Monday, 29 April 2013

Lavenham, Suffolk

SS Peter & Paul is arguably the best known church in Suffolk and is magnificent, reflecting the wool wealth in an extravagant manner. Who could fail to be impressed by this combined worship of God and Mammon, and yet it rather feels like an attraction at Disneyland - the churchyard is immaculate, the tourists abundant, the attractions resplendent. Is it as good a building as some of the other churches I've visited on this journey? - I've come across better but for sheer bling this takes some beating.

ST PETER AND ST PAUL. This is, needless to say, one of the most famous of the parish churches of Suffolk - rightly so; for it is as interesting historically as it is rewarding architecturally. In both respects it is a match for Long Melford. The nave of Melford may be the nobler design, but Lavenham has more unity. To the eye it is a Late Perp church throughout, though the chancel and the pretty crocketed spirelet for the sanctus bell are clearly Dec (unknapped flint, Dec window tracery). The church was built by the efforts of the clothiers of Lavenham, chiefly the Springs, and of the Lord of the Manor, John de Vere, the thirteenth Earl of Oxford. His arms appear on the S porch, and inscriptions record Thomas Spring on the S chapel and Simon Branch on the N chapel. Wills prove that the tower was building in c. 1486-95, and its top parts belong to a second campaign of c. 1520-5. In 1523 Thomas Spring III left £200, a large sum, for its completion, and for the building of a chapel for a monument to himself and his wife. Other wills indicate building in the church itself in 1498 and 1504 (John Rusby £200). It is worth recording also that a niece of Thomas Spring II married the second son of the fifteenth Earl of Oxford. Thomas Spring III, when he made his will in 1523, owned property in 30 places.

Lavenham church makes a perfect picture, away from the houses of the village on two sides at least. Its W tower is as mighty as its nave is noble. The only criticism is that the tower is, perhaps, a little too substantial for the length of the nave, which is shorter than at Long Melford. Height of the tower 140 ft, length of the church 156 ft. Restoration by Penrose 1861-7. The tower is of knapped flint. On the plinth the stars and shields of the de Veres, the merchant marks of the Springs, and the crossed keys of St Peter and crossed swords of St Paul. The buttresses are very unusual, broad and clasping but provided on their two fronts with thinner sub-buttresses which look, of course, as if they were normal set-back buttresses. Five set-off's. On them panelling, and lower down canopied niches. Large W doorway with the arms of the Earl of Oxford and fleuron decoration, ogee gable, and flanking buttress shafts; four-light W window with transom. Three-light bell- openings. Parapet with shields in lozenges. The coat of arms of Thomas Spring III, a very recent acquisition when he died, appears thirty two times. The pinnacles were never built.

The nave is faced with Castleton stone. Seven bays with large transomed four-light windows. The clerestory has twelve, not fourteen, windows, owing to the interference of the tower buttresses, and the charming irregularity of a rood-turret with spirelet not outside the aisle but between nave and aisle. Aisle buttresses with decoration, aisle battlements with rich open-work decoration, clerestory also with such battlements. A favourite motif is large tripartite leaves set in panels. The N is essentially the same, although the window tracery is a little different, and there is no porch. The S porch is a spectacular piece. The entrance has spandrels with the Oxford boar, above it a niche, a frieze of six shields, again of the de Vere family, and above that openwork battlements. Fan-vault inside. The S (Spring) chapel is dated 1525. The inscription on it reads:

[Orate pr0 Anim] Thome Spryng armig et Alicie uxoris ejus qui istgm capellam fieri fecerunt anno dni MCCCCC vicesimo qui istam capellam fieri fecerunt.

It is higher than the aisle. It has flushwork-panelled walls, three/large transomed four-light windows with tracery different from that of the aisle, and different battlements too. The N (Branche) chapel corresponds to the S chapel but was built earlier, c. 1500. Its inscription is similar:

[Orate pro Animus] Simonis Branch et Elizabethe uxoris ejus qui istam capellam fieri fecerunt.

