Role reversal


There is a long tradition of the rich elite funding charitable organisations. In the United Kingdom the building of almshouses for the poor is one such tradition and dates from the tenth century. A wealthy individual or family, partly in hope of improving the souls’ lot once their earthly lives had ceased, would provide land and shelter for the poor of their community. A fine example of this type of patronage survives in Long Melford, Suffolk.

almshouses long melford suffolk
Almshouses – The Hospital of the Holy Blessed Trinity founded by Sir William Cordell in 1573. Quadrangle with inner courtyard garden, red brick. Long Melford, Suffolk.

Local landowner and dignitary, Sir William Cordell, founded ‘The Hospital of the Holy Blessed Trinity’ in 1573. During his lifetime Sir William had been Master of the Rolls, High Steward of Ipswich and, in 1558, Speaker of the House of Commons. Residing in Melford Hall he had been born and raised in Long Melford and as an act of piety he provided these almshouses for some of the poor residents of his home town. He also endowed these almshouses with land and property in the surrounding area to ensure a regular source of income for the ‘twelve brethren’ who qualified to live there.

The building we see today was heavily restored in 1847 and the property continues to be administered by the Trustees of the Hospital for the benefit of the poor of Long Melford.

The neighbouring church, Holy Trinity, had been substantially rebuilt with financing from the pious wealthy during the century before the almshouses were established. And, most notably, the church windows had been magnificently glazed with stained glass (also with a view to the afterlife) displaying many recognisable donor portraits. These portraits were accompanied with heraldic information to ensure future generations would be able to identify and pray for those individuals represented.

This surviving visual record and architectural history offers a glimpse of the complex, slippery and slightly dubious relationship between God and Mammon. In our contemporary eyes there appears to be an awkward interdependence for the medieval wealthy to negotiate. Of course, during the medieval period the rich man and poor man believed that God had ordered their world and each man knew his place and acted accordingly.  One earthly benefit arising from this arrangement was employment for craftsmen and builders, and latterly, a glorious record of their skills and creativity for us to appreciate today.

Now here I come to ‘the role reversal’ – an interesting visual comparison, a wealthy medieval woman is shown praying for her soul (15th-century brass, Holy Trinity, Long Melford) and now, according to 21st-century marketing, a modern (wealthy?) woman is shown praying to/for luxury goods!


Author: agnesashe

Artisan, blogger and passionate East Anglian working from home.

9 thoughts on “Role reversal”

  1. Well, the world has sure changed. !!! And yet, maybe not. All right. On to a question – can you tell me what material the gray tower is made of? I like the look of it. Skipping around, another topic – I attended a church near me that had windows dedicated to the people who founded the church and were local well-to-do community leaders. I always liked looking at those windows and reading the inscriptions. This post made me think back to that.

    1. The tower is finished with flint and limestone flushwork. As East Anglia doesn’t have any of its own quarries to provide limestone, granite or other building stone, local builders have either used wood and brick or flint. We do have plenty of flint and it is a standard material for our vernacular architecture. The church tower is knapped flint which is where the flint stones are split and the flat plane faces outwards. Yes, church windows often have interesting inscriptions and many Victorian windows have small makers’ marks discretely placed so it is possible to identify the stained glass firm and even sometimes the individual artists who painted them.

      1. The flint knapping process is fascinating. I watched several You tube presentations on it. I have heard of the process but never looked into it by now – my knowledge was limited to the making of arrowheads. The stone is really beautiful and it looks quite hard. I grew up in an area underlain by limestone but it was not used much for building (softness an issue) but lots of gravel was produced, all unpaved roads (and there were many in my childhood where I grew up) were gravelled with limestone. Anyway, loved the post and I learned a lot.!

      2. Thanks for your replies. We have an area about an hour’s drive from where I live with remains of a prehistoric flint quarry called ‘Grimes Graves’ – every time I see the sign I think I must make time to visit. One day definitely!

      3. I watched a you tube from the 1930’s that involved a guy down in a hole, kind of, bringing up the flint and then how he knapped it. I’d love to see a real quarry. I don’t know why I find this topic so interesting but I do.

      4. I know what you mean – I think maybe we are interested because fashioning stone is one of the earliest activities that has set us humans on our path to where we are now. Perhaps it is one of the unbroken threads to our deep past?

    1. Yes, the Bible and no doubt other faiths’ texts too. Still I don’t think people have to be of any religious persuasion to look at rampant capitalism and think perhaps things have gone a little awry. 😐

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