The Great Hospital at Bishopgate

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Text © Copyright Evelyn Simak, January 2020
Images are under a separate Creative Commons Licence.


The parish church of St Helen

Ever since the radical alterations carried out in the 16th century, when the cult of saints was abandoned and the hospital re-founded under civic authorities only the central section, occupying about one third of the much larger building has been in use as a place of worship. It incorporates the east end of the nave and its aisle and the adjacent chantry chapel built by Bishop James Goldwell - he died on 15 Feb 1499 and is buried in Norwich cathedral Link - in the late 15th century, which is named after him. This space is accessed through the unusually large south porch also known as Limbertís Porch in honour of Steven Limbert, who at the time was Master of the Grammar School and is documented to have stood at the porch entrance to deliver a speech to Elizabeth 1st during her progress to East Anglia in 1578. There is also a back entrance via a door off the cloister. This place of worship has remained more or less unchanged over time. The Commandment board behind the chantry chapel altar is early Georgian and the silver sanctuary lamp hanging in front of it is about 300 years old. The central pulpit is surrounded by box pews and believed to date from the 18th century. One of these pews was once used by Thomas Ivory and his family. Some of the bench ends on either side of the front pews are medieval and were made between 1519 and 1532 during the mastership of John Hecker, with his initials carved into one. Under the bench pews on the north side there is a shelf for the gentlemen to place their hats. The ladies sat on the south side. The large painting on the wall behind the pulpit is a copy of the Transfiguration by Raphael, the original of which hangs in the Vatican. The medieval bosses on the chapel's lierne vaulted roof are presumed to be the work of John Everard, the master mason then working on the vaulting of the nearby cathedral at about the same time the chancel was built.

 Gt Hospital St Helen chancel arch --  Gt Hospital St Helen porch

TG2309 : St Helen's Bishopgate - the Chantry Chapel by Evelyn Simak TG2309 : St Helen's Bishopgate, Norwich - view east by Evelyn Simak TG2309 : St Helen's Bishopgate, Norwich - Commandment board by Evelyn Simak TG2309 : St Helen's Bishopgate, Norwich - roof bosses by Evelyn Simak TG2309 : St Helen's Bishopgate, Norwich - baptismal font by Evelyn Simak TG2309 : St Helen's Bishopgate, Norwich - view west by Evelyn Simak TG2309 : St Helen's Bishopgate, Norwich - the piano by Evelyn Simak

TG2309 : St Helen's Bishopgate, Norwich - C18 memorial by Evelyn Simak TG2309 : St Helen's Bishopgate, Norwich - stained glass by Evelyn Simak TG2309 : St Helen's Bishopgate, Norwich - C17 memorial by Evelyn Simak TG2309 : St Helen's Bishopgate, Norwich - stained glass by Evelyn Simak TG2309 : St Helen's Bishopgate, Norwich -  medieval bench end by Evelyn Simak TG2309 : St Helen's Bishopgate, Norwich - C18 memorial by Evelyn Simak TG2309 : St Helen's Bishopgate, Norwich - stained glass by Evelyn Simak TG2309 : St Helen's Bishopgate, Norwich - C18 ledger slab by Evelyn Simak TG2309 : St Helen Bishopgate - kneeler by Evelyn Simak TG2309 : St Helen's Bishopgate, Norwich - C18 ledger slab by Evelyn Simak

The Eagle Ward

The medieval hospital church's former chancel was reordered after the Reformation into a secular House of God. It has five bays and retains the original roof which consists of 252 chestnut panels fitted between carved ribbing to the underside of a scissor truss roof and decorated with bosses depicting intricately carved and painted floral compositions and human heads. In 1383, the panels were painted with the flaming St Wenceslas' eagle - the original symbol of the Duchy of Bohemia and the symbol of the fathering dynasty of Czechia, the Premyslids - in preparation for a visit by King Richard II and his new bride, Anne of Bohemia. It is this roof that gave the Eagle Ward its name.

 Gt Hospital St Helen E window --  Gt Hospital St Helen chancel

Left: Bricked up chancel east window. Right: The north elevation of the chancel with the Eagle Ward on the first floor

The Eagle Ward is accessed through a carved wooden doorway dating from the 16th century. A second doorway opens onto a 16th century staircase with oak treads and risers, square oak newel posts with stop chamfers at head and base and carved newel caps in the form of large acorns. A roll-topped, oak handrail on either side is in-filled with plasterwork on the free side.

 Gt Hospital Eagle Ward roof -  Gt Hospital Eagle Ward roof boss

 Gt Hospital Eagle Ward -  Gt Hospital Eagle Ward

The first impression of the ward is that of a vast, bright and cosy space under a beautifully painted roof. The huge chimney stack at its eastern end partly obscures the chancel east window and is mirrored at the western end by a similar arrangement although here there is no window but a solid wall where the chancel arch used to be. The chimney stacks served fireplaces, thought to date from the 19th century and still in place in the Eagle Ward, both at ground and first floor levels. The cubicles in which the fireplaces are situated, one each at each end of the ward, were referred to as snugs. The snugs are enclosed with curved wooden partition walls fitted with outward opening, hinged door leafs and Suffolk latches.

TG2309 : The Great Hospital - Eagle Ward (staircase) by Evelyn Simak TG2309 : The Great Hospital - Eagle Ward (communal corridor) by Evelyn Simak TG2309 : The Great Hospital - Eagle Ward (snug) by Evelyn Simak TG2309 : The Great Hospital - Eagle Ward (dining table) by Evelyn Simak TG2309 : The Great Hospital - Eagle Ward (fireplace) by Evelyn Simak TG2309 : The Great Hospital - Eagle Ward (communal corridor) by Evelyn Simak

TG2309 : The Great Hospital - Eagle Ward by Evelyn Simak TG2309 : The Great Hospital - Eagle Ward by Evelyn Simak TG2309 : The Great Hospital - Eagle Ward by Evelyn Simak TG2309 : The Great Hospital - Eagle Ward (communal corridor) by Evelyn Simak TG2309 : The Great Hospital - Eagle Ward by Evelyn Simak TG2309 : The Great Hospital - Eagle Ward by Evelyn Simak

Rows of cubicles with gothic revival archways and hung with curtains are lined up along the north and south walls, separated by a communal corridor. The partitions date from the 1820s, when they were inserted to provide some privacy for the residents. There had been a growing interest in privacy on hospital wards ever since the 13th and 14th centuries and compartments were created either by installing curtains or a piece of tapestry, which no doubt also helped to combat draughts. Most of the cubicles in the Eagle Ward consist of a small bedroom and an adjacent living space, connected by an opening in the board and muntin partition walls, with the. The exception of the two central cubicles which each fitted with a single bed only. The living areas of most cubicles are fitted with a raised ventilated cupboard with a mesh front, presumably for storing small items of food. A refectory table on the communal corridor provided a place where the inmates could have shared meals. The large chancel windows provided ample lighting, with those on the north elevation representing a rare early example of a combination of the curvilinear and perpendicular styles, believed to have been installed by Robert Wodehirst, a cathedral master mason, whose work on the cathedral cloisters bears a resemblance to this style.

Between 1969 and 1979, the residents of the church wards were gradually moved into new accommodation. The Eagle Ward was, however, left as is remained, including beds, chamber pots and dressing tables as well as ornaments, books and magazines. The ward on the ground floor below, which once accommodated the Pump Ward, is currently used for storage.

KML

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