A Brief History of Lavenham

A more detailed account of the history of Lavenham can be found in several books, most of which look at specific periods whether in its heyday during Tudor England or its Victorian period with the arrival of the railway and the growth of new industry such as its horse hair factory or the war years with the RAF and American airbase just outside the village (commemoration of their courage can be found in the long list of names of those whom flew out of Lavenham found in the Bar of The Swan).

This account covers the breadth of history of one of the world’s finest historical villages.

Today, the village is dominated by the medieval and Tudor developments that give the village its epicentre around its Market Place then stretching out from the railway bridge one end of the village to the Church of St Peter and Paul the other end. However there are many signs of earlier settlements:

Out towards Brent Eleigh we see the remains of a Neolithic camp on the hillside looking down into the valley in which Lavenham is set. Although the Roman Road bypassed the village (due to the existence of a druid’s mound which the Roman’s avoided) nonetheless a number of the older buildings in the village have reclaimed or reused Roman bricks, suggesting a nearby villa that was raided over time to provide bricks in Saxon and Norman times.

Neolithic Hill camp on the outskirts of Lavenham above Hill Farm

The Domesday Book then tells us there were two Saxon halls and two theyns in the village of Lafa (Lafa’s ham from which Laneham then Lavenham derives its name). Both (together with their families) were deprived of their lands and estates, given to Aubrey de Vere, brother in law to William he Conqueror whom demolished the original halls then built two manors (Overhall and Underhall ) at the north and south ends of the village. Lavenham Hall is then built later but includes in its lands the remains of two tumuli from the early Saxon period.

A combination of the de Vere family then growing in wealth and influence and the development of the wool trade, together with Lavenham being on the direct route from London to England’s two largest ports (Kings Lynn and Dunwich) and sitting halfway between London and England’s second largest city of Norwich, saw the town grow in wealth, prosperity and size, its residents being granted by Edward III exemption from all tolls. In 1257 it received its Royal Charter and its Market Charter, which market ran continuously until 1784 and has been resurrected as fayres, horse and cheese markets and farmer’s markets in recent years.

The 750th anniversary of our Charter was commemorated in 2007 by the erection of a new village sign funded by donations from the village, designed and organised by Jack Norman and officially commissioned by the Lord of the Manor.

By the time of Richard II, the de Vere family had become the next in line to the throne, and their retainers and the rich wool merchants whom lived in the village all benefited from the influence and wealth this brought. Around this time, we also saw the Peasants Revolt, in which Lavenham became briefly involved, and its suppression saw Flemish workers imported to replace the former wool workers whom had revolted.

The next injection of money followed a successful Agincourt campaign by many of the families living in Lavenham (de Vere, Compton, Copinger, Pinchbecke for example) who returned made rich by the ransoms of French knights and nobles captured during the period 1415-1422. This began a stage of further development and expansion in the village.

The village then became embroiled in the War of the Roses and its fortunes briefly waned before being resurrected on Henry VII’s victory at the Battles of Bosworth, Stoke and Blackheath, on each occasion with armies led by John de Vere and his vanguard of veterans from Lavenham (Esturmy, Gilling, Compton, Copinger, Pinchbecke, Beaumont, de Stratton for example). But first Lavenham had to go through a period where its support for the Red Rose of Lancaster had to be concealed, wearing Swans in secret (the Swan in Lavenham depicts the symbol of Margaret of Anjou), placing the symbols of the blue boar above doors where they could be said to be for Richard of Gloucester but were actually for John de Vere, or calling the symbols of harpies (another symbol of Lancaster and the de Vere family) “Angels”.

When John de Vere was responsible for the defeat of the Kingmaker at Barnet in 1471, he fled to Scotland, then to become a pirate, made a fruitless attempt at invasion at St Osyth, one that John Paston in his letters openly scorns, but in an earlier letter also indicates that de Vere had called on his retainers in Lavenham to rise against Edward IV. John de Vere then took St Michaels Mount in 1472 -1473 (with Compton, Beaumont and Copinger at his side), held it for six months in the English Alamo before surrendering on the murder of his mother by Richard of Gloucester and John Howard duke of Norfolk.

