NORWICH, THAT CITY of two cathedrals, is known for Colman’s Mustard and the television cook Delia Smith (herself Catholic). Unknown to me until recently is that the capital of one of England’s greatest counties is also home to the most complete Dominican friary complex in all of England. The Dominicans had arrived in Norwich in 1226 — the swiftness with which they reached the city comparative to the foundation of the Order of Preachers is indicative of England’s inherent inclusion in the Catholic Europe of the day.
From 1307, the OPs occupied this particular site in Norwich until the Henrician Revolt, when the friary was dissolved and the city’s council purchased the church to use as a hall for civic functions. The nave became the New Hall (later St Andrew’s Hall) while the chancel was separated and used as the chapel for the city council and later as a place of worship for Norwich’s Dutch merchants. (The last Dutch service was held in 1929).
The complex has been put to a wide variety of uses. Guilds met here, as did the assize courts. It was used as a corn exchange and granary. King Edward VI’s Grammar School began here. Presbyterian and Baptist non-conformists worshipped in various parts during the late seventeenth century. William III had half-crowns, shillings, and sixpences minted here. In 1712, the buildings became the city workhouse until 1859, when a trades school was established the continues today elsewhere as the City of Norwich School. The East and West Ranges are now part of the Norfolk Institute of Art and Design.
Hopkins Architects, a firm responsible for many noteworthy projects, were commissioned in April 2009 to bring the St Andrew’s & Blackfriars Hall up to date as a multi-purpose functional space to be used for conferences, dinners, performances, and other events. Their plan aims at “transforming the existing buildings into a regionally important cultural and conference venue and an accessible community facility for the city and beyond”.
“The scheme will improve the setting of The Halls in relation to the urban realm around them,” the group claims, “and set out a series of sensitive alterations and additions to enhance and extend their current usage and life. Underlying any new proposals will be the concept of restoring the clarity and meaning of the primary spaces which formerly comprised the friary complex.”
Their schema seems relatively inoffensive and should work towards preserving this complex of buildings until such time as it can be reclaimed by an appropriately expanded Dominican Order in these islands.