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A potted history of Waltham Abbey - by Lawrence Greenall.

Waltham Abbey pub history index

The *civil* township of Waltham Abbey, along with the hamlets of Upshire, Sewardstone and Holyfield, were all once contained within the *ecclesiastical* parish of Waltham Holy Cross. They now all come under Epping Forest District Council though many local street nameplates still bear the mark WHXUDC (Waltham Holy cross Urban District Council). However, Waltham Abbey still lies within the ecclesiastical parish of Waltham Holy Cross (Upshire was created as a separate ecclesiastical parish around 100 years ago).

Thus, civil records (such as GRO certificates) which refer to Waltham Abbey, and church records (parish registers of christenings, marriages and funerals) which speak of Waltham Holy Cross, all refer to one and the same place.

Waltham Cross in Herts. is entirely separate, both civilly and ecclesiastically, from Waltham Abbey/Waltham Holy Cross in Essex. Here's a simple table:

County Town name Parish name

Herts Waltham Cross Cheshunt (until mid 19c)

Herts Waltham Cross Waltham Cross (since mid 19c)

Essex Waltham Abbey Waltham Holy Cross (always)

Just to confuse things again, both places are sometimes called simply Waltham' in local documents, and the true identity can only be worked out by carefully studying the context of each reference. To make things worse, an estate of terraced housing was built right on the county border between Waltham Abbey and Waltham Cross (which are only a mile or two apart anyway) in the late 19th Century. It's name? Waltham New Town of course! Is that correct Mick? This 'newtown' was knocked down in the late 60s and replaced by concrete shoeboxes, which in turn had a dramatic facelift (including the demolishing of a towerblock) in the early 90s.

The Abbey

The Abbey was not in fact named after the day of its consecration, but after the Holy Cross itself. Holy Cross Day was created in remembrance of the act of consecration and is still celebrated by some. The Holy Cross was discovered, along with a smaller cross and a book, at Montacute in Somerset about AD 1040. After considering various major religious establishments, the lord of Montacute (Tovi le Prud) eventually set the cross up in a modest little church on one of his many far-flung estates, being little more than a hunting lodge with a few cottages at Waltham, which constituted what was then nothing more than a remote hunting outpost based at the eastern end of one of the few terraces of gravel that provided a safe natural crossing over the river Lea and access to the dense and rich hunting ground later to be known as the Royal Forest of Essex, so dense that access from other parts of Essex was not undertaken lightly.

This hunting outpost was simply known as wald ham by the Saxons. It means 'forest hamlet' or 'settlement by a forest'. They weren't the first settlers here however; archaeological evidence of a prehistoric enclosure has been found under the town centre, which confirms several references in medieval deeds to "eldeworth" (note my email address) suggesting that parts of it survived as remnants of a bank-and-ditch structure, and more pointedly as a persistent legal line of division between neighbouring properties, in which context it is usually found in these deeds, until around the 17th century. The Saxon settlement's first known (7th Century) Christian church was wooden, and is thought to have been similar to the one still standing at Greensted-juxta-Ongar. It was replaced in the 8th Century by a church similar in layout to the one at Brixworth, Northants, which parallel has more than a little to do with the to-ing and fro-ing of the boundaries of Saxon kingdoms at this period.

We now jump forward again to the early 1050s, when the then Earl Harold was cured of a nasty disease by the Holy Cross' miraculous powers during a passing visit. In gratitude the Earl had the church rebuilt and extended in the latest avant-garde style, using Norman features in pre-Norman Conquest days and an unusual layout which can only be found elsewhere during the same early period (in a religious context) in German churches, being based on 4th Century Roman basilica. Essentially, he kept and lengthened the Brixworth-type nave but removed its inner cells and added a new continuous transept with only a very tiny apse - just big enough for one chair or throne - effectively making the overall plan into a capital T shape.

This new church was consecrated in 1060, though building had started about 1053. The Holy Cross was set up on a new altar within, and very quickly became a major tourist and pilgrim attraction, especially to Earl Harold's subjects. There are a great many surviving accounts of the various miraculous healings it performed from this time. Harold dedicated the new building to the Holy Cross, and set it up as a secular college for a dean and twelve canons, but he also retained the rights of the parishioners to use the old nave as their parish church. Along with these rights the original dedication to Saint Lawrence was also kept, and to this day "the "Abbey" or the "Abbey Church" still has a double dedication to the Holy Cross and Saint Lawrence.

As a secular foundation, its canons lived in town houses and would have had a lot of dealings with everyday life. They would, for example, have been allowed to raise their own families and act as civic officials. Thus the hamlet grew into a prosperous tourist resort and was granted charters, eventually growing to some significance commercially as a market town as well as ecclesiastically as a pilgrim's haven. It is said that as Harold, crowned king in 1066, briefly prayed at the foot of the Holy Cross on his frantic rush to Hastings, the figure of Jesus on it lowered its head and shed a tear, an omen ignored. Harold's battle-cry at Hastings was "Holy Cross!" though as we know, this time he wasn't so fortunate. The cross lost none of its reputation, however.

