England's largest and most elaborate provincial medieval city hall
Norwich Guildhall was the centre of city government from the early 15th century until its replacement by City Hall in 1938.
The elaborate design and size of the Guildhall reflect Norwich's status as one of the wealthiest provincial cities in England in medieval times. The building represents the growing economic and political power of the new ruling elite that was emerging – wealthy freemen who were merchants and traders. Norwich was given more self-governing powers in 1404 and the Guildhall was built to house the various civic assemblies, councils and courts that regulated its citizens' lives. Evidence of these historic functions, which continued until the 20th century, can still be seen. Other parts of the building are in commercial use.
The exterior provides an excellent example of the flint work that the city is so famous for. The east end of the building was reconstructed in the 16th century and is crafted from alternate squares of faced flint and ashlar stone, giving the building its chequered effect.
As well as various courts, a prison and a chapel the building contained facilities for accounting and tax collection, accommodation for civic officials (it remains the home of the Sheriff's parlour today) and storage space for records, money and civic regalia.
The Assembly Chamber (or Sheriff's Court) was designed for meetings of the full medieval Council. It now contains a virtually intact late Victorian courtroom. Also known as the 'Sword Room', the roof space was once the storage place of weapons.
The Council Chamber (or Mayor's Court) is more elaborate. Oak panelling, a sixteen-bay roof with tie-beams, renaissance decorative woodwork and stunning stained glass were from the start designed to impress.
The undercroft, beneath the east end pre-dates the building, and is thought to be an original feature of the earlier toll-house on this site. It was used to accommodate more dangerous criminals.
Today, the building is owned by Norwich City Council, and Norwich Heritage Economic and Regeneration Trust (HEART), the organisation behind the Norwich 12 initiative, manages the building and is based in the Guildhall. Caley's Cocoa Café is also housed there. HEART plans to increase public access to the building and raise its profile as an attraction, with events throughout autumn/winter 2014, and more tours from January 2015.
Parts of the ground floor are normally accessible daily (during Caley's Cocoa Café opening hours). Public tours occur throughout the year – please see www.norwich12.co.uk or call Norwich Tourist Information Centre (TIC) on 01603 213999 for details.