We use cookies to improve your experience, some are essential for the operation of this site.

Preface to Essex

Essex is a coastal county of south-east England, occupying the southernmost part of the East Anglian peninsula. It is bordered on the south by the Thames and its estuary, on the west by Hertfordshire, on the south west by London and on the north by Cambridgeshire and Suffolk. It measures approximately 50 miles from east to west and 40 miles from north to south. The land area of 1,060,549 acres makes it the eighth largest of the traditional counties.

Geology and Building Stones

In the extreme north and north west of the county is a narrow belt of cretaceous white chalk that runs from Bishop’s Stortford, through Saffron Walden to Pentlow and the Belchamps. The bedrock of the remainder of the county is the eocene formation usually known as the London Clay, although the northern half of the county is overlain by glacial till; sand and gravel deposited during the last ice age. There is no good natural building stone to be found in Essex. In the south, near the Thames Kentish Rag and Reigate stone were sometimes used, for dressings, as at Stifford and South Ockendon church. Elsewhere flint and pebble rubble construction is common, sometimes in combination with puddingstone conglomerate.

At Inworth, a mixture of brick, tile and flint was used for the masonry, with puddingstone dressings

In the northern chalk zone, clunch was used, especially for dressings and internal features, including fonts.

Clunch dressings on the bell-openings at Boreham

This shortage of building stone led to the adoption of brick for much building: either re-used Roman tiles or, from the mid-12thc onwards, newly made medieval bricks. At Copford, for example, both seem to have been liberally used for quoins and window arches.

Roman and medieval brick dressings at Copford

Main towns

Only Colchester and Maldon are treated as towns in the Domesday Survey, and clearly these were the largest urban settlements in the county. The largest town today is (according to the 2011 census) Southend-on-Sea, with Colchester next, followed by Chelmsford and Basildon. Rayleigh, Benfleet and Thundersley now form a single conurbation, and the next largest is Harlow New Town. Maldon is only 17th in the list.

Apart from Colchester, Chelmsford and Maldon, none of today’s major towns was of any great importance in the medieval period, but Saffron Walden in the NW of the county and 23rd in current ranking, will be worth some further investigation


Camulodunum was established at what was probably the upper limit of navigation of the river Colne in the east of the county. Although it is known as the capital of the Roman province of Britannia, and reputed to be the oldest town in England based on a mention by Pliny the Elder (d.79 AD), it was certainly in existence before the Roman invasion as the main oppidum of the Trinovantes and subsequently the Catauvellauni. The evidence for this comes from late Iron Age coins minted there and bearing the names of Tasciovanus (20-10 BC) and Cunobelin (Shakespeare’s Cymbeline – c.5 BC – 40 AD). Camulodonum was the first target of Boudica’s uprising of 60-61 AD, and the town was systematically destroyed by the Iceni and their allies.

Colchester’s status after the departure of the Romans is disputed. In the 9th-century Historia Brittonum it is named among the thirty most important cities in Britain, and its siege and recapture from the Danes by King Edward the Elder in 917 indicates that by this time it was seen as a significant military asset.

The castle was begun between 1069 and 1076, on the podium of the Roman Temple of Claudius, and has the largest keep ever built in Britain. Its first steward was Eudo Dapifer. Other significant Norman buildings in Colchester include St Botolph’s Priory, an Augustinian house rebuilt on a grand scale in the mid-12th century and consecrated in 1177, and the Benedictine abbey of St John the Baptist, founded in 1095.

The town received a charter from Richard I in 1189 and developed as a centre of the woollen cloth industry throughout the later medieval and Tudor periods. It was besieged in 1648 when a Royalist force retreated behind its walls from Parliamentarians under the command of Thomas Fairfax and Henry Ireton. The siege lasted for more than 11 weeks and after the surrender of the King’s men their commanders, Charles Lucas and George Lisle, were executed without trial.

Colchester Castle


Maldon is a town on the River Chelmer, 1.5 km inland from its outflow into the Blackwater estuary. It had a hythe and evidence of trading has been found in the form of imported pottery. A mint was established in the mid-tenth century and coins were minted there until the reign of William II. The name is best known as the site of the battle of Maldon, fought between Anglo-Saxon forces and Viking raiders in 991, and famously commemorated in a 325-line poem, incomplete at start and finish. Geographically Maldon was in the hundred of Dengie, but had the status of a half-hundred in its own right in 1086, and was a town with one house owned by the king, 180 held from him by burgesses, and a further 18 described as derelict.

