December 9 2013 Latest news:
Tuesday, October 22, 2013
Rescued from obscurity and now beautifully restored, Dragon Hill in Norwich’s historic King Street stands as a lasting reminder of when the city was second only to London in power and wealth.
And a fascinating and authoritative book about Robert Toppes, the man whose trading skills led to the creation of this medieval masterpiece, has now been published.
It reveals the story of a man highly influential in the forming of the city of Norwich and its proud history.
The period in which Toppes lived was a time of great change for the city. Whether Toppes was in the right place at the right time, or whether his entrepreneurial skills meant he would have risen to the top whatever he undertook, is uncertain – but what is certain is that he was a man who took every opportunity to make the most of the cards he was dealt.
Born early in the 1400s he was in at the beginning of Norwich’s rise to greatness. When it was given city status by Henry IV in 1404, it was one of only 11 in the whole country. The ‘City of Norwich’ became administratively separated from the county of Norfolk, and sent two MPs to parliament and electedits own mayor. Toppes became one of the nouveau riche, at a time when the absolute power of the church and aristocracy was being questioned, and enterprising men were for the first time able to influence how their city was run.
He started working as a mercer, a merchant dealing with cloth, again at a time of change, when Norwich was not only dealing in wool, but beginning to make and trade in worsted, as well as broadcloth. Worsted cloth was becoming much sought after during this period, being a looser weave and lighter in weight. At this time worsted manufacture was moving from being a cottage industry out in the Norfolk villages into the city, making Norwich an important place for its sale and trade.
The ancillary trades that came about because of it only added to the prosperity of the city. Such was Toppes’ business acumen that he was able to build for himself the largest secular building in the city. This was a warehouse, called Splytts in Toppes time, but now known as Dragon Hall after the beautiful dragon carving found in the roof timbers when its restoration began. This was probably his greatest legacy to the city, apart from his stabilising and advancing the profile of the city of Norwich.
As Toppes rose to become a respected member of the community – he was City Treasurer when only in his late 20s – he began moving in the same circles as the Pastons, the Boleyns of Blickling and the Knyvetts, and he was considered sufficiently important to be able to take Joan Knyvetts as his second wife. Within 14 years of becoming a Freeman of the city he rose to be its mayor. This meant that he was responsible for law and order in the City and sat in the newly completed Guildhall, built because of the Liberties granted to it in 1404. In the stained glass on its eastern façade Toppes’ coat of arms can still be seen. He went on to become an MP for the city four times.
Toppes built his warehouse and showroom close to the river, where he also owned Mendham’s Staithe, to further his trade, for most goods in those times were moved by water, and many ships crossed regularly to and from the Continent. The magnificent building became a busy trading site, along with the many others in this bustling part of the city. It was here that merchant’s deals were settled and important friendships formed.
If you wanted to further your interests, it was essential to have the favour of the other rich merchants: they voted you into positions of power. And so Splytts became the heart of his international trading empire. In its heyday it would have been filled with wool, cloth, timber, wine spices, and pottery. It was here that he may also have negotiated many of the money lending transactions he is thought to have dealt in.
Toppes left instructions in his will that Splytts should be sold to raise money to pay for two priests to pray for his soul and that of his wife. He was by the time of his death believed to be the richest man, other than nobility, in Norwich, and left many other properties to his wife and children. He also left very generous bequests of 3s 4d to the 51 churches in Norwich, and the same amount for the poor in each parish. He also left money to 16 other churches in Norfolk and Suffolk, and a bequest for the upkeep of roads.
After Toppes’ death in about 1467, the Splytts building was broken down into separate units; and for centuries the original timber roof and vast Great Hall were hidden behind a terrace of houses and businesses, including a pub, a butchers and a rectory. The Great Hall was divided by partition walls and the glorious roof hidden in the attic rooms of the various dwellings.
In the late 1970s the Norwich Survey of Historic Buildings came to survey Dragon Hall, which had fallen into a poor state of repair over the centuries. When the surveyors looked in the roof they found the dragon carving where it had been concealed for hundreds of years. It was this that led to the building being renamed Dragon Hall. In 1987 The Norfolk and Norwich Heritage Trust was formed, after the Norwich Brewery Company had sold the building to Norwich City Council, who carried out essential maintenance and repairs.
The Trust then raised £400,000 to match a £1.4 million funding grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund. This financed a major development project between 2005 and 2006. With the Heritage Lottery funding Richard Matthew with three others was asked to write a handbook for guides, who would be needed when the restoration of the Hall was completed. The Great Hall has been restored to its original splendour, and is now a grade I listed building, a museum, heritage site and educational resource, telling the remarkable story of Toppes, and medieval trade and civic life in the 15th century.
Retired teacher Richard Matthew studied at UEA before spending two years in Pakistan with VSO. He and his wife then moved to Norwich and he taught English to foreign students, and later became a volunteer at Dragon Hall in 2004. In 2006 he became interested in Toppes and started his research, joining the King Street Local History Group. There he was encouraged to apply for a Harry Watson Bursary administered by Heart (Heritage Economic and Regeneration Trust).
Richard was granted almost £2,500. Although much of the information about Toppes was already in the public domain, it was widely dispersed, some was written in Latin and some needed transcribing into modern English. The grant allowed Richard to get the King’s Bench court cases which are in Latin and held at The National Archives, transcribed together with documents held at Norfolk Record Office and the Great Yarmouth Trade Records.
All these have now been brought together for the first time, giving us as complete a picture of Toppes, and his times, as it is possible to achieve, in a fascinating book, which is a pleasure to read.
Richard Toppes: Medieval Mercer of Norwich, by Richard Matthew, is on sale at Dragon Hall and at Jarrolds and other local bookshops at £12. All proceeds from sales will go towards the upkeep and running of Dragon Hall which is run by a charitable trust.