Waltham Abbey's history of kings, cannons and pilgrims

East London and West Essex Guardian Series: The present church is the knave of a church built in circa 1150 The present church is the knave of a church built in circa 1150

A historical society has announced it is planning a community project to show the ancient boundaries of former churches on one of the district’s most iconic sites.

Waltham Abbey Historical Society is planning on using members of the community to line the boundaries of five previous churches which have stood on the same site in Highbridge Street.

Evidence for the first church on the site was discovered in the 1960s when the present church floor was being removed in order to install central heating.

According to Peter Huggins’ 2012 publication The Church at Waltham an Archeological and Historical Review, the initial building was a small timber Saxon building with one or two rooms and built around 604 to 616.

In circa 790 the second church was constructed which was larger than its predecessor and made of stone rather than timber.

It was still standing in the time of King Cnut from 1016 to 1035 when his standard bearer Tovi brought a black crucifix, known now as the Holy Cross, to the area.

This event is still celebrated during Holy Cross Day in the town in September.

The next church was built by one of the most famous people associated with Waltham Abbey, king Harold.

Before he was king he built a collegiate church on the site which was dedicated in 1060, some of which is still present in the church today.

His burial is also recorded on the site during the time of this church.

A document called De Inventione Sancte Crucis Nostre recalls the events saying: “They brought the body to Waltham and buried it with great honour, where, without any doubt, he has lain to rest until the present day, whatever stories men may invent.”

The latter words referring to an alternative account of the time which placed Harold’s burial site as Chester.

The present day Norman-style church was the nave of the penultimate building to be erected on the site rather than the final one.

It was built around 1090 and 1150 and was part funded by the two wives of Henry I.

The fifth and final construction, an Augustinian church and Monastery was by far the largest and finished in 1177 by Henry II as a penance for killing Thomas a Beckett.

In1184 the then priory attained ‘Abbey’ status where the modern town name originated.

Amateur historian and archaeologist Peter Huggins said:”It was an enormous church two or three times the size of the Norman church.

“It was a status symbol.”

The church was finally destroyed as the last church to be demolished as part of the dissolution of the monasteries under Henry VIII around 1541.

Clive Simpson of the Waltham Abbey Historical Society said: “The Abbey was one of Henry VIII’s favourite and originally his intention was to turn it into a Cathedral.

“It is thought to have been making the equivalent of around £6m from pilgrims paying the Cannons to see the cross.

“As part of this arrangement he acquired all of the Abbey’s lands as his
Hunting Park.

The smaller parish church which was joined to the building remained and still stands today as does a buttress which can be seen in Darby Drive.

The historical society will be marking out the Abbey built by Henry II using people from the area and capturing the moment in an aerial photograph on July 19 from 10.30am.

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