Crisis and Revival, 1300-1530

Crisis and Revival, 1300-1530


During this period, England underwent a series of profound changes, socially, economically and psychologically. Suffolk, being part of a populous and eco­nomically advanced region, illustrated these trends very clearly—in its manorial administration, agricultural practices, industrial development, social structure and even in its religious thinking. The new world which emerged in the 15th century was, however, born of several severe crises which rocked society to its roots.

Social unrest at the beginning of the 14th century was especially apparent among the townsmen of Bury St Edmunds. In 1305 they made one of their periodic attempts to win independence from the abbey, earning themselves a suspended fine of £333 and 50 barrels of wine. In England as a whole, disas­trous harvests in 1315 and 1316 were succeeded by the spread of cattle disease and, in the 1320s, by years of drought. These economic disruptions stimulated new unrest which eventually led to the deposition and death of Edward II in 1327. In that year the burgesses of Bury launched the bloodiest of all their uprisings against the abbey.

In the September of 1326, Edward II’s queen, Isabella, together with the young Prince Edward and supporters from France, landed at Walton near Felixstowe and pursued the king’s forces across England. Such a situation presented an ideal opportunity for insurrection and, in the following January, just before the king’s deposition was announced, crowds organised by the burgesses pillaged Bury abbey. Several months later, the rebels were finally subdued and 30 cartloads of prisoners were sent off to Norwich. A number of lives had been lost, the gateway into the great court had been destroyed and many internal buildings burned, among them Bradfield Hall (which has often been confused with the village of Bradfield Combust). On the other hand, little permanent benefit seems to have been gained by the burgesses, many of whom lost their heads and others their possessions.

The Black Death

It was not social unrest, however, which had the greatest effect on East Anglian life in the 14th century, but the movements of the common flea which carried the dreaded infection known as the Black Death. Introduced into England from the Mediterranean in the summer of 1348, the plague reached its peak in Suffolk in the summer of the next year. Within a few months, between a third and a half of the population was mown down. Numerous deaths among villein tenants were reported to manorial courts. At Waisham-le-Willows, 102 deaths were listed in June 1349, while at Redgrave the total reached 169 in July. The normal number of deaths in these manors, during these months, would have been less than ten. Two-thirds of the benefices in Norwich diocese (which then included Suffolk) are estimated to have been made vacant, for priests who visited the sick and buried the dead were especially vulnerable.

A great deal of myth has unfortunately grown up around the Black Death. It was no doubt catastrophic, but it was not solely responsible for some of the results frequently attributed to it, such as the shifting of villages and the isolation of churches. In fact, the rural population was shrinking already, well before the coming of the Black Death. Professor Thrupp has shown that the ‘replacement rate’ at which sons succeeded fathers was falling steadily on certain East Anglian manors throughout the first half of the 14th century. In the case of Hinderclay, the replacement rate fell by over 40 per cent before 1349. Another sign of dwindling population is the untilled ground recorded in 1341 by the Inquisition of the Ninths. Nearly 1,700 acres, in eight parishes of Risbridge Hundred, were reported as abandoned. The Black Death did, of course, accelerate these downward trends but was not their sole cause.

Although the passing of the epidemic left many vacant holdings, there is no evidence to support the belief, so beloved of local historians, that villages were frequently and immediately deserted. Where field-walking as been carried out extensively, as at Mendlesham and Walsham, scores of abandoned sites have been discovered, but they were usually abandoned before the Black Death or well after. Isolated churches, which are a major feature of the East Anglian landscape, are often mistakenly designated ‘plague churches’, yet the villages which were once associated with them migrated long before 1349. The only likely example of a village ‘killed by the Black Death’ is Alston or Alteston. It had been functioning as an autonomous parish in 1341 when its parishioners paid significant tithes and altar-dues, but by 1362 was united ecclesiastically with its neighbour Trimley St Martin.

Although the Black Death reduced population by at least a third, the homes of dead tenants were usually claimed by a legitimate heir and not immediately left to rot. It was the frequent recurrence of plague in the later 14th and 15th centuries which was responsible for many vacant holdings and shrunken villages. At Norton, for instance, the court rolls record the neglect and decay of properties throughout the 15th century, while a survey of Walsham-le-Willows in 1581 mentions a number of former tenements and messuages which had probably been abandoned in the same period.

