Lavenham Guildhall, Suffolk

Once a wealthy town, dominated by the woollen cloth industry, Lavenham has some remarkably fine Tudor buildings to explore. Undoubtedly the 'piece de resistance' is the 16th century timber-framed Guildhall that overlooks the market square in the centre of town.

Late medieval guilds were established throughout the country by religious bodies, primarily to raise funds for the Catholic priests' duties. Becoming involved in regular business meetings, as well as organising social activities and the important celebration of the saint to whom the guild was dedicated, these bodies outgrew their original make-do meeting places and many had new halls specially built. Lavenham Guildhall was constructed for this purpose c1530, a magnificent monument reflecting the affluence of the local cloth merchants who paid for the elaborately decorated building.

Lavenham Guildhall consists of the main ground-floor meeting hall, a cellar, and half a dozen smaller rooms on the first floor. Surprisingly, the main hall appears to have been very moderate in comparison to the size and grandeur of the whole building but, from surviving documentation about the 16th century Corpus Christi guild, it would seem that they had few members at Lavenham. Again the obvious wealth of the merchants is apparent in the use of brickwork for the cellar, and much of it is original. The first floor rooms are far less significant, quite plain, and their use is uncertain, but certainly the large attic room would have provided ample storage space for the cloth and yarn.

By the middle of the 16th century all guilds had been abolished following the Reformation, and many halls were demolished or converted. Lavenham Guildhall was utilised as a prison and a workhouse, before being restored back to its original purpose as a meeting place for local organisations.

Suffolk is one of those rare parts of England where 21st century intrusion has been kept at bay, and many of the pretty little villages look almost untouched by time. Lavenham is a superb example. Not only is the Guildhall itself both impressive and fascinating, but it also contains a lot of information on the medieval woollen cloth trade and local history, in the excellent exhibitions on permanent display.

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