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Blackfriars Hall in Norwich

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Why is it unique?

It is the only medieval friary in Britain to survive our turbulent history intact. The Blackfriars came first In the early 13th century, a new wave of religious men spread across Europe. Their influence was to spread to many major cities in England -and we can see their influence in many place names today. Every time you see a street with the suffix friars' whether it is White' Black' or Grey' you are following in the footsteps of the mendicant orders.

What were they?

These orders of friars came about as a reaction against heresy against orthodox Catholicism. The founders of the Dominicans, Franciscans and Carmelites wanted to return to the simplicity and spirituality of the early Church by eschewing all material matters. So they cast off property and originally lived by begging charity in return for pastoral care. Their motto was not to live for themselves only but to serve others.

The Dominicans were known as the Blackfriars because of the black cloaks they wore over their white habits (Franciscans generally wore grey Carmelites favoured white). The Blackfriars founded in 1216 by Spaniard Saint Dominic de Guzman came to Norwich a decade later as did the Franciscans. This highly disciplined order sought to reach out to ordinary people by preaching in the native tongue rather than clerical Latin and were keen on education. Their first house was off Colegate but they found the site inconvenient as it had no river frontage. A far better site presented itself at the top of Elm Hill and the Dominicans took it over in 1307, when its occupants a minor order called the Friars Penitential were suppressed by the pope. They were allowed the building on condition they allowed the last surviving monk now broken with age to remain. Then they set about rebuilding the church and buying up land.

What happened to living off charity?

The way the Dominicans saw it they were reaching out to people to fight against heresy and if this meant owning land in the middle of towns then so be it. Records show they bought from wealthy Norwich hosier William But and his family. Two parts of the original church remain, the brick undercroft and Becket's Chapel. Fire was the greatest hazard to medieval buildings and in 1413 the church was destroyed in a blaze. Further rebuilding went on until the 1470s and created the form we see today.

Two significant Norfolk families are immortalised in the rebuilding. The Pastons famous for the letters they wrote throughout the 15th century gave roof beams, as well as a magnificent door decorated with their coast of arms. The family of Thomas Erpingham the man who commanded Henry V's archers at Agincourt gave large sums, while his son Robert was a friar there. Erpingham is also remembered by the Cathedral Close gate that bears his name. The friary dedicated to St John the Baptist was an intrinsic part of the city's life.

Outside the north door of Blackfriars Hall are the remains of an anchorage or cell where a woman was walled up at her own request, to devote her life to God and to give spiritual counselling to visitors. One of these was Katherine Mann, who figures in the early stages of the event that was to transform this story - the Reformation.

Henry VIII and all that

Anchorite Katherine Mann was caught up in the death of one of the Reformation's early martyrs. In 1531 radical priest Thomas Bilney brought her a Bible in English. This was an inflammatory act for orthodox Catholics who insisted God's word should be in Latin. Bilney was burned at the stake in Norwich for heresy. Within a few years though the wheel had turned monasteries were turned over to the king who boosted royal finances by selling them off. The city of Norwich bought Blackfriars, Mayor Norwich Augustine Steward paid 81 in 1540 and a further 152 four years later to make the churches a fayer and large hall. The site was split the hall became St Andrew's and the church, Blackfriars.

What happened to the friars?

Like thousands across the country they were expelled It was a hard time for many and few individual fates were recorded. The first recorded event in the repaved hall was the mayor's feast in 1544 and the hall took on a number of uses over the coming centuries. Trade guilds met there, it was used as an assize court, corn exchange and corn hall. In 1549 the Earl of Warwick stabled his army's horses there when he came to defeat Robert Kett's rebels and physician and philosopher Sir Thomas Browne was knighted there by Charles II in 1671. It was used as a mint under William III 1695, the city workhouse in the 18th century and then the City of Norwich School. The technical institute built next door became Norwich City College while part of the original site is now the Norfolk Institute of Art and Design. Perhaps the friars with their love of education would have approved. When Flemish weavers first arrived in the city during the reign of Elizabeth I many of these homeless Strangers' were quartered in Blackfriars Hall. During the 19th century the Norfolk and Norwich Festival began and St Andrew's has been used for concerts ever since in 1849 the celebrated Swedish singer Jenny Lind performed for a packed and enthralled crowd there.

And today?

In 1978 the Campaign for Real Ale held its first annual Norwich Beer Festival at the site and it has grown in popularity since. While quaffing your ale take a look at some of the 127 civic portraits in the halls dating from the late 16th to early 19th centuries including a particularly fine one of Horatio Nelson.


The Buildings of England, Norfolk 1: Norwich and North East by Nikolaus Pevsner and Bill Wilson

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