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St George's Guildhall at King's Lynn is now an arts centre.

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A kind of medieval trade union?

A trade guild was rather more than that. As well as an organisation promoting the work and standards of a trade or profession, it was a focus of spiritual and temporal life. The guilds had a stake in the towns where their members lived, and also cared for individuals who had fallen on hard times. In the late 14th century they had never been more needed. The Black Death had ripped through every part of the British Isles, killing anything between a quarter and a half of the population. In this fractured society, it was trade guilds that helped rebuild the community at Lynn. In 1371, 38 guilds contributed to a fund to repair Lynns defences, and there were at least 59 in the town two decades later. But it was a relatively new guild which laid down roots by the riverside along King Street. The cult of St George, a saint of Middle Eastern origins adopted by Crusaders and later the patron saint of England, was founded at Lynn in 1376. He was said to be able to answer prayers to cure the plague, which may account for his growing popularity.

How were the guilds organised?

The Guild of St George met four times a year, its main meeting naturally enough on April 23 the saints day. Members, both men and women, marched in procession dressed in their best robes from King Street to nearby St Nicholas Church for a mass. It wasnt just ceremonial; the guild gave money to maintain the towns walls and the sea banks and paid a pension to poverty-stricken brethren. Funds were collected through fees and fines, renting property and warehouses. We have the names of three moving spirits of the guild. John Brandon, Bart Sistern and John Snailwell were leading merchants, and they were the trustees when King Henry IV granted them a charter in 1406. The scene was set for the building of a suitable hall.

How was it built?

It was constructed on reclaimed land by the River Ouse looking out to sea. The original town of Lynn was split by a number of streams, such as the Purfleet and Millfleet. These gradually became filled in, and as the town became more wealthy it expanded along the riverside by a process of reclamation. The hall is made of brown brick, 107ft long and 29ft wide, with very thick walls. The upper storey consisted on a dining room, where a certain Lady Bardolf was recorded as the honoured guest of the mayor and aldermen in the 1440s, by which time the hall was at least 20 years old. The undercroft contained a vast warehouse space stretching 400ft to the river where there was a watergate for the loading and unloading of goods. Walking to the end of the complex, and looking right towards the open sea reminds the visitor of maritime trade that was the lifeblood of the town. The hall had to be renovated around 1500 when the roof was found to be too heavy for the walls; buttresses were erected against the north wall for stability.

What about St George?

The saints emblem can be seen throughout the building. There is a particularly fine image of him slaying the dragon on the south wall. The veneration of saints was an important part of medieval life, but during the Reformation many such shrines were suppressed. After the dissolution of the monasteries in the 1530s it was the turn of the guilds a decade later. During the sweeping reforms instituted by the government of King Edward VII, the property of Lynns richest two that of St George and Holy Trinity, whose hall is in the Tuesday Market Place went to the Crown which passed it on to the town corporation. Trinity retained its superior status as town hall, which left St George an expensive luxury. It was rented out to a variety of tradesmen and tenants. By 1588, part of the house was occupied by a schoolmaster, 25 years later a sailmaker paid 7 a year to live in another part. Later it was used as a court house, and painter Joseph Cooper paid a peppercorn rent on condition he paint the seat for the justices.

A chequered history...

The guildhall played its part in the Civil War. In 1643 royalist Lynn declared for the king, and was besieged by Cromwells Parliamentarians. Barrels of gunpowder and arms were stored there by Sir Hamon LEstranges garrison. To no avail; Lynn surrendered after a months bombardment. A less deadly use was soon found. During the days of the guild, plays of a religious nature such as the Nativity were regularly performed there, and some say William Shakespeare trod the Lynn boards in 1593. Drama suffered under the Puritans, but after the Restoration it thrived. Troupes began playing there, but it was not until 1766 that Thomas Sharpe built a playhouse in the guildhall. Large audiences were drawn, although some complained about rowdy behaviour in the cheap seats. The guildhall fell on hard times once more after the Napoleonic Wars. After 19th century use as a wool warehouse, by 1945 it was in danger of demolition. The wartime bombing of several guildhalls in London and elsewhere had left the Lynn building a near-unique survivor, and people were beginning to appreciate what could be lost. Step in Alexander Penrose to save the day. With the help of public subscription the guildhall was converted into a theatre and arts cinema. A new ground-floor entrance had to be built, along with a flight of stairs to the main hall.

Today the undercroft is a restaurant. The late Queen Mother opened the building in 1951 along with the now annual Kings Lynn Festival, among the best in the country.

The National Trust now owns St Georges Guildhall. Entry is free to the public. Telephone: 01553 765565. Website:

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