As some farmsteads and holdings were being deserted, lords of manors were leasing out increasing amounts of demesne land as a means of raising ready cash. The combined effect was to give those farmers who remained the welcome opportunity of substantially enlarging their holdings. Seventy-four parishes scattered around Suffolk, which were listed in 1428 as each having fewer than 50 inhabitants, had by 1524 a high average of 115 acres to each household. At Redgrave account rolls show the leasing of demesne rising from 42 cases in 1371 to 98 in 1391 and 123 in 1421, while surveys of a few years later record holdings enlarged with portions of abandoned tenements. In this evidence the origins of the East Anglian yeoman farmer can be discerned, so important a figure in the rural community throughout later centuries.

With the increasing acreage of holdings came an awareness of the value of consolidating and enclosing land, especially in clay-covered High Suffolk. Much indisputable evidence of early enclosure is found, making nonsense of the oft-repeated statement that it was only from the 18th century that fields were defined by hedges and ditches. ‘Closes’ are frequently mentioned in medieval wills, while court rolls often show the lords, lessees and tenants of High Suffolk enclosing their land on a piecemeal basis from the second half of the 14th century onwards. Between 1422 and 1501 Littlehaugh Manor at Norton wit­nessed 190 cases of enclosure and encroachment, with the greatest frequency in the 1430s and ’40s. By Elizabethan times, enclosure was well advanced, as many surveys and maps show. Furthermore, the resulting fields of Suffolk were often in the form of grassland, either permanently or in rotation, and they held cows more often than the notorious sheep which ‘ate up men’. By 1577, 75 per cent of Walsham was enclosed and 85 per cent under grass. Areas like that around Debenham were supporting, by the mid-16th century at least, fairly large herds of dairy cattle and producing quantities of cheese.


The Peasants’ Revolt


Despite these new trends, or perhaps because of them, major unrest broke out again in 1381 in the form of the Peasants’ Revolt. This movement against the ruling classes was supported by a large cross-section of the community, though unfree villeins were greatly in the majority. A combination of irritants, some the aftermath of the Black Death, exacerbated by high taxes and controls on wages, and whipped up by eloquent members of the minor clergy, provoked consider­able violence and bloodshed. Suffolk names feature prominently among the dramatis personae of the event. The Archbishop of Canterbury, surnamed Sudbury after his birthplace, was the son of a wealthy local merchant; he was slain by a London mob on Tower Hill. One of our most extraordinary (and grisly) relics is his pickled head preserved at St Gregory’s church in his native town. Chief justice John de Cavendish was one of the first targets of the Suffolk mob, who relieved him of his goods and head. On the rebel side, John Wrawe, chaplain of Sudbury and the Suffolk counterpart of Jack Straw, terrorised the area around Bury St Edmunds and claimed to have the support of notable county families such as the Tollemaches, Bedingfields and Woolverstones. All was over, though, in a fortnight. A leading part in the armed suppression of the revolt was played by Henry Despenser, bishop of Norwich.

The prime aim, of the rebels was to break the hold of the lords over their villein tenants; hence the frequent pillaging of manor houses and ‘burning of the rolls’ in an attempt to eradicate evidence of villein status. While the inevi­table consequence of the rising was military and judicial suppression, and Par­liament was quick to emphasise the continuance of villein status, yet the hold of lords over their tenants, already eroded before 1381, continued steadily to weaken. By the middle of the 15th century, Suffolk’s manorial documents show few references to labour services, which were the most severe of the villeins’ traditional burdens. Grants of manumission (the releasing of bondmen from servitude) often occur early in that century and some wills, such as that of Sir Andrew Boteler of Great Waldingfield in 1430, leave instructions for all bondmen on specific manors to be given their freedom. On the other hand under the most conservative lords, like the Dukes of Norfolk, villein status was strictly main­tained well into Elizabethan times.

Industrial growth

While those (still probably the majority of Suffolk’s population) whose liveli­hood lay solely in agriculture enjoyed an improved standard of living in the later 14th and 15th centuries, the leaders of commerce and industry had a genuine chance of becoming rich. In the period from approximately 1450 to 1530 the cloth industry reached a major peak of prosperity, and especially so in the main broadcloth area of south Suffolk—roughly a triangle with points at Clare, Bury St Edmunds and East Bergholt.

