Dragon Hall, Norwich

Dragon Hall, Norwich

Dragon Hall is a Grade-1 listed medieval merchant's trading hall located in King Street, Norwich, Norfolk close to the River Wensum, and since 2015 home to Writers' Centre Norwich. It is thought to be unique in being the only such trading hall in Northern Europe owned by one man. The building stands close to the River Wensum on King Street, the main road through the city in the fifteenth century, with excellent river transport links via Yarmouth to the Low Countries, Flanders and the Germanic states. Dragon Hall is now acknowledged as one of Norwich’s medieval architectural gems and an iconic building in the city.

The Great Hall on the first floor was built in the 15th century, but some parts of the site are much older. Archaeological research shows evidence of a Saxon hut c. 1000 beneath the Hall. On the northern part of the site, in the late 13th century, the Abbey of Woburn in Bedfordshire had a fish processing operation with various outbuildings and a track to a staithe or quay on the River Wensum. There was also a boundary wall with a large brick arch to give access to King Street. In about 1330 an L-shaped domestic 'hall house' owned by John Page, was built on the southern part of the site with an undercroft and an entrance on the south side from Old Barge Yard.

In about 1427 Robert Toppes, a Norwich merchant, re-developed the site as a commercial complex. He built his first floor trading hall on top of part of the 14th century domestic hall house and on top of the existing boundary wall and brick arch. He retained the 14th century entrance to the hall house for his customers. From the entrance passage his customers went up a new staircase to the first floor trading hall. This was a timber construction of seven bays with a crown post roof, decorated with carvings in the spandrels of 14 dragons. The hall was constructed with English oak, using some 1,000 trees. Clearly Toppes wanted to impress his customers. At the rear of the building he created a yard space with access to the river for his imports and exports, a warehouse area under the hall and a new stairway down to the extended undercroft from the yard. Part of the hall house was retained as a ground floor reception area.

Robert Toppes c.1400 - 1467

We do not know Robert Toppes’s origins or exactly when he was born but he became a very successful entrepreneur after he acquired the Dragon Hall site in the 1420s. Toppes exported Norfolk worsted cloth and imported fine textiles, ironware, wines and spices.

His wealth allowed him to rise through the civic ranks and he was an important figure in city politics. He became the City Treasurer at the age of 27, the Sheriff three years later and was elected mayor four times and burgess MP for Norwich four times. He was also involved in two major disturbances in the city, one being over a disputed mayoral election after which he was exiled to Bristol for some weeks; the other was the so-called 'Gladman's Insurrection' when he was indicted in the Kings Bench court.

He was married twice and had eight children. His second wife, Joan Knyvett, belonged to an established gentry family in South Norfolk, closely linked to the famous Paston family. He acquired a large portfolio of properties throughout Norfolk and Suffolk, as well as diversifying into money-lending. By 1450 he was one of the richest men in Norwich. Robert Toppes prepared carefully for the afterlife, paying for a great stained-glass window in Norwich’s largest parish church, St. Peter Mancroft; some of the panels can be seen there today. When he died in 1467, in addition to bequests to all city churches, his will stated that Dragon Hall should be sold to pay for priests to pray for his eternal soul.

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