Sunday, 20 October 2013

Lavenham - A Church Built From Wool

Lavenham church sits on a low hill overlooking the town. But even so it's not easy to spot from down in the town as you lose your bearings amid a sea of half-timbered walls. However I thought I remembered which way to go and stumbled hopefully onwards until I rounded a corner and.....

Once the wealthy wool merchants of Lavenham had built themselves the fine houses we looked at in my last post they turned their attention to other matters. Medieval Christians strongly believed that when they died they would spend time in purgatory atoning for their earthly sins before they would be allowed into heaven. However this period could be shortened by doing good deeds. That was the reasoning behind the religious guilds which helped others in their time of need. It also inspired a great wave of church building wherever their was money to spare.

The building, or rather re-building, began in 1486 and was finished by 1525. By the time they'd done there was little left to see of the earlier building which was consumed by the grandiose reconstruction. It's really too big for the size of the town and its tower, at 141 feet (43 metres) is the highest of any village church in England. It could almost be a cathedral. Similar huge churches are to be seen throughout this area, all built with proceeds from the wool trade and called "wool churches". The importance of wool is remembered in the church kneelers..

In contrast to Lavenham itself which, as you've seen in my last post, is full of variety, eccentricity and downright quirkiness, the church's architecture is all elegance, balance and perfection. As such it stands rather cool and aloof above the bustle and energy of the the town which gave birth to it. But as a monument to the late Perpendicular style it is without equal.

The tower was probably the work of master mason John Clerk while the rest of the church was designed and built by John Wastell who also was responsible for Great St Mary's in Cambridge and St Mary's in Saffron Walden which bear many similarities. 

Virtually all of the memorial brasses have been removed from the church, not by Reformation zeal but rather by the greed of eighteenth-century metal thieves - there's nothing new in this world! The tiny brass above has been spared either through lack of value or perhaps due to a soft-hearted felon. Why do I say this? Because it commemorates the brief life of Clopton, (the son of Sir Symonds D'Ewes), who departed this life in 1631 at the age of just 10 days. If you look closely you'll see that the brass depicts the baby in swaddling clothes. There is also a fine carved screen, a memorial to the builders of the church.

The east window has a fine stained-glass depiction of the crucifixion. Flanking Christ are The Virgin Mary and St John, and on either side of them are St Peter and St Paul after whom the church is named. St Peter (left) carrying a key and St Paul a sword.

There are also THREE royal coats of arms. All Church of England churches are supposed to have one - the reigning monarch being nominally the head of the church - but three is exceptional.

A story is sometimes told that John de Vere, the lord of the manor, was a supporter of Henry, Earl of Richmond, in his dispute with Richard III. After Richard's defeat, at the Battle of Bosworth, de Vere suggested to the townspeople  that they might like to rebuild the church in celebration. "Jolly good idea!" they all said and so the present church was built. All sounds a bit far-fetched to me.

Whatever the motives of those who rebuilt the church - and they certainly weren't shy about it; their coats of arms are all over the place - the result is a pure and unspoiled example of the architecture of its day.  The flowers and produce displayed in readiness for Harvest Festival adding a welcome splash of colour. 

Now I'm off to have another look around the village/town and maybe I'll pop into the Guildhall and see what happens in there these days.

Take care.


  1. Thank you for taking us to church as well as through the town, John - as a spinner and weaver and keeper of sheep (in the past) it does my heart good to note that at one time wool was appreciated and proceeds from its sale resulted in such beautiful churches, no matter what the motive in building them.... Love the kneelers, with the inquiring Suffolks.

  2. what a wonderful building, and I love the colourful harvest display too.

  3. What a church, John. It is massive. I have never understood just what the difference between a cathedral and a church is. This sure approaches the former. And, look at the many ornate flower arrangements! If those are made for every week's service, that would be an expensive tradition for a town that likely is nowhere as wealthy as it once was. Thank you for your contribution to my education!

  4. The window is really something. I would still like to know how they got the shading in the faces and other parts of these windows. I am sure it's not painted on, so it must have been done in the glass making process? That boggles my mind. Somewhere there must be an explanation of how it was done. Lovely church, John; thanks for taking us there today.

  5. I suspect there are some eighteenth-century metal thieves having to put in some extra time in purgatory then? The church is all well and good but I really like that last photo, apples and melons.

  6. What a great place and such an informative post. I do like the carving of the knight amongst the woodwork.

  7. Beautiful old gate leading to the church. Could write a whole poem about the symbolism of that gate...
    Looks like there's wonderful light in the church. The columns and arches are like great ribs holding the shape of the building.

  8. Gorgeous and illustrative photography John, and as always, fascinating storytelling! I've taken a long break from the social side of blogging to focus more on my photography business, which is why I've been missing for so long. But I'm glad to see you have returned to your awesome posts :^)

  9. a grand old church, and the gate has a charm all of its own too. The columns are spectacular; what a lovely perspective, your photo of them. Decorated with flowers, you were there at a good time to photograph John. An abundance of lovely fruits. Look forward to your Guildhall findings.

  10. This church is evidence of how lucrative the wool trade was. Think of the good that could be done today if people still believed they could shorten their time on purgatory by doing good works. It boggles my mind.

  11. Thanks everyone who contributed comments.
    Jack: A cathedral, I believe, has a bishop and is the main church in a diocese; whereas a church just the place of worship for a parish - in the UK usually a village or a district within an urban area. Cathedrals obviously tend to be bigger but there are exceptions.
    John and Sinbad: I think the metal thieves are heading in the other direction!
    Doug: Just keep publishing your wonderful photos.
    Sue: I'll try to find out about the shading on the glass.

  12. John, I didn't realize I was missing all these new posts!
    Now I have some catching up to do.


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