Lavenham, Suffolk

Lavenham, Suffolk


Lavenham is a village, civil parish and electoral ward and is noted for its Guildhall, Little Hall, 15th-century church, half-timbered medieval cottages and circular walks.

In the medieval period it was among the 20 wealthiest settlements in England. Today, it is a popular day-trip destination for people from across the country.

Before the Norman conquest, the manor of Lavenham had been held by the thegn Ulwin or Wulwine. In 1086 the estate was in the possession of Aubrey de Vere I, ancestor of the Earls of Oxford. He had already had a vineyard planted there. The Vere family continued to hold the estate until 1604, when it was sold to Sir Thomas Skinner.

Lavenham prospered from the wool trade in the 15th and 16th centuries, with the town's blue broadcloth being an export of note. By the late 15th century, the town was among the richest in the British Isles, paying more in taxation than considerably larger towns such as York and Lincoln. Several merchant families emerged, the most successful of which was the Spring family.

The town's prosperity at this time can be seen in the lavishly constructed wool church of St Peter and St Paul, which stands on a hill at the top end of the main high street. The church, completed in 1525, is excessively large for the size of the village and with a tower standing 141ft (4 m) high it lays claim to being the highest village church tower in Britain. Other buildings also demonstrate the town's medieval wealth. Lavenham Wool Hall was completed in 1464.

The Guildhall of the catholic guild of Corpus Christi was built in 1529 and stands in the centre of the village overlooking the market square. When visiting the town in 1487, Henry VII fined several Lavenham families for displaying too much wealth. However, during the 16th century Lavenham's industry was badly affected by Dutch refugees settled in Colchester, who produced cloth that was cheaper and lighter than Lavenham's, and also more fashionable. Cheaper imports from Europe also aided the settlement's decline, and by 1600 it had lost its reputation as a major trading town. This sudden and dramatic change to the town's fortune is the principal reason for so many medieval and Tudor buildings remaining unmodified in Lavenham, as subsequent generations of citizens did not have the wealth required to rebuild in the latest styles.

During the reign of Henry VIII, Lavenham was the scene of serious resistance to Wolsey’s ‘Amicable Grant’, a tax being raised in England to pay for war with France. However, this was happening without the consent of parliament. In 1525, 10,000 men from Lavenham and the surrounding villages took part in a serious uprising that threatened to spread to the nearby counties of Essex and Cambridgeshire. However, the revolt was suppressed for the King by the Dukes of Norfolk and Suffolk, with the aid of local families. Elizabeth I visited the town during a Royal Progress of East Anglia in 1578.

Like most of East Anglia, Lavenham was staunchly Parliamentarian throughout the Civil Wars of the 1640s. Most local landowners, such as Sir Nathaniel Barnardiston, Sir Philip Parker and Sir William Spring, were strong advocates of the Parliamentarian cause. There is no record of the town ever being directly involved in the conflict, although the townspeople did provide a troop of soldiers to aid in Parliament's Siege of Colchester in 1648. A grammar school opened in the town in 1647. The settlement was struck by plague in 1666 and 1699. Small pox struck in 1712 and 1713, killing over one in six of Lavenham's residents.

In the late 18th century, the village was home to poet Jane Taylor, and it may have been while living in Shilling Street that she wrote the poem The Star, from which the lyrics for the nursery rhyme Twinkle Twinkle Little Star are taken. Colchester and Ongar, both in Essex, also have claims to be the site of composition of the poem.

Like many East Anglian settlements, Lavenham was home to an airbase in the Second World War – Air Force Station Lavenham, an American Air Force airfield. USAAF Station 137 was manned by the US Army Air Force 487th Bombardment Group between 1944 and 1945. The airfield, actually located a few miles away in Alpheton, has since been returned to arable farmland, though some evidence of its structures and buildings remains, including the control tower.

In the 1960s, a new area of council housing was built in the north of the village, centred on Spring Street, Spring Close and Spring Lane. In 1980 the marijuana smuggler Howard Marks was arrested in the bar of the Swan Hotel.

John Lennon and Yoko Ono filmed their experimental film Apotheosis with a hot-air balloon in Lavenham's Market Place in December 1969.

The village is located around five miles north east of Sudbury. Situated in a relatively hilly area, Lavenham is situated on a ridge on the western bank of the River Brett. The ridge is intersected by two small valleys, breaking it into three parts; the church is located atop the southernmost section, the marketplace on the central part, while the northernmost section is topped by the remains of a windmill.

The southernmost valley contains a brook running between the pond at Lavenham Hall and the River Brett, though it was covered by a culvert 500 years ago, and Water Street built over the top. There have been attempts to give the culverts Scheduled Monument status as a "rare early example of municipal plumbing". The northernmost valley also contains a small stream as well as being the former route of the abandoned railway line.

Lavenham is located on the A1141, the main road between Hadleigh and Bury St Edmunds. HGV traffic has been an issue for the village's narrow streets.

The village formerly had a railway station on the Long Melford-Bury St Edmunds branch line, which was opened on 9 August 1865. There were plans for the Hadleigh branch line to be extended to Lavenham, though these never came to fruition. The line was an important goods route during the Second World War and was guarded by numerous Type 22 pillboxes, most of which are still visible in the surrounding farmland. The railway station was closed to passengers on 10 April 1961, with a goods service surviving until April 1965. Today the disused line is used as a public footpath and is a designated nature reserve.

The village is served by Lavenham Community Primary School, which currently caters for pupils aged five to 1. The school feeds into Thomas Gainsborough School.

The Lavenham Guildhall, was established in 1529. Parts of Market Square were included in the 1968 Vincent Price film “Witchfinder General”. The witch burning scenes were staged in front of the Guildhall.

In 1969 some filming was done in Lavenham “The Thirteen Chairs”, also known as “Twelve Plus One”. This was actress Sharon Tate's last movie before her murder. In 1971, part of The Canterbury Tales were recorded here, with the village representing medieval London.

The 1975 Stanley Kubrick film “Barry Lyndon” included the Guildhall.



In 1986, the film “Playing Away”, about a visiting cricket team from Brixton, was also filmed in the village] The Market Square is the setting of John Lennon and Yoko Ono's 1970 film “Apotheosis”. In 2010, under conditions of strict secrecy, scenes from “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 1” were filmed there. The village's De Vere House represented sections of Godric's Hollow, as backgrounds, since the cast members did not actually visit Lavenham.

Lavenham is also the setting for many scenes in the mid-1990s BBC TV drama “Lovejoy”. An episode aired in December 1994, was titled "Last Tango in Lavenham".

Other productions that have used Lavenham as a location include “Lowland Village” a 1943 British Council release and an episode of “Treasure Hunt” from February 1988.

One legend suggests that the distorted, or "crooked", appearance of many of the town's buildings inspired the poem "A Crooked Little Man".

One discussion of the town provides these specifics as to the reason the houses are crooked. The town grew so fast that many of the houses were built in haste with green timber. As the wood dried, the timbers warped causing the houses to bend at unexpected angles. Unfortunately, Lavenham's good times didn't last long. When Dutch refugees settled in Colchester began producing cloth that was cheaper, lighter and more fashionable than Lavenham's, the town's cloth industry went bust. By the time the dried timber started twisting, Lavenham's families had lost its wealth and with no money to rebuild their homes, Lavenham’s crooked houses were left as they were.