The World of Robert Toppes, Medieval Mercer of Norwich
February 2014 saw another packed meeting in the
Methodist Schoolroom. Retired school teacher
Richard Matthew is a volunteer guide at Dragon
Hall, Norwich. His work there had inspired him to
investigate the life of Robert Toppes – probably
the builder of Dragon Hall and certainly the
richest man in Norwich at the time when it
became the second city of England.
Richard led us on an enthralling journey through the maps, wills, letters, tax bills and court records from which he had drawn together the life of Norfolk’s “Medieval Richard Branson”. Starting as a fabric dealer, by the time he died in the mid-1400s Robert Toppes had been Alderman, Sheriff, Mayor and MP, and had married into the gentry, collecting his own coat of arms along the way. He was into import-export, had become a property developer, owning innumerable residential and business buildings throughout Norfolk, and was owed money by so many people that he must have been a money-lender too.
He was a publicist as well, but in a very 15th Century way. With no television, press or internet he made sure that influential people knew about him by endowing the St Peter Mancroft Church with a 30-panel stained glass window, right behind the altar where everyone could see it. About religion and the bible? Well, a bit. But heavily depicting himself, his two wives, his crest and a variety of clues which would make anyone say, “Oh yes. That’s Robert Toppes’ window. Remember him?”