The History of Lavenham
It is hard to argue with the oft repeated claim that Lavenham is the best-preserved late medieval town in England. Behind that fact lies the rather sad truth that the heyday for Lavenham was indeed the late medieval period, when it was a major textile manufacturing centre. Thus – albeit to our benefit – the town failed to evolve much thereafter, with not a great deal to remark in its subsequent history. But for a couple of centuries or more it was extremely wealthy, one of the economic powerhouses of England.
The Lavenham area, as Time Team showed in their excavations at adjoining Preston St Mary more than a decade ago, was inhabited by the Romans , the dig uncovering a Roman field system established in the early part of the occupation and only abandoned a little before the invaders quit the country. Archaeologists have uncovered artefacts from far earlier in our history in the area, as would be expected of such rich farming country, the reason the Romans settled in it so soon after their arrival.
At the end of the Saxon era Lavenham was a manor held by a middle-ranking noble named Ulwin, but it was given to Aubrey (or Alberic) de Vere, one of William the Conqueror 's barons again of middle rank, sometime before the Domesday Book was compiled in 1086. This new owner planted a vineyard in his holding, a sign he was thinking long term, but perhaps even he did not expect his family to retain the property until the beginning of the 17th century.
The town was granted market status by Henry III in the mid-13th century, recognition of an existing market that was certainly thriving at the beginning of that century, as evidenced by the Abbot at Bury St Edmunds complaining about its effect on his own town’s mart in 1202.
The great turning point in Lavenham’s history came during the reign of Edward III . By the last decade of his reign, the 1370s, the Hundred Years War had turned disastrously against England; his response to the situation included restrictions on exporting English wool, which was of the highest quality, to the continental weaving industry, imposing a hefty tax on such exports. It thus became more profitable to weave that wool in the country of origin.
Why Lavenham in particular should then have rapidly become a major weaving centre is unclear. There were many sheep flocks in the region to provide raw materials. Socio-economically Suffolk tended to have far more freemen than other counties, providing a flexible and perhaps entrepreneurial workforce. What certainly helped was an influx of skilled weavers from Flanders, which had been the great market for our wool – it may simply have been that Suffolk was easy for the Flemish workers to access, positioned directly across the North Sea.
Lavenham quite early on in its existence as a manufacturing life seems to have adopted the idea division of labour, with different families developing skills in specific aspects of wool processing, weaving, and finishing. By the middle of the 15th century Lavenham was one of the most significant weaving centres in England, and remarkably for a town that never had a population greater than 2000, it is said to have been the 14th richest settlement in the country.
The coming of the Tudors at first helped Lavenham: Lord of the Manor John de Vere had been imprisoned for his Lancastrian links. He spent time with the future Henry VII in France, was one of Henry’s most senior soldiers at Bosworth , and was rewarded for his support by the first Tudor monarch. The close cooperation of the de Veres and the thriving merchants in Lavenham is shown by the joint funding of the magnificent St Peter and St Paul Church there by John de Vere and leading clothiers the Springs. This structure was probably modelled on the church at nearby Long Melford , but with a taller tower (tallest in Suffolk) to flaunt the wool-wealth of Lavenham.
Sadly the reign of the wise Henry VII was followed by that of his egotistical and intemperate son Henry VIII . In the same year that St Peter’s and St Paul’s was completed, 1525, Henry VIII embarked on an unnecessary conflict with France funded in part by the so-called Amicable Grant, imposed without recourse to Parliament, and opposed violently in a brief uprising by perhaps 10,000 men of Suffolk. Ironically the second greatest symbol of Lavenham’s cloth wealth, the wool guild of Corpus Christi, was also completed in the same period, 1529 to be precise.
Lavenham was impoverished by Henry VIII’s depredations, including of course the Dissolution, and also by the growth of rival weaving centres in Yorkshire, where finer cloth began to be produced, and somewhat earlier by places such as Colchester which attracted new Flemish immigrants with newer skills.
During the reign of Mary Tudor the conflicts abroad continued, with religious strife at home to add to the misery: in 1555 the rector of Hadleigh , Rowland Taylor, was held in Lavenham prior to his burning at the stake on Aldham Common for his heresy.
As the town was off the main road system linking the larger towns within Suffolk and nearby Essex it was not economically attractive for new trades to be set up there, and it rapidly descended into relative poverty and an agricultural economy. This relative poverty helped preserve the place in its medieval glory for us to admire, as the residents could not afford to improve their properties.
When the railways came in the mid-19th century Lavenham had a slight industrial resurgence, weaving coconut matting and similar coarse cloths, but this was short-lived. A century later the US Air Force established a base at Lavenham, a connection still recalled by many American visitors whose relatives served there, flying on the more than 6000 sorties from the airfield between its opening in March 1944 and closure in August 1945. But these two brief excitements apart, Lavenham has changed little from its medieval prime.