The evidence of craft-surnames and the occurrence of fulling mills in the 13th and 14th centuries at Hadleigh, Sudbury and Bury St Edmunds show that the Suffolk broadcloth industry was in existence, albeit on a small scale, well before the supposed arrival of Flemish weavers in the 1330s. Although the Flemings helped, no doubt, to reinvigorate the industry over the country as a whole, their settlement in East Anglia seems to have been confined to Norwich and Colchester, and no foreign influence is discernible at all in Suffolk at that period. Indeed, when lists of resident aliens do become available for the follow­ing century, the few foreigners involved in the production of cloth prove to have been Italians.

The production of broadcloth, chiefly in the Hundreds of Babergh and Cosford, increased dramatically in the 15th century. The industry gave employ­ment to large numbers of men, women and children in the different processes of spinning, weaving, dyeing, fulling and shearing, but the wealthiest group were the clothiers or clothmakers. They were the capitalists of the system, buying the wool, organising its processing and marketing the finished product. Wills proved during the late 15th and early 16th centuries in the highest probate court of the country (the Prerogative Court of Canterbury) indicate the rising number of these entrepreneurs and where they lived. Lavenham had the most clothiers while Boxford, Long Melford, Hadleigh, Nayland, Waldingfield and East Bergholt followed closely behind. The relative wealth of individuals can be seen in the subsidy returns of 1524. Alice Spring, widow of Thomas Spring III, the ‘Rich Clothier’ of Lavenham, was worth a mammoth £1,000 in possessions, second highest in the county to the Duke of Norfolk. Her husband, in his day, had been the wealthiest man in England outside the nobility, owning at the time of his death 26 manors and property in 76 other places. Similarly, nearly half of all those assessed at £200 or more in 1524 prove to have been clothiers.

The relative importance of cloth-producing towns in the 15th century can be gauged from the returns of a tax official called the aulnager. The annual totals of cloths produced, as distinct from the number of clothiers at work, show that the greatest output came from Hadleigh, followed by Lavenham, Bury St Edmunds, Ipswich, Nayland, Waldingfield, Long Melford and Sudbury. In sev­eral cases it has to be assumed that cloth-producing villages in their vicinity were also included.

A muster roll of 1522, surviving for the Hundred of Babergh only, indicates the number of clothworkers in each parish. Boxford had the largest total (60), mainly weavers, whereas Lavenham (34), Glemsford (20) and Nayland (14) had the greatest number of clothiers. Long Melford, on the other hand had more fullers than anywhere else, and Nayland more shearmen. These figures show that parishes tended to have individual specialisations, but were also linked and dependent on each other.

Kersey and Lindsey, two places traditionally associated with clothmaking, do not feature in any official lists, although they may well be included under Hadleigh. Considerable doubt exists, however, as to whether they really gave their names to kinds of cloth. ‘Kerseys’ or ‘Carseys’ (probably derived from an early Arabic word) were narrow cloths produced in several parts of England, while ‘Linsey’ implies linen, as in linsey-wolsey which was a mixture of linen and wool.

The architectural legacy

The evidence remaining today for all this late-medieval wealth is largely in the form of buildings—fine timber-framed houses and Perpendicular churches. Although ‘the great rebuilding’ is a phrase originally coined for the period 1570-16401 it might equally well be applied here. Individuals extended, adapted and rebuilt their houses while parishes did the same with their churches. One can virtually judge the wealth of a place in the 15th century by the amount of building done, or not done, on its church. Thus, at Lavenham and Long Melford, the churches were mainly rebuilt, yet on the Breckland the average church may have had the occasional new window or door but retained much more of its fabric from earlier centuries.

Architecture is, of course, subject to changes of fashion and technology. During the first half of the 14th century the Decorated style was in vogue. In churches new windows with ‘curvilinear’ tracery and ogee arches were then replacing Early English lancets and Norman splayed openings. From this period we have many fine east windows as at Mildenhall and Monk Soham, and more spacious chancels like Brandon and Raydon with their attractive spirelets. Fortunately, these did not get rebuilt in the 15th century.

From about 1360 onwards, the Perpendicular style came into fashion pro­ducing in many parishes the ‘typical Suffolk church’. Varying amounts of building were undertaken but the great majority of parishes managed at least to introduce some up-to-date windows. Large numbers of towers went up, and many fine aisles, chapels and porches. Parishes tried to keep up with their neighbours and paid them the compliment of copying certain features. This is seen in the building instructions given to masons: Halesworth and Tunstall towers were copied at Walberswick, while Framsden and Brandeston were the patterns for Helmingham. Soon, hardly a church remained that had not organised some of improvement to its fabric.

