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In search of Saxon Essex

PUBLISHED: 16:52 10 November 2014 | UPDATED: 16:52 10 November 2014

Waltham Abbey

Waltham Abbey

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Historian and author Stephen Roberts takes us on a journey around modern day Essex as he searches for its connections with our Saxon heritage

When I came to live in the county of Essex getting on for 35 years ago, I was under the impression that it was a ‘new’ county and that there wasn’t a lot of history to be sought out. This misapprehension of mine was briefly reinforced when I ventured into the Tourist Information Office in Southend and enquired about finding some history. I was met with somewhat baffled looks and was vaguely directed to the north of the county.

I now know, of course, that I was completely wrong to have regarded Essex in such a way and as a student of history I feel almost ashamed that I ever did. There is lots of history to be found and no period seems more plentifully represented than that of the Anglo-Saxons.

The first thing to say of course is that the name ‘Essex’ itself originates in this period, from the kingdom of the ‘East Saxons’. During this time England was ruled under seven kingdoms, known to history as the ‘Heptarchy’, which was England’s first political framework. Essex was a surprisingly powerful kingdom, although it was eventually absorbed into the kingdom of Wessex, which was able to assert its hegemony over all the other kingdoms, creating the first true English nation state.

First recorded in 527AD and founded by one Aescwine, Essex extended north of the River Thames and east of the River Lea, but as a larger entity than today, with lands in what would later become Hertfordshire, Middlesex and even Kent. Essex flip-flopped between paganism and Christianity, with the kingdom reverting to paganism on at least three occasions.

Essex’s period of independence lasted around 300 years, before it was absorbed into the burgeoning kingdom of Wessex in 825AD when the last King of Essex, Sigered, effectively lost the family silver, ceding his kingdom to Wessex. Further travails lay ahead too as Viking incursions led eventually to the Treaty of Wedmore with much of this land being ceded to the Danes as part of their ‘Danelaw’. Later re-conquest by Wessex saw an Earldorman established in Essex as the King’s representative, with Essex now being regarded as a shire.

Essex saw its share of battles as Saxon fought Dane, with the most famous being the Battle of Maldon in 991AD, which resulted in a catastrophic defeat for the Saxons. This engagement stands out as an uncharacteristically early example of chivalry, with the Saxon leader, Britnoth, permitting the Danes to march unmolested across the causeway from Northey Island to the mainland, in order that a fair fight could ensue. Britnoth paid for his sense of ‘fair play’ with his life and a starring role in the tragedy that is the Anglo-Saxon poem, The Battle of Maldon. It was also Essex’s rendering of the heroic last stand, encapsulated in poetry, as one of Britnoth’s hearth companions sums up his refusal to leave the body of his stricken lord. ‘Though I am white with winters I will not away, for I think to lodge me alongside my dear one, lay me down by my lord’s right hand.’

This wasn’t the end either as far as the fighting was concerned. A few years later there was another battle at Ashingdon (1016) when the Danish king, Canute, defeated the fabulously named Edmund Ironside. Poor Edmund was undone by treachery. He was ‘in the thick of it’ when he realised that part of his army, under Earl Edric, had held back and the battle turned into a massacre as the Danish advantage in effective numbers won the day. The Anglo Saxon Chronicle duly recorded the decisiveness of the victory for, ‘Cnut was victorious, and won all England by his victory’ with the slain including ‘all the flower of England’.

When the Saxons weren’t defending their land from Viking marauders, they were building. Extant Saxon buildings are rare, but Essex has a few gems. Bradwell on Sea has its lovely old Saxon church of St Peter on the Wall of 654AD, but my personal favourite is that at Greensted Juxta Ongar. The small church of St Andrew is undoubtedly one of England’s architectural treasures, the only surviving example of a wooden church constructed in Saxon times, with walls made of solid oak. The church is known to date from at least 1013, when the body of King Edmund rested here on its way to Bury St Edmunds after Edmund had been martyred by the Vikings, although it has been claimed that it may be 150 years older than that. The nave is built of oak logs split into sections and fixed to a wooden sill. It may seem quaint and rustic, but it is a building that has stood the test of time. This was a church that my late father-in-law talked about, as he had been a boarder at a school in nearby Ongar. It was my pleasure to be able to take him back there and then to buy him a model of the church, which now adorns our own mantelpiece at home.

There is also Waltham Abbey. The earliest church here is reputed to date back to the 7th century, but it is the third church that interests me, for this was rebuilt and re-founded by King Harold II, with the dedication occurring in 1060, just six years before Harold’s denouement at Hastings. Apparently Harold stopped at Waltham to pray on his way to his final battle.

Those earlier skirmishes must have seemed like hors d’oeuvre when compared with the main course that hit England in 1066, the year of three battles. The play-off semi-finals were held in Yorkshire, with first off, a Saxon army losing to the Vikings at Gate Fulford (soon to disappear under a housing estate).

The Saxons then levelled things up at Stamford Bridge (not the football ground) where King Harold finally saw off the Viking challenge once and for all. Unfortunately for Harold the play-off final took place at a certain field called Hastings and he lost, bringing Saxon England to a shuddering close and hastening in the pre-eminence of the Normans.

Having visited the battlefield of Hastings and seen where Harold is reputed to have fallen, I wanted also to see where his body ended up. The unpleasant duty of identifying the King’s broken body allegedly fell to his widow or lover (as she is variously described). Several chroniclers agreed that Harold’s body was brought back to the church at Waltham that he had so richly endowed just half a dozen years before, with the body being laid to rest under the floor of the church. The fact that Harold’s church was replaced by a Norman one around the end of the 11th century, which in turn was replaced by an Augustinian priory, which became the last abbey in England to be dissolved under Henry VIII, only complicates matters. Harold’s body may have been moved more than once, as all of this rebuilding and demolition took place.

This little quest brought me then to Waltham Abbey, where the abbey grounds lay claim to England’s last Saxon king. The grave bears the words, ‘This stone marks the position of the high altar behind which King Harold is said to have been buried 1066’. There is still a church at Waltham today, albeit less than half of the original, but it is surely the grave that most people come to see. It should be noted that there is a rival claim for Bosham, near Chichester, where a coffin in the church has been questioned, but for now Waltham Abbey and Essex has the bragging rights.

In his book, In Search of the Dark Ages, Michael Wood leaves little room for uncertainty with his comments:

‘The body of Harold, or rather, its pieces, were identified by his mistress, according to Norman tradition, and it is claimed

that they were originally buried on the seashore. If this was ever actually done, the King’s remains were certainly moved later to his own foundation at Waltham, where the site of the grave is still shown today.’

Following the Norman Conquest, the erstwhile Saxon kingdom formed the basis of a new county in 1139 under the first Earl of Essex, Geoffrey de Mandeville. In this sense the modern county of Essex can be traced back to Saxon times when people built, prayed, fought and died on these soils.

It was only a few years before this (from about 1130) that the massive keep of Hedingham Castle was built. I can think of nowhere better to end a tour

of Saxon Essex than with a symbolic Norman castle. Here in rubble and mortar is encapsulated the Saxon loss.

The Normans were now the masters and they cowed and intimidated the once free Saxons of Essex and elsewhere with their enormous stone keeps; here at Hedingham the walls are between 10 and 11 feet thick. The Saxons must have gazed at the likes of Hedingham and wept for what they had lost.

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