LAVENHAM : CHURCH OF ST PETER & ST PAUL
Church Post Code CO10 9SA
Open to visitors
Visited December 2023
It was a gloriously sunny day in early December 2023 and a rare trip in to Suffolk; a county that I have not visited nearly enough over the years. I was this area in the summer of 2015, when I had hoped to visit Lavenham, Long Melford, Cavendish and Clare. This trip was blighted by poor weather and the last two were not visited at all. Less than fond memories of staying on a bus in torrential rain, looping around Colchester, which amazingly was even more depressing in the rain that it was in the dry, waiting for the rain to stop!
To visit the church at Lavenham had been a dream since my very early days of photographing churches. On that first trip, back in 2015 I saw this magnificent tower across the fields as I approached from the east and later, standing in the church grounds and taking the church in from the south, I actually felt quite emotional such was its beauty!
This December revisit would see all four churches visited, with the church of St Peter & St Paul at Lavenham being the first of the four.
Lavenham prospered from the wool trade in the 15th and 16th centuries and at one point, despite its small population, it was amongst the wealthiest places in Britain. Lavenham paid more in taxes than considerably larger towns such as York or Lincoln.
There had been a church in Lavenham since Saxon times, of which nothing remains; the impressive structure that we see today was due to that great wealth, with the whole church being rebuilt apart from the chancel, which dates from the mid 14th century. The rest of the church was rebuilt from 1486 onwards, with the building work completed by 1525.
The present church consists of west tower, nave with north and south aisles and clerestories, south porch, south chapel, north chapel, chancel and east vestry.. This is a church of stunning quality. The tower here rises 141 feet, and is suggested to be the tallest tower in any village church in the country. The tower is heavily buttressed and there are blind recesses built in to the buttresses throughout the exterior.
The south porch is similarly ornate, with modern statues of St Peter and St Paul in an ancient recess over the doorway. Two boars can be seen either side of the main door, along with the coat of arms of the de Vere family, with John De Vere being the Lord of the Manor of Lavenham, and who was the driving force behind the late 15th century rebuilding of this church.
The rest of the exterior is a perpendicular delight! There are four three light windows on the south aisle, with gargoyle central over each. Higher up, there are 12 three light clerestory windows; I wonder if this number is symbolic for the 12 tribes of Israel. There are three four light windows on the south chapel, with the chancel almost being hidden. There is a crocketed pinnacle though rising up from the west end of the chance, just to help rove that it is there!
Looking from the south, the south porch, south aisle, clerestory and chapel all have intricately carved battlements. When looking at the exterior it is worth leaving the church grounds by some steps close to the west face of the tower, walking away from the church a little then taking a look back at the tower from the west! By the way, there is a star design is several different places on the tower. This star is called a molet and is often used on family crests, symbolising divine wisdom bestowed by God.
The church was open to visitors and despite the fact that it was December and off peak for the tourist season, there was a good number of people looking around the church and the church shop was open.
Standing at the west end, looking east, it was breathtaking. A fabulous structure built at a time when the wool trade and its vast profits, left East Anglia as one of the richest parts of the country. A lasting legacy from those days, built for the glory of God but also, in those pre reformation days when the state religion was Catholicism, also built to lessen the time of the donor and their family had to spend in purgatory.
There are seven bays to north and south, with ornate carving throughout from the arches to the clerestory windows, Screens separate nave from chancel and chapels. The South Chapel, known as the Spring Chapel dates from 1525. The north chapel, which is also known as the Branch Chapel, dates from 1500.
Moving in to the chancel, there is a triple sedilia against the south wall of the chancel; this providing the seating for the clergy when the Mass was taken in pre reformation days. To the east of this is a piscina, which was used in washing the holy vessels used in the Mass.
The marble reredos contains blind arches, each under a trefoil shaped canopy. On these are the Lord’s Prayer, the Creed and the Ten Commandments. The altar is plain and simple, with the altar cloth purple; the liturgical colour for Advent.
There is a great deal of high quality stained glass to be seen here, but all of this is Victorian except for a few fragments. I found this a little odd as Long Melford a few miles away has a great collection of medieval glass. For whatever reason the reformers were much more thorough in clearing the medieval glass here than they were at their neighbours!