Internal features, too, were the subject of great care and expense. During this period most parishes seem to have rebuilt their rood screens and lofts, put in fine carved benches and raised beautifully carved roofs. They frequently installed new fonts, especially those depicting the seven sacraments, Easter sepulchres and tabernacles to house statues. Even where these features survive, the brilliant colours with which they were decorated have largely gone. It is, therefore, only by reading documents and using the imagination that the full magnificence of these church interiors before the Reformation can be recon­structed.

Much of this work on churches was financed by individuals, chiefly for ‘the good of their souls’. Such beneficence was sometimes recorded by inscriptions in the stonework, outstandingly so at Long Melford and Stratford St Mary, or by inscriptions in less durable glass but fortunately recorded by early antiquaries, as at Parham. The majority, though, merely made entries in the backs of their service books or on their bede rolls, and these have long since vanished, leaving us to piece together what we can from surviving wills. These record the gifts of what an Elizabethan parish clerk of Eye termed ‘the frank and devowte hartes of the people’ as, for instance, to the tower of Eye itself from 1453 to 1479; to the south porch at Boxford from 1441 to 1480; to the chancel-of Blythburgh from 1443 to 1475; and many others. It has been calculated that Lavenham church, between 1485 and 1540, received gifts and bequests totalling £2,287, a prodigious sum when a labourer’s daily wage hovered between 4d. and 6d.

In Lavenham’s case, 70 per cent of the donors were involved in the cloth trade, and it is in clothmaking areas, as would be expected, that some of the finest churches are to be found. (While they can, with some justice, be called ‘cloth churches’, they should never be referred to as ‘wool churches’ because most of the wool certainly was not grown locally.) Commerce of a more general kind, and of course agriculture, also generated prosperity and this accounts for such fine churches as Mildenhall and St Mary’s, Bury St Edmunds. Down the coast, a string of magnificent 15th-century churches was built from the proceeds of trade and fishing: Lowestoft, Kessingland, Covehithe, Southwold, Walberswick, Blythburgh and Aldeburgh. Fishing, before its decline in the 16th and 17th centuries, provided an extra bonus as can be seen in the church¬wardens’ accounts for Walberswick. A share of the catch, known as the town dole, was traditionally paid to the parish to repair the quay, but it was frequently diverted towards the repair and rebuilding of the church.

Another source of wealth was warfare. John Leland found that the fortunes of wealthy English families of the 16th century were not infrequently founded on the battlefields of France a century earlier. In East Anglia, too, wealth could be based on plunder and ransom money, which could subsequently benefit local churches. Fine work at Wingfield church was paid for by the de la Poles; they were originally wool merchants from Hull who for several generations supplied the Crown with money and arms. The colourful chantry chapel in Dennington church commemorates Lord Bardoiph who distinguished himself at Agincourt, while the tower and aisles at Westhorpe, begun long before, were completed after 1419 with money accumulated by Sir William de Elmham, a member of Richard II’s court. An even more remarkable instance was the total rebuilding, just before 1400, of Stowlangtoft church by Robert Ashfield, a former servant of the Black Prince.

When a church was rebuilt, not only had the money to be found but the whole project planned and organised. The churchwardens and leading members of the community would normally have seen to this, but in at least two instances ‘project directors’ were clearly at work. Testators at Lavenham refer to promises made to ‘my lord of Oxenford’ (John de Vere, 13th Earl of Oxford), while those of Long Melford left money to be spent ‘at the discretion of Master John Clopton’. It is no doubt due to these two influential patrons that Lavenham and Melford possess two of the finest parish churches in England.

Surprisingly, much of the extensive refurbishing of churches took place during the Wars of the Roses. Wealthy landowners might well have been putting money into church-building on the one hand, yet financing a military expedition on the other. In the final battle at Bosworth Field in 1485, Suffolk was well represented. The Duke of Norfolk, who as Sir John Howard had contributed to the new tower at Stoke by Nayland, commanded the vanguard of Richard III’s army, many of them recruited from Howard manors in Suffolk. Opposing him in the centre of Henry of Richmond’s army was the 13th Earl of Oxford, Lavenham’s benefactor. Nearby, William Brandon of Henham, whose father had recently contributed to Wangford’s new aisle, was Henry’s standard-bearer. In the course of the battle the Duke of Norfolk lost his life while attempting to break through the Earl of Oxford’s ranks, while Brandon was transfixed by Richard’s lance in the king’s final great charge. De Vere, the only survivor of the three, was rewarded by the victorious Henry VII with many lucrative offices.