Its style is similar too, but the following differences ought to be noted. In the tracery of the Spring Chapel occur ogee arches, in that of the Branche Chapel they do not. The buttresses of the Spring Chapel are more elaborate than those of the Branche Chapel. The battlements of the Spring chapel are of stone similar to those of the S aisle, those of the Branche chapel have flushwork panelling. From the C14 chancel projects a low E vestry. This is said to date from 1444, was given by Thomas Spring II, and is of knapped flint with plain battlements. The arcades inside are of six bays. The slender piers have a complex section with four attached shafts which alone carry capitals. The capitals have fleuron decoration and battlements. The arch has an outer plain roll moulding, and circular shafts rise through the spandrels and from the apexes to the roof. Below the clerestory windows frieze of lozenges with shields. Cambered roof on small figures of angels. The E bays, above the former rood, are panelled. Fine N aisle roof, lean-to, on angel figures. Carved principals. Wall posts with niches and canopies. Along the N aisle wall below the windows frieze of fleurons, along the S aisle wall of foliage trails. In the N chapel N wall blank panelling below the windows. Blank panelling also in the tower N, S, and W walls.

FURNISHINGS. FONT. Perp, octagonal, much decayed. It had on seven sides two panels with standing figures. -  SCREENS. The roodscreen is contemporary with the chancel, i.e. of c. 1330-40. Screens that early are rare. Simple two-light divisions with ogee arches and flowing tracery. Original gates. Cresting. Later are the parclose screens to the N and S chapels. Parts of several screens, all good, none outstanding. The best has two-light divisions with a pendant between the two lights, and gables and fine tracery over. - SPRING CHANTRY (N aisle E end). The screen is a glorious piece of woodwork, as dark as bronze. Buttresses of openwork mouchettes. Dado with branches instead of tracery. In the two-light arches the tracery has also turned organic. Shallow canopies with little imitation vaults. The chantry was built by the will of Thomas Spring, who died in 1523. - OXFORD CHANTRY (S aisle E end). The thirteenth Earl died in 1513. The screen round his chantry is less fantastical, but equally successful. Three-light divisions with big ogee gables over each six lights. Castellated angle buttresses and finials. For the monument inside see below. - DOORS. W door with tracery, S door with linenfold panelling no doubt of the date of the porch. Rood stair with a typical Early Tudor motif (cf. S door Southwold), chancel E end, to C15 vestry, with tracery. - STALLS. Traceried fronts, poppyheads on the ends. - MISERICORDS. E.g. a pelican, a jester, a man holding a pig (the Oxford boa?), two figures playing the lute and the fiddle, etc. - STAINED GLASS. Many small fragments of original glass in the N aisle windows. - E window by Lavers & Barraud (Gent. Mag. 1861), the chancel S window by Frederick Thompson 1861. - MONUMENTS. In the Oxford Chantry decayed tomb-chest with pitched roof. - In the chancel monument to Henry Copinger b. 1622. Two kneeling figures facing each other, kneeling children in the ‘predella’. Columns l. and r. and two angels standing outside them. - BRASSES. Thomas Spryng II d. 1486 (E Vestry). Kneeling figures. - Allaine Dister d. 1534, an Elizabethan plate (N aisle wall). The inscription says of him:

A Clothier vertuous while he was
In Lavenham many a yeare.
For as in lyefe he loved best
The poore to clothe and feede
So withe the riche and all the rest
He neighbourlie agreed
And did appoynt before he died
A speial yearlie rent
Whiche shoulde be every Whitsuntide
Amonge the poorest spent

-  Clopton d’Eewes d. 1631, tiny baby (in front of the altar). - Large number of indents.

 Misericord N2 Jester (2)

Clopton d'Ewes d.1631 (2)

SS Peter & Paul

Glass (6)

LAVENHAM. Looking through her oriel window at Lavenham, Jane Taylor saw a twinkling star and thought it like a diamond in the sky. We think she would walk about this place thinking it like a diamond on the earth, so beautiful it must have been. Beautiful it is, but our destroying century has done its work and medieval Lavenham is mixed with much that is too poor to keep it company. There are places where we may stand and see nothing that has not been here 400 years. There are streets that are like a walk into the past, and houses like a dream. But if we would see the wretched thing that our own age has done we have but to come to Lavenham’s church corner, with Beauty and the Beast standing side by side. The church, of course, is the Beauty, and wondrously beautiful it is, but the thing that is incredible is that nobody has planted a row of trees or a glorious high hedge to hide the back gardens of the ugly rows of houses standing looking at the church. Houses of charity they are, but the most tasteless scene that Lavenham has. It is best to see this church from the other side as it rises above a weeping willow and a silver birch beside the lily pond and garden of the hall; from this side we ourselves must weep to see the spoiler’s work.

