In the 15th century Dragon Hall underwent major building works. This was at the instigation of one man - Robert Toppes. Under his ownership, the site was developed into a high-status trading hall. Art, architecture and commerce came together to create a sophisticated mercantile complex.
Robert Toppes (c.1405-1467) was a wealthy merchant. He had his finger in many pies; he was a landlord and perhaps even a money-lender. However, trade seems to have been the mainstay of his business. He exported worsted cloth to the Low Countries (northern France, Holland and Belgium) and imported a wide range of foreign goods. Toppes was almost certainly the brains behind the construction of the Great Hall in the late 1420s. He needed an impressive building to store and display his merchandise.
Toppes was not just a fabric salesman - he was part of the elite group who governed the affairs of the city of Norwich. He was an alderman (senior councillor) for many years, was elected mayor of Norwich four times and represented Norwich in Parliament as a Burgess, the equivalent of an MP. He was also a member of the Guild of St. George. This was a religious Guild founded to look after its members and celebrate the feast day of St. George. The Guild grew in importance during Toppes' lifetime. It became an important symbol of unity within the city government. It is likely that the dragon carvings in the Great Hall reflect the importance of the Guild.
Robert Toppes was married twice (his first wife Alice died young) and produced seven children (two boys and five girls). His children married into wealthy local families. Robert Toppes made his success clear for all to see. He donated a mass book and great stained glass window to his parish church of St. Peter Mancroft, where he was later buried. The stained glass window included pictures of himself and his family. When he died, aged about 62, Toppes left money in his will to all the churches in Norwich.
The Great Hall
Robert Toppes set his sights high. He wanted somewhere to store and display the goods he imported and exported. Today, the building he created is unique. It is the only trading hall built by a single person to have survived in England and probably Europe. He had a clear idea of how his trading complex would work. It was to be a mixture of a showroom and warehouse. The Great Hall was intended to impress visiting traders. It was graced with a superb crown-post roof and three glazed oriel windows overlooked the street. Below stairs, Toppes created an efficient working space. The ground floor rooms and undercroft provided warehouse storage for all manner of goods.
It is easy to imagine bustling activity in the Hall; walls hung with tapestries and tables laden with trade goods from all over Europe. However, despite its grandeur Dragon Hall was a working building not a home. Robert Toppes and his family lived in the centre of Norwich near the market place. When Toppes died in 1467 the hall was sold off to pay for priests to pray for Toppes' soul.
Toppes built his trading hall on King Street, formerly known as Conesford Street. The site was ideally located near the main transport arteries into Norwich. On one side, the River Wensum connected the city to Great Yarmouth and to Europe beyond. On the other side, King Street was the main north-south road through Norwich and into Norfolk.
King Street in the 15th century was partly a centre of trade and industry and partly a suburb. It was an important port area, the city owned two common staithes (landing stages) here and most private buildings had their own staithes along the riverside.
Many wealthy local families, including the Pastons and the Heydons, had town houses on King Street. They took advantage of its riverside location, removed from the bustle of the city centre, and built fine residences here.
King Street also attracted religious communities. A large Augustine friary stood next to Dragon Hall and a Benedictine nunnery occupied a site just beyond the city walls.