Norwich Assembly House
The Assembly House is one of twelve historic buildings in Norwich, which provide an integrated group of heritage attractions in the City. Its origins date back to 1248 when it was founded as a Hospice of St Mary’s in the Field dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary. Thirty years later it became the College of St Mary in the Fields and when, in 1404, Norwich was granted right to govern itself, assemblies were held in the College where citizens chose Bailiffs to govern the city for the following year.
In 1544, when Henry VIIIth dissolved the monasteries, the buildings began a transformation through private ownership as an important town house to conversion to a “public place of entertainment for the county and the city” in 1753. Its eventual fate was to become the House of Assemblies, hosting events for the gentry of Norwich.
In the most recent century the building was used as a girls school, finally opening as “The Assembly House” in 1950 as a centre for entertainment and the arts.
The fine city of Norwich (we know this to be true – it says so on the sign) dates back to the 7th century. It had become a thriving city by the 9th century with its own mint and the Vikings providing much cultural influence.
At the time of the Norman Conquest the city was one of the largest in England. The Domesday Book states that it had approximately 25 churches and a population of between 5,000 and 10,000. It also records the site of an Anglo-Saxon church in Tombland, the site of the Saxon market place and the later Norman cathedral. Norwich continued to be a major centre for trade, the River Wensum being a convenient export route to the River Yare and Great Yarmouth, which served as the port for Norwich. Quern stones and other artefacts from Scandinavia and the Rhineland have been found during excavations in Norwich city centre. These date from the 11th century onwards.
Norwich Castle was founded soon after the Norman Conquest and established a new focus of settlement around the Castle and the area to the west of it: this became known as the “New” or “French” borough, centred on the Normans’ own market place which survives to the present day as Norwich Market and is the largest ‘six days a week’ market in England. To transport the building stone to the site, a canal was cut from the river (from the site of present-day Pulls Ferry), all the way up to the east wall. Following a riot in the city in 1274, Norwich has the distinction of being the only complete English city to be excommunicated by the Pope.
The engine of trade was wool from Norfolk’s sheepwalks. Wool made England rich, and the staple port of Norwich “in her state doth stand With towns of high’st regard the fourth of all the land”, as Michael Drayton noted in Poly-Olbion (1612). The wealth generated by the wool trade throughout the Middle Ages financed the construction of many fine churches, so that Norwich still has more medieval churches than any other city in Western Europe north of the Alps. Throughout this period Norwich established wide-ranging trading links with other parts of Europe, its markets stretching from Scandinavia to Spain and the city housing a Hanseatic warehouse. To organise and control its exports to the Low Countries, Great Yarmouth, as the port for Norwich, was designated one of the staple ports.