35 - Lavenham Walkabout
08:57PM BST - Thursday, 21 June 2007
Contributed by: Mr and Mrs Christine Paine
In 1524, Lavenham claimed to be the 14th wealthiest town in England, paying the government more in tax than Gloucester, Lincoln or York. Nearly five hundred years later it remains arguably the best example of a small medieval English town, with its Gildhall (ancient spelling) and market place, together with a number of entire streets of original timber-framed 15* and 16* Century houses.
Bunting Society members enjoy their Lavenham walkabout.
A highlight of the Bunting Society walk around the town was the imposing Gildhall of Corpus Christi, built c.l529-30 by Lavenham's wealthiest clothiers. The prolific use of durable timber — then one of the costliest of building materials — and the high quality carving of corner posts, doorway and window frames, reflects the wealth of those who today might be called the town's captains of industry, many of whom lived nearby in comparably ornate houses.
Rural gilds were not linked to trades or crafts, but were places for social gatherings and feastings for their members, something like the Round Table organisations we have today. More important was that, after death, gild members were guaranteed prayers for their souls, at the Gild Altar in the parish church of St Peter and St Paul, at least once a year. However, in 1547, both prayers for the dead and the gilds themselves were abolished under a ruling from King Edward VI.
The Gildhall now houses an excellent museum, reflecting the history of Lavenham since the Middle Ages. Many of the museum's displays relate to early-woollen cloth manufacture, including part of an original tenter frame, complete with its tenter-hooks (hence the expression!). Others cover the history of communications, including the arrival of the railway in this part of Suffolk. There are also exhibits illustrating religious developments and the buildings of Lavenham. A local personality of note duly recognised in the museum is Jane Taylor, joint author with her sister Ann of Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star'. Jane, who lived from 1783 to 1824, was a resident of Shilling Old Grange, Lavenham.
From the Gildhall we walked to the church, which vies with Holy Trinity, Long Melford, just five miles away, for the distinction of being the largest parish church in Suffolk. En route there was the chance to admire Lavenham's numerous timber-framed jettied and gabled houses. St Peter and St Paul church was rebuilt and enlarged between about!485 and 1525.
Two notable families were largely responsible for footing the bill for the rebuilding. They were the local Lords of the Manor, namely the Earls of Oxford, and three generations of the Spring family. Each made sure of incorporating their coats of arms, heraldic devices or inscriptions on the parts of the church building they had paid for! Expense, within reason, being no object, most of the edifice, except for parts of the 141ft (43m) tower, was constructed of high quality stone which had to be shipped from distant quarries. There was no stone available in Suffolk which met the patrons' exacting requirements. The nave for example, designed by John Wastell, is lined with Casterton stone from Lincolnshire.
Inside the church is spacious and light, with the only stained glass, all Victorian, at the east end of the building. The chantry chapel of Thomas Spring III, dating from 1525, has a magnificent wooden screen, with fretwork carving, shields, foliage, figures and saints. The architectural writer Nikolaus Pevsner called it 'a glorious piece of woodwork, as dark as bronze'. ,