A wintery walk around Waltham Abbey

It’s often the case that one doesn’t visit the places on your doorstep and even as a guide in London, I sometimes only visited the most famous of places because I was being paid to.

Just over a week ago in one of those freezing winter days where the weather doesn’t change for weeks on end but gratifyingly has not wind, rain or snow, for some reason I decided to meet with another Excluded friend and pay a visit to a place I’ve always wanted to visit but never have. Those 18 miles obviously being far too onorous!

Waltham Abbey itself is a very old market town and the roots of Waltham Abbey’s historic church go back to the Saxon period in 610AD, when King Sabert of the East Saxons founded a minster in the centre of his royal hunting park of Waltham.

Waltham Abbey Church

In the early 11th century, one of my ancestors King Cnut gave Waltham to Tofig, one of his most powerful nobles. Tofig owned estates in Somerset as well as Essex, and on one of those southern estates he found a large stone crucifix, buried on the top of a hill. This crucifix was brought to Waltham. where it became a destination for pilgrims. The church became known as Holy Cross after the crucifix.

In the 1050s Waltham was granted by King Edward the Confessor to Harold Godwinson, son of the Earl of Essex, and the king’s brother-in-law. Harold was said to have been healed of an affliction by praying before the holy cross, and as a result, he decided to rebuild the existing church and made it clear that it was his desire to be buried here. He also set up a college of 16 lay canons to administer his new church.

When Edward died Harold took the throne as King Harold II, but his brief reign ended with defeat to William the Conqueror at the Battle of Hastings in 1066. On his way to meet William’s Normans at Hastings, Harold stopped at Waltham to pray for victory.

Of course due to a series of bad luck and unfortunate timings, the famous battle ended badly not just for King Harold but all of us and it is said that his body was buried beneath the Altar

Going inside Waltham Abbey church

According to legend, after the battle, Harold’s body was carried to Waltham as he had wished, and there buried before the altar of the church he had built. His grave was supposedly moved several times over the centuries as the church was extended.

Only fragments of Harold’s church remain, for around 1080 a new Norman church was begun. The earliest part of this structure is the current apsidal east ambulatory. In the 12th century, a new nave was built, supported on wonderful Romanesque pillars carved with grooves and chevrons. Above the nave pillars are wide, ornamented galleries and a clerestory.

In 1177 the college of lay canons established by Earl Harold was replaced by Augustinian canons and Waltham became a full-fledged priory. The impetus for the change came from Henry II, who established the priory as part of his reparation for the murder of Thomas Becket at Canterbury. The north nave arcade

In 1184 Waltham became a ‘mitred abbey’ and the abbot was allowed to wear a mitre, like a bishop. The abbot had a seat on the King’s Council and was later granted a seat in the House of Lords. The abbot was exempt from allegiance to a bishop and reported directly to the king, so it is clear that Waltham Abbey held a very prestigious place in medieval England’s hierarchy of church and state.

The new abbey needed a new church and a range of monastic buildings. A new church was begun to the north of the present church and was surrounded by a cloister and domestic buildings. The abbey was dissolved by Henry VIII, and Henry briefly considered making the monastic church into a new cathedral but decided against it, and the church was completely destroyed, along with most of the monastic buildings.

The incredible ceiling is only one of many unexpected treasures of this great old building.

The older Norman church was retained as the parish church, and it is this grand building we see today, set in a landscape of monastic ruins, including remains of a vaulted passage, the monk’s night stairs, medieval gatehouse, and bridge.

It all made for an excellent day out even in the freezing weather that inevitably followed the coldest night of the winter so far but on a personal level, the best was yet to come and more about that next time

About Stephen Liddell

I am a writer and traveller with a penchant for history and getting off the beaten track. With several books to my name including several #1 sellers. I also write environmental, travel and history articles for magazines as well as freelance work. I run my private tours company with one tour stated by the leading travel website as being with the #1 authentic London Experience. Recently I've appeared on BBC Radio and Bloomberg TV and am waiting on the filming of a ghost story on British TV. I run my own private UK tours company (Ye Olde England Tours) with small, private and totally customisable guided tours run by myself!
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