He was sent to Hammes Castle, imprisoned, escaped, joined Henry Tewdor in Brittany, invaded with him in 1485 and then led his armies to three successive victories that established the Tudor dynasty. Lavenham raised companies to join de Vere in Brittany and at Bosworth and later raised several hundred to join John de Vere as he marched on London in 1509 to put Henry VIII on the throne

Following Bosworth, the village exploded with new development. John de Vere was reinstated with his former titles in 1486 (as commemorated in the emblems above the door of De Vere House), a church was built in honour of Henry VII and his new wife by six wealthy families in the village (including the Springs, Boltons, Comptons and de Vere), Henry VII visited the village in 1489. Lavenham Guildhall was erected by 1520, one of five Guildhalls, the others dedicated to Peter and Paul, the Wool Hall, St Marys and Corpus Christi (on the High Street, Prentice Street, Lady or Esturmyn Street and behind De Vere House).

The Guildhall and part of its display of wool making contraptions
St Peter and St Paul, Lavenham

The Church of St Peter and Paul had existed as a wooden Anglo Saxon structure, then a Norman church was first built in c1340 with donations from the Spring family, the eastern vestry built in c1440, then the tower was dedicated by 1500 with the existing Church completed in 1525. We see record of an early wedding in 1500 between a Compton d’Ewes of the village and an Alice Munning of De Vere House “in the new Church”.

In 1502, the Jacob family built and dedicated our Market Cross. Then on Henry VII’s death in 1509 a year of services were dedicated to Henry in the Church.

John de Vere under Henry VII and Henry VIII became one of three magnates whom between them ruled England. On every occasion asked, John de Vere was able to call up more men at arms to defend his King than any other magnate in the country. Henry VII and Henry VIII both recognised him publicly as their most loyal subject and “the premier person in the realm after the King”. Over 95% of judges, magistrates and sheriffs in East Anglia and Essex were appointed by John de Vere for example, who divided his time between his Halls in Wivenhoe, Lavenham and London, each becoming the power bases from which he effectively controlled one third of the country.

On his death in 1513, commemorated in 2013 by the village with a joust in his honour (since John de Vere had held briefly the title of world champion jouster and his lance and great helm are still to be found on display in Florence), the village continued to grow in wealth, its Guildhall was built (with its commemoration to John de Vere’s grandfather whom had fought at Agincourt) until 1525 when in a strike (called a revolt) over 5000 gathered in Lavenham market to protest at low wages, prompting those seeking wool for cloth to look for alternative markets; ending the wool monopoly of the East of England. Only in 2013 have more people gathered in Lavenham’s Market Place.

Lavenham Carnival and Joust 2013

As the wool trade declined so did the de Vere family fortune but for different reasons: John de Vere’s son and grandson gradually lost the influence their forbear had over East Anglia and then Edward de Vere, the 17th earl, began to sell off his land and estates to pay for the production of plays by The Chamberlain’s Men. His son, Henry, would claim to be “the poorest peer in the realm” on becoming the 18th earl of Oxford.

Edward de Vere

Edward de Vere was a poet and playwrite, the subject of the film Anonymous, banned from Court over an argument about a tennis match, we learn from the Court records that he would sell his properties to multiple recipients then claim them back because title was in doubt (but never return the amounts paid). He would then hear the inevitable appeal himself as Lord High Chamberlain. Between 1595 and 1602 we hear that De Vere House was sold to eighteen different people at the same time yet on appeal was returned to Edward de Vere and so remained in the de Vere family through to 1703 (Mary de Vere paid hearth tax on the house in 1688). One of those whom lost out and had taken Edward to court was William Shakespeare.

By 1568 Lavenham was ranked just twenty eighth wealthiest in Suffolk and our wool trade had collapsed completely,supplanted by Dutch/Flemish wool makers working out of Colchester and making lighter wool and a greater variety of dye colours.

By 1668 numerous buildings in Lavenham were in such a state of disrepair that the Lord of the Manor intervened to remove tenants, demolish numerous properties and commence urgent repair to others. By this time, the five large Guildhalls in the village had diminished to two and two others had been replaced by Meeting Halls as the village saw its first non conformist communities.

Many of the rich merchants, knights and and retainers in the village became involved in the Dutch War of Independence, fighting for the Protestant Orange family against the Catholic French and Hapsburg empire and defending Venice against the Ottoman and Egyptian empires. In thirty years of war two whole generations of Compton, Copinger, Jacob and de Vere died in battle at Neuport, Breda, Maestricht and other battles.