The east window is of five lights; with Christ crucified central. He is flanked by Mary and John, in their traditional places alongside the cross. They too are flanked by St Peter and St Paul, after who the church is dedicated. St Peter, to the left as we look at it, holds the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven. To the right we see St Paul, who as usual is holding a sword point downwards. A glance up in to the tracery of this window shows several items of Christ’s passion
The east window of the south chapel is of five lights; with stained glass on two levels. The upper level shows Jesus with children who are wearing costumes of different ages; Jesus is unchanging whilst people and fashions come and go around him. The stained glass below shows Mary of Bethany washing Jesus’ feet with her hair. Off to our left, John and Peter, each with nimbus, talk among themselves whilst at least one of the people gathered behind, looks on with some anger at what he is seeing. To out right, Judas is given the 30 pieces of silver, the price he was paid to betray Jesus.
Still in the south chapel we have a window depicting two scenes from the life of Saul of Tarsus, who was later known as Paul, to whom the church here is partly dedicated. The first scene shows the stoning of St Stephen, with Saul standing off to one side holding the cloaks of those who are stoning Stephen, just outside the city walls with Roman soldiers looking on unconcerned. We also have Saul being blinded on the Road to Damascus; he has fallen off his horse and his companions and heading off in all directions in confusion. Jesus, on the clouds and attended by angels, looks down on him ‘Saul Saul why do you persecute me?’ Saul, temporarily blinded stares out through sightless eyes.
Close by we see Jesus meeting four important people. He appears before Martha of Bethany, who kneels before him, with keys tucked in to her belt; appears to Mary Magdalene on Easter morning. Close by Jesus is shown with John the Baptist and finally with Peter, who again holds the Keys to the Kingdom of Heaven. Peter is reinstated after denying Jesus three times on the night of the arrest; ‘Feed my sheep’.
In the north chapel there are stained glass panels detailing scenes from the life of Peter, who this church is also dedicated to. One panel shows Jesus talking intently to Peter; I can only think that this is where Jesus predicts Peter’s martyrdom in John Chapter 21 verse 10 ‘Very truly I tell you, when you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.’
Next, Peter and John approach a beggar looking for money. The beggar would have been surprised by what Peter told him, “Silver and gold I do not have, but what I do have I give you: In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, rise up and walk.” (Acts Chapter 3 verse 6).
Following that we see Peter in prison but about to be released by an angel of the Lord. Finally we see Peter crucified upside down. This is not Biblical, there being no mention of his crucifixion in scripture. The first mention of him being crucified upside down was in a book called the Acts of Peter written in the late 2nd century AD.
The fragility of human life is illustrated by looking at a wall monument and a memorial brass inside the church. The monument can be found on the north wall of the chancel and is to Henry Copinger was Rector of Lavenham from 1578 to 1622 . He faces his wife across a prayer desk, hands raised in prayer, with children underneath, seven boys to the right and four girls to the left. One of the boys and one of the girls each carries a human skull, showing that they pre deceased their parents. An eighth boy lies wrapped in swaddling cloths, showing that he died before the swaddling cloths had been removed, which would have been around nine months after birth. During Tudor times, swaddling involved wrapping the new baby in linen bands from head to foot to ensure the baby would grow up without physical deformity. A stay band would be attached to the forehead and the shoulders to secure the head. Babies would be swaddled like this until around nine months.
Times were terribly hard and this reminded me of a wall memorial at the church of St George, Tombland, Norwich. There were 12 children on this memorial; with all three daughters and five sons carrying skulls, two further sons were wrapped in swaddling cloths.
The memorial brass is dated 1631 and again features an infant in swaddling cloths. It is for Clopton d'Ewes, who died aged 10 days.
The church grounds are spacious and well kept. Several lines of box bushes lead up o the south porch. There are some interesting gravestones dating from the late seventeenth to mid eighteenth century. Several of these have the deaths head symbol, a human skull to remind the onlooker that Man is mortal and will die.
On one stone, two skulls are present with two angels, which symbolised the safe escorting of the soul to Heaven after death. The details of the deceased are too weathered to read but are surrounded by what looks to be a laurel wreath. This was an often used symbol for visitor, with the victory here being over death.
I enjoyed my stay here very much; a quite magnificent structure. As essential visit if you are in the area and I left here with some pleasant memories which will last a lifetime! The sun was blazing down, there wasn’t a cloud in the sky and this Suffolk churchcrawl continued; as we headed off four miles or so to the south west to Long Melford.