Introduction to the Archives

The Great Hospital's medieval and early modern archive is as remarkable - and as rare a survival - as its buildings. Indeed, without such a full collection of manuscripts it would be impossible to gain more than a one-dimensional view of the hospital before the seventeenth century. Because St Giles' was acquired by the city and run by the Corporation from 1547 onwards, its large collection of administrative records (which date back to its foundation in 1249, and which were carefully stored in a room above the church porch in locked chests) was preserved. Since most hospital archives and libraries were comprehensively destroyed or lost during this turbulent period, the collection now housed among the City Records (NCR, 24-25) in the Norfolk Record Office (NRO) constitutes a veritable treasure house for historians. It is, for example, possible to reconstruct the hospital's annual budget, together with the cost of its various building campaigns, and to learn how the patients and their carers lived. St Giles' acquired a great deal of property in Norwich and the Norfolk countryside, the deeds of title, annual accounts and court rolls for which represent an invaluable source for the study of the region's economic and social history.

As constituted today, the Great Hospital's pre-modern archive comprises a cartulary, hundreds of medieval deeds and documents of title, a substantial body of miscellaneous legal documents and scores of account and court rolls from the early fourteenth century onwards. Although there are some gaps, notably for the years after the Black Death and the uncertain period between 1533 and 1547, the breadth of coverage is otherwise impressive. The selection of documents that follows consists of the original foundation charter (as confirmed by the Pope in 1257); the will of the founder, Bishop Walter Suffield; a variety of medieval deeds illuminating the religious life of the hospital; material from the city's own records concerning its acquisition of St Giles' in 546-47; the new foundation charter of 1547; and records about the patients.

A brief description of the archive may be found in W. Hudson and J.C. Tingey, eds, The Revised catalogue of the Records of the City of Norwich (Norwich, 1898), pp. 68-79.



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The Foundation Charter

Two manuscript copies of Bishop Suffield's second foundation charter survive. The first, which appears here in translation from the original Latin, is a near-contemporary copy of Pope Alexander IV's confirmation of 15 October 1257, and is preserved in the archives of the Dean and Chapter of Norwich cathedral (NRO, DCN 43/48). The second is a copy of the inspeximus of Alexander's letters issued in 1272 by Roger Skerning, bishop of Norwich, which is to be found among the legal material recorded by the civic authorities in their mid-fifteenth-century Book of Pleas. Entered under the heading 'Foundation of the Hospital of St Giles in Norwich', this is a corrupt text containing a number of minor errors and omissions (NRO, NCR, 17B, Book of Pleas, ff.48r-50r). It appears, along with a copy of William Dunwich's grant of land and rents in Holme Street to the hospital, between a rental of acquisitions made by the same authorities in 1377-78 (f. 47v) and evidence relating to purchases of property by the Norwich Carmelites (f. 50r).

Suffield's second, and evidently definitive, set of statutes drew heavily upon his first foundation charter, known to us in three thirteenth-century copies (NRO, NCR, 24B/1 - the copy which appears on this site, and NRO NCR, 24B/3; DCN 40/7, ff. 76r-78v).

To read the translation of the 1257 foundation charter, click here.


Bishop Suffield's Will

Comparatively few English wills survive from this early date, and even fewer offer such a remarkable insight into the character of the testator as does that of Bishop Suffield, the founder of St Giles' hospital. From it there emerges a picture of a remarkable man whose strong attachment to his family, friends and servants was matched, if not outdone, by a genuine desire to assist the poor. His new hospital, in particular, secured a number of generous bequests (references to it are denoted bold), but it was certainly not the only recipient of his charity.

For more information about Bishop Walter and his philanthropic activities, see the entry by Christopher Harper-Bill in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004), volume 53, pp. 282-3; and, by the same author, 'Above all these Charity: The Career of Walter Suffield, Bishop of Norwich, 1244-57', in P. Hoskin, C. Brooke and B. Dobson, eds, The Foundations of Medieval Ecclesiastical History (2005), pp. 94-110.

To read the translation of Bishop Suffield's will, click here.


Medieval deeds and the Liber Domus Dei

During the Middle Ages the dead and the living were part of a single religious community, the latter accepting a responsibility to pray and fund masses for the souls of those who were already atoning for their sins in purgatory. Hospitals, such as St Giles', profited from these beliefs, since benefactors were anxious to make suitable provision for themselves in the next world, while also arranging spiritual succour for deceased friends and family. The following deeds are representative of hundreds that survive in the archives of the hospital and the city, and reflect the prominent place occupied by the celebration of the Mass in its daily life.

