Clare, Suffolk

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Attractive house adjacent to church - - 517203.jpg
The Ancient House, Clare
Grid reference: TL770456
Location: 52°4’48"N, 0°34’48"E
Population: 1,975  (2001)
Post town: Sudbury
Postcode: CO10
Dialling code: 01787
Local Government
Council: West Suffolk
South Suffolk

Clare is a beautiful village in Suffolk; perhaps the finest of the string of chocolate-box villages in the south of the county. Clare is on the north bank of the River Stour which divides Suffolk from Essex. It is a place with more history to it than many a sizable town.

Clare is to be found fourteen miles from Bury St Edmunds and nine miles from Sudbury. As a cloth town, it is one of Suffolk's "threads".[1] Its wealth from wool and cloth in the Midde Ages and early modern period has provided Clare with a vast "wool church" and many attractive houses about the village are from these ages.

Clare and its vicinity reveals evidence of man's long habitation throughout prehistory. The historical record demonstrates a community which changes and yet persists across centuries, from Anglo-Saxon times, through the Norman Conquest, the Reformation upheavals, agricultural revolution and industrial revolution to the present day.

View over Clare from the castle


The village's name first appears in the Domesday Book of 1086, as 'Clara'. It possibly derives from the "clear" nature of the Chilton Stream as it flows through the town, but from a Latin word rather than a Celtic one as was previously thought.[2]

The village's name in Old English is not known, though it must have been known as this was a market town before the Domesday Book.



A Roman boundary ditch and posthole has been found just off Nethergate Street;[3] a strap fitting,[4] coins,[5] sepulchral urns[6] and a bronze figurine of Mercury or a dancing boy[7] have been unearthed in various locations. Some Roman brick seems to have ended up in the Parish Church.

There were substantial settlements to the west at Wixoe and to the east at Long Melford. The Via Devana from Chester to Colchester passed through this town and another road led east from Wixoe, on the north side of the Stour, passing through Long Melford, before heading northeast.

The feudal lords of Clare

Domesday Book describes Clare as "'Always a market. Now 43 burgesses' - an astonishingly high number, because at the time very few Suffolk towns had any burgesses, let alone 43".[8] It lists 37 acres of meadow, woodland for 12 swine, a mill, 5 arpents of vineyard (an arpent was 4-6 acres) and 400 sheep. The manor included Stoke-by-Clare and the hamlet of Chilton Street, totalling 128 households.

The Domesday Book records that beforetthe conquest the lands of Clare belonged to a thane named Aluric (or Ælfric), son of Wisgar (or Withgar) and that he gave them to St John, probably creating in Clare a collegiate church.[9] William the Conqueror granted the land to one of his closest supporters in the Norman Conquest of 1066, Richard fitz Gilbert de Bienfaite, Count of Brionne, the son of one of his cousins, along with 170 other manors, 95 of them in Suffolk. This huge feudal barony became known as the Honour of Clare and Richard became known as de Clare after he made the castle of Clare the caput of his feudal barony. He also held a large manor in Tonbridge, Kent where he built a motte and bailey castle of a very similar size to Clare Castle. Clare Castle is first recorded in 1090.[10]

Richard's son Gilbert de Clare gave the church in the castle to the Benedictine Bec Abbey in Normandy. Gilbert and his brother were present when King William II was shot dead by an arrow fired by Walter Tyrell, Gilbert's steward. Tradition is strong that the de Clares had staged an assassination. King Henry I was crowned three days later. In 1124 Gilbert's son Richard de Clare removed the Benedictines to a new foundation in Stoke-by-Clare, the origin of today's Stoke College. His son in turn, Gilbert de Clare in 1140 was given the title of Earl of Hertford by King Stephen.

Gilbert de Clare, 4th Earl of Hertford inherited the title and vast estates of the Earl of Gloucester and his son Richard brought the Augustinian Friars to Clare to found the mother house in England in 1248.

The wealthiest of the de Clares was Gilbert de Clare, 7th Earl of Gloucester ('the Red'), who fought for and against Henry III and eventually in 1290 married Joan of Acre, daughter of King Edward I. This era represented the high point of the family as a major force in English history. Joan remarried after Gilbert's death in 1295 and began new works at Clare Priory. She was buried in the Chapel of St Vincent which she herself had founded in 1307. The funeral was one the major public events in Clare's history, attended by royalty and nobility, including her brother King Edward II. The last male de Clare as her son Gilbert de Clare, 7th Earl of Hertford, who fell at the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314.