By 1090 the popularity of the Holy Cross was so great (it probably represented, by strong association with the beloved Harold, all that was fondly remembered about idyllic pre-conquest days) that 'Harold's Church' was again extended, by having a long 'apse-and-ambulatory' added to its eastern end, thus making the plan into a more familiar four-ended cross. This extension had a semi-circular end, designed to encourage a constant stream of pilgrims to file past the Holy Cross in an orderly fashion, presumably getting not much more than a fleeting glimpse before being pushed outside again by those behind them in the queue. Messrs. Ford and Disney would have been proud of such a system! In the 1120s three semi-circular 'bubble chapels' were added to this extension, the largest one at the eastern end is thought to have been specifically built to house the Holy Cross.

About 50 years later, as penance for his complicity in the murder of Thomas A Becket, King Henry II undertook to found three new abbeys. But he didn't quite keep to the spirit of his word - instead of starting from scratch in all three cases he decided instead to remodel the secular college of Waltham as one of the three, turning it into the Abbey of Waltham in 1177. Henry rebuilt both the Brixworth-type nave (again keeping it as the parish church) and Harold's transept (it wasn't completely demolished - one section of wall built by Harold still stands), but replaced the apse-and-ambulatory with a massive new central choir, along with a second larger transept and square-ended apse further to the east. This structure now represented a double cross in plan and measured well over 400 feet from east to west! Again, the Holy Cross was set up on a new altar, and the local tourist business continued to grow as lucratively as ever. It was from this time that the flocks of visitors coming to Waltham's Abbey gradually began to refer to their lodgings within the town, and the town itself, as 'Waltham Abbey', though the parish always remained known by its dedication to the Holy Cross of Waltham, to which the Abbey and its canons were only ever servants.

There had been increasing controversy surrounding the secular canons and their worldly lives, and in 1075 Pope Gregory VII banned the appointment of any further secular canons at Waltham and deprived the revenues of the established ones. Understandably, there was considerable resistance to this development, and Waltham's secular canons managed to continue their ministry for about another century, no doubt by relying on their various sidelines for finance. But a community of regular (celibate) canons had been in existence at Colchester since 1107, and the movement had been steadily growing, and Henry II finally replaced the Waltham Abbey community with regular canons in a move probably designed to appease the Pope. It was thus with the consecration of the Abbey at Waltham in 1177 that the old secular college became the Augustinian Waltham Abbey, complete with cloisters, all the usual monastic outbuildings and extensive landholdings, and celibate inmates that the townspeople rarely saw out and about. But tradition remains to this day of a secret tunnel, or at least a secret way through the marshes of the Lea Valley, which the canons of Waltham used when making unofficial visits to the residents of Cheshunt Nunnery!

Three centuries later, Harold's decision to retain the parish church within his college played a crucial role when Henry VIII eventually turned his attention to the last Abbey he was to dissolve - Waltham Abbey's whole complex, all the outbuildings, cloisters, both transepts, the altar and the choir, were completely demolished - but the old Brixworth-type nave was left standing as the parish church, along with a large central tower at its eastern end. The tower collapsed in 1552, and the parishioners erected a new one at the western end, which still stands as one of the very few church towers built during the reign of Bloody Mary.

And so we are left with the present Abbey Church and its double dedication. The Holy Cross went missing during the Dissolution, almost exactly 500 years after it was found. Did someone spirit it away or was it destroyed?


Waltham Cross in Hertfordshire is the proud possessor of one of the three remaining Eleanor Crosses. These Crosses were placed along the route of the funeral cortege of Queen Eleanor of Castile, wife of Edward I, who died at Harby in 1290.

Wherever the funeral party rested for the night, usually at a monastery or abbey, a cross was subsequently erected at the nearest public place, usually a market square or crossroads. On 12th December 1290, the cortege travelled from Dunstable Priory to Saint Albans Abbey, leaving for Waltham Abbey the next morning. The Queen's body rested that night at Waltham before setting off again for London, entering the City through Bishpsgate on the 14th. The next crosses were erected at Cheapside and at Charing Cross, the last overnight stop before Westminster. Both were pulled down with great Parliamentarian zeal in the 17th century, the Victorians erecting a replica outside Charing Cross Station a bit later.

Drawing this route on a map makes it clear that the cortege took a considerable diversion in order to include Waltham Abbey on its itinerary, which is not on the logical route from Saint Albans to London. It crossed the River Lea along the same natural gravel terrace used by Tovi 250 years beforehand, and went back along it to use the old A10 past Tottenham and Stamford Hill to get to London. The cross commemorating the stop at Waltham Abbey was erected, as explained above, at the nearest significant public place, being the junction of the old A10 (roughly the route, long before, of Ermine Street) with the road to Waltham Abbey. This underlines the fact that the present direct route from WA south past Sewardstone and Chingford along the eastern bank of the river Lea was not used as a main route into London, highlighting Waltham Abbey's relative isolation, in terms of through traffic at least, from the rest of Essex as well.

The (civil) town of Waltham Cross was once nothing more than a very ancient inn (the Four Swans, demolished c.1970) set up next to the cross, and was a mere outpost of the ecclesiastical parish of Cheshunt, Hertfordshire until the coming of the railway in the mid 19th Century brought expansion and autonomous ecclesiastical status.

Waltham Abbey was  has very definitely not been considered as part of Essex at least since 1837, when the Poor Law placed it (along with Waltham Cross and Cheshunt in Herts) under the jurisdiction of the Edmonton Union, in the county of Middlesex! This means that Waltham Abbey has, so far, never been included in any Essex census, and neither have any of the registrations of the births deaths and marriages of its residents been recorded under its parent county.


And Last updated on: Wednesday, 03-Jul-2019 18:35:20 BST