One of the most remarkable things about any landscape urban or rural isn’t so much what you can see as what you can’t, and how what is there covers up what was. The Assembly House sits in an area of the city which would have been just on the edge of the Norman settlement, and would have been crofts and fields on the edge of the as yet unwalled settlement of Norwich.
In 1248 the land was granted to John Le Brun, he was the founder of the hospital of the Blessed Virgin Mary on the site. His brothers gave the advowson or legal right to their churches; St Mary Unbrent, St George Tombland and St Andrew. In 1278 Le Brun became the Dean of what was now a secular college, it contained quite a large and community with a Chancellor and a Treasurer, a Precentor to lead the singing, Prebendaries who effectively administered it as an entity and drew a stipend from its endowments, plus lay-clerks who formed the choir.
The Chapel of St Mary in the Field was important, It grew out of a time of tension between the people of the growing city and the power of the cathedral; The dedication to Mary and the foundation of the Guild of Corpus Christi may relate to Le Brun’s possible involvement in the riots against the cathedral in Tombland, and his trying to curry favour with the Pope. As an entity the chapel and college provided a bridge with the cathedral associating with the people and the city. As a result it received civic funds, bequests and support from the city. In addition in 1388 the college acquired the advowson to St Peter Mancroft, then in a particularly poor state. It also held several other churches in Norfolk, bringing the total including the Chapel in the fields to nine.
The college chancel was rebuilt between 1425 and 1435, with other areas restored from 1444 a rood loft built in 1501. During this period before the Guildhall was built it had come to be used as a meeting place for the corporation, so there is a longer tradition of assemblies hidden within this previous use of the site.
The College ceased to be at the dissolution in 1544 under the last Dean, Miles Spenser, when it was surrendered to Henry VIII. Two year later the site was granted back to Spenser now the Archdeacon of Norwich, the chapel was demolished as was his legal obligation. The remaining buildings were slowly demolished and sold while part of the college was turned into his residence.
The streets and places around it echo with memory of the site, Chapelfield Gardens was originally part of the precinct and close which originally stretched back to the city wall and the Chapply Fields or Chapelfield stretched almost as far as St Giles Gate, and the name Chapelfield is synonymous with the area still, Lady Lane, now under The Forum was the processional way to the Church. The Chantry and Chantry Road both remember an aspect of it too.
Bits of the building live on; some of the fabric of the building still exists in the current Assembly House, the footprint of the music room, tea room and ballroom match the original Great Hall and Parlour and some material exists in that building fabric including a Tudor window frames bricked into a wall. When you walk through the gates and cross to the steps you walk across the original Aisles and Nave of the church, walk past the tower of the chapel now buried under the gallery and theatre. Once inside you are standing in the the cloisters. The bells from the church now live in St Lawrence. Part of the crypt still exists under the east wing with an impressive vaulted ceiling and an area of floor which appear to be original tile and dates back to the foundation of the college. In the corridor you will find a stone plaque, the merchant’s mark of the Browne family of Norwich. It was excavated in 1901 from the North Aisle of the Church. It is also worth noting that Browne rebuilt the Nave of St Stephens in 1550, is it quite possible this was done using material from the College and Chapel. Two Brownes were mayors of Norwich and are both believed to be a descended from the original le Brun family.
St Mary de Campo.
St Mary Conjectured drawings from 1950 based on 1902 archaeological dig, dissolution survey and earlier writing – S Rowland Pierce.
Remains of 12 light window found in North Wall of West Wing 1948/49 (Glass plate)
Inset: Stone shield with merchant’s mark found in the ruins of the Chapel in 1902 believed to belong to the Browne/le Brun family. (Glass plate)
Overlain plan of The Assembly House pre-1950 showing the position of the original college of the Chapel in the Fields – S Rowland Pierce.
Thanks to Dr Nicholas Groves for his assistance with this post.
Sources: Blomfield, Groves and Stephenson.