Thereafter by inheritances and marriage the estate came to Lionel, third son of King Edward III, who was named Duke of Clarence and Clarenceaux King of Arms; both titles derived from the name "Clare". The titles remain, if not in the hands of the family of their first bearer. The manor had fallen to the Crown by the days of Henry VII, and the title "Duke of Clarence" became a duchy in the royal gift; it was last borne by Prince Albert Victor, who died in 1892, eldest son of the Prince of Wales.

The Bell

Wool Town

During the Middle Ages, Clare became a prosperous town based on cloth making. The trade was already present by the C13, steadily expanding as demand grew. 3000 local fleeces were sold from Clare Manor alone in 1345. By the 1470s Suffolk produced more cloth than any other county. Broadcloth was the main product, somewhat coarser than Harris Tweed, prickly to the skin, odorous when wet. Flowing water was essential for the purpose of fulling – so production concentrated on locations along rivers such as Clare, Cavendish, Glemsford and Sudbury. Many houses in Clare had cellars through which culverts were led.

Merchants gathered in convoys for safety to convey the goods to Calais (in the days when it was English), giving a name to Callis Street, just north of the parish church.[11]

Clothiers organised and financed the industry, putting out work across the town, supporting road maintenance, providing alms to the poor, embellishing the priory and church, building substantial houses for themselves.

At the same time as the major disruption to the social and religious life of the townspeople took place in the 1540s, the introduction of the spinning wheel and the importation of newer fabrics from the continent led to a fall in the manufacture of broadcloth. Clare recovered some of its industry in the late C16, by taking up what is called the 'New Draperies', lighter and cheaper cloths called 'bays and says'. 'A bay was lighter and finer than modern baize.... A say was a fine durable cloth, made entirely of wool with a texture resembling serge'.[12] By the C18 this industry was in decline, becoming concentrated in the larger towns, Ipswich and Colchester. At the close of the C16, Sir Robert Jermyn described Clare as '... a populous market town [which] requires an able, painful and discreet teacher ...' in a letter to Robert Cecil, 1st Earl of Salisbury|Robert Cecil requesting the appointment of a 'Mr Colte' as the town's new pastor.[13]

The modern age

Clare railway station in 2008

From the relative boom of the 16th century, Clare suffered a gradual decline as a leading town in western Suffolk. For a while in the 17th century, it retained some status as a transport and distribution hub, lying on a major highway into London. Hostelries were set up and warehouses occupied a key role in the economy. Trade was diverted as the Stour became navigable as far as Sudbury in 1709. The handloom weaving industry was gone by the 1800s; the last weaver died in 1825, aged 83. Straw-plaiting for ladies' bonnets, a local cottage industry, disappeared as fashions changed.

The coming of the railway had been greeted with enthusiasm, including performances by the town's brass band, but it was a false hope – farmers sent their produce elsewhere. The centuries-old market faltered - today the weekly appearance of the fresh fish van is the sole vestige.

William Camden wrote:

'On the South side wee saw the river Stour, which immediately from the verie spring head spreadeth a great Mere called Stourmmere, but soone after, drawing it selfe within the bankes, runneth first by Clare, a noble village which had a castle, but now decaied, and gave name to the right noble familie of the Clares'.[14]

Daniel Defoe said that Clare was:

'a poor town and dirty, the streets being unpaved. But yet the civil and spiritual courts are held at it and it has a good church; it shows still the ruins of a strong castle, and an old monastery. It has a manufacture of says.[15]

He also describes great droves of turkeys being taken to Colchester from Clare, 300 to 1,000 birds at a time.


There are 131 listed buildings in Clare, a number only exceeded by Bury St Edmunds and Lavenham within Suffolk. The Priory, the Chapel to the Priory and the Parish Church of Ss Peter and Paul are Grade I,[16] as are three domestic houses: Cliftons and Nethergate House in Nethergate Street and the Ancient House in Church Street. The Ancient House with florid pargeting is now a museum.

A rare 13th century flint-lined well has been found in the garden behind the No 1 Deli Café.[17] There are fine examples of timber-framed houses throughout the town, from the 14th to the 16th century, plus Georgian and Victorian houses. Most of the later houses are constructed in Flemish bond, but there is one example of a rat-trap bond in Station Road.[18] Some of the weavers' cottages had cellars through which water ran for fulling the cloth. The heart of the town is a conservation area.

