Thursday, 15 June 2017

Suffolk: Early & Late Medieval Wealth

Last summer I went to Suffolk - a county I'd only visited once before, when I fulfilled a long held ambition to walk round West Stow, the reconstructed Anglo-Saxon village near Bury St Edmunds.

I stayed in historic Sudbury, at the sight of the old Watermill, and went from there to two locations, both indicators of the massive wealth that was once amassed in Suffolk, by very different means.

The mill pond at Sudbury
First, I went to Lavenham, expecting to find a sort of open museum, a town full of historic buildings but no modern life. Instead, I found a fully-functioning 21st-century town, which just happens to have an awful lot of gorgeous old buildings.

Modern life goes on ...
The first building to explore must be the Guildhall. The Guildhall of Corpus Christi was built in 1529, and contains many exhibits, giving glimpses of its various uses over the centuries. It has been a jail, a workhouse and almhouse, and between 1939 and 1945 it sheltered evacuees.

The fireplace in the Guildhall

Upstairs, a loom shows how the town made its money:

Little Hall, on the other side of the square from the Guildhall, is a family home dating from the 14th century, which was 'modernised' in the Tudor period. In the 1930s, two brothers bought the house and turned it into a centre for artists.

The variety of design styles as one moves through the house is vast:
From the sitting room,

To the more modern artworks incorporated into the fabric of the building,

To the courtyard.

Elsewhere in Lavenham, the old Grammar School still stands, 
painted in Suffolk Pink:

The artist John Constable was a pupil here.

Walk down any street in Lavenham and you will find these old buildings, some seemingly defying gravity.

But why, I wondered, are they there? Such a concentration of old buildings is a rarity and the reason is a Tudor loss which became a modern-world gain. The town was famous as a cloth town, specialising in a coarse broadcloth dyed with woad. The rich merchants built their grand houses, but when the wool-trade bubble burst, they left. The reason these houses still stand is poverty. Nobody could afford to rebuild, so there are no double-fronted Georgian buildings here. Rich heritage for us, a sign of poverty for late medieval Lavenham.

Wealth of a different kind is on display at Sutton Hoo, where in the 1930s a ship burial was excavated and the treasures of an East Anglian king came to light. 

Having studied and researched this period in depth, I was quite emotional when, finally, I was able to stand by the ancient burial mounds on a quiet summer's morning, and imagine the seventh-century scene as the ship burial took place. Most of the treasure is now in the British Museum, but the site itself and the visitor centre are well worth a visit.

finds from the site
I thought I knew a lot about Sutton Hoo, but I didn't know about the earlier burials - the so-called Sand Burials. These earlier burial sites are scattered around the centre, and this one is between the car park and the visitor centre entrance. Tread carefully.

Recent excavation has been ongoing at Rendlesham, the settlement where it is believed that King Raedwald (if indeed it was he who was laid to rest in that great ship) lived. I spoke to one of the guides in Mrs Pretty's house (Mrs Pretty was the landowner who first invited Basil Brown to begin excavation of the mounds). The guide told me that there are plans to open up a visitors' track from Rendlesham to Sutton Hoo, the better for the public to see how the boat was carried from one site to the other, only going on the river for part of the journey.

The death of the wool trade, the death of kings, and the 'sand bodies' - these are not the only things marked in abundance in this area. Though not specific to this location, the practice of burying cats in buildings seems to have been prolific here. One such was on display at the Mill Hotel, and I found another in Lavenham. It seems that this was not any kind of ritual sacrifice - tests have proven that this was done post mortem.

Suffolk is a beautiful county and one to which I hope to return. It's a county where you can explore 'Constable Country', visit Framlingham and Orford Castles, Melford Hall, and 14th century Leiston Abbey. There is even a working windmill at Thorpeness. As a famous Austrian film star said, I'll be back...

[all photos by and copyright of the author]