Ascension Day in Sudbury, Suffolk: Four Centuries of Gift Giving

Ascension Day in Sudbury, Suffolk: Four Centuries of Gift Giving
May 3, 2021 Adrian Walters

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This month (May) there is history in the making as the ancient ‘Mother’ body of the Sudbury Common Lands Charity marks four hundred years of Ascension Day gift giving.

The Ascension Day Gifts ceremony is, arguably, the most important of the Sudbury Municipal Charities’ annual engagements. The Trustees, mindful of the history of this annual Sudbury ceremony are keen to see it thrive. The year 2021 marks the 400th anniversary of Ascension Day gift giving, so it is a special milestone that requires celebrating in a suitable manner. However, Covid-19 restrictions have intervened to scupper best laid plans. Instead of enjoying a ceremonial parade up the Market Hill to St Peter’s Church followed by the handing out of clothing and food vouchers to the assembled company of pensioners, the vouchers will simply be posted to the recipients.

The original bequest was left by Martin Cole, draper of Sudbury, on 20th September 1620. This, perhaps unsurprisingly, was for the distribution of clothing. The details, to be precise, were for the purchase of 100 yards of French canvas to be made into 100 shirts and shifts (smocks) of which fifty were to be distributed in the parish of St Peter’s, thirty of the same in the parish of St Gregory’s and twenty in the parish of All Saints, on Ascension Day. On this great occasion Ministers of the three parish churches were to preach a sermon and 6s 8d was to be paid for each one. Times for the sermons to be delivered at each church were carefully recorded. Twenty shillings was also left for an annual ‘Love Feast’ which, records state, is ‘long since discontinued’.

The money for this annual ceremony came from Shemford or Shernford Mill in Henny along with rent from two fields known as The Holmes in Lamarsh. Clearly Martin Cole was a very successful draper who had a lot of assets. The annual rent on part of the mill continued into this century as the owners were, for many years, unwilling to annualise the small charge into a final lump sum as permitted by the Charity Commission.

The Ascension Day Gifts ceremony also includes a provision for food and this legacy was left by Nathaniel King who died in 1668. In addition to the Christmas Day Gifts of overcoats, now clothing, he directed that 100 sixpenny loaves be given with Martin Cole’s distribution. Thus, nowadays the Ascension Day Gift vouchers can be exchanged for clothing or food at the choice of the recipient.

Under the Sudbury Municipal Charities ‘umbrella’, there was another charitable bequest by an ‘unknown donor’ which distributed penny loaves to twelve widows in each of the three Sudbury parishes during Christmas week. One wonders whether modesty was the reason for the donor’s anonymity, but it is a shame that we have no name, and thus no further historical record of that bequest.