Lavenham, a Very Woolly Town, Part 1

The Swan Hotel, Lavenham, Suffolk

The Swan Hotel, Lavenham, Suffolk

There are many towns in East Anglia where you can still see examples of late Medieval or early Tudor buildings; for the benefit of my non-British readers, the Tudor period is from 1485 – 1603 (the reigns of Henry VII, Henry VIII, Edward VI, Mary I and Elizabeth I). These were built during the wool industry’s boom years, and when that industry declined, the residents couldn’t afford to modernise their homes, so these buildings were preserved. Lavenham, in Suffolk, is probably the best known of the ‘wool towns’.

Corpus Christi, Lavenham, Suffolk

Corpus Christi, Lavenham, Suffolk

Lavenham was one of the biggest producers of woven cloth in England. By the mid fifteenth century Lavenham was one of the richest towns in England (according to records of tax paid to Henry VIII). The wealthy merchants (clothiers) financed new buildings, including houses, shops, guild halls and a stunning church, some of which can be seen today.

Detail of carving on the Guildhall

Detail of carving on the Guildhall

Tudor buildings are typified by half-timber construction in which a wooden frame was made from oak and the spaces between the wood filled with wattle and daub (straw mixed with clay, mud or plaster, made with lime). In some areas the timber beams were painted with tar and the infills with lime plaster. In other places, lime was mixed with local soil or even ox-blood, and was used to cover both beams and infills, so that half-timber buildings could have black beams and white infills, black beams and earth-coloured infills or be white or coloured all over. Another typical feature is overhanging upper floors, said to be constructed to minimise ground taxes, but maximise space.

Colourful half-timbered houses, Lavenham, Suffolk

Colourful half-timbered houses, Lavenham, Suffolk

Wealthier people might have an extra floor, decorative beams in the infills, carved exposed beams, brick or stone infills, leaded glass windows instead of wooden shutters, and tiles or slate instead of thatch. The super-rich could have buildings made entirely of stone or brick. The proximity of the source of materials determines their cost in any location, so the less well-off used local materials, while the better-off could import.

The crooked house, Lavenham, Suffolk

The crooked house, Lavenham, Suffolk

Most of the existing Tudor buildings in Lavenham have wattle and daub infills, since there is little stone in Suffolk, so it would have been prohibitively expensive; the exception is the church, which is built entirely using stone imported from Rutland. Instead, the merchants showed off their wealth by constructing buildings with more than one floor, carved beams, leaded glass windows and clay-tiled roofs.

Church of St Peter and St Paul, Lavenham, Suffolk

Church of St Peter and St Paul, Lavenham, Suffolk

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