Waltham Abbey Church: another lovely ‘jolly.’
A couple of weeks ago I was taken on another series of what I call ‘Jollies.’
Those who pop in here from time to time know what I mean – a ‘jolly’ is when I am taken somewhere wonderful for a treat. My latest series of ‘jollies’ was absolutely awesome and I shall post each visit in due course.
Today I thought I would share my visit to Waltham Abbey Church.
I have visited the Church before and I took loads of photos, but for some really weird reason not one of the photos survived my camera locking. So this time I was feeling rather paranoid about the whole visit and decided to use my phone camera.
Waltham Abbey Church has been on the site it now occupies for a 1,000 years and a church has been on the site since the 7th century. When people first worshiped here they had to trek across fields to reach it. Today we parked in a busy street surrounded by lovely old buildings, and walked about 20 feet to the main entrance.
We picked a fabulous afternoon to visit. No-one else was inside the church other than my brother and I and the Verger, David Smith, and a man, Jonathan Lilley, playing a grand piano to the accompaniment of a young Chinese Flautist, Yao Yao Lu, rehearsing for a lunchtime performance the following day of French Virtuoso Flute Minor and C.P.E Bach’s Hamburg Sonata. The young girl was from a music college and don’t be surprised if you to hear great things of her in time to come; amazing.
We crept around as you can imagine, stopping now and again to watch the performance which sounded so wonderful throughout the church. Our own private virtuoso performance. Such luck.
A small wooden church was founded by King Sabert of the East Saxons in the area of the present choir c610. Offa the Great, King of Mercia founded the first stone church c780 – some of its foundations support the present church.
The stone church was erected by Harold Godwinson, Earl of Wessex, later King Harold ll, in the 1060s, and replaced the earlier one which had housed a famous cross, brought from Somerset c1020. Harold had been healed of paralysis after praying before the cross and it remained a focus of pilgrimage throughout the Middle Ages.
The life-sized stone cross with a carved figure of Christ on it, was found buried at the top of St Michael’s Hill in Montacute, Somerset and brought to Offa’s church in Waltham on the orders of Tovi the Proud, Lord of both Montacute and Waltham. It became and object of pilgrimage – The Holy Cross of Waltham.
The carvings and woodwork are breath-taking. We wandered around, all alone with haunting music of the rehearsal filling our ears. The acoustics were just perfect. If we hadn’t got plans for the following day, we would have returned to hear the recital. The Verger told us that they frequently hold such events.
A community of 12 secular canons (priests) was established by Harold to serve the church and parishes belonging to it. The canons lived in the town and most were married.
On his way from the Battle of Stamford Bridge to face William of Normandy at Hastings, Harold stopped at Waltham to pray. The Sacristan, Turkill, recorded that the figure of Christ bowed to him and afterwards looked down instead of upwards, which was taken to be a bad omen.
Harold was killed at the Battle of Hastings in 1066 and his body was brought to Waltham and buried before the high altar. Today it is believed that his grave lies outside the east end of the present building which is greatly reduced in size since Harold’s day.
1177 – King Henry ll, as part of his penance for the murder in 1170 of Thomas Beckett, Archbishop of Canterbury, refounded the church as a priory of Augustinian canons.
1184 – The priory was raised to the dignity of an Abbey, with an Abbot, a Prior and 24 Canons. The existing nave was kept as the parish church; the entire building was three times its current length.
14th century – a Funeral guild was established and built the Chapel of the Resurrection (now the Lady Chapel) and the undercroft beneath, the Chapel of the Holy Sepulchre (now the crypt and visitor’s centre). The guild provided its subscribers with a funeral in the Chapel of the Holy Sepulchre and an annual memorial service.
1529-34 – Thomas Cranmer’s meeting with two of King Henry Vlll’s advisor’s in a house in Romeland, Waltham Abbey, led to the King’s divorce from Katherine of Aragon. Leading to the break with the Pope and the establishment of the Church of England.
