Coggeshall: A town made by monks
PUBLISHED: 20:03 16 March 2015 | UPDATED: 20:03 16 March 2015
Coggeshall’s pretty, timbered buildings and terraced cottages are a delight to stroll past, but, as Petra Hornsby explains, this fascinating history owes much to one Queen and the building of an abbey
Coggeshall’s earliest mention in the Domesday Book was in 1086 as Cogheshal. It is thought the site dates back to an early Saxon settlement, although there is also evidence of a Roman villa and Roman coins dated from 31BC to AD395 have been found in the area. It is even thought that Coggeshall might well have been the site of a Roman staging post mentioned in the Itineraries of Antonius.
But perhaps the real making of Coggeshall can be attributed to Queen Matilda, wife of King Stephen, who gave instruction for an abbey to be built. The manor of Coggeshall had been left to her by her father (Eustace of Boulogne) and this was later bequeathed to the abbey. Work began in 1140 with flint and rubble comprising the main materials and a stone facia that were transported up the River Blackwater. Bricks — believed to be made by the monks — were also used. Following the departure of the Romans, brick production had seemingly died out, but the monks built a kiln in the north of the town named Tile Kiln, now known as Tilkey, and here bricks were produced until 1845.
The abbey was originally established as a Savigniac order with 12 monks from Savigny in France, but a few years later it became part of the Cistercian order. Its location seemed ideal for the Cistercian monks. It was quiet and tranquil and near a river, providing not only fish but also power for a mill the monks built to grind the corn they grew.
The monks were indeed very industrious; as well as being largely self-sufficient, their success as sheep farmers and breeders brought about the beginnings of the woollen and cloth trade that brought significant wealth to the town which continued during later centuries. The monastery would sell its wares (to buy the things the monks could not produce) at annual fairs and in 1250, the incumbent abbott was granted a Royal Charter to hold an eight-day fair to commence on July 31 — the feast of St Peter-ad-Vincula. In 1256, a licence for a market each Saturday was also granted, providing it didn’t interfere with neighbouring markets. Colchester made a complaint in 1318 forcing Coggeshall to move its market day to Thursday.
Although it survived the devastation of the Black Death in 1348 and later the damage caused by the Peasants’ Revolt in 1381, sadly the future of the abbey was marked when Henry VIII ordered the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1535. Considered bastions of the Pope and thus an enemy of the monarch, the reputation of the monasteries had declined with allegations of corruption and greed. In 1538, almost 400 years since its commission, Coggeshall’s abbey was dissolved with its possessions and land seized by the Crown and given to Sir Thomas Seymour.
The gatehouse (St Nicholas’ Chapel) survived the dismantling of the abbey. Although it was, at the time, converted into a barn, it was later restored in 1863. It is believed to be the oldest post-Roman brick-built building in the country.
The rise in success of the cloth trade in the town dates back to the mid-16th century. Following the decline in the wool industry, cloth, silk and velvet were the mainstays of Coggeshall’s economy with over half of its population employed in producing one of these textiles. A census carried out in 1851 showed the town to be one of the most industrialised places in Essex. However, it was a ban lifted on imported silk in 1826 — believed to be cheaper and better than domestic products — that dealt a catastrophic blow to the town. Unable to compete, its production of silk all but stopped. Lace-making, though, was to be the next success for Coggeshall with the introduction of Tambour Lace by a Monsieur Drago in 1812. The production of lace in the town died out after World War II, but examples of it were worn by both Queen Mary and by Queen Elizabeth II.
A place to visit to view samples of Coggeshall Lace is Paycocke’s House, a beautiful timber-structured building constructed in about 1500 as a wedding present for Thomas Paycocke and his bride, Margaret. Built at a time of prosperity within the town and befitting a wealthy cloth merchant, the house features beautiful wood panelling and carvings, some of which bear the initials TP and MP. The house was sold to the Buxton family following the death of Thomas and a descendant of the Buxtons, Lord Noel-Buxton, gave the house to the National Trust in 1924. The house has now been fully restored and is open to the public.
Another fine landmark of the town is the Church of St Peter-ad-Vincula (Peter in chains). Located on the site of an earlier Norman church, it was built in the 15th century with money made from the wool industry and its size is probably one of the clearest examples of the wealth enjoyed by the town at that time — it is one of the largest in Essex. The church suffered bomb damage to its roof during World War II and restoration was completed in 1956. To celebrate the Millennium, two new bells were bought and the church now boasts the loudest peal in Essex.
Coggeshall today has a population of nearly 4,000. It has its own parish council and is served by Braintree District Council. It has a primary school and a secondary school as well as pre-school groups. There are several community groups and organisations including a cricket and football club, an art group and Women’s Institute. There are several shops of interest for both resident and visitor selling clothes, gifts and items for the home. The White Hart and the Chapel Inn are both worth a visit and are very much linked to Coggeshall’s rich history. The Chapel Inn is built on the remains of a chapel dating back to 1256 and on the old Roman Military Road, the drainage aqueducts for the road can be seen in its basement today. The White Hart is a characteristic 15th century building with exposed beams and open fireplaces and was once used as a staging post between Colchester and Braintree. The 14th century clock house, formerly a school for the poor children of the town, is an eye-catching feature and currently serves as a highly-rated tearoom.
Although those hard-working monks may well be long gone, along with the town’s large-scale industrial success, there is much left for the visitor to see that serves as a reminder of Coggeshall’s impressive heritage.