The town was always a port, with Hythe Quay at the northern edge. In the 19th century this was the home of shipbuilders making Thames sailing barges. The Maldon Crystal Salt Company was founded in 1882, and its sea salt, harvested from the Blackwater estuary, remains a much valued local industry.


Chelmsford is the county town of Essex and stands in the middle of the county, midway between London and Colchester. Charing Cross in only 30 miles away, making this an important commuter town. The town stands at the junction of the rivers Can and Chelmer. There is evidence of Roman and Anglo-Saxon occupation in nearby villages. In the Domesday Survey, Chelmsford was held by the Bishop of London, and had only 4 households, but it was assessed at 8 hides and had 3 plough teams from the bishop as well as another from the men. Its size had increased by the end of the 12thc century, when in 1199 a bridge was built over the River Can, and in the same year charters were issued by King John for a Friday market and an annual fair in the town. In the early 13th century it became the seat of an assize, and by 1218 it was recognised as the county town.

Saffron Walden

A castle was founded here by the Domesday landlord, Geoffrey de Mandeville, and rebuilt in stone during the Anarchy by his grandson, also Geoffrey, the 1st Earl of Essex. The Earl also built a priory later Walden Abbey, on the site now occupied by Audley End house, just outside Saffron Walden. The town grew around the castle and the church, and the latter was rebuilt in the 13thc and again in the 15thc as one of the finest in the county. The town was granted a charter for a market in 1295, and a Guildhall was built by the wool staple (demolished in 1847). Saffron crocuses were grown locally for medicinal and culinary use, and the name of the town was changed from Chepyng Walden, or simply Walden, to Saffron Walden in the later medieval period.

The Domesday record

Recent estimates suggest that the total population of Essex in 1086 was of the order of 87,000 people. This, of course, is based on the Domesday Survey, but while the Survey records a number of people in each feudal class for each holding, the figures only make sense if it is assumed that they refer to heads of households rather than individuals, which means that assumptions, or more accurately guesses, must be made about the average size of a household. The issue is a complex one for many reasons: boroughs, for example, are treated differently from vills, and serfs may well be counted individually. The present author is inclined to accept the calculations of H. C. Darby, based on an assumption of a household of 4.5 to 5.0 people, but recent estimates by the project “Reconstructing the National Income of Britain and Holland, c.1270/1500 to 1850”, based at Warwick and Belfast have also proved useful (and are not very different).

This figure for total population places Essex in fifth place in terms of population after Norfolk, Lincolnshire, Suffolk and Devon (reliable figures are not available for Yorkshire). The county was divided into 19 rural hundreds (and the two boroughs of Colchester and Maldon), and the Survey lists a total of 481 settlements in the county. In terms of the arable value of the Essex soil, Darby divides the Domesday county into north and south, generalising that in terms of the number of plough teams per square mile and the population density the north was generally more productive. This he attributed largely to the soil overlying the two parts. The northern Boulder Clay, leavened by chalk, flints and sand, is easier to work than the impervious London Clay of the southern region. 11th-century Essex was a very wooded county, with the greatest concentration of woodland in the west, measured by the number of pigs each holding could support. The Domesday record indicates that there was much more meadow land in the north than the south, whereas the figures of ‘pasture for sheep’, unusually recorded for this county, can be mapped to show that sheep were grazed in large numbers on the Essex marshes along the south-eastern coastal belt. The Domesday Survey recorded only two places with burgesses; Colchester and Maldon. For the city of Colchester, the Survey lists 295 holders of land holding 406 houses between them. Some were clearly inhabitants while others were major magnates like the Bishop of London, who held 14 houses in the town, It is difficult to be precise about this because sometimes a tenant-in-chief’s houses in the city were attached to a particular manor outside Colchester, and sometimes the figures contradict one another. Thus in the record of the Abbot of Westminster’s manor of Feering there were 2 houses in Colchester, while in the account of the borough we read that the abbot held 4 houses belonging to Feering. Maldon was clearly a settlement with urban and rural characteristics. The holding had 11½ ploughs at work in 1086, with pasture for sheep, woodland for pigs, meadow and a mill, but there was also an urban element held by the king, consisting of 180 houses held by burgesses (who also held significant quantities of ploughland).

