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Norwich Heart, Heritage Economic & Regeneration Trust

The Guildhall

The Guildhall

Norwich was one of the first towns in England to earn the rights granted by the charter of 1404 that stimulated the need for the Guildhall. The Guildhall was the largest and most elaborate medieval City Hall outside London, reflecting Norwich's status as one of England's wealthiest provincial cities.


Situated to the north-west of the Norwich Market, Norwich Guildhall was built in the early 15th century. It replaced the long-standing toll-house; a small thatched building used for collecting the toll of the market and dating from at least the 13th century. The building has undergone many alterations in its lengthy past, but remains a historic icon amongst a modern centre.

In medieval cities, 'Guildhall' has referred to both civic halls - town and city halls - and to the trading halls used by individual trade guilds. Norwich Guildhall, although used by the Guild of St George, was mainly a civic building built to house the various assemblies and courts that regulated the lives of Norwich's citizens. Only with the building of a new City Hall in 1938 and the opening of the new Court buildings in 1985, have most of these functions ceased. Much of this historic purpose is still evident in the building, which still houses the Sheriff's chambers.

Three large assembly rooms were provided to house the various councils and assemblies that were based in the building from around 1413 until 1938. Occasional use by Council committees has continued to the present day. These assembly rooms also doubled up as courts, reflecting the twin political and judicial functions of the building. Other rooms housed everything from swords and armaments to records and officials.

Origins - the royal charter

In 1404 Henry IV introduced a 'Charter of Incorporation' to Norwich, granting special privileges to the city and raising its importance to a new level. The charter allowed burgesses to elect a mayor, collect taxes and hold their own courts of law and with the removal of the popular assembly, was a chance for the government to become more locally representative. Crucially, the charter gave Norwich city status.

An upper council (of twenty-four Aldermen, one Mayor and two Sheriffs), with members from 'dignified' society and given life-long membership, were to govern alongside the associated lower council, whose sixty members were to act as representatives from the local community. These changes to the political structure instigated a sense of civic pride among the citizens of Norwich; many felt that the growth in the city's responsibilities and self-governing power should be marked by the establishment of an equally fitting civic building. However, for others, the idea of a guildhall only further aggravated beliefs that the higher, ruling classes were becoming too ambitious and seeking an unchallenged control of power.

Construction and development

Funding for the construction of the new guildhall came from a number of sources. Increased taxation, voluntary contributions and bequests to the city all went towards the building.

Despite these fund-raising methods, the expense that would come with the development of the dramatic and impressive structure that was realised, and consequently much of the labour employed in the project went unpaid. The city was granted a warrant in 1407 that instructed men from many different trades to work, often for 15 hours at a time with no pay. It seems only skilled craftsmen were paid for their efforts.

The Guildhall was mostly built between 1407 and 1413. By 1435 the tower and porch had been added and in 1440 all of the city records were brought over, a reminder of its political responsibility. By 1453 the final windows of the magnificent building were glazed, essentially marking the building's completion.

The exterior

The exterior of Norwich Guildhall provides an excellent example of the flint work that the city is so famous for. The building was constructed from flint rubble faced with knapped flint and infill. The east side was crafted from alternate squares of faced flint and ashlar stone, giving the building its chequered effect.

Much of the exterior as it is seen today is Victorian. Massive reconstructions came in both 1861 and 1908, and replaced the porch and many of the windows in the 'gothic' style that was so favoured by the Victorians.

The court rooms

The Georgian courtroom on the ground floor was once the original 'free prison' where unshackled prisoners were kept until 1597 when a new gaol was built opposite. It then became the Cloth Hall before being converted to house the County Assizes following a fire in the Shirehall in 1747. It became the Court of Record and, following the transfer of all court functions in 1985 to the new courts, it became the Tourist Information Centre until this was relocated to the Forum building in 2002. It now houses a café.

The first floor held two main halls for the council and court rooms. To the west of the building was the Assembly Chamber (also called the Sword Room or Sheriff's Court) and to the east was the Council Chamber (or Mayor's Court).

The Assembly Room is the larger of the two. Originally, this room was designed for meetings of the full medieval Council, as well as the assembly of 60 elected by the freemen in the four wards, and was initially also used by the Sheriff's Court that succeeded the old 'leet courts' and dealt with minor offences. It now contains a virtually intact late Victorian courtroom, used for the city Quarter sessions and as a Court until 1985. Quarter sessions were held for offences ranging from petty theft (larceny) to murder. The figure of Justice, suspended to one end of the room, is an 18th century addition, and was moved from another location in the 20th century. Also known as the 'Sword Room', it was once the storage place of weapons.

The Council Chamber is more elaborate. It was designed for the inner-council of 24 aldermen elected by the assembly as the Mayor's Council. Following the 1835 Municipal Corporations Act, both the Assembly and the Mayor's Council were reduced in size, with the right to vote changed to a property qualification rather than being in the hands of the freemen. This room was used as a Council Chamber until City Hall was opened in 1938. It was also used as the Mayoral Court which dealt with offences mainly related to vagrancy, drinking and gaming, but which also gradually took over from the Sheriff's Court. Oak panelling, a sixteen bay roof with tie-beams, and ornamental decoration make this room appear rather magnificent, along with the stunning stained glass windows.

The undercroft

The undercroft of Norwich Guildhall, positioned beneath the east end, pre-dates the building, and is thought to be an original feature of the earlier toll-house. Brick built, it was used as a dungeon for more dangerous criminals into the 17th century. There are two items of graffiti cut into the walls (a 'heart within a heart' and a ship outline with a prow). Unfortunately, it is not known how old these are.

Today, access to the undercroft is via a spiral staircase that dates from the 15th century. It is still possible to see the thick oak doors that would have enclosed the prisoners. It is thought that Thomas Bilney, the first Protestant martyr was held here in the days leading up to his execution for heresy.

Police cells

Originally this room was the 'clink' where shackled prisoners were kept. It continued as a prison, used to support the various courts, and in the 19th century was developed as cells, extended and maintained as such right up to the early 1990s. A kitchenette, used by police officers, remains frozen in time. Since ceasing use as a prison, the area has been used as storage and also contains visible modern services on the walls and ceiling.

Later changes and alterations

In 1511 both the tower at the west end and the roof of the Council Chamber, collapsed. Unfortunately the tower was never rebuilt; however, the roof was reconstructed between 1534 and 1537 by Augustine Steward, at a cost of over £200. The destruction forced the Council Chamber to move to east end of the building. In 1635 the guildhall was almost accidentally demolished as saltpetre diggers went down too far! 1723 saw the reconstruction of the porch, and in 1747, after the destruction of the Shire Hall, the Guildhall took on further responsibilities and additional alterations were made. In 1850 the clock tower was erected as a gift from the Mayor, Henry Woodcock.

More renovations came in 1857, when the doorway of a house belonging to a Tudor goldsmith was taken down from its original location in London Street and placed in the south-west corner of the Guildhall. 

References and further reading:

  • Dunn, Ian and Sutermeister, Helen, The Norwich Guildhall - a history and guide, The City of Norwich in conjunction with the Norwich Survey, 1978
  • Kent, Ernest Alfred, Norwich guildhall: the fabric and the ancient stained glass, 1929
  • Pevsner, Nikolaus, The buildings of England: North East Norfolk and Norwich, 1997
  • G. A. Stephens, Norwich Guildhall its History and its Treasurers, unpublished booklet
  • E. A. Kent, The Stained and Painted Glass in the Guildhall, Norwich', Norfolk Archaeology, vol. XXIII, 1927