Carvings and symbols as found in Lavenham

An antique door knocker hangs from a wooden door in the village

Lavenham has a wealth of carved wooden and stone symbols, some heraldic others leaving us public or secret messages of support, many placed in clear view at a time when to express sides in the conflicts that would tear England apart was a dangerous thing to do.

Perhaps the most magnificent carvings are those found in Lavenham’s Church, built to commemorate the victory of Bosworth and as a celebration of a new dynasty, the Tudors, it also provides a monument to those rich merchants and knights in the town whom paid for its construction and a testament to the skill of the three very different stone masons whom worked on it.

There are four schemes of stone and wood carving to be found in the Church and examples of each are then to be found repeated within the rest of the village:

  • religious messages (following the tradition of telling the biblical stories and the mythology of Christianity at the time through pictures designed to help guide a predominantly illiterate population)
  • carvings of the Tudor Rose, leafs, vines and similar motifs, common to the period, similar to the millefleurs background in a tapestry and used as decoration or to show wealth and status
  • heraldic symbols, testament to the noble sponsoring families and ultimately to the new Tudor dynasty, showing loyalty
  • then the symbols of the families whom donated to the Church construction and then the development of the village and whom were baptised, married and buried in the Church

As with elsewhere in the village we have some recurrent themes in the Church architecture that we will look at and try and explain from their metaphorical, allegorical and heraldic meanings.

In the immediate aftermath of Bosworth and for a period of forty years (1485-1525) the Church of St Peter and Paul was almost entirely demolished and rebuilt by:

  • Simon Clerk and John Wastell (who took on the new Tower as funded by Thomas Spring II);
  • Wastell and Brond whom completed the tower and undertook the work on the chancel, aisles and nave (as funded by Thomas Spring III)
  • the North Chapel was designed, masoned and constructed by John Melford (and funded by Simon Branch);
  • the South Chapel was then a copy of the North and probably undertaken by Wastell (funded by Thomas Spring III);

  • then the porch saw Wastell engaged by John de Vere whom paid for it and also for the carved west door complete with the symbols of the Holy Grael, the oyster shell of the de Scales (marking the end of the Oyster trail) and the Star motif.

The vestry is then an older design and build, by Reginald Ely as funded by Thomas Spring II and dating nearer 1440-1444 whilst the chancel arch is even earlier and dates from around 1340, stone mason unknown.

The stone used throughout by Wastell and Brond is Rutland Stone (known as both Casterton and Stanford) quarried at Great Casterton.

Wastell whom was the lead architect and mason had just completed the equally magnificent Kings College Cambridge and was at the very top of his game when he undertook the Church in Lavenham. Wastell’s work is distinctive in that unlike the fashion until this point, he layered different carving styles upon each other: heraldic, botanical and ecclesiastical (rather than use them as connecting themes that worked horizontally). This has the impact of drawing the eyes upwards.

The porch then tells the story of much of the rest of this elaborate design: we see a row of stars depicting the de Vere family symbol, we see a line of leaf motif, heads and sheafs of corn depicting prosperity (both our faith feeding the people of Lavenham but also our strong agricultural community doing the same), we then have a further line of shields of the nobles supporting the development (de Vere, Plaits, Scales and Howard, Spring, Bolton, Branch), then in the centre niche we have two relatively modern statues of SS Peter and Paul.

The wooden screens inside are also incredibly elaborate, the best being the pernicore screen that encases the tomb of Thomas Spring III with its crowned virgin with book and sword by tradition found in the company of SS Peter and Paul as in Bouts work of 1460.

The Thomas Spring tomb screen

The more modest screen opposite was erected earlier in 1513 for John de Vere. His wife would die many decades later and elected to be buried with her first husband, William Beaumont, in Wivenhoe, which is where her brass rubbing can still be found.

John de Vere 13th earl of Oxford’s tomb in the Church of SS Peter and Paul

Displayed in the Church is then a stained glass Grand Escue or Grand Shield of John de Vere, important to see as it describes many of the families joined to the de Vere family and whose symbols are then found across the village. It very much marks the beginning of an exploration of the village through its symbols:

The Star. We start as always with the star symbol of the de Vere, found on the Church and scattered around on numerous buildings. The correct star is a five molet but in the 13th to 15th century six pointed stars were also used and this led to confusion at the Battle of Barnet when de Vere’s star was mistaken for the Rising Sun of the Yorkists.