Lavenham also became involved in the three English Civil wars of 1642-1650 remaining staunchly Parliamentarian, with a camp for training artillery out on Frogs Hall Lane (where cannon balls have been recovered) and providing troops for the Siege of Colchester. At the same time, the de Vere family were staunchly Royalist and heavily involved in the Restoration, founding and becoming the first Colonel of Blues and Royals Regiment in 1660. A proud link has existed ever since between the village and the Royal Horse Guards. Mary de Vere stood at the trial of Charles I and cried “Shame” as he was sentenced to death and had to be smuggled out before her arrest. Charles I’s children were then briefly put under her care but she coped for about a week before handing them on.

The Royal Household Cavalry regiment also known as the Blues, founded and led by Aubrey de Vere, 20th earl of Oxford. The only time they appeared on parade outside of Royal escort duty or the Lord Mayors Parade in their over 350 year history was for the 2013 Lavenham commemoration of John de Vere’s death.

The 17th Century also saw the village caught up in the witch hunts of Matthew Hopkins, a young man in his 20s whom for 3 years obtained a commission from Cromwell as a Witchfinder General and during that time was responsible for the examination, torture, trial then execution of two thirds of the witches ever tried in England. This concluded in a mass witch burning in the Market Place and another set of executions on our Tyburn opposite the Anchor. One of those executed, Anne Randall, lived in the village and had been accused by neighbours of magically stealing a hedge and of having a familiar, a black cat called Jacob. She cursed the hedge as she burnt and no hedge has grown there to this day.

The 18th Century saw many of the Tudor houses given a Georgian face lift, it also saw some notable villagers live or go to school here and to write about the village (sadly mainly about its sorry disrepair). This included John Constable but also John Howard, founder of the Howard League of Penal Reform. In 1787, Lavenham Guildhall closed as a prison and workhouse.

The fashion of this period was to enclose beams behind plaster and brick fronts and to panel over any wall paintings or internally carved beamwork, even adzing off any carving to make surfaces flat. Bay windows replaced mullions.

The 19th Century saw the arrival of the railway, Great Eastern Railway, with trains to Sudbury and Bury then across via Stowmarket and Hadleigh to the London lines and trains to Ipswich, Lowestoft and Yarmouth or the other way via Clare to Haverhill. The Railway Walk remains going from the village as far as Long Melford and Clare but the Lavenham stop was a casualty of Beeching.

GER train leaving for Clare, Long Melford and Lavenham from Haverhill

It also saw the Industrial revolution find the village but late, with Ropers, a Horsehair factory becoming the main employer of women, whilst most men were in agriculture. The horse population in the village rose to a peak of 20000, with 12 different blacksmiths. The villages fortunes began to revive as seen by the arrival of our first Bank, a Tax Office, two legal firms and six sets of accountants by 1900.

Ropers Court

The growth continued into the 20th century, in part due to new industry such as Yardleys basing themselves in Lavenham, in part as various bodies began the long task of restoring and conserving the village such as the National Trust, the Little Hall Trustees and SPAB. The Gayer Andersons brought the best bits of their Egyptian collection to the village, installing it in the Little Hall, the Guildhall was taken on by the National Trust after private restoration had saved it in the mid 19th Century then the Second World War brought American servicemen here and they fell in love with and helped further restore the village.

Lavenham airfield was built in 1943 as RAF Lavenham hosting USAF 487th Bombardment Group and went operational from April 1944 flying Liberators and Flying Fortresses. Beirne Lay served as the Colonel, wrote the screen play for Twelve O Clock High

In recent years the village has the become a bit of a film and TV star appearing in Lovejoy, The Witchfinder General and in Deathly Hallows Part One as Godrics Hollow. it now boasts over 100 businesses, its own school, a doctors surgery, a dentists and a pharmacist, butchers, bakers, grocers, over 40 active clubs and societies including a tennis and football club, with several pubs and hotels, restaurants and tea rooms and is a real treasure trove in the heart of west Suffolk countryside.

Vincent Price in The Witchfinder General co starring Lavenham GuildHall in the background

Read about the Ghosts of Lavenham, the nursery rhymes associated with our village and about its various symbols and their meaning in the next pages.