A history of Halesworth, Suffolk, UK, through the ages.


Volume 2

norman arch

Wool Churches of Suffolk

A number of churches built in East Anglia and in the Cotswolds during the 15th and 16th centuries have been called the 'Wool Churches' because they were built from the proceeds of the sheep farming and clothiers' prosperity. In fact one would argue that they should be called 'The Cloth Churches' as most of the profit was in the preparation of the wool, the weaving and finishing, rather than in the actual raising of sheep itself.

The architecture of English churches and religious houses was continually on the change. It moved from the ponderous majesty of 'Norman' design with the round arches and massive columns to the lighter and more attractive pointed arches of the 'Gothic' or 'Early English Period' (1150 - 1300). Next came the more ornamental 'Decorated Period' (1300 - 1360) which added decoration to the earlier designs, but not always added to its beauty. After the tragedies of the Black Death and the Peasants' Revolt came the high point of English architecture, known as the 'Perpendicular Period' (1360 - 1540), when our links with the architects of the continent were broken by the Hundred Years War, so introducing a truly native style.

At this time, there was a move away from donating money or land to abbeys and monasteries, so instead it was used to beautify the local parish churches. Many Suffolk churches benefited from this move, with chantries (a chapel within the church surrounded by screens) and other extensions enlarging their size.

Good examples of this are the churches of Lavenham and Long Melford, both in the south west of the county. They formed a group of wool towns which had both commercial and church building rivalry between them, and also had the money to do something about it. The splendid church of Lavenham was built in the late 15th century, due to the financial support of John de Vere, Earl of Oxford and Thomas Spring, a rich clothier. While the equally magnificent church of Long Melford was rebuilt through the generosity of the Clopton Family, and the Martin Family who were clothiers. They were also fortunate to start and complete the design and building in a period of great archtectural achievment - the Perpendicular Style.

Nearer to home are the fine churches of Blythburgh and Southwold, both built during the 15th century. Even our own Church of St. Mary was rebuilt and extended during the Decorated and Perpendicular period of the 14th and 15th centuries, when the Argentein Family was connected with Halesworth.

Blythburgh Church has been called 'The Cathedral of the Marshes' a phrase which strikes true when it is seen reflected in the water lying before it, and silhouetted against the sky behind. The Tower is from the earlier 14th century building, and it was 'grafted' on to the 15th century magnificent Nave, Aisles, Clerestory and the Chancel fashioned in Perpendicular style. The building is large but necessary for the parishioners of a town which was itself large enough to 'rate two annual fairs, to have its own mint and gaol, market stalls and quays crowded with craft from overseas'. They were carrying on a thriving fishing and mercantile trade, and rearing, in the surrounding pasture lands, large flocks of sheep for the wool trade of South and West Suffolk.

Southwold is a coloured version of Blythburgh, and was erected about 1460 following a fire of 1430. It is built of Caen stone with local flint flushwork, and the sanctus bell was rebuilt in 1867. The splendid perpendicular windows light up the spacious interior with its medieval painted roodscreen.

An explanation with images showing the difference between Norman and the various Gothic styles can be found here :- http://www.quovari.co.uk/Gothic/gothic.html


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