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

Country Life Every Week - - Contents -

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.

Pho­to­graphs by Justin Paget

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

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