Domesday tenants-in-chief

After the king, the main ecclesiastical landlords were the Bishops of London and Bayeux, although the latter’s, Odo, the king’s half-brother, should probably be considered a personal holding. Of the important secular tenants in chief, Count Eustace of Boulogne, William of Warenne Richard of Brionne and Geoffrey de Mandeville were all members of an elite group of Norman magnates who were either related to the Conqueror or had fought alongside him at Hastings, or both and were rewarded with large gifts of land in several counties. Swein of Essex was the son of Robert FitzWimarc, a kinsman of both Edward the Confessor and William I, and a counsellor of the Confessor, who managed to retain his lands and influence after the Conquest. His son Swein inherited his holdings and built a castle at Rayleigh. Robert Gernon was a Norman lord who was rewarded after the Conquest with lands mostly in Essex, Cambridgeshire, Hertfordshire and Suffolk but also Richard’s Castle in Herefordshire. Likewise Ralph Baynard’s holdings were mostly in Norfolk and Suffolk with a scattering further south, while Ranulf Peverel held 75 manors, mostly in East Anglia. Eudo Dapifer was a steward in the royal household, rewarded with lands in Essex and nearby counties, and Haymo the Steward was the Sheriff of Kent and held lands in Kent, Essex and Surrey. Beyond these men, few of the 89 tenants in chief listed in the Domesday Survey had large holdings in the county.


The Essex of today is smaller in area than it was in 1954 when Pevsner first visited. In 1965 the boundary was changed so that 25 places in the SW of the county were moved to Greater London. These settlements include Chingford, Woodford, Walthamstow, Barkingside, Leyton, Leytonstone, Stratford, East and West Ham, Canning Town, Silvertown, Plaistow, Wanstead, Ilford, Barking, Harold Hill, Havering-atte-Bower, Romford, Hornchurch, Upminster, Dagenham, Rainham and Wennington. This area now belongs to the London Boroughs of Newham, Redbridge, Havering, Watham Forest and Barking and Dagenham. The Corpus of Romanesque Sculpture retains the traditional boundaries, but the Buildings of England series covers this area in their London 5: East volume, published in 2005 and omits it from the 2007 Essex volume.

Religious history

The diocese of London was founded in 604, with Mellitus as its first bishop, and in 607 King Ethelbert of Kent built the first cathedral of St Paul. London at this time was not predominantly Christian, and it was not until the time of Bishop Erkenwald (c.675- c.693) that some degree of stability was achieved. By the middle of the twelfth century the diocese was divided into the four archdeaconries of London, Middlesex, Essex and Colchester. Essex remained a part of the diocese of London until 1914, when the diocese of Chelmsford was established covering the historic county. The parish church of St Mary was raised to the rank of cathedral, and rebuilt to some extent by the addition of a new east end by Sir Charles Nicholson in 1923, but it is still substantially a 15th-century parish church.

The main religious houses in the county were at Barking, Waltham, Walden, and St John’s and St Botolph’s in Colchester.


The nunnery at Barking was founded by St Erkenwald, Bishop of London for his sister Ethelburga, who was its first abbess from c.660 to c.695. In the tenth century, Archbishop Dunstan introduced the Rule of St Benedict to the house.


The Abbey of the Holy Cross at Waltham was founded in the early eleventh century to house a miraculous cross, and was enlarged and refounded as a house of secular canons by Earl Harold in 1060. After his defeat at Hastings in 1066, Harold was said to have been buried there, although no tomb survives. In 1177 it was refounded again by Henry II as a house of Augustinian canons, and at the Dissolution was the richest house in Essex . Walden Abbey was founded as a priory by Geoffrey de Mandeville between 1136 and 1143, and was raised to abbey status in 1190. At the Dissolution it was purchased by Sir Thomas Audley, who built Audley End on the site. The Benedictine Abbey of St John the Baptist in Colchester abbey was founded in 1096 by Eudo Dapifer. At the Dissolution its abbot, Thomas Marshall, was one of the three to be executed for treason.

Waltham Abbey church from the NE

St Botolphs, Colchester

St Botolph’s , like Waltham, was apparently a secular house that was later transformed to the Rule of St Augustine, but here the transformation was much earlier, shortly before 1100, making this the first house of this order in England.

St Botolph's Priory from the E

Anglo-Saxon and Romanesque buildings and sculpture

THE earliest surviving Anglo-Saxon buildings are St Peter-on-the Wall at Bradwell-on-Sea, dating from the mid-seventh century, and a wall including a doorway at St Mary’s, Prittlewell of a similar date. Eleventh-century Saxon fabric is found at Inworth, Chickney, Strethall, Holy Trinity in Colchester, Hadstock, Little Bardfield and the crossing tower of Great Tey, but much of this could date from either side of the Conquest.

