A gem of a medieval town
See also Church of St Peter and St Paul, Lavenham
Lavenham, in south-west Suffolk, is the county’s gem. In fact, it is considered the most complete medieval town in the UK. Set among the hills, it is a photographer’s paradise with its streets of unchanged half-timbered Tudor and medieval cottages and mansions. Every street and turning brings architectural treasures into view.
Lavenham was granted a market charter in 1257 and became famous for its blue broadcloth. The town grew with the 14th century wool and cloth trade, resulting in the accumulation of wealth for its merchants and prosperity for the town. It was one of England’s 20 wealthiest at the time. But the late 16th century saw Colchester’s Dutch refugees manufacturing a lighter and cheaper cloth that took over the market. We have them to thank for the “frozen in time” streets of Lavenham. Hard times in the town meant little was changed from the 15th century.
The market place shines with its guildhall, completed in 1530 by the Guild of Corpus Christi. It dominates one side of the square. As with many of the buildings in the town, the upper floor juts out over the lower. Both are set with oriel windows. Unfortunately only one small room still has the original linenfold panelling. Exterior woodwork is limewashed. The building sits on a brick and rubble plinth. On the doorpost is a carving of rampant lines, emblem of the guild. The guilds were abolished by an act of Parliament in 1545/47.
After the guilds were abolished the building housed a town hall (17th century), a prison, a workhouse, an almshouse, and a wool store. Now in the care of the National Trust, the upper floors are a museum on the cloth trade, the history of the town, farming, and industry.
A market cross in the square once saw bear-baiting contests. The wool hall is another outstanding building. Be sure to view the “Crooked House”. Lavenham Priory is a "grade 1 listed" half-timbered medieval house dating from the 13th century, now a bed and breakfast accommodation.
The church of St Peter and St Paul was built with wool money. Most of what is on view today dates from the 15-16th centuries, but the 14th century chancel has survived. The church has a 141-foot tall flint tower at one end. Inside are many tributes to the Springs and the de Veres, two of the wealthy merchant families who contributed to the building. John de Vere was 13th earl of Oxford. A renaissance screen (1525) marks the tomb of Thomas Spring III. Check out the misericord carvings.
Lavenham is on the A1141.
An audio tour of Lavenham (90 minutes) is available to rent from the Lavenham Pharmacy, 99 High Street.
The Guildhall of Corpus Christi
Market Place, Lavenham
Tel. 01787 247646
Open: differing days and times depending on the month of the year. Check National Trust website or National Trust members’ handbook for details. Shop, tearoom, walled garden, 19th century lock-up and mortuary.
Lavenham Tourist Information Centre
Lady Street, Lavenham, Suffolk CO10 9RA
Tel. 0 1787 248 207. Fax. 0 1787 249 459
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