The original church of St Helen stood across the road. In 1249, Bishop Walter de Suffield founded St Giles’ Hospital, ‘in remission of my sins,’ to care for ‘decrepit’ priests, and also for seven poor scholars. St Helen’s church was given to he Hospital in 1270 and it was demolished; part of the Hospital church became – and remains – the parish church. The Hospital was dissolved at the Reformation, and was acquired by the City Corporation. It was refounded as the Great Hospital, to care for older Norwich residents with limited means.
The church consists of chancel, nave with north aisle (the south one was demolished in …), south transept and a western tower. As it stands, the church was rebuilt in various phases. The tower was being built in 1375; the chancel was rebuilt by Henry Despencer in 1383; and the rest in the later fifteenth century.
The nave was in fact divided: the western four bays formed the infirmary hall, while the eastern three, together with the transept, were St Helen’s church. The chancel was effectively the chapel of the Hospital, and was divided from the rest by a rood screen. At the Reformation the chancel and the infirmary hall were walled off from the church.
The chancel was partitioned horizontally, and became accommodation for the female residents. It has a panelled ceiling, decorated with 252 ‘spread eagles’. These may have been painted in honour of Anne of Bohemia, wife of Richard II: they visited Norwich in 1383. The infirmary hall was similarly treated, and became the men’s wards.
The only part that is easily accessible is that which serves as St Helen’s church. It consists of three bays. The furnishings are virtually untouched by the late nineteenth century re-orderings that happened elsewhere. The seating consists of benches in the nave, of which the ends at least are mediæval. That on the south side at the east end has fine carving of St Margaret emerging unscathed from the belly of a dragon. It commemorate John Hecker, Master of the Hospital 1519-32. In the aisles, facing inwards, and also across the east end, are box pews, with a two-decker pulpit as the focal point. The preservation of this very old-fashioned arrangement may be due to the long incumbency of William Patteson as Vicar, from 1824 to 1881.
The transept still functions as a ‘communion chapel’, and contains the altar, which is a Stuart table. Behind it is a classical-style reredos with the Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, and the Ten Commandments.
It has a lierne vault of 1480, with twenty-four bosses showing scenes from the life of the Virgin. It is very close in style to those being erected in the Cathedral at the same time. It also has the pew built by Thomas Ivory (1709-79) ‘to be convenient for his family and servants’: it is dated 1780.
|All Saints Westlegate||St. George Tombland||St. Julian||St. Michael at Plea|
|St. Andrew||St. Giles||St. Lawrence||St. Peter Hungate|
|St. Augustine||St. Gregory||St. Margaret||St. Peter Mancroft|
|St. Benedict||St. Helen||St. Martin at Oak||St. Peter Parmentergate|
|St. Clement||St. James Pockthorpe||St. Martin at Palace Plain||St. Saviour|
|St. Edmund Fishergate||St. John de Sepulchre||St. Mary Coslany||St. Simon & St. Jude|
|St. Etheldreda||St. John Maddermarket||St. Mary the Less||St. Stephen|
|St. George Colegate||St. John Timberhill||St. Michael(Miles) Coslany||St. Swithin|