Suffolk has no natural building stone. Buildings are mainly of timber, usually oak beams with wattle and daub infill, or brick. Brickyards abounded in Suffolk. Clare had its own brickyard in the 19c, run by the Jarvis family. Examples of brick from Gestingthorpe and Ballingdon can also be found, both Suffolk whites and reds. Flint is used as an infill or in walling. Where stone is found it was largely imported from Barnack, near Peterborough. This was transported along the Fenland waterways and brought into Suffolk, either overland from Cambridge or possibly by sail to Manningtree and then up the Stour.[19]

The 13th century flint-stone castle keep sits upon a 70 ft high motte overlooking the town on the banks of the Stour. Parts of the inner and outer baileys still exist. The castle is part of the Clare Castle Country Park which has the distinction of containing the only (now decommissioned) railway station built within a castle in the United Kingdom. The station was built by the Great Eastern Railway on the Stour Valley Railway and closed in 1967.

The park has 25 acres of landscaped parkland, interlaced with water in the old moats. The Stour Valley Path crosses the park.

Crossing the Stour on the way to Ashen is a three span cast iron bridge, built when Clare was on a main highway between London and Bury St Edmunds. It was Sir William Cubitt]]'s second design for a bridge. The date of completion 1813 can be seen above the central arch, making it Suffolk's oldest iron bridge.[20]


St Peter and St Paul

The parish church is St Peter and St Paul. It is one of the largest and most beautiful in East Anglia:

"A large and handsome church...within a spacious churchyard."[21]

Simon Jenkins includes it in his 'England's Thousand Best Churches'.

St Peter and St Paul is principally of the 14th and early 15th century, with 13th century work in the west tower, in the perpendicular style. The list of past priests goes back to 1307.

'Seen from any angle it floats on the skyline like a great ship, with a small tower for a fo'c'stle and two turrets for masts.....The interior is ablaze with light.'[22]
Stained glass in SS Peter & Paul

The church has an excellent ring of eight bells. The 7th bell is unusually inscribed 'Trintas Sancta Campanum Istam Conserva' (Holy Trinity conserve this bell) and was probably cast in the early C15.[23] The church possesses an 18th-century bell-ringer’s “gotch” (beer jug), and a late C15 brass lectern in the form of an eagle with three dogs as feet rather than lions. There are two fine private pews, one with the emblems of Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon, the other an ostentatious Stuart gallery pew with scroll-sided poppyheads "so like those at Little Thurlow that they may have been carved by the same man".[24] In the chancel there are rare Jacobean carved choir stalls. The motto above the sundial over the south porch reads: 'Go about your business', not a mercantile admonition but a peremptory version of St Paul's advice: "For we hear that there are some which walk among you disorderly, working not at all, but are busybodies".[25] Around the doorway may be seen carved ten faces of the Green Man, a commonpace image in churches.

William Dowsing arrived in 1643 at the commission of Parliament to destroy 'the superstitious pictures and ornaments of churches' and his journal records that on 6 January 1644 in Clare "We brake down 1000 pictures superstitious: I brake down 200; 3 of God the Father, and 3 of Christ, and of the Holy Lamb, and 3 of the Holy Ghost like a Dove with Wings; and the Twelve Apostles were carved in wood, on top of the Roof, which we gave order to take down; and 20 Cherubim to be taken down; and the Sun and the Moon in the East window, by the King's Arms to be taken down". Bullet holes in the roof suggest one inaccurate method; the rest being done with arrows, stones, poles and whitewash. The Sun and Moon still survive.[26]

Churches in Clare include:

The oldest religious building in Clare still existing is the Norman chapel of St Mary Magdalene, dated c1190. Built as a wayside chapel just ½ mile north of Clare, close to a confluence of the Chilton stream at Wentford, it fell into disrepair by 1403 but was later granted to the Guild of St John the Baptist in Chilton. At the time of the dissolution of guilds and chantry chapels in 1547, the priest worked in Clare parish church and also in the grammar school. It was converted for domestic use. In the Civil War it was used as a powder magazine. Today it is called Chapel Cottage; remains of Norman windows, a bellcote, timber framing and an arched doorway are visible.[27]

Chipley Abbey, just to the west of Poslingford, is a Grade II listed farmhouse[28] incorporating part of the cloisters and moat of Chipley Priory, an Augustinian Canons foundation created before 1235.[29]