The first deeds translated are single ones - they were important records of title, but could easily be mislaid or stolen. For greater security, and in the interests of administrative efficiency, religious houses copied these documents into books known as cartularies. Only forty-two English medieval hospital cartularies have apparently survived to this day, the great majority having been lost or destroyed during and just after the Dissolution. One of these is the Liber Domus Dei (Book of God's House) which was compiled during the fourteenth century by the scribes employed at St Giles's, and records over 260 deeds. The deeds are entered by place, the use of red (rubricated) headings making it easier to trace individual entries.

The importance attached to the provision of lights (usually in the form of heavy wax candles) to burn during the mass is worth noting, since it was important that the patients should be able to see the Eucharist. Candles also symbolised eternal life and were used to heighten the sense of ritual.

For more on the subject of hospital records and record-keeping, see Carole Rawcliffe, 'Passports to Paradise: How English Medieval Hospitals and Almshouses Kept their Archives', Archives, volume 27 (2002), pp. 2-22; and, by the same author, 'Written in the Book of Life: Building the Libraries of Medieval English Hospitals and Almshouses', The Library, seventh series, volume 3 (2002), pp. 127-62.

To read the translation of deeds and Liber Domus Dei, click here.



Click here to read about major acquisitions of property, 1251-1512.


Dissolution and acquisition

Having begun in 1536, the Dissolution of religious houses, including hospitals, assumed an unstoppable momentum as predatory asset strippers honed in on vulnerable institutions. Determined to save St Giles' for the city and to integrate it into a reformed system of care for the sick and poor, the rulers of Norwich moved quickly to gain royal support for their plans. The arrival of King Henry's commissioners early in 1546 was followed by a sustained campaign of political lobbying at Westminster, which is documented in unusual detail in the civic records.

Although it escaped closure, the hospital was still stripped of its contents, and, for a while, it seemed as if the chancel, with its remarkable ceiling of imperial eagles, would be demolished. Such extreme measures seemed necessary because of the heavy expenditure sustained by the mayor and corporation, which, as we can see, involved the imposition of a city-wide tax or 'relief of the poor'.

For more information about the people and events described in these extracts, see Carole Rawcliffe, Medicine for the Soul: The Life, Death and Resurrection of an English Medieval Hospital (1999), chapters seven and eight.

To read about the take over, click here.


1547 Refoundation charter

Thanks to prompt and efficient action on the part of the rulers of Norwich, the pre-Dissolution hospital of St Giles escaped the fate that lay in store for most medieval English hospitals. By December 1546, detailed plans for the newly constituted 'Godes Howse' had been finalised and simply awaited Henry VII's final approval. The king's death in January 1547, just as the documents were about to be sealed, caused a temporary delay, but on 8 March following the city entered a tripartite indenture, or three-part contract, with the young Edward VI, his 'governor', the duke of Somerset, and King Henry's executors. The lengthy document, transcribed here, describes the hospital's transformation from a religious institution, focusing upon the commemoration of the dead, to a 'house of the poor' and school for the education of local boys in Latin grammar. Such reforms would have appealed to the young monarch and Protector Somerset, both of whom were zealous Protestants.

To read the refoundation charter, click here.


Patient Care

This section begins with a list of complaints made to the Mayor's Court in 1550 by the hospital chaplain, a devout Protestant, who found the drunken, quarrelsome and irreverent behaviour of the new inmates unacceptable in 'Gode's Howse'. No less scandalised by the manners of this 'very rough assembly', the Victorian scholars, William Hudson (himself a clergyman) and J.C. Tingey, were also critical of the chaplain's 'bad writing' and apparent lack of education. Today's historians tend to focus upon the evidence such records provide of Tudor policy towards the 'unruly' poor and of the use of institutions like the new hospital to impose discipline upon them.

For more information about the care (and control) of the poor in Tudor England, and especially in Norwich, see Margaret Pelling, The Common Lot: Sickness, medical Occupations and the Urban Poor in Early Modern England (1998), especially chapter four.

To read about patient care, click here.



Click here to download a list of masters which have served at the Great Hospital.


A word of thanks

We would just like to conclude this section by extending our thanks to Professors Carole Rawcliffe and Christopher Harper-Bill, and Dr Elaine Phillips. It is thanks to their help and considerable expertise that we have been able to bring you these translations and transcriptions.