1540 – The monasteries were dissolved and Waltham was the last English abbey (but not the last monastery) to be closed. The Augustinian canons were sent away and in 1544 the canon’s part of the abbey was pulled down, but the townsfolk claimed the nave as their parish church, and it was spared. Three years later the Abbey site was leased to Sir Anthony Denny.
1552 – The original tower (at the east end of the present church) collapsed and the nave began to lean westwards and in 1556 a new tower was built at the west end from debris to prop up the building. The tower is the only one built in England in the reign of Mary Tudor.
We always seem to discover ancient graffiti and the photo here is of some we found on one of the stone pillars. Every Cathedral and ancient building my brother and I visit, he leaves a coin in a crack in the stone structure to be found (hopefully) many generations in the future. We both wonder if anyone will ever find them and what they’ll make of their find.
1859-60 – The Victorian restoration of the building – Edward Burne-Jones designed the stained glass at the east end, and William Burges the painted ceiling. The ceiling depicts signs of the Zodiac. Pictures on the ceiling show people doing different jobs such as picking flowers, grape picking, weeding, sawing logs and ploughing. These were painted on canvas by Edward Poynter and the background painted direct onto the ceiling boards by Charles Campbell, a sign-writer.
1875-76 – A new altar and the carved reredos behind it were designed by Burges and the upper guild chapel was restored as a Lady Chapel – dedicated to the Virgin Mary.
The room beneath the Lady Chapel, originally the Guild chapel shows a mutilated 14th century carving – The Waltham Madonna. Mary is headless and the Christ child has been lost, though there are traces of his fingers on the chain of her cloak. The carving was probably by Alexander of Abingdon, who worked on the Eleanor Cross at Waltham cross.
Above the font is a memorial in alabaster to the ‘Rough Riders,’ men of the volunteer Imperial Yeomanry, killed in the Boar War of 1900-02. There are few memorials from the Boer War and this one is unusual as not one of the men remembered are from Waltham Abbey. Apparently their commander, Richard Colvin, lived nearby and asked if the men could be commemorated at the Abbey.
Something which I found interesting: on the next pillar to the west of the organ, there were grooves worn into the pillar by chains that held the books, which, by law, had to be provided for people to read as few could afford their own copies, and these would have included Cranmer’s Bible of 1539 and the paraphrases of the Greek New Testament by Erasmus, and later Bishop Jewel’s explanation of the teachings of the Church of England, as well as a copy of Fox’s Book of Martyrs, which was written in Waltham Abbey.
Going outside into what are the remains of the Abbey Gardens, there are many ancient graves and tomb stones and the ruins of the medieval Abbey, the last part demolished as part of the Dissolution. And of course, the stone which marks the probable burial place of King Harold.
The path leading from the church to the grounds has coloured tiles depicting various patterns. We couldn’t find any information about them.
As always I took far too many photos which I have shared here with a small history of the Abbey Church. I hope you enjoy reading about it.
There are some lovely old houses and buildings in he near vicinity of the Church and a very nice tea room close by.
My next blog will be about our visit to Westminster Abbey and the following one will feature our visit to Westminster Cathedral. We also visited Eltham Palace and I will write about that later as well.
Let me know your thoughts on Waltham abbey Church and our visit if you find time. I hope this gives a flavour of what you can expect from a visit.
All photos are (c) Jane Risdon 2016. All Rights Reserved.
Audio tours of the Abbey are available to visitors for hire. The upkeep of the Church is entirely the responsibility of the congregation and donation boxes are supplied.
The Abbey Church of Waltham Holy Cross & St. Lawrence, Abbey Church Centre, Abbey Gardens, Waltham Abbey, Essex EN9 1XQ
Tel: Parish Office +44(0) 1992 767897
Open: Mon, Tue: 10am t0 4pm, Weds: 11am t0 4pm, Thurs, Fri: 10am to 4pm, Sat. 10am to 4pm and Sun. 12 Noon to 4pm.
For information about Weddings and other events: Parish Office: firstname.lastname@example.org
For information about concerts: email@example.com