Next comes the Blue Boar with two carved boars in the Church and two carved above doors in the village, others found on bressumer beams. The boar was a pun on the name de Vere, the Norman French for boar being “verres”, the blue boar appearing at the feet of the 3rd Earl on his tomb and above their shield and on their great helm when jousting from the 13th century onwards with Aubrey de Vere III being called a boar in the 12th Century

Shields. Many of the buildings in the village have shields that would have been painted or have had emblems on them that have worn off through age and erosion

The Oyster Shell, depicting the oyster trail, also the symbol of the de Scale wing of the de Vere family (Scale meaning oyster in Norman French), also declaring their ancestry from the de Clare family whom descended from Mary Magdalan, and the de Vere claimed ancestry from the Goddess Venus (who was born from the foam of sea out of an oyster shell). Three oyster shells also appeared on the arms of Lady Diana Spencer.

The Dish or Saucer found in the Sutie and de Statton families, the latter whom held the local Manors of Trinkley and Kipton from the de Veres.

Looms, jacks, combs. In various places in the village there are symbols referencing its time as the centre of the wool cloth industry, from looms, to weasels, gilling seats, combs, card boards and bobbins. The Lavenham sign at the south end of the village (see below) depicts the de Vere and the Spring family shields, a Tudor Rose and then a Tapestry or Weaving Loom (note there is a small mouse carved on the reverse)

The Village sign

The Swan is found in a few places: it was the symbol carried by those planning to rise in 1470 to place Margaret of Anjou and Henry VI back on the English throne and continued to be warn by Lancastrian supporters after the twin defeats of Barnet and Tewkesbury but in hiding.

The Swan, the High Street

The Greyhound or Talbot, the symbol adopted by Henry VII and from then by all of the Tudor line but also one of the symbols of the Neville family (the Kingmaker and his brothers and sisters). Margaret Neville, Warwick’s sister, was the wife of John de Vere, whilst Warwick’s brother was a fellow prisoner in Hammes Castle with John de Vere but died after two years.

The Greyhound, the High Street

The Harpy often depicted carrying a harp or mandolin, is a specific heraldic symbol adopted by John de Vere, the Harpy represents his poor fortune, taken up at a time when John de Vere was imprisoned after Barnet and had just lost his mother, only son, two brothers and his best friend.

The Angel, most often began as a Harpy that was then disguised or wrongly described as an Angel as the original symbolism of the Harpy was forgotten. In 1711 when a new shield was agreed by heralds for the earls of Oxford and Mortimer, the Harpy that had previously held the shield of the earls of Oxford became two Angels.

Earl of Oxford coat of arms 1602 to 1702

The Whistle or The Anchor, the symbol of the Admiral of the Fleet a position held on and off by the de Vere family for four centuries. The de Vere family owned the Anchor in London for example with the former Anchor pub to be found in Lavenham.

The Chair and The Bed, the symbols of the de Vere family’s position as Lord High Chamberlain for which the heraldic symbol was a Chair or a Four Poster bed.

The Lion (Red, Gold or White Lion). There are many examples of Lions found in the village and these represent links with several families but also with the Tudors. Lions are the heraldic symbol of the Plaitz family, of the Bourchier family, earls of Essex and of the Compton family, the Gold Lion of the Plantagenet after Robert de Vere married Princess Philippa of the Plantagenet line and heir to Richard II, and the Gold Lion of the Angoevin line (the de Veres being the ancient Count of Anjou and Eu).

The Lion (Black and single Gold rampant) are also both symbols found on the arms of the Tewdor family whom then adopted the three Lions of the Plantagenet in 1488. But places with carvings of or called Black Lion would be honouring Henry VII for his visit in 1487 after the defeat of Lincoln in the Battle of Stoke.

The Cinquefoils or five leafed plant in gold or carved relief is the symbol of the Spring family as are three lozenges (diamond shapes).

The Lozenge and Cinquefoils of the Spring family

Wheat Sheaf, a sign of hospitality, or provision but also used by families linked to the earl of Chester ie the Plantagenet family and the de Montfort family. Since Edward III it has been conferred on the Prince of Wales becoming mistaken for the the plume symbol used after the prince adopted it from blind King John of Bohemia (who was slain at Poitiers). The earls of Chester were so powerful that Magna Carta did not apply to Chester.

