Waltham Abbey – the stormy history of a medieval church!

old stone mansion with columns
The largely destroyed cloister of the once mighty Waltham Abbey

This week, in the English wintry sun, I visited a church packed with history – Waltham Abbey. It’s located in the county of Essex, just 15 minutes by train out of London. The church is famous for including the grave of King Harold, the last Saxon monarch killed by an arrow in his eye during the Battle of Hastings. But more importantly, Waltham Abbey is like a time capsule of English history revealing our stormy past.

The beginnings of Waltham Abbey

The first wooden church was built on this site in the 7th century. A burial near the south door was carbon dated to the 7th century and a Saxon bible clasp shaped as a fish grasped by an eagle (the symbol of St John the Evangelist) was found in recent times. The Saxons had invaded England after the Romans left. They were succeeded by Viking invaders from Scandinavia who built another church – wooden again on stone foundations.

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England came under Viking rule in the 11th century. In 1035, a blacksmith on the other side of the country in the Somerset village of Montacute discovered a large crucifix made of flint. It was buried on top of a hill and its exact whereabouts were revealed to the blacksmith in a violent dream. An apparition literally tore flesh from the poor man’s arm during the night. Once dug up and revealed, the cross was taken by a local Viking warlord (called Tovi) across England to Waltham and placed in the church.

Some people believe the cross was originally held at Glastonbury and removed by the monks there when the Vikings invaded England. It was then hidden where the enemy couldn’t reach it. But Tovi, one of the invaders, not only got his hands on the Holy Cross but gave it a home at Waltham, which soon became a major pilgrimage site. Many cures were attributed to the large flint object and worship of the relic continued after the Vikings lost control of England.

Chained bible in Waltham Abbey

Waltham Abbey – from a Saxon to a Norman church

The Saxons took back the country but in 1066, Normans from across the English Channel decided to invade under their duke, William. The Saxon king Harold invoked the power of the Holy Cross at Waltham to defend his armies and extended the size of the church. Things didn’t work out however and Harold was killed fighting the Normans. His body was eventually placed behind the high altar of the church at Waltham.

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The Normans tore down the Saxon church – as they did many Saxon buildings – and rebuilt on a grand stone scale. The style was what we call Romanesque with big thick pillars and a vaulted roof. The Norman nave is what we see today, built in the 11th century. Under Henry II in the 12th century, the church was extended to three times its size and turned into an Augustinian priory.

The reason for this generosity was that Henry II had been complicit in the murder of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Becket. A furious pope had ordered the king to build three new monasteries as part of his penance. Henry, a bit of a penny pincher, just extended two existing institutions including Waltham. This created an incredibly powerful religious institution with enormous wealth and a prior who sat in parliament.

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The Reformation hits Waltham Abbey

Then along came Henry VIII in the 16th century. Henry wanted to divorce his first wife and the pope wouldn’t let him. This and other factors led him to adopt the new Protestant faith and he set about closing down England’s network of monasteries and priories. Monks, nuns and friars were thrown out and told to get another job. Relics, including the Holy Cross, were smashed to pieces as superstitious idols. Waltham Abbey saw most of Henry II’s extended church demolished leaving only the early Norman nave.

Waltham Abbey in Essex

The local Denny family, like many entrepreneurs of the time, saw an opportunity to snap up some prime real estate. They took over the monastic complex and reused its masonry for their new family mansion, Abbey House. It stood for two hundred years before being destroyed in a massive fire in the 18th century.

Lord Denny and Waltham Abbey

Poor Waltham Abbey was reduced to its core building. After Henry VIII died, his daughter Mary ruled for five years and attempted to bring back the Catholic faith. Under her reign (1553-58), Protestants were burned at the stake giving her the nickname “Bloody Mary”. Waltham had lost its once impressive towers so Mary built the one we see in place today on top of the Norman foundations.

Waltham Abbey bell tower

The church had effectively been sawn in half and a wall thrown up to encase the nave that wasn’t demolished. The grave of King Harold (died in 1066) was now out in the cemetery where the extended church had once been. The Holy Cross was smashed to pieces. The Augustinian canons had been expelled and their last prior pensioned off (he grovelled enough not to be executed by Henry VIII). The once great abbey was now a quaint village church.

Grave of King Harold at Waltham

Then in the 19th century there was a revival of interest in all things medieval. This was a reaction against industrialisation and a yearning for a Merrie Olde England – that had probably never really existed. The Victorians set about creating a new rose window for the mutilated church and also gave it a painted ceiling modelled on the one in Peterborough cathedral. Not everybody thought these improvements were a good idea. Some believed they were a kitsch and tasteless rendition of medieval art.

Waltham Abbey nave and rose window

However, I think it’s fair to say today that what you get in Waltham Abbey is a fascinating trip through English history. If you are ever in London or the south of England, I recommend a quick trip to see this church, which has witnessed so much turmoil and change.

All images copyright Tony McMahon – Beardy History

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