History of Great Waltham

Great Waltham Church

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Effigy of de Mandeville

The church of St. Mary and St. Lawrence was built in circa 1100, probably on the site of an earlier church. It was built on the orders of Geoffrey de Mandeville’s son or grandson. de Mandeville came to Britain as a battle commander for William the Conqueror and after the success at Hastings he was well rewarded with lands, which included Great Waltham and Pleshey.

The centre of the church, the tower, nave and chancel is Norman and is, dimensionally, the same today as when it was built. The nave is 32 feet wide which makes it the widest ancient nave in Essex. However, as you would expect, internally it is much altered, primarily during the nineteenth century but there is still much evidence of its Norman and medieval past. The South aisle was added in the fourteenth century with a major refurbishment in the early part of the sixteenth century when the church was heightened and the clerestory added. The North aisle was added in 1874-5 to cope with the expansion in the numbers of the congregation. This seems at odds with the general trend of church attendances as the Religious Census of 1851 showed that only about half the population of England and Wales over the age of 10 attended a church, which many contemporaries found shocking!

In the ground floor area of the tower you can see the plans from the architect, Frederic Chancellor (a prolific local architect who also designed the Church in Ford End and who became Chelmsford’s first mayor) dated 1874.  You can also see an earlier plan of the church, dated 1745, where you will see that the bachelors were seated in the South aisle, the married men in the middle and the ladies against the North wall, kept as far as possible from the single men!

Whilst we’re in the tower: there are eight bells – the oldest dated 1336 (in the reign of Edward III) and the heaviest, the tenor bell dated 1663, which weighs in at one ton 280lb or 1143kg. Two years after the last two bells were installed in 1796 part of the spiral stair case and tower collapsed. A parish magazine describes that the bell-ringers were unaware of what was happening and it was only a passing [brave] shoemaker who raised the alarm and entered the tower to warn them.

When you step out of the tower, pause, and you will see ten benches (pews) on the right-hand side that are noticeably older than the rest. These date to the mid-fifteenth century and you can see their warped line due to age. We get complaints about how uncomfortable they are but I love sitting on them – they are so tactile!

As you stand in the centre aisle look up at the roof and you’ll see the early 16th century roof supported by alternating tie-beams and hammer-beam trusses carved with angels; the curved braces which support the hammer and tie-beams have their spandrels carved with faces, including a Green Man, foliage and serpents.

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The Everard Memorial

As you continue look left to the far corner and you will see the Everard Monument. This was built in 1611 by Sir Anthony Everard for his wife Anne (née Barnardiston) who died two years previously. He died in 1614 and you can see their two effigies lying sideways in a rather uncomfortable position with their hand supporting their head. In front, at floor level, you can see two statues, the first has two boys lying on their backs and the other one boy - sadly they are the Everard’s children who died very young. Apparently there was an effigy of the kneeling surviving daughter but that went missing. The monument was refurbished in the 1950’s which was financed by descendants of the Everards from many parts of the World. There is a book by the Everard chapel altar with all the details. Nearby, next to the Rood screen you will see a brass plate of Sir Anthony’s father, Richard and his wife, Clemence (née Wiseman). He outlived his son, daughter-in-law and his own wife.

Look to the left of the monument and high on the wall you will see a memorial to Elizabeth Cecilia Clarke (died 1827); she was the daughter of George Somers Clarke - our ‘mad’ Vicar (1797-1837). He was an expert in Hebrew scripture, unfortunately, he would preach in a rambling fashion to his congregation in Hebrew. Eventually imprisoned in Chelmsford Old Gaol in 1825 by the ecclesiastical court for failing to submit to fines and other punishments he decided he liked it in gaol and spent the rest of his days there. He passed his time recording the passage of the stage coaches as they passed to and from the Black Boy Inn (immortalized in Dickens’ Pickwick Papers) and re-translating parts of the Old Testament! You can see his modest memorial in the floor marked with the initials GSC in front of the main altar. After his imprisonment his aforesaid daughter who lived in the vicarage with her mother, sadly, committed suicide by drinking rat poison.

Most of what you can see in the chancel interior is Victorian. However, to the left of the altar you can see a fifteenth century door which leads into the vestry. The door has a sanctuary ring in the centre. I’m told that the door was in the South doorway of the chancel so that the handle could be held whilst seeking sanctuary from capture and imprisonment in medieval times.

If you come out of the chancel and turn left into the South aisle you will see an opening in the wall beside the Lady Chapel altar. This is a fourteenth century piscina which was used in medieval times to dispose of the water used to wash the sacred vessels after Communion. There is deliberately no outlet to the outside, the water seeps into the stonework to avoid it being used for nefarious purposes.

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Victorian stained glass

The stained glass throughout the church is Victorian with the exception of the glass in the South-West wall adjacent to the porch. This is medieval and thought to come from Pleshey castle. The lower centre shield is the Royal coat of arms. Thomas of Woodstock, duke of Gloucester, the youngest son of Edward III, lived in Pleshey castle until 1397 when he was lured to France to his death. So it is an intriguing thought that this glass may be associated with this piece of history and Shakespeare’s play, Richard II which talks of Plashie (Pleshey) and of Gloucester’s death.

Close by is the Purbeck stone font which dates to the seventeenth century, however, walk through to the porch and you will see what is thought to be a Norman font (on modern shafts and plinth) which was found among the foundations of the church during some excavations. Nearby, set in the wall to the right of the door you’ll see a fourteenth century stoup; this is a basin which used to contain holy water into which worshipers used to dip their fingers before crossing themselves.

Finally, to best see the Norman features of the building go outside to the East-end (the Altar end) and you’ll see at the corners, the Norman quoins (stones) and above them Roman tiles they used. Look up at the large central window and to either side you’ll see the blocked in Norman windows with Roman tiles in a fan shape above. These were open before the roof was raised and the insertion of more and larger windows so we can see that the church would have been pretty gloomy inside.