The Tudor Rose found throughout the town of Lavenham in honour of Henry VII whom adopted it during his reign and which reflects (in part) the honour of his and then Elizabeth I’s Royal Visits to the village but also the strong support given by the village to the Tudor dynasty

The Single or Triple Crown from 1388 to 1490, used to publicise the new title of Duke of Dublin held by the de Vere family (briefly)

A Plait of Scales or a plait that looks like grapes: the Plaitz baroncy of the Howard family

The Red and Gold Lion of the Baronies of Plaitz gave its name to the Red Lion in the village. Meanwhile the Oyster shells of the Scales family is found across Europe and repeated in our Church. A plait of fish scales is then found on De Vere House built and owned by the baroness of Plaitz and Scales, Elizabeth 12th Countess of Oxford

The White Bull of the Copingers but mistaken at Barnet for the White Horse of Kent that would later see several inns called the White Horse after them, including one in Lavenham.

The Fording Ox or Bull (canting), the symbol of the city of Oxford but also used by the de Vere family after they saved Oxford from Cromwellian troops during the English Civil War

The Frog, another symbol of the city of Oxford, not to be confused with the frogs of Frogs Lane which refers to frogging: leather laces and tool work, such as the holders for scabbards.

A elongated clamp or what looks like long wooden scissors: a Wool Jack representing a clothier or even “Wool Jack” the name for John de Vere 12th earl and his son, the 13th earl.

A Sword, particularly a blade with a blunt or no tip. The Curtana, the sword of state carried by the De Vere family on all Royal occasions for every monarch from Edward I to William III but also the legendary sword Excalibur (as legend goes last given to BedeVere, the name given by legend to the de Vere family in the Arthurian stories). The legend of Excalibur saw Horace and Frances de Vere become the first non Royals to have a tomb and monument in Westminster Abbey (found in the St John Chapel) where they were buried with “their magnificent sword”. The Curtana carried by the de Vere family had been lost by the reign of George I.

A Wool Comb, depicting St Blaise whom was martyred using a wool comb and who is also the patron saint of Wool makers or wool clothiers. Note the beautiful Blaise House in the village is dedicated to the patron saint of wool and wool combers.

A wool comb

Cherries, the heraldic symbol of the Sergeaux family whose heiress Alice married into the de Vere family at the time of Agincourt whom inherited their estate and titles.

Figurines and misercicordia

We then have some notable figures carved outside in particular the Guildhall and De Vere House. The corner post of the Guildhall has Richard de Vere 11th earl of Oxford whom fought valiantly at Agincourt, to die of his wounds just under two years after the battle. Alternatively (and more likely) it may be the 15th earl, a strong supporter of the new reformation under Henry VIII, a Knight of the Order of the Garter, a successful general at the Field of the Cloth of Gold and the Battle of the Spurs, and the last de Vere to hold the title of Master of the Guild of Woolmakers. He dedicated the GuildHall.

De Vere House then has two of four huntsman, all four of whom at one time stood as the four corner posts of an early 15th century foot bridge over the open water from which Water Street gets its name. But when the open culvert was bricked over in 1486, the posts were re-used as door lintel for the new gabled front of De Vere House. How they would have once looked is best seen from the plate below from Les Tres Riches Heures de Duc de Berry.

De Vere House
A 15th Century Boar Hunt

The next set of carvings and symbols depict a combination of mythical events, such as huge monsters devouring people or a man being crushed by the weight of the world or a couple transformed into part man and part monster and are misericordia, depictions of the suffering of those in Purgatory and Hell. Graphic examples are found over the entrance to Vezelay Basilica for example or can be found carved into the fireplace of the Library at Clare Priory and were common place from 12th to 16th Century. The following three examples of misericordia are found in the village:

Examples of misericordia, those punished by being transformed into part man and part monster playing in the choir stall

This dentist is doubtless regretting opening his list up to NHS patients?

Finally, in many of the houses, carved internal beams have survived, far fewer than there would have been at the height of the village’s glory in the 16th Century, not least as such beam work went out of fashion and was covered over or even chopped off. This is an example of the beam work found in the John de Vere room in De Vere House and waiting to be restored

The carved ceiling beams of the John de Vere room, De Vere House
Some of the hatchments of the families found in Lavenham in the medieval and Tudor period of its development: De Vere, Plaitz, Scales, Copinger (aka Esturmy), Spring, Compton and Jacobs