This area of the country was formed during the Tertiary period, containing some of the youngest rock in the British Isles. Like the vast majority of Suffolk, the surface 'rock' is the very fertile boulder clay or clay loam, lying on top of layers of chalk. The landscape surrounding the Stour Valley is the result of the joint effects of past glaciation and the agricultural alteration of the land. Originally the area was under the sea; the shells of the sea creatures dropped to bed of the ocean and formed into chalk about 140 million years ago. Another mineral, silica, filled the sponges and other similar animals in the sea. As this was left behind it formed nodules of hard flint. A ridge of Cretaceous chalk left by the ancient sea juts into Suffolk from Cambridgeshire. This ridge is never more than 460 feet above sea level but it makes what is called High Suffolk. This chalk layer forms the so-called solid rock layer. This chalk was originally quarried where it came to the surface, and was either burned to produce agricultural lime or was mixed with sand, quarried locally, for mortar used in building (hence the presence of cream bricks ('Suffolk whites') for houses in the area).

The main river running through the country park is not the Stour. This is a mill stream called the 'new cut', established to operate a mill belonging to the priory, in use in the 14th century. It is joined at the eastern end of the country park by the Chilton stream. This itself is fed by the Hawedych, and by another stream coming down from Poslingford. The smaller Stour now runs south of the country park, meandering around the priory and meadows.

The Nethergate Hotel

Town or village?

At the time of the Domesday Book, while several towns in Suffolk had markets, Clare was one of only six towns that had burgesses as well.[30] Its manor was among the largest in the county. The Lords of Clare established it as their administrative centre, the castle itself providing work for scores of people. It was known as a borough by 1262, but no charter survives and no parliamentary seat was established - unlike Sudbury. By 1294 a fair was established.[31] Trade declined when the Stour became navigable as far as Sudbury in 1709, weaving ceased and the town became a small agricultural centre. The population has remained consistently below 2000 across the ages. For a village though, Clare is wel provisioned with shops, a bank, butcher, doctors, library, co-op, off-licence, ironmonger, cafes, 3 public houses - all serving food; one a hotel, restaurant, take-aways, 4 antique shops and many more.

Outside links

("Wikimedia Commons" has material
about Clare, Suffolk)


  1. Suffolk's 'threads'
  2. Keith Briggs, 'Clare, Clere, and Clères', Journal of the English Place-Name Society, 41, 7-25 (2009)
  3. [1] Suffolk County Council Archaeological Service Annual Report 2004-2005
  4. [2] The Portable Anquities Site: ESS-OCF537
  5. National Monuments Record: No. 379242 – Monument No 379242 and National Monuments Record: No. 379275 – Monument No 379275
  6. National Monuments Record: No. 379261 – Monument No 379261
  7. National Monuments Record: No. 379269 – Monument No 379269
  8. Hatton op. cit. I p11
  9. The Archaeological journal, Volume V p230
  10. National Monuments Record: No. 379255 – Clare Castle
  11. Hatton op. cit. II p35
  12. Hatton op. cit. I p20
  13. Sir Robert Jermyn to Sir Robert Cecil. From the Crutched Friars: 1598/9, Jan. 24. Cecil Papers CP 59/15.
  14. William Camden's Britannia, 1586/1607 (Suffolk)
  15. Daniel Defoe's Tour Through the Whole Island of Great Britain, 1726 (Suffolk)
  16. [3] British Listed Buildings
  17. Sudbury Mercury, Sept 15 2011, p3
  18. [4] St Edmundsbury Council, Clare Conservation Area Appraisal and Management Plan, 2008 p28
  19. Ken Rickwood, Stour Odyssey: a journey by rowing boat along the Suffolk Stour from salt to source, Cleveland 2010 ISBN 978-0-9558271-4-3 p211-212
  20. Ken Rickwood op. cit.
  21. D P Mortlock, The Guide to Suffolk Churches, Lutterworth Press 2009, ISBN 978-0-7188-3076-2 p114
  22. Simon Jenkins, op cit p743
  23. Mortlock op. cit. p115
  24. Mortlock op. cit. p 115
  25. Bible, King James version, 2 Thessalonians 3.11
  26. Hatton op. cit. IV p 86-88
  27. Pevsner op. cit. p169
  28. [5] British Listed Buildings
  29. Pevsner op. cit. p396
  30. Thornton op. cit. p15
  31. Samantha Letters, Gazetteer of Markets and Fairs in England and Wales to 1516, 2005; Suffolk