All the loveliness of sleepy Lavenham stands out in the mind when the ugly is forgotten. Its streets are as delightful as their names, and are famous for their houses, captivating inside and out. Lady Street leads us from the marvellous old guildhall; Water Street has the house with the jolly figures that have been looking out from the door-posts for 400 years. Shilling Old Grange was the home of Ann and Jane Taylor. Church Street has the little medieval houses which seem to be leaning on each other, some nodding forward as if half asleep, some with queer shutters, some with pink plaster. Prentice Street has a house 14th century at the back and 16th century at the front, which belonged to the last wool merchant in Lavenham.

The old grammar school with the 16th century gables and tiny shields on the beams has carved figures of Christ between robbers and angels. Toll House has a heavy oak door which has been swinging for centuries. The Old Wool Hall of Lady Street has been rebuilt with its old materials, and has kept the carved beams, the spacious hall, and the enchanting ingle-nooks. Bolton Street has a house with the roof coming down nearly to the ground. Chimney House in Church Street has an odd passage under arches round its chimney. The Swan Inn at the meeting of the ways has memories of Lavenham great days in its gabled roof, its giant timbers, its plastered walk stamped with a mitre and a fleur-de-lys, and the old courtyard where is a door opening into one of the bedrooms for the passengers and luggage on the top of the coaches.

There can be only a few timbered houses in England to rival the guildhall, a few yards behind the graceful shaft of the market cross. It has an exquisite gabled porch with an upper room, a grand door and an oriel window, an overhanging storey with a carved cornice, and a remarkable corner-post with tracery and flowers round a niche with a figure of John de Vere, the Earl of Oxford who gave the town a charter in 1529. Here in their heyday the rich cloth merchants founded the Guild of Corpus Christi, which met in the hall. It is as they saw it when they sat round the great fireplaces, but little did they dream of what was to happen in the cellar with the small barred window, for here the brave Rowland Taylor was held captive before they led him to the stake on Aldham Common. We may sit in what is said to have been his seat  in a recess in the wall.

Pleasanter, perhaps, is the home of Ann and Jane Taylor, a lovely place with its dainty little courtyard, its overhanging bedrooms, and the massive beams that look as if they will last a thousand years. Here the girls lived with their father, Ann who wrote the poem on My Mother which all our children know, Jane who wrote Twinkle, twinkle, little star. She wrote it here; she may have thought it out sitting by this fireplace; she would see the stars through these windows. What she did not see was the little secret room under the roof, which she passed a thousand times without dreaming it was there. It was found in our own time, with medieval pictures still on its walls.

It is to those rich clothiers, the two Thomas Springs and Simon Branch, and to the Earl of Oxford, that Lavenham owes its noble church. They began it in the 15th century and finished it in the 16th, giving it the finest tower in the county. It is magnificent, soaring 140 feet high, with shields on the buttresses and bands of roses and stars, the face of it all closely packed with a hundred thousand flints. Every year on June 21 the bells celebrate with peals the birthday of the oldest bell, made in 1625 and weighing over a ton; its lovely tone is unsurpassed.

Very impressive are these battlemented walls, their carvings still bold and clear, the clerestory windows worthy of a cathedral, the pierced parapets crowned with pinnacles and statues and carved with a host of wheat sheaves and stars. The turret of the south chapel is crowned with a spire and weathervane, and the battlements of the south porch are enriched with finials like little oaks. The porch ceiling is richly vaulted, the linenfold door has two boars swinging from spits, carved two generations ago by the grandfather of the man who carved the dragons above the doorway of the Swan Inn. The west door has been many generations swinging in its beautiful canopied arch.

