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Norwich Heart, Heritage Economic & Regeneration Trust

The Briton‘s Arms

The Britons Arms, Elm Hill - the only surviving medieval beguinage in England

The Britons Arms is a three storey building which stands in the corner of the churchyard of St Peter Hungate. Currently a restaurant, it is probably one of the oldest continuously occupied buildings in Norwich.

The building

It is of timber-framed construction, with a masonry rear wall. The upper storey has a jetty - a projecting floor - on three sides, and is decorated with a row of timber arcading. The building has a simple plan. There is a central chimneystack with a staircase to one side, with two rooms on each floor. There are three floors and an attic, creating a stack of four separate apartments entered from the side staircase. On the second floor there is a doorway connecting the two rooms, and to one side there is a small niche, which would have held a lamp.

Attics were rare in medieval buildings. At the Britons Arms it is possible to show that the attic was occupied from the beginning, as there are fireplaces and a lamp niche in the attic rooms. This means that the Briton‘s Arms has what is probably the oldest habitable attic in Norwich, and one of the oldest in the country. There is a door in the rear wall of the building with a moulded brick arch, which originally led to the churchyard. Because of the steep fall in the ground, it is on the first floor rather than the ground floor.

The fire of 1507

On 25th March 1507 a huge fire swept through Norwich, from Tombland in the east to St Giles in the west. It destroyed most of the timber and thatched houses in the city. The Britons Arms survived because it stood apart from other buildings in the churchyard. It is thus one of the only timber-framed medieval buildings left in the city

Beguinage

The Briton‘s Arms is a unique survival in England of a beguinage. This was the home of a small group of single women, who had devoted themselves to a life of prayer and charitable work within the community. Such institutions were very common on the Continent in the middle ages, particularly in the Low Countries, northern France and the Rhineland, but they were very rare in England. There are some references in medieval documents to small groups of women living together, in towns such as York and Ipswich.

However, Norwich is the only English city where there is definite evidence for informal female communities following a religious vow. One thing which links all these places is a strong trading connection with north-east Europe. This may have influenced Norwich merchants to support beguinages in their own city. There are references to three such communities in late medieval Norwich. They are called "poor women" or "sisters" who are "dedicated to chastity" or "dedicated to God". One of these groups is known to have lived in the churchyard of St Peter Hungate in the first half of the fifteenth century, and the Briton‘s Arms was almost certainly their home.

This is shown by several features of the building. The construction methods and the type of brick used are typical of the fifteenth century. The really telling factor is the door to the churchyard, and the unusual plan of the building, with a series of independent heated rooms. This provided ideal accommodation for a group of women living together, but also engaged in private prayer.

We have only a limited idea of how the women who lived in the beguinage passed their time. Unlike the nuns of Carrow Abbey, to the south of the city, they were not enclosed within a convent. Nuns tended to be the daughters of gentlemen and wealthy merchants, whereas the beguines were usually poorer women. They would have supported themselves through work such as spinning (the term ‘spinster‘ for a single women dates from the medieval period), as well as begging for alms. They also undertook charitable work in the local community, caring for the poor and sick. They would no doubt have worshipped in St Peter Hungate church, with easy access to the churchyard through the door in the rear wall.

Late medieval Norwich had a rich devotional and spiritual culture. There was the great Cathedral, the nunnery at Carrow, nearly fifty parish churches, and four large friaries. One of these, the Dominican Friary, stands opposite the Briton‘s Arms. At the Dissolution it was purchased by the City Corporation and made into a civic hall, as which it still serves.

There were also many anchoresses in Norwich - women who were enclosed in a cell attached to a church, and dedicated to a life of contemplation. The most famous of these was Julian of Norwich. Another anchoress, Katherine Manne, was attached to the Dominican Friary church - the arches of her cell can be seen through the gate opposite the Briton‘s Arms. Both the anchoresses and the beguines were supported by the ordinary people in the city, and played an active and important role in the spiritual life of the community.

Public house and restaurant

The building was later a public house being known as the Kings Arms in 1804 when one McDonald was the landlord.  By the time it was recorded in White‘s 1845 directory it had been renamed as the Britons Arms with one Charles Carr as the licensee. In the late 1860‘s the licensee was a Mrs Augusta Liddlelow.  By 1883 it was listed in directories as a ‘victuallers‘ under the ownership of Thomas Lefevre and John Taylor and William Martin 7 years later. Since the 1980s it has been a popular restaurant.

Thanks to Christopher King for permission to use his leaflet for this article.

Nick Williams

September 2007

Sources:

  • The Britons Arms, Elm Hill, Norwich, Christopher King, 2006
  • Whites History, gazetteer and directory of Norfolk: including the city of Norwich - 1845, 1883, 1890