three wool magnates in Long Melford alone. If you want an idea of how lucrative the wool trade was then conjure with this: Lavenham five miles away was by the fifteenth century paying more tax than York or Lincoln and by 1524, with a population of about 2000, was the fourteenth richest town in England.
What was here before? We don’t really know except that the piers of the five westernmost bays of the arcades are of the fourteenth century. If this signals the extent of the original nave then it was already a church of some substance, making Clopton’s rebuilding all the more hubristic. The nave now has seven bays. the aisles and clerestory are perfectly integrated with the nave: each bay has a corresponding two Perpendicular style windows in each of the aisles and two smaller but still substantial windows in the clerestory. The overall effect externally is of a massive glass wall interspersed with a bit of masonry. The proportioning is perfect. The clerestory is topped by fashionable battlementing of the most fashionable kind and of the highest quality. The aisle , however, are not adorned in that way: the patrons and the masons clearly understood the aesthetic value of allowing the eye to be drawn from aisle to clerestory without interruption.
Like most churches in Suffolk and neighbouring Norfolk, the outer facing of the church is mainly of knapped flint. This is because Suffolk lacks quarries for dressed stone and the cost of carting stone in medieval days was monstrously high. LF Salzman in his “Building in England down to 1540” calculated that typically at a distance of only twelve miles the cost of carriage exceeded the cost of the stone. You might think that Clopton’s wealth would have allowed him to import stone from elsewhere but by the fifteenth century the East Anglian counties had perfected the art of using locally-available flint to face their churches and it is hard to counter an argument that this is a more attractive effect than that of dressed stone. That said, there is more stone in this church than in most in East Anglia and amongst other things it is used to good effect in the singularly attractive “flushwork” effect employed at many flint churches: that is the use of dressed stone inlaid into a flint finish to produce decorative patterns, lettering or monograms.
Returning to the interior the chancel occupies a further two bays. The Church Guide rightly designates if the “Sanctuary” and with good cause. Clopton and his cronies were not simply providing a magnificent setting for parish worship. The chancel is beset by chapels. To the north are the Clopton Chapel and beyond it to the east the Clopton Chantry Chapel. To the south is the Martyn Chapel built by another benefactor family. Most remarkable of all is the Lady Chapel which is situated east of the chancel and which can be accessed only from the churchyard. Both its position and its great size make it extraordinary.
A downside of the church’s architectural unity is that there are no ancient nooks and crannies to be searched for. There are no Norman remnants here; no Early English lancets. This is an adorned work of the fifteenth century. Once we have admired the scope and beautiful execution of the work it is to its furnishings we must turn to hold our interest. Foremost amongst these, perhaps, is an extraordinary collection of church brasses, memorials to the wool merchants of Melford and providing an invaluable guide to the costume of the period. There are carved friezes, rich funerary monuments, painted ceilings and a host of other things to feats upon: all, of course, of the highest quality.