Lavenham claims to be England's finest medieval town. The historic buildings have been well maintained and restored as required. Most of the buildings date from between 1400 and 1500 and it is easy to imagine how it must have looked during the prosperous Middle Ages.
Lavenham owes its wealth to the woollen cloth industry. In the early 1500s, it was one of the wealthiest towns in England. From the early Middle Ages, England was famous for the quality of its wool, which was exported mainly to Flanders, where it was woven into cloth and re-imported. In the 14th century, England developed its own weaving industry which survived for over 600 years. The last cloth factory had closed by 1930. Many Flemish weavers, realising the need for their skill, migrated to Lavenham.
Shilling Street is not named after the coin, but John Schylling, a Flemish weaver who owned the house, Shilling Grange, in 1476. Three hundred years later, in 1792, the Rev. Isaac Taylor rented the house annually for £6. Here, his daughter, Jane Taylor, wrote the famous rhyme,
'Twinkle, twinkle, little star,
How I wonder what you are;
Up above the world so high,
Like a diamond in the sky.'
The Guildhall of Corpus Christi in the Market Place is one of the finest Tudor half-timbered buildings in the country. With two adjoining buildings, it forms a section of an early Tudor street. It is now owned by the National Trust. The tea-room at one end was a Tudor shop, with sales being conducted through the two arched windows. It was built about 1530 for religious meetings, not trade associations. Men and women from all classes of society could be members. Later, it became a prison until 1787 and has been a workhouse, almshouse and a wool store in the nineteenth century. It now houses a fascinating museum of local industry, farming and the woollen cloth trade.
The Church of St. Peter and St. Paul, is one of the finest parish churches in England, standing almost like a cathedral on a hill at the end of the town. Major benefactors of the church, have been the family of Thomas Spryng, 'the Rich Clothier' and John de Vere, 13th Earl of Oxford, as a thanksgiving for a Tudor victory at the Battle of Bosworth, which ended the Wars of the Roses in 1485. The tower is 141 feet high and construction began in 1486.
The Market Place, where fairs and weekly markets were held as long ago as 1290, has probably changed little from medieval times. The Market Cross was originally a preaching cross, erected in 1501 and bequeathed to the town by rich clothier, William Jacob. Next to the Market Cross, is the Angel Inn, which is as old as the Cross itself. The Little Hall is also in the Market Place. This 15th century medieval house was originally an open hall, but in the 16th century, a brick chimney and a first floor were added internally.
In Barn Street, stands the Old Grammar School which was established in 1647. John Constable, the great landscape painter, attended this school for a short period.
Water Street takes its name from the stream which flows down the entire length of the street. The de Vere House, which the family owned until 1671, is here as well as a row of weavers cottages.
Lavenham airfield has now returned to use as farmland, but the control tower remains. From April 1944, it was the home of the 487th Bomb Group of the American 8th Air Force. From here "Liberators" and later, "Flying Fortresses", flew more than 6,000 bombing missions over Germany, France, Belgium and Holland. The 487th Bomb Group lost 33 aircraft in action. A plaque in the Market Place at Lavenham commemorates those members 'who sacrificed their lives … that the ideals of democracy might live'. In the Swan Hotel, a preserved section of the bar has initials carved by American airmen of the 487th Bomb Group and it also contains a Roll of Honour, honouring both members of the RAF and USAF.