Robert Toppes was born around 1405. His parentage and ancestry remain unknown, and while some suggest the name 'Topes' may originate in the Netherlands, there are several families named Toppe(s) to be found in contemporary Norfolk records. In 1421, he paid two marks for the freedom to trade in Norwich as a mercer or 'dealer in fine fabrics'. This was hugely important at a time when the textile trade was the lifeblood of commerce in the city.
Toppes was a shareholder in several boats sailing from Yarmouth to the near Continent, taking fine cloths and un-dyed wool and returning with cargoes of fabrics, ceramics, metalwork, wines and spices. Customs accounts for 1455-6 also tell us that he was dealing in blanched herrings, salt and barley: common consumables probably for home sale.
All this merchandise needed to be securely stored, displayed and then sold on. Toppes' grand yet practical trading hall still stands on King Street in Norwich: now known as Dragon Hall after the intricate carving in the first floor Great Hall. A brick-vaulted undercroft, warehouse space and river access provided the necessary working facilities of the complex, while the timber-framed showroom allowed traders to admire his wares and transact their business in opulent surroundings.
Robert Toppes must have had an entrepreneurial spirit as he quickly became established as a merchant and part of the city's elite. He held several prominent posts in the civic administration of Norwich, including Treasurer, Sheriff, and Alderman of St. Giles' ward. He served as Mayor of Norwich in 1435, 1440, 1452 and 1458 and was also Burgess in Parliament - the equivalent of an MP - four times.
After his first wife Alice died, Toppes married again and produced several more children with his second wife Joan Knyvett - at least seven in total. He is mentioned by Margaret Paston in the famous 'Paston Letters' (1451), a chronicle of life in Norfolk in the middle ages. His son Robert became Lord of the Manor of Hacons at Great Melton,and his surviving daughters married into local gentry families, proving that it was possible to improve rapidly in social status through earned wealth rather than inherited privilege.
Toppes is unlikely to have lived at Dragon Hall, which was primarily used for commercial purposes. Instead, his main dwelling house was in the Guildhall area of Norwich, near his parish church of St. Peter Mancroft. A stained glass panel in the east window depicts Toppes and his family, a remaining fragment of a much larger window gifted to the church during its rebuilding in 1455.
When Toppes died in 1467, he left money to every church in Norwich and all the parish churches linked to the worsted cloth trade. He was buried in St. John the Baptist's chapel in St. Peter Mancroft. In his will, Toppes instructed that Dragon Hall should be sold to pay for two priests to celebrate masses for his soul, until the money was used up - a more than generous bequest even for his time. Although his tomb now lies unmarked, Dragon Hall has been renovated and stands as a modem memorial to this remarkable Norwich merchant.