In Tudor times, Lavenham was said to be the fourteenth wealthiest town in England and yet it was tiny by comparison with many English towns.
So why was it so wealthy? Its stunning timber-framed domestic and public buildings and beautiful church were built on the success of the wool trade and the wealth it created for its merchants. To find out how this came about we must first take a quick look at the development of the wool trade.
From the time that sheep were domesticated, and well before the invention of shears, wool was harvested – either by hand plucking or combing – for the making of clothes.
By the early medieval period the majority of English wool was exported, as prices were high and England had few good weavers; the best weavers living at that time in Flanders, Bruges, Ghent and Ypres. By the late thirteenth century wool had become the mainstay of the English economy and was described as “the jewel in the realm”. Even the Lord High Chancellor sat on a ‘woolsack’ when overseeing proceedings in the House of Lords. The woolsack is a large square cushion filled with wool used to symbolise the wealth and importance of the wool trade to the English economy.
So successful was the trade that it was decided to tax every bale of wool exported in order to raise income for the king. So valuable did the trade become, Edward III went to war with France in order protect the domestic wool trade with Flanders. The burghers from the rich Flemish cloth-towns had appealed to him for help against their French overlord. Later known as the Hundred Year War, the conflict continued for 116 years, from 1337 to 1453.
High wool taxes and the arrival of Flemish weavers in Suffolk fleeing from Flanders to escape the war presented fresh opportunities for Suffolk wool merchants. By the fifteenth century the Flemish weavers had established themselves in the Suffolk, working in tiny cottages the weavers and their families transformed raw wool into fine cloth and Lavenham, Sudbury, Hadleigh, Clare, Cavendish, Monks Eleigh, Bury St Edmunds and Ipswich become prosperous on the back of the wool trade.
Whilst the wool trade in Suffolk is now extremely limited, Sudbury is still famous for producing the finest silk in the country, used for royal wedding dresses, fine ties and silk curtaining. Meanwhile the magnificent wool towns have survived and today display a richness of medieval architecture hardly seen elsewhere in the UK.
The Guildhall at Lavenham has a permanent exhibition cataloguing the growth of the wool trade in Lavenham – well worth a visit.