Built on the fortunes of England’s mercantile elite, the Suffolk village of Lavenham is home to an abundance of architectural treasures. Julian Humphrys journeys to the heart of the East Anglian countryside to learn more about this rural idyll
Today Lavenham seems like a typical Suffolk rural village. Five hundred years ago, however, it was anything but typical. At that time, it was one of England’s foremost industrial centres, famous for the production of high-quality broadcloth. Indeed, in 1524 Lavenham was the 14th richest town in the kingdom, paying more tax than cities like Lincoln or York.
The late 15th and early 16th centuries saw a building boom in Lavenham as its rich clothiers, the multi-millionaire businessmen of their day, spent a fortune on lavish timber-framed houses in which to live and halls in which their guilds could meet. But, based as it was on one single industry, Lavenham’s wealth rested on fragile foundations.
When in the 1530s the cloth industry was hit by a recession, Lavenham had no alternative economic activity to fall back on. Within a generation the town had declined from thriving as a hub of industry to stagnating as an economic backwater. This is the reason why so many wonderful medieval timber-framed buildings still survive in Lavenham today – nobody had the money to replace them with anything else.
Painting wooden beams to create a black and white pattern on such buildings was never a local tradition in Lavenham. At Lavenham beams were either left to season to a silvery grey colour, given a coat of limewash to weatherproof them and deter insects, or plastered over completely.
Many of Lavenham’s walls are painted white but a substantial number are brightly coloured, with russets, pinks and ochres being popular choices. Plasterwork is often decorated by pargetting – patterns or images scratched or moulded while the plaster was still wet. Many buildings are jettied, with upper storeys jutting out above the storeys below them. Some say this was to increase the space in a building without obstructing the street below while others argue it was primarily done for aesthetic reasons and point out that jettying was rare on the backs of buildings where it couldn’t be seen by passers-by.
Lavenham’s Guildhall of Corpus Christi is one of England’s finest timber-framed buildings. Cared for by the National Trust, it occupies a prime position in the market square and the exuberant carving of its exterior woodwork is something to be marvelled at. As Lavenham’s fortunes declined it was pressed into a variety of uses – prison, workhouse, almshouse, restaurant and nursery school. The last of these seems rather fitting, for it was while she was staying around the corner in Shilling Street that 23-year old poet Jane Taylor penned the words to one of our best-loved nursery rhymes – ‘Twinkle, twinkle, little star’.
Lavenham may be famous for its timber-framed buildings but it’s dominated by its huge stone church with its 140-foot tower. Largely rebuilt during the town’s early Tudor heyday, it’s an expression of the piety, power and wealth of its patrons, notably John de Vere, 13th earl of Oxford – a key figure in Henry Tudor’s victory at Bosworth – and Thomas Spring, one of England’s richest entrepreneurs. Just in case there was any doubt over who stumped up the cash, the church’s exterior is bedecked with the boar and star badges of de Vere and the arms and mark of his merchant collaborator.
Julian Humphrys is a historian and author specialising in battlefields. His books include Enemies at the Gates (English Heritage, 2007). For more information, head over to: visit-lavenham.co.uk.
This article was first published in the November 2019 edition of BBC History Magazine