Clare is a small town in west Suffolk on the Suffolk/Essex border, formed by the River Stour, one of the town’s prime features. A market town since before the Domesday Book in 1086, Clare still has a remarkable range of shops for its population of less than 2,000, and thus serves many surrounding villages. Given to Richard Fitzgilbert by William the Conqueror, Clare and its historic pasts–neolithic, anglo-saxon and medieval–are still being discovered in recent and on-going archaeological explorations.
The much-debated town name Clare seems to refer to its clear water supply in the Chiltern Stream, with meets the Stour at the Castle’s outer bailey. There, Richard built his Castle, with outer and inner baileys, a moat and a 70-ft high man-made motte. Of this a part of the stone keep and walls, the motte itself, the moat, and the baileys still exist, the keep’s ruin and walls having recently been restored by Suffolk County Council funded by English Heritage. Richard took the family name from the town, and it became the seat of his extensive lands, the Honour of Clare. Much more recently Clare Castle Country Park was set up under Suffolk County Council as a legacy from its last private owner; it is currently being divested, probably to a new Trust under Clare Town Council, with local Trustees pledged to enhance its many recreational, heritage and natural history assets. The 19th-century railway stationmaster’s house and ticket office and separate goods shed, uniquely set within medieval castle grounds and recently Grade II listed, should provide space for some of these enhancements.
The Magna Carta Barons were Richard de Clare, Earl of Hertford (ca. 1153-1217), and his son Gilbert de Clare, Earl of Hertford and Gloucester (ca. 1180-1230). Great landowners, they were closely related by blood and/or marriage to the majority of other Magna Carta barons.
For the Town, the de Clare family legacy goes well beyond the Castle itself because in 1248 a later Richard de Clare (this one also Earl of Hertford and Earl of Gloucester) established here the first Austin Friars house in England, which has magnificent ruins just over the Stour. Dissolved in the 16th century along with other friaries and monasteries, in 1953 the Friars returned at the wishes of the last private owners. They look after the ruin, and after years of using the medieval infirmary building as their chapel have recently enlarged its capacity by a new extension. The daughter of King Edward I, Joan of Acre, married Gilbert the Red, Earl of Clare, Hertford & Gloucester; she is buried in the Priory’s chapel of St Vincent which she had had built. She is an ancestress of Richard III.
The de Clares managed the market of Clare, especially the last de Clare owner, Elizabeth de Burgh, daughter of Joan of Acre, and foundress of Clare College Cambridge. She built three additional Priory buildings and lived much of her time at the Castle, often entertaining royal and other grand visitors, among them the Black Prince. The Castle’s medieval farm was located on the Iron Age fort just north of the Church. In the 16th century, after the land had passed into royal hands, it was leased to the people of Clare by Henry VIII’s queen Katharine of Aragon. It is now Clare Common, still used for grazing and allotments, with the profits being returned to Clare pensioners.
Clare is a ‘wool’ town, boasting one of the great East Anglian wool churches, dating from the 14th and 15th centuries. The grand houses of its clothiers and merchants are among Clare’s over 130 listed buildings (6 listed as Grade I); all of these are in a Conservation Area. Of particular note for its elaborate pargetting is the Ancient House, which has the town Museum, currently exhibiting ‘Elizabeth de Burgh, First Lady of Clare’.
As well as the lively local interest in its past as revealed in the recent archaeological activity under the Heritage Lottery Fund’s programme Managing a Masterpiece and Access Cambridge Archaeology, Clare’s future is being actively developed. New housing is coming along the road to Stoke by Clare, where, incidentally an important medieval tile and brick kiln has just been found. More importantly, the first secondary Free School in England, Stour Valley Community School, opened in 2011, an effort pioneered by local people when Suffolk County Council closed its Middle School.
No wonder Clare was Suffolk Village of the Year (large village category) for 2010-12. It is part of the Suffolk Threads Heritage Trail, one of the Angels & Pinnacles Cluster Churches, part of the Stour Valley Path, and has its own Town Trail and Circular Walk.
With thanks to Clare Town Council for its text and photographs.