10 historic churches and abbeys to explore in Essex
PUBLISHED: 17:45 21 November 2019 | UPDATED: 18:21 21 November 2019
Copyright © Mark Seton 2016
Thanks to Henry VIII and his Dissolution of the Monasteries, our country is blessed with many truly romantic ruins, and Essex is home to some truly stunning monastic remains. Stephen Roberts picks his top 10 of particular significance
10) Bradwell (Anglo-Celtic)
I feel almost guilty relegating Bradwell to tenth place. Bradwell on Sea, or Bradwell juxta Mare, has one of England's oldest churches, St Peter's on the Wall, so named because it's built on the walls of a Roman 'Saxon Shore' fort (Othona).
The church is ancient enough, built c654, reputedly by St Cedd, who is said to have established a monastery here within those old Roman walls. All that remains of the structure today is its nave, 50ft by 20ft, and 20ft tall, which is, unsurprisingly, built mainly from Roman materials. For many years the now happily restored church was in use as a modest barn.
9) Little Coggeshall (Cistercian)
This is the first of two sites where the former early-13th century gate chapel is now a parish church. A gate chapel, or 'capella ante portas' (church outside the gates), was a building that stood on the fringe of a monastic precinct, built for guests and wayfarers, and now, as in the case of Little Coggeshall, serving the community as a parish church, while the adjacent abbey lies in ruins.
Foundations have been traced and excavated, and, while the main church has vanished, ancillary buildings survive, including a two-storey corridor, and a monastic priest-house containing some of England's oldest medieval brickwork. The abbey was founded by King Stephen in the mid-12th century.
8) Tilty (Cistercian)
Hard on the heels of Little Coggeshall comes Tilty, which was established c1153 by monks from Bedfordshire and where the onetime gate chapel, with a nave built c1220, has also morphed into a parish church. There are also fragments of flint rubble walling, which probably belonged to the cloister's west range.
The local wool trade was particularly lucrative and the abbey grew to be quite wealthy, which would explain why some of King John's troops were alleged to have ransacked it on Christmas Day 1215, six months or so after Magna Carta had been sealed. The abbey was dissolved in March 1536.
7) St Osyth (Augustinian)
12th century St Osyth's has a fine gateway, possessing flint and stone flushwork and battlemented top, with an adjoining 16th century brick building, which has its own gateway, being the former abbot's house, added by Abbot Vintoner, and sacked during the English Civil War.
It was often the case that the gatehouse, a building that could easily be converted to domestic use, would survive, when the rest of the monastery would be systematically dismantled, leaving little else of note above ground. Established as a priory in c1127, it later became an abbey, which was dissolved in 1539.
6) Colchester Abbey (Benedictine)
There is another very fine gateway, in among the ruins, at Colchester Abbey, also known as St John's, which was built just south of the town's original Roman walls and where the last abbot, John Beche, alias Thomas Marshall, was hanged on December 1, 1539, for resisting, unsuccessfully, the Dissolution.
The gateway, with its rich, intricate patterning, is not dissimilar to that at St Osyth (above), although Colchester's has some additional adornment (turrets and pinnacles). They were both built around the same time, in the 15th century.
5) Beeleigh (Premonstratensian)
Originally founded close to the coast, Beeleigh moved to a new site, near to Maldon, in around 1180. Some of the refectory is still standing, but most of what remains is the former east range, dating from the 13th century.
There's a vaulted chapter house, with a central row of columns and atypical double-entry arches (they're usually triple). The dormitory undercroft is also vaulted, while the dorm itself survives with late-medieval brick buttresses (typically Essex that).
4) Prittlewell (Cluniac)
When I taught in Essex 'back in the day', I used to regale my pupils with the creation tale of how today's Southend on Sea was so named because it emerged at the south end of Prittlewell parish. Prittlewell, inland from Southend, still has some of its priory church, mainly the nave's southern wall, which would later act as the garden wall for the mansion that was constructed among the monastic buildings.
The refectory range is still standing, including lancet windows, arcading and other work of the 13th century. The western range, which contained the prior's abode, includes vaulting of the same era, plus later half-timbered work.
3) Little Dunmow (Augustinian)
Little Dunmow was an early house of Augustinian canons (1106), just like St Botolph's (below). The important leftover here is the presbytery's southern aisle, which might have been the lady chapel, but is today the parish church of St Mary. A five-arch arcade dates to around 1200 and is early-Gothic featuring moulded arches and early foliate capitals.
The aisle was impressively widened and re-jigged in the late-14th century, with some tracery being late-Decorated and some early-Perpendicular. Walter Fitzwalter's tomb (d1432) has suitably standout effigies of both himself and his wife and can be considered one of England's very finest 15th century sculptures, while the chair from the Dunmow Flitch Trials has 13th century stall-work and is in the chancel. A turret was added to the chapel in 1872.
2) St Botolph's, Colchester (Augustinian)
Originally Holy Trinity, and historically important as the first house of Augustinian canons in England, St Botolph's is the second monastic site in Colchester featured in this survey and was founded shortly after St John's. Although never a large or wealthy priory, it does still have extensive remains, namely of its great doorway with rich carvings, open nave with massive columns and tiers of Norman arches, and west façade.
The latter, with late-Norman decoration and remains of a round window, must date from around 1150, some 50 years after the Augustinians had arrived. The nave has an arcade with cylindrical columns, together with triforium arches, where one can see the unfaced or un-plastered 'rubble' core. The Norman masons, with the ruins of a Roman town conveniently handy (Camulodunum), incorporated plenty of Roman brick into their mix. The priory was badly damaged during the siege of the English Civil War in 1648.
1) Waltham Abbey (Augustinian)
The site at Waltham is truly of 'outstanding importance'. The first church here was early-7th century, but today's edifice dates to Harold Godwinson (Harold II), who rebuilt on a grander scale, prior to his accession to the throne of England, while also establishing a college of secular canons. Waltham then became one of England's most significant Augustinian abbeys, upon further reorganisation, from 1177 onwards.
It also holds the distinction of being the last monastery to be dissolved, in March 1540. The church, because of extensions made in or after that late-12th century reorganisation, became the largest Augustinian one in England, with a cruciform church, over 300ft long, added to the east of the nave and transepts that had comprised the former collegiate building. The earlier Norman nave, with its sturdy columns, gallery and clerestory, was used by the parish, so continued in use after the Dissolution, although it represents less than half of the original buildings.
It has an eastern double bay, which is later than other Norman work, while the arcade has pillars with incised decoration. Important reconstruction was completed in the 14th century, with the west front re-modelled, and a splendid Decorated chapel constructed. The west bell tower was built in the 1550s, not long after the Dissolution, probably using material from the ruined canons' church. The present church ends with the east wall, which was rebuilt in 1859. There's also a gatehouse. Little remains of the monastic buildings, which were north of the nave, and where King Harold was reputedly laid to rest in the chancel.