After over a year, I have finally been able to go on another holiday in which to indulge in my passion of church and castle crawling. I haven’t spent much time in Suffolk before–it’s just a little too far–but there were some places I really wanted to visit, so off we went, braving a crazed Satnav that took us through darkest Surrey to places we’d never even heard of, then finally, beyond all hope, to our hotel near Bury St Edmunds.
First stop on ‘the tour’ was Wingfield, the burial place of Richard III’s sister, Elizabeth Plantagenet, and her husband John de la Pole. As we approached, over the fields we could distantly see Wingfield Manor’s stone towers rising through in a haze of trees. I’d have liked to take a photo but it is a private house and can’t be viewed from the main road. The little church of St Andrew is down a quiet, peaceful side street, standing next to a pub appropriately named The de la Pole Arms. The monuments inside are glorious for such a small out of the way church. Not only is the tomb of John and Elizabeth beautifully carved and detailed, there is also the earlier tomb of Michael de la Pole and his wife Catherine Stafford, which is equally beautiful, and also the effigy of an earlier armoured knight, Sir John Wingfield. The font is unusual in that it bears the carved heads of many lions rather than the more usual symbolism. I felt a little sad, however, that John and Elizabeth’s son, John, Earl of Lincoln, who died at the battle of Stoke Field, is not lying near his parents–or, indeed, has any known grave. Maybe one day archaeology will discover the whereabouts of the bones of this unfortunate young man, who was most likely Richard’s intended heir.
From Wingfield we travelled to the ‘vanished town’ of Dunwich on the coast, a haunting place that has been mostly reclaimed by the sea. Once, however, it was the biggest town in England after London, and had eleven churches or monastic houses, including a preceptory of the Knights Templar. Now only the furthest building inland, the ruins of a House of the Greyfriars, remains. One other dilapidated church still remained in the early 1900’s; it has since collapsed into the sea. Bones from ancient cemeteries still occasionally fall from the cliff face onto the beach. The first devastating storms hit Dunwich in the late 1200’s, and further storms damaged it throughout the next century and it began a rapid decline in importance. During the Wars of the Roses, Dunwich favoured the Yorkist cause and hence was penalised by Henry VII, further adding to the town’s decline. Some say you can still hear the bells of the vanished churches ring out in a storm….
Next day, we drove to popular Lavenham, known for its well-preserved, colourful medieval houses. The de Vere Earls of Oxford held several properties within the town, and the church, rebuilt in extreme grandeur in the first years of Henry VII’s reign, is filled with emblems of the de Vere family, such as the star. John de Vere was the real ‘winner’ at Bosworth, Tudor’s most capable captain, who had a long grudge against York–Edward had beheaded his brother and father and imprisoned him in Hammes. There is a local legend that the town had to pretend to be Yorkist rather than Lancastrian during John de Vere’s imprisonment, and in order to accomplish this, they painted carvings of the de Vere Blue Boar white and said the De Vere harpies were in fact Angels…
After Lavenham, we were off to Clare, a historic little town with strong connections to the York family. The castle has vanished save for one wall of masonry and its enormous motte; for a while, Richard III’s mother Cecily Neville lived at Clare Castle. A beautiful rosary was discovered there while building the nearby railway; it could well have belonged to Cecily. The rosary buried with Richard’s remains in Leicester Cathedral was based on this find. Clare also has a lovely tucked-away little priory, which is still tenanted by monks. In the ruins, near the site of the high altar, are the remains of the chapel of St Vincent, where Joan of Acre, daughter of Edward, I lies buried, her tomb now lost thanks to the Reformation. Near her is Lionel of Clarence, the 6ft 7 son of Edward III, from whom the Yorkists derived their claim to the throne, alongside his first wife Elizabeth de Burgh. His second marriage was to the Italian noblewoman, Violante Visconti, but he died shortly after the wedding. His bones and heart were returned to England to be buried at Clare. On the wall near where the tombs would have stood, there is a blue plaque from the Richard III Society commemorating the Yorkist connections to the Priory.