The 11th-century chancel arch at Strethall

Prior’s Hall in Widdington is an eleventh-century chapel converted to residential use in the later Middle Ages. Little Anglo-Saxon sculpture survives in the county. There is a cross shaft at Saffron Walden and other work at Great Canfield, West Mersea and White Notley.

The greatest of the Norman buildings are the keep of Colchester Castle – among the largest in Europe, Hedingham Castle, Waltham Abbey, and the ruins of St Botolph’s, Colchester.

The W front of St Botolph's Priory and Hedingham Castle

Among the parish churches, Castle Hedingham stands out for its length.

St Nicholas, Castle Hedingham from the SE

The late-eleventh century west tower of Corringham is the most massive in the county, and has arcaded decoration on its upper levels. Like Suffolk and Norfolk, Essex has round-towered churches, but only six of them, of which perhaps three, Lamarsh, Great Leighs, and Broomfield are of twelfth-century date.

The round-towered church of St Mary with St Leonard, Broomfield

The most celebrated piece of Romanesque sculpture in the county is certainly the Barking Rood, now housed in the Curfew Tower of Barking Abbey. It is a large scale figural sculpture carved on 9 blocks (3 are lost at the top), and must originally have been approximately 6 feet high. It shows Christ on the cross between the grieving figures of the Virgin and St John, all on a latticed background. The figure of Christ especially is badly damaged, having lost his head, and he dwarfs the tiny figures that flank him. A date in the middle of the 12thc was proposed by Zarnecki, on the basis of drapery styles,and this is generally accepted today.

The Barking Rood

The stone of the Barking Rood is imported, as the local stone really does not lend itself to sculpture, but a workshop producing fonts of the typical Purbeck table type (although not necessarily of Purbeck limestone) can be identified at Abbess Roding, Little Laver, Moreton and Fryerning.

The clunch font bowl at St Mary's, Little Laver

For the rest, the most spectacular doorway is at St Botolph’s which has five orders with various chevron forms in the arches and deeply undercut block and cushion capitals, but it is badly eroded.

Capitals of the central W doorway at St Botolph's Priory

Chip carving is found lavishly decorating early doorways at Elsenham, High Ongar, Little Totham, Stansted Mountfitchet and Margaret Roding.

Chip-carving on the S nave doorway at All Saints' Little Totham

It also occurs at Birchanger surrounding the only figural Romanesque tympanum in the county – carved with a tiny Agnus Dei.

The Birchanger Agnus Dei

Chevron enthusiasts will enjoy Margaret Roding and South Ockendon, while lovers of beakhead are advised to give the county a miss.

Chevron ornament - a rarity in Essex- at St Margaret's, Margaret Roding

Fieldwork and recording

Fieldwork was initially undertaken by Ann Hilder from the beginning of the project, and she was later joined by Isobel Tomlins. As the years advanced, it became necessary to bring in other fieldworkers; Ron Baxter taking over the bulk of the county in 2011, and Michael Pearson taking on a group of sites in the north of the county shortly afterwards. The bulk of the photography was carried out by Ron Baxter using either a Panasonic DMC-FZ150 or a Fujifilm Finepix S1.

  1. J. Bettley and N. Pevsner, The Buildings of England. Essex, New Haven and London 2007
  2. S. Broadberry, B. M. S. Campbell and B. van Leeuwen, ‘English Medieval Population: Reconciling Time Series and Cross Sectional Evidence’, 2010.
  3. B. Cherry, C. O’Brien and N. Pevsner, The Buildings of England, London 5 East, New Haven and London 2005.
  4. H. C. Darby, The Domesday Geography of Eastern England, Cambridge 1952 (3rd ed. 1971), 209-63.
  5. N. Pevsner, The Buildings of England. Essex, Harmondsworth 1954.

RCHME, An Inventory of the Historical Monuments in Essex, Volume 1: North West (1916),

RCHME, An Inventory of the Historical Monuments in Essex, Volume 2: Central and South West (1921),

RCHME, An Inventory of the Historical Monuments in Essex, Volume 3: North East (1922).

RCHME, An Inventory of the Historical Monuments in Essex, Volume 4, South east. (1923).

  1. A. Suckling, Memorials of the Antiquities and Architecture, Family History and Heraldry of the County of Essex, London 1845.
  2. T. Williamson, England’s Landscape: East Anglia, London 2006.
  3. T. Wright, The History and Topography of the County of Essex, 2 vols, 1831 and 1836.