The church of St Helen and the Great Hospital were established in 1249 when Walter de Suffield (Bishop of Norwich 1245-57) decided to found a hospital for the sick and poor clergy of Norwich. It was dissolved by Henry VIII, but was later restored to the city by Edward VI. The site includes a church, cloister, medieval refectory and a Victorian hall. The cloisters at the Great Hospital are recorded as being the smallest cloisters in England. They were completed in 1450.
The Great Hospital provided care for the people of Norwich. Those who benefited were mostly old priests (who remained unmarried during this time and tended to have no family to look after them in old age), poor scholars and sick and hungry paupers. They were given meals, shelter and clothes.
The 'poor but bright' students who showed some promise were selected from local schools, brought to the Great Hospital and were given food along with a chance to train as choristers. Many went on to enter the priesthood.
For local citizens, aid was more restricted. Just thirty beds were allocated at the west end of the hospital for the sick poor, and only thirteen non residents would be fed at the gates every day. The care was provided by four chaplains, one deacon, one sub-deacon, a master and four nuns. There were to be no female residents, and the nuns, in the interests of propriety, were to be over fifty years old.
The hospital was originally known as St Giles' Hospital. St Giles was the patron saint of lepers, nursing mothers and cripples, and is also reputed to have given away all his possessions to the poor and cared for the sick. His ideas were greatly respected by Bishop Suffield, who made the saint patron of the hospital. Chaplains and Masters of the hospital were thus bound to sing a weekly mass in honour of St Giles.
The establishment of the hospital saw Suffield demolish the original parish church of St Helen that stood within the cathedral precinct on the south side of Bishopgate and constructed his hospital beyond the cathedral precinct on the north side of Bishopgate. Initially, there were acquisitions and exchanges of land which provided the financial income needed to maintain the hospital. Many local people supported the hospital, particularly in its early stages, giving land and tenements, as well as gifts and monetary donations.
Only a small portion of Suffield's original building, the simple southern porch to the church, survives. The remaining parts of the church and hospital date to a redevelopment during the late 14th and early 15th centuries.
The hospital buildings and layout resemble those of a monastery or priory and are set around a small cloister. On the south side of the cloister is St Helen's church with a nave plus three-bay north and south aisles; a south porch; south transept; and an unusually large chancel. On the opposite side of the nave to the chancel is an equally large aisled infirmary hall and in its south west corner, a tower.
Attached to the west side of the cloister is the dining hall, with the Master's Lodge to the north. The Chaplain's Dormitory is on the north side of the cloister. The eastern side of the cloister would probably have led into the chapter house and other small rooms, as indicated by doorways remaining within the cloister walk. However, this eastern range of the hospital buildings, along with the south aisle of the Infirmary Hall and a kitchen that would have stood north of the cloister, have since been destroyed.
Nevertheless, much of the medieval hospital remains intact and represents an important survival of medieval buildings of this type. Unlike most other surviving medieval hospitals in England, a vast archive of hospital documents survive and are housed in the County archive.
The tower was built in 1375 after a bequest by John Derlington who was Master of the hospital from 1372 to 1375 and the chancel was built in the 1380s by Bishop Despenser. It was completed by 1385 in time for the visit of Kind Richard II and his queen, Anne of Bohemia. The 252 panels of the roof are decorated with eagles and these are said to be Anne's emblem.
In 2003 roof timbers from the nave and south aisle were dated through tree ring dating techniques (dendrochronology) to between 1378 and 1403. Previously the nave was thought to have been built along with the south transept by Bishop Goldwell in about 1480. The nave contains fine furnishings including a 17th century table, a mace rest and an interesting collection of both bench and box pews. Some of the bench pews are 16th century with poppy head carvings to their ends and one has a carving of St Margaret emerging from the dragon.
The south transept contains a box pew of the Ivory family that is inscribed with the date '1780' and the name 'William Ivory'. William Ivory was the son of the famous architect who designed St Helen's House within the grounds of the Great Hospital, the Tabernacle, the Octagon and the Assembly House. The transept also boasts a spectacular stone vaulted roof with a central boss of the Virgin Mary surrounded by bosses of the Nativity, Annunciation, Ascension and the Resurrection. In turn these bosses are surrounded by St Catherine, St Edward, St Edmund, St Margaret and each of the twelve apostles.
During the 1530s Dissolution of the Monasteries, the hospital of St Giles and the church of St Helen were taken from the cathedral-priory by Henry VIII. For several years the future of the hospital was uncertain and it was not until the reign of Edward VI that the citizens of Norwich managed to successfully petition the king for its return. Edward VI re-founded the hospital to care for the poor of Norwich and the hospital continues its good work today, providing sheltered housing and a nursing home for the elderly of Norwich.
When the hospital was re-founded the medieval buildings were modified. The church was reduced in size by separating off the chancel with a wall and turning it into a dormitory for the female patients. Access from the church into the Infirmary Hall was also blocked and the infirmary was turned into lodgings for the male patients.
To increase capacity, both the chancel and infirmary were divided into two floors and a fireplace was inserted at either end. By 1839 both floors of these halls had been divided into individual cubicles with a small living room next to the fires. By the late 20th century the ground floor of the chancel was named Pump Ward and the first floor the Eagle Ward, the ground floor of the infirmary was called Parker Ward, and the first floor Fawcett Ward. In the 1970s the residents were re-housed in modern flats nearby but most were sad to leave their comfortable little bed-sits in the medieval hospital.
The swan pit with its attached sluices dates to the late 18th century but was restored in the 19th century and altered again in the 20th century. The Master of the Great Hospital bred swans for consumption on feast days. The swan pit consists of four brick walls in a rectangle aligned east-west with a pair of ramps at the east end leading down to the water. The main body of the pool is approximately 26m long by 9.7m, with ramps 2.3m wide.