A hospital of the soul
Isabelle Taylor and Paul Roberts explore the 750-year history of The Great Hospital, Norwich, still serving its founding purpose
Approach the precinct of Norwich cathedral from the east, and you will pass the church of St helen’s. You might assume that it is simply another of Norwich’s medieval parish churches; that is, of course, until a glance upwards reveals three brick chimneys rising from the ridge of the roof. This is no ordinary church, but the oldest surviving portion of a remarkable institution, the Great hospital Norwich—or, to give it its medieval name, the hospital of St Giles.
Founded in 1249 by Walter de Suffield, Bishop of Norwich, to ‘minister the necessaries of life’ to the indigent poor, the aged and the ill and housed in a superbly preserved medieval complex, the Great hospital continues to perform that role to this day.
however, St Giles has never been a hospital in the modern sense. In the Middle ages, a hospital aimed to care for the souls of those too old or infirm to work for their livelihood, so, although some degree of physical relief was offered to the sick or dying, the hospital’s primary role was to provide them with spiritual solace: Mass, confession and prayer. By the mid 13th century, upwards of 400 of these foundations were in operation in England.
Norwich’s first hospital—st paul's—was founded in the early 12th century. The town was then rapidly flourishing as a centre for the wool trade, the capital of one of England’s most populous counties and the second city after London. This prosperity was reflected in a long line of charitable foundations, such as leper houses, pilgrim hostels, hospices and almshouses, established by wealthy donors to provide help to the needy.
These were all foundations that inextricably entwined social and devotional purpose. Their prayers served the living, the dying and the dead; the last speeding the passage of souls through purgatory. The prayers and charitable works they offered also promised spiritual rewards to their wealthy patrons.
Generosity to the poor was one of de Suffield’s particular concerns. contemporaries praised his unwavering diligence towards his pastoral responsibilities and the largesse of his alms-giving and his will, of 1256, reads as an essay of compassion for the
‘It is no mere museum piece, but a living, growing entity’
needy: ‘One hundred marks to be distributed among the poor of my diocese… one hundred marks for distribution in money and clothing among the manorial poor on our manors… for the relief of the oppressed in the jurisdiction of my diocese I leave 20 marks… the Hospital of St Giles of Norwich, which I built in remission of all my sins.’
De Suffield’s statutes for the Great Hospital provided for ‘thirty beds or more… for the use of the infirm poor’, food and board for poor priests of the diocese ‘broken with age or bedridden with labour under constant sickness’, a meal every day to seven poor scholars and a daily provision of ‘sufficient good bread and drink and one dish of meat or fish’ for a further 13 paupers.
De Suffield was explicit in his directives: the house was to be ruled by a master, who would preside over weekly chapter meetings for the correction of offences, it was to observe the rule of St Augustine and women were strictly forbidden, bar three or four sisters, ‘fifty years old or a little less’, to minister to the household.
Almost nothing survives of the original fabric of de Suffield’s foundation. In plan, it resembled a parish church (a role it also came to serve from 1270), with a chancel for the High Altar and a dormitory or ward for the sick accommodated in the nave. This arrangement created a building closely comparable to an infirmary in large monastic plans. There, they could partake in the celebration of Divine Service, in particular the elevation of the consecrated host at the climax of the Mass.
The hospital continued to enjoy a steady stream of bequests into the 14th century and particularly benefited from the patronage of Henry Despenser, the so-called Warrior Bishop of Norwich. A tall, square bell tower was under construction in the 1370s, oddly offset at the south-west corner of the church (Fig 1), and an ambitious new chancel was erected in the local palette of flint and brick rubble. This was a huge structure, five bays in length—much larger than St Giles’s community of chaplains strictly required.
It was lit with large windows including a huge seven-light east window ornamented with sophisticated tracery patterns. Covering its interior was a spectacular timber ceiling bearing 252 panels, each decorated with a black spread eagle and carved bosses (Fig 2).
It is not known at what date the chancel was built, but the detailing of the tracery would suggest a date around 1380. The painted eagles possibly offer a more precise dating. They have long been read as a heraldic reference to Anne of Bohemia, consort of Richard II and daughter of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV. The royal couple visited Norwich in 1383 and the Queen might possibly have contributed to the erection of the ceiling.
Alternatively, it may reflect the patronage of someone connected with Anne. The eagle, for example, also appears on celebrated brass of Sir Simon and Lady Felbrigg (1416), at Felbrigg Hall, Norfolk. Margaret— Sir Simon’s wife—was the daughter of Premislaus, Duke of Teschen, and came over as a lady-in-waiting to her cousin Anne of Bohemia.
Further changes to the hospital followed. The infirmary hall at the western end of the nave was also rebuilt with four bays and aisles. So too, afterwards was the parochial nave, sandwiched between the chancel and infirmary. Shields above the nave
‘It is this ongoing evolution that makes the hospital such an impressive institution’
arcade capitals bearing the arms of Prior John Molet (1453–71) and Bishop James Goldwell (1472–99) date the rebuilding to the second half of the 15th century.
Goldwell is also traditionally credited with the creation of a chantry chapel extending from the eastern bay of the south aisle. Its ornate lierne vault is very similar in design to those of the nearby cathedral and, like them, bears numerous carved bosses: the Coronation of the Virgin at the centre surrounded by 40 smaller bosses arranged in a concentric stellar pattern. Here, we see the Annunciation, Nativity, Resurrection and Ascension, interspersed with the enthroned Saints Margaret, Catherine, Edmund and Edward and the 12 Apostles (Fig 5).
During the 15th century, a flint-andbrick-rubble cloister with stone dressings was erected against the north elevation of the nave with the aid of Bishop Walter Lyhart (about 1446–72), whose device can be found carved in the spandrels of a doorway on the east walk (Fig 3). Although tiny in scale, it is full of charm.
Fig 1: The hospital is dominated by the 14thcentury church tower. The men’s ward occupied the interior to its immediate left
Fig 2: The Eagle Ward was created within the volume of a tall 14th-century chancel and takes its name from the spectacular medieval roof
Fig 3 above: The 15th-century cloister. Fig 4 below: One of the rooms in the Eagle Ward, which was abandoned in 1979