The great church, nearly 200 feet long and 70 wide, is rich in beauty and possessions. On the pier caps of the six bays of the nave are Tudor flowers and crowns of East Anglian kings, the clerestory windows have fragments of old glass, and below the clerestory is a rich cornice and a fine band of carving. Above it all a gallery of 28 standing figures, monks, pilgrims, saints, holds up the huge beams of the roof, shaped from single oak trees. Everywhere the roofs are fine, those of the aisles more elaborate than the nave and also held up by seated figures under canopies. The south chapel roof has foliage on the beams and crests on the wall-plates, with stars, oak leaves, dogs, and figures, among whom we recognised St Peter and Thomas Becket. This chapel was built by Thomas Spring, one of the richest wool merchants in England, but he never saw its full beauty, for he died in 1523 before it was finished. An inscription outside the north chapel tells that it was built by Simon Branch.

The screens are a wonderful group, with exquisite carving. The chancel screen has tiny faces no bigger than a penny, and a pair of gates which have been rescued from a stable. On the side screens of the chancel are traces of old painting and gilding. Most remarkable are two Tudor screens round tombs in the aisles. The screen in the south aisle has shields between dolphins, and intricate canopy work  like that in Henry the Seventh’s chapel at Westminster; the tomb it shelters is seven feet long, and the stone over it must weigh a ton.

The other screen round the tomb with the brass matrices of the Spring family (the brasses have gone) has rich panels with magnificent tracery in the arches and beautiful canopy work, and in niches on the corner-posts are small figures of saints, while in the ornamental panels are winged lions, dragons, jesters with tails, men climbing trees, quaint acrobats, and animals hunting frightened children. We may suppose that the craftsmen of this wondrous screen were inspired by the 14th century miserere carvings in the choir. One has a man
with a pig under his arm, another has a stork and a spoonbill pulling a man’s hair, another a man riding a camel, and one a woman playing a fiddle and a man mocking her by drawing his crutches across a pair of bellows. (Instead of legs the woman ends with an animal’s head, the man with its tail.)

Thomas Spring, the father of the wool merchant, is on a brass in the vestry he built at the east end, and with him are his wife, four sons, and six daughters, a quaint 15th century group all pictured in their shrouds. A clothier of the next generation, Allaine Dister, is in brass with his wife and their six children, and there is a brass of a baby in his christening robe, little Clopton D’Ewes, who was only ten days old when he died in 1631.

By the altar kneels a rector of Shakespeare’s day, Dr Copinger; he is wearing a black gown with white ruffs, and his wife kneels facing him,  their ten children below them, and an angel on a pedestal on each side. The children would be christened at the battered old font, which used to be locked against witches. It is 600 years old, and has figures in seven of its panels, among them a mother teaching her child to read while a demon tries to snatch him away. The font is one of the oldest things in Lavenham, though the chancel arch and the sanctuary are of equal age, also from the earlier church.

On a carved oak table is a book bound in vellum with a war biography of every man who died. With it is the story of a son of the rector, the much-loved George Hugh Leonard Conyngham. A black marble stone in the floor has the Conyngham arms in brass, and on it is an inscription telling us of the death of Denis Conyngham, closing with the words:

Goodbye, dear child, Goodbye till the day break.

The father was rector here for 16 years, and the chapel in which the son is buried was beautified as a tribute to the father. The son was born in 1902 and died in 1929. 'He was a Winchester boy and went from the college there to Cambridge, rowing for his college and winning the college pairs. On joining the Scottish Rifles he was awarded the first scholarship given by the War Ofiioe to the most promising university candidate, and after service at Aldershot and. Catterick he went to China with his regiment. Wonderfully versatile, he took an honours degree in history at  Cambridge, laid out gardens at Catterick, took over transport at Hong Kong, and at his home in Lavenham he used to preach from his father’s pulpit. A man of great courage, he rescued a child from drowning at Hong Kong and would travel with perfect confidence in parts of China where no Englishman was thought to be safe. With him the Chinese were not only safe but friendly. The police cleared the way for him when curious crowds gathered round, and once a Chinese governor put a guard over the house where he slept, to protect him against bandits.

There was one time when he was actually in danger in China. He had noticed a child being treated with great cruelty by a crowd, and advanced to the rescue. It was a question for the moment as to whether the crowd would set upon him or fall back, but Denis Conyngham’s blue eyes and his serene smile did their work; the crowd fell back, the child was safe, and all was well.


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