Skip to content
You are here: Home | history


1226 The Beginning

The Dominican Blackfriars came to Norwich in 1226 and settled north of this site in the parish of Colgate and when moved here in 1307 they took over the buildings of a minor order of Friars, from Marseilles, called the Sack Friars.

These early buildings, built of brick and dating from 1270 to 1307 mostly still survive and are now The Crypt and the covered remains of the Thomas A' Becket Chapel 'wilfully destroyed' in 1876.

The Friary church, dedicated to St. John the Baptist and the largest of the four city friaries, was begun in 1326 but not finished until 1470 due to a fire destroying the majority of the building in 1413. Five original windows in St. Andrews Hall and the great east window in Blackfriars were incorporated into the new building. The roof-beams for Blackfriars and the hammer-beams in St. Andrews roof were the gift of the Paston family together with the superb fifteenth century doors, bearing the Arms of Paston and Mautby, in the South Porch.

The family of Sir Thomas Erpingham, hero of Agincourt, donated large sums of money for the re-building of the church. Erpingham's son, Robert, was a Friar in this church. The Arms of the Erpinghams can be seen between each of the clerestory windows, viewed from the Preaching Yard at the front of the building, in the glass of the West window and also the Victorian doors to Blackfriars Hall.

The great preaching Nave is separated from the Friars' private Choir by a Walkway that led directly to the Cloisters. The Walkway was originally surmounted by a tower built in 1462 by Sir Simon de Felbrigge who is buried in Blackfriars Hall. The tower was destroyed in a gale in 1712.

Outside the North door of Blackfriars Hall are remains of an Anchorage or cell, where a female was walled up at her own request to devote her life to God and to give spiritual counselling. The names of two anchorites have come down to us, Katherine Foster and Katherine Mann.

1538 The Reformation

At the Reformation the City petitioned King Henry VIII in 1538 to purchase the friary and to 'make the churche a fayer and large halle, well pathed, for the mayor and his bretheren... for their common assemblyes...' The city Chamberlains paid £81 in June 1540, but they then had to pay a further £152 for the roof lead they had already bought.

The Nave of St. Andrews Hall was repaved and named The New Hall and has been used for civic occasions ever since. The first recorded event was the Mayor's feast for Henry Fuller in 1544.

As well as being used for Guild meetings, as an assize court, corn exchange and corn hall, the Hall has shared in every aspect of the City's history. The Earl of Warwick stabled his horses here when he came to crush Kett's rebellion in 1549, Sir Thomas Browne was knighted here by Charles II in 1671 and The Norfolk and Norwich Festival, started in these halls in 1824, continues to the present day. More modern traditions include the largest regional Beer Festival in Great Britain started in 1978.

At the east end of St Andrew's Hall is the fine concert organ situated in the archway constructed for its predecessor in 1863. The present organ was built and installed by Bryceson Brothers and Ellis in 1880 and then rebuilt by William Hill and Norman Beard in 1927. Following the installation of the central heating in the early 70's the organ timbers dried out completely and necessitated a complete rebuild, finished in 1984, by Hill, Norman and Beard. The organ contains 2,976 pipes has three manuals and a Christie Transmission recording and playback facility.

Southern prospect of St Andrew's & Blackfriars' Hall circa 1700
A grand dinner in St Andrew's Hall, 1849
King George VI leaving St Andrew's Hall during Civic Week, 1938

1565 The Dutch Church

The Choir, now Blackfriar's Hall, became the chapel of the City Council and the Guilds with its own Chaplain. It was also used as a free school, now Norwich School in the Cathedral Close. After 1565 it was used by Flemish religious refugees who had been invited to Norwich to revitalise the ailing cloth trade. By 1579 there were 6000 'Dutch' in a population of 16,000 and the Choir became known as the Dutch church. They held their last service here in 1929. Memorials to their pastors John Elison (1581 - 1639) and his son Theophilus (1609 - 1676) can be seen on the north wall.

At the Reformation the East and West ranges of the Cloisters were used as granaries to store corn for poor relief. Later the East Granary became the first place of worship for the non-conformists in Norwich; the Presbyterians in 1672 and the Baptists in 1689.

In the great re-coinage of 1695, £259,000 in half-crowns, shillings and sixpences were minted in a corner of the Cloisters and these bear the letter N under the bust of William III.

1712 The City Workhouse

In 1712 the buildings became the City Workhouse until 1859, when a Commercial School was established here which became the City of Norwich School. Later the Technical Institute was built next door and this in turn became Norwich City College. The West range was used by the Norwich Middle Class School, (part of Edward VI's Grammar), with nine masters and 260 boys, forty being boarders in the School House, at the turn of the twentieth century. The East and West ranges are now part of the Norwich University of the Arts.

The Halls are home to part of the biggest collection of Civic Portraits in the country, 127 in total, with eleven in St. Andrews Hall and thirty-one in Blackfriars Hall. The paintings here range from the late sixteenth century through to the early nineteenth century.