The History of Long Melford
In the fertile Stour Valley, with the river itself providing both a convenient thoroughfare and a ford there, the site of Long Melford will surely have been settled even before the Belgae arrived sometime around 100BC.
The Romans certainly knew the area well, with several of their roads cutting through it, the most significant being that linking what would become Chelmsford in the south and Pakenham in the north. Two major finds – one in a nearby gravel pit in 1828, the other on the western side of the village revealing a cemetery – have attested to their presence.
Little is known about the Saxon era here, except that around 1050 Earl Alfric gave the manor to the Abbey of St Edmundsbury, in whose hands it remained for half a millennium. Norman records – especially the Domesday Book of 1086 – have left us far more detail, painting a picture of prosperity that included 40 farm horses, the combine harvesters of their day; and the two watermills which explain one syllable – Mel - of the village’s three; the others derived from the ford there; and the length of its street, said to be at 2.5 miles still the longest village street in England. Also mentioned in William the Conqueror’s survey of his realm were the two great houses which in different guises stand even today in Long Melford: Kentwell; and Melford Hall.
The settlement on Sufolk's border with Essex prospered enough to merit the chartering in 1235 of a weekly market, and an annual fair, held at Whitsun, when in particular cattle and horses were traded.
Long Melford’s heyday was surely the 15th and 16th centuries, though the place had a lucky escape during the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381: neighbouring villages saw larger houses pillaged and the wealthy attacked, but in Long Melford the mob only slaked its thirst at an inn on the green before moving contentedly on.
Perhaps surprisingly it was industry – in the form of weaving – rather than agriculture that made the village prosperous in the 15th century, in one year (1446) producing approximately 12,000 square yards of cloth. The wealth generated by the weavers helped change the architecture of the place: Hall Street, named for the ‘hall houses’ there, was constructed for such men; the Bull Inn sprang up in 1450; and Holy Trinity Church was completed in 1484. This is one of the great wool churches of East Anglia, rivalling that of Lavenham. Its main mover was John Clopton, whose family had owned Kentwell since the turn of the century, perhaps motivated by relief at escaping the scaffold after being arrested for treason in 1461.
The Tudor period was equally important in shaping the village. New generations of Cloptons remodelled Kentwell to the Tudor mansion evident today; and their new neighbours at Melford Hall likewise changed that building after the Dissolution saw it fall into the hands of lawyer and MP Sir William Cordell. Sir William first leased then bought it from Henry VIII, the latter’s officers having relieved the Abbot of St Edmundsbury of the property. Cordell served Henry, Edward VI, Mary, and Elizabeth I, which must demonstrate his flexibility and skill. Serving as Speaker and Master of the Rolls in his time he amassed a fortune, and his hospitality when Elizabeth visited in 1578 became legendary. Five years earlier he founded the Trinity Hospital, an alms house for 12 men and two women.
Melford Hall was sacked by the Roundheads in the Civil War, but it was repaired and its Tudor architecture can still be admired today.
The industrial revolution saw the textile industry move northwards, leaving Long Melford a rural village, albeit a large one. The railways arrived in 1865, revitalising the place economically for a period, but Beeching closed the line 102 years later. The peace and quiet of the village attracted some notable names over the years: John Lennon in the 60s; Francis Bacon in the 70s; and the WWI and nature poet Edmund Blunden, whose grave can be seen in the churchyard.
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