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Visiting the Guildhall, Norwich, Norfolk, England: hub of civic government from 15th to 20th centuries
Civic solidity in stone, reminiscent of cloth towns in the Low Countries
Remarkably, this building, erected between 1407 and 1413 (1), served as the headquarters of the city administration for Norwich, Norfolk, from the 15th century until the new built City Hall nearby replaced this function in 1938. Thus, this history of this building testifies to over 500 years of continuous use in a civic purpose.
The outside walls, strengthened in the 16th century, as described as being a combination of chequered flint and freestone; the chequered patterning is noted as a particularly significant feature of this historic structure. Many older buildings in Norfolk display flint-work and the Guildhall is thus an especially fine example of a building which uses this material.
Arms, including those of King Henry VIII and of the City of Norwich, may be seen on the east end of the building. These date from the 16th century. A small, clock tower was added in 1850.
One of the rooms in the Guildhall is known variously as the (former) Assembly Chamber, the Sherriff's Court or the Sword Room; this latter designation is derived — not surprisingly — because of the longstanding practice of keeping weapons there.
In the Middle Ages, Norwich was among the largest and most prosperous of cities in England and the fine Guildhall gives a sense of civic importance and wealth which existed locally hundreds of years ago. Indeed, a comparison has been made with the situation in the Middle Ages of the many cloth towns of the Low Countries (2). In Medieval times, the City of Norwich exercised relatively wide powers and responsibilities; by way of example, the functions of the mayor and four colleagues included those of Justices of the Peace. It is also thought that the evident centralizing of powers of the city's aldermen in the 15th century was to some extent in imitation of the governance of the City of London.
For many years also, part of the building served as a prison. Interestingly, this prison function was fulfilled by the crypt, which is thought to predate the Guildhall. Records indicate that a toll-house formerly stood on the site prior to the 15th century. Having also served as what must be one of the finest tourist information centres in the country, the Guildhall's current use is as the headquarters of the Norwich Heritage Economic and Regeneration Trust.
(1) Records appear to show that a significant proportion of the labour expended on erecting the building in the 15th century was unpaid; surely some sort of oblique evidence of a self-importance and even of a ruthlessness on the part of the civic leaders of the day?
(2) Norwich and East Anglia have maintained a close trading relationship going back to Medieval times.
Also worth seeing
In Norwich itself, a few of the city's many remarkable buildings include: the Art Deco City Hall, situated close to the Guildhall; Norwich Castle has a fine keep, now a museum; Norwich Cathedral is a fine example of spired, Medieval architecture; the Octagon is a remarkable, historic Nonconformist chapel.
How to get there: Continental Airlines flies to London Heathrow Airport, where car rental is available. Norwich is served by rail from London Liverpool Street Station. Norwich is 233 kilometers from Heathrow Airport. Some facilities may be withdrawn, without notice. You are advised to check with the airline or your travel agent for up to date information.
MJFenn is an independent travel writer based in Ontario, Canada.
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