule under which excessive liturgical ritual was discouraged so as to allow more time for charitable works. Nevertheless, the master and chaplains were bound to sing three masses a day, including one for Bishop Suffield’s soul, as well as a weekly mass in honour of St Giles. Between 1447 and 1479, new guest chambers, a larder and a thatched refectory were built. The cloisters were remodelled, with dormitories constructed above. The dormitories contained individual cubicles, which could be rented by priests on limited incomes. The master’s lodgings were rebuilt in stone and in 1477/8 a hospitality room was added for the master, which could be accessed by lay visitors from the outer courtyard without disturbing the cloisters, which were private.

The Lodge

This early 19th century lodge once occupied by a gatekeeper is a single-storey Grade 2 listed building situated immediately adjacent to the south-west tower of the church of St Helen (Derlyngton's Tower) and next to one of the pedestrian gates leading into the hospital grounds. Built of red brick it has a hipped pantile roof. The wooden entrance door has intersecting ribs. The single window has Y-tracery and plain shutters.

TG2309 : The Great Hospital - The Lodge by Evelyn Simak
This tiny building is where the gatekeeper used to live. It fills the gap between the southern boundary wall of the hospital precinct and its bell tower which it immediately adjoins in the north. It is situated next to one of the pedestrian gates and dates from the early 19th century and is Grade 2 listed building situated immediately adjacent to the south-west tower of the church of St Helen (Derlyngham's Tower), next to one of the pedestrian gates leading into the hospital grounds.
by Evelyn Simak

St Helen

The parish church of St Helen had originally stood on the other side of Holme Street (as the road leading past was then known) and was located within the cathedral precinct, on land which is now part of the Norwich School cricket ground and playing fields. Following jurisdictional disputes it was, however, appropriated to the hospital in 1270 and subsequently demolished so that a new parish church could be built within the hospital grounds. St Helen is built of flint and brick rubble with stone dressings and has a slate roof. The building was intended to serve both as a parish church and a hospital and its layout followed the pattern of many medieval hospitals, where the naves and nave aisles of parish churches accommodated beds for the sick and poor so that they were able to see the altar in the chancel, and hence participate in worship, since the Eucharist was believed to have physical and spiritual healing properties. The south porch is the oldest part of the building, dating from 1251.

TG2309 : The Great Hospital at Bishopgate, Norwich - Derlynton's tower by Evelyn Simak TG2309 : The Great Hospital - the Infirmary Hall by Evelyn Simak TG2308 : View across the Norwich School's cricket ground by Evelyn Simak TG2309 : The Great Hospital and St Helen's church by Evelyn Simak  Gt Hospital St Helen

Together with the construction of a bell tower adjacent to the infirmary, construction work was completed by the end of the 14th century. The bell tower is completely detached and known as Derlyngton's tower, named after archdeacon Derlyngton, who had it built in 1397 from funds left in his will by John de Derlyngton, who had been Master of the hospital from 1372 until 1376. The tower has diagonal buttresses with ashlar facings and a stone string course underlining the bell stage, the main tower being of flint with red brick parapets. The pointed two-light windows of the bell stage contain simple Perpendicular tracery with cusped heads surmounted by twinned mouchettes. The tower was hung with four large bells which were tolled during funerals and memorial services held for benefactors, no doubt in the hope of despatching their souls on a speedy journey through Purgatory. The bells, or at least one of them was also rung every morning, alerting the hospital's residents that it was time for them to get out of bed - the hospital statutes noted that "all shall rise in the morning at dawn when the great bell strikes".

It was Henry Despenser, the third Bishop of Norwich, who rebuilt the infirmary hall, the nave and the chancel, and it is generally believed that he paid for a large part of the chancel as an act of thanksgiving for the collapse of the Peasants’ Revolt in 1381. It is thought that the master mason who at the time worked at the cathedral, Robert Wodhirst, also carried out some work at the hospital. The infirmary hall was divided vertically, with the wards on the first floor being given visual access to chancel and altar beyond through a small high-level traceried window in the north aisle.

The hospital was fortunate to have avoided the Dissolution. On the death of Henry VIII in 1547, however, the then Master, Nicholas Shaxton, surrendered the hospital to the new Protestant monarch, Edward VI, Henry's son, who subsequently passed its guardianship to the city corporation. From then onwards the religious functions of the hospital were suppressed. The first accounts prepared by the new keepers were wrapped in pages torn from medieval service books, and paper accounts for 1548/9 and 1550/1 were bound in parchment leaves ripped from one of the hospital's 15th century missals. The nave was completely blocked off from the infirmary beyond the third bay of the arcades when the hospital passed into the city's hands and at the same time the chancel was partitioned off from the nave by blocking the chancel arch and stripped of its stained glass, rood screen and altar. First floors were inserted and chimney stacks constructed to heat the wards. St Helen is the only English church with chimney pots on its roof, with the chimney at the east end to this day partially blocking the chancel east window, which combines decorated and perpendicular motifs in a way not seen anywhere else since the 1400s and most likely dates from the 1430s (NHER). The western part of the nave housed the men's wards whereas its eastern part remained in use for religious services. The chancel was converted to women's wards.

Under the new arrangements the hospital became known as God's House or the House of the poor in Holmstrete. The civic authorities agreed to support forty male and female residents in the re-founded hospital. Permanent domestic staff consisted of a curate and minister for the poor, a 'visitor' who was also a priest to prisoners held in the Guildhall, a schoolmaster and one or two ushers or assistants, a male keeper or master who had overall responsibility for the running of the establishment, four female nurses (for propriety's sake they were required to be over 50 years old), a steward who looked after provisions for the poor, and a person who combined the tasks of a cook, baker and brewer. The 1547 charter, drawn up when the corporation took over the hospital, stated that the four women were to "make the beddes, washe and attend upon the seid poore persons". For the first time in its 300-year history, Godde's Howse now also employed medical practitioners such as the master surgeon John Porter, who started work at the hospital in 1547. Medical staff on a permanent or semi-permanent retainer consisted of a barber (for letting blood), a surgeon and a bone setter, as well as specialists employed on an ad hoc basis. One of the more unusual entries in the archives records a payment of 2s. 8d. made in 1576/7 'to Mary Cole one of the pore women in th'opsitall for a stylt after her leggs was sawen off'. In the following year she was attended by the Dutch surgeon John Cropp, who charged the hospital the substantial sum of 20 shillings for his services.

The records also show that special foodstuffs and medicines such as wine and cinnamon were purchased for sick residents, and that salted fish (particularly herring) and hard cheese were consumed in large quantities. Bread and ale were produced on the premises and the hospital continued to grow its own fruit and vegetables. In 1549, during Kett’s rebellion, the (never rebuilt) south aisle of the infirmary was completely destroyed when an army of insurgents numbering several thousand had moved down from its camp site on St Leonard's hill and looted the hospital as they fought their way along Holme Street. One of the results of this calamity was that the city's grammar school was moved to the Carnary Chapel Link located on the cathedral's Upper Close instead of the hospital.


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