Yesterday, I was lucky enough to be invited to join a site visit with the 4th cohort of the MSt in Building History course. I went on the same site visit three years ago so it was fascinating to look at the timber-framed buildings with better trained eyes! We went to the beautiful Suffolk village of Lavenham, famous for its stunning 15th century church and numerous medieval timber-framed buildings.
Lavenham established itself as one of the most prosperous vvillagesin England during the 15th and 16th centuries. It’s wealth derived from its successful wool trade, exporting its famous blue broadcloth to mainland Europe. Consequently, numerous merchant families sprang up and demonstrated their wealth through architectural display. Following the traditional Hall structure, families built increasingly elaborate timber-framed buildings, incorporating expensive features such as jetties, close-studding, oriel windows and exquisite carvings. In 1464 Lavenham Wool Hall was completed and in 1529 the impressive Guildhall of the wool guild of Corpus Christi was built. Such buildings were demonstrations of the villages wealth and prestige. In 1487, however, Henry VII visited and was reputedly unimpressed with the ostentatious De Vere family, so fined them accordingly!
By the late 16th century the wool trade was in sharp decline as Lavenham was unable to keep up with competition in the UK or abroad. As a result, most of the buildings declined in status and by 1578, when Elizabeth I visited while on her Royal Progress, most of the guildhalls had been reduced to work houses to accommodate the poor. Consequently, the amazing medieval buildings have been ‘frozen in time’ throughout the centuries as there wasn’t enough money to knock them down and rebuild in later tastes and styles.
On our site visit we went to Lavenham Little Hall which was first built in the 1390s for the Causton family. Designed in the typical Hall house format, it had a service end, upper end, cross passage and hall. In the 1550s it was enlarged again. However, mirroring the fortunes of the village, by the 17th century the status of the house declined significantly and was divided to provide homes for six families!
Next we visited the Guildhall of Corpus Christi, located on the edge of the market place, it was probably one of the most important out of the five guilds. It was once an impressive setting for meetings and is now owned by the National Trust and is open to the public. It is a striking two-storey timber-framed building with a jetty and ornate porch. It is embelished with fantastic medieval wood carvings. Inside, there were further examples of wealth including the dragon beam, which is located in the corner to carry the joists where the two jetties meet.
An interesting discovery was that of a mummified cat that was discoverd in the walls of a neighbouring cottage and is now on display at the Guildhall. As a precaution against witches and evil spirits cats (usually already dead) or objects such as shoes were often hidden in walls as a means of distracting the spirits away from the occupants of the house. Taper marks and various symbols were also made around fireplaces, staircases, doorways and in attics as further protection against evil.
Finally we visited St Peter and St Paul’s Church which is famous as a fine example of Late Perpendicular architecture. It was completed c.1525-30 to great acclaim – its mighty 141 ft tower of black napped flint dominating the landscape for miles around. The Spring and de Vere families were the main donors, having made their fortune in the wool trade, consequently their coats of arms can be spotted throughout the building.
Lavenham is a truly stunning medieval town which is fantastically preserved. It is full of cute little shops, tea rooms and pubs which are wonderful to explore.
Please visit: http://www.littlehall.org.uk/