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Holy Cross and St Lawrence, Waltham Abbey, Essex

(51°41′17″N, 0°0′12″W)
Waltham Abbey
TL 381 007
pre-1974 traditional (England and Wales) Essex
now Essex
medieval London
now Chelmsford
  • Ron Baxter
26 July 2018, 25 October 2018

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Waltham Abbey is the name of the town in which the former Priory (later Abbey) of the Holy Cross stands. The town is outside London on the N side, immediately outside the M25, and alongside the border with Hertfordshire. The present church consists of a 12thc aisled 7-bay nave, with a 16thc W tower porch and a 14thc Lady chapel on the S side. This is a mere fragment of the original abbey church, which extended at least 300 feet further E at its greatest extent in the 13thc. In brief King Harold II's burial church was rebuilt at some unrecorded date in the early 12thc as a cruciform aisled church with a crossing tower and eastern apse ambulatory. The E arm was demolished by Henry II, who re-established the church, initially as a priory of Augustinian canons, and a few years later as a mitred abbey, in expiation for the assassination of Archbishop Becket. The former E ambulatory has been excavated and is now marked out on the ground, E of the church. What was built at the E end was a complete new church on an enormous scale: a 7-bay nave, crossing with transepts aisles on the E side, a square-ended presbytery, perhaps 6 bays long, and possibly a retrochoir and E Lady Chapel too. On the N side of the new nave, a cloister was built with the normal claustral arrangements to N and E. Meanwhile the Norman nave (the present parish church) was screened off for parish use by a 13thc wall. After the Dissolution the E parts were pulled down and shortly afterwards the crossing tower collapsed, bringing down the transepts with it. The site had passed to Sir Anthony Denny at the Dissolution. Restoration of the church began under Ambrose Poynter in 1853, but William Burgess was responsible for most of the work, and especially for the internal elevation of the E end, in a campaign that began in 1859-60 at the E end of the present church, and was completed by 1877. Thus the Romanesque work that survives, by and large, belongs to the early-12thc building and not to Henry II's grandiose enlargement. This includes the W crossing arch and that part of the N crossing arch that adjoins it; the arch linking the nave aisle to the former S transept; the nave with its N and S arcades, galleries and clerestories; the nave aisle vault responds; the aisle and clerestorey windows and S nave doorway, and various internal and external stringcourses. There are also corbel tables under the eaves of the first two bays of the nave, but these, and the nave windows, are only readily visible on the south side of the building. Further investigation might allow recording of the north side in the future.


In Cnut's reign, lands in Waltham were held by Tofig the Proud, who founded the church and granted lands to it. After his death in 1042 his lands were forfeited to King Edward the Confessor, who granted them to Harold son of Godwin. Harold then held a manor of 40 hides in Waltham, 3 of which he granted to the college he had established at the church. After his defeat and death at Hastings, his land passed to King William, who granted it c.1075 to Walcher, Bishop of Durham, in order to provide the bishop with a home near London. Later sources show that Walcher also acquired 2½ of the 3 hides held by the college in Northland, and it seems probable that he established some degree of control over the abbey itself. In 1086 the Bishop of Durham was William of St Calais, and his tenants at Waltham included 2 sokemen holding 5 hides, another 4 holding 2 hides and ½ a virgate, the church of the Holy Cross holding ½ a hide, William of Warenne holding 1½ hides less 15 acres and Ranulf, brother of Ilger holding 30 acres. There were also 12 houses and a gate in London (Aldgate) that belonged to the bishop as part of this manor. According to VCH, the history of the sokemen's lands cannot be traced after 1086.

A dispute between William II and the Bishop of Durham led to the Durham lands being in the king's hands between 1088 and 1091, and while the see of Durham was vacant in 1096, King William granted Waltham and its adjoining lands to the college, but the manor appears to have remained in royal hands. Beginning with Henry I's first wife, Maud, Waltham appears to have been granted successively to Queens of England until the time of Eleanor of Aquitaine. This arrangement ceased around 1163-64, when it was farmed by a series of tenants, then in 1177 Henry II refounded the college and increased its endowments. In 1189 the abbot and canons paid King Richard I 300 marks for a grant of the entire manor, to be held at an annual rent of £60. This arrangement continued, and the manor remained in the possession of the abbey until the Dissolution.


Exterior Features



Exterior Decoration

String courses
Corbel tables, corbels

Interior Features


Tower/Transept arches



Wall passages/Gallery arcades


Interior Decoration

String courses

The similarity of the spiral and zigzag piers to Durham Cathedral is obvious, and while the Bishop of Durham was Lord of the Manor of Waltham c.1075 - 1100,these dates seem too early for the nave of Waltham.

The most striking sculpture is the relief carving on the S doorway, notably the 1st-order capitals with confronted lions and the lily and palmette imposts. No parallels for the lion reliefs have been noted within the county. The grotesque heads above the nave arcade piers may be related to surviving 12thc corbels, although very few of the S side corbels are original work.

  1. J. Bettley and N. Pevsner, The Buildings of England. Essex, New Haven and London 2007,

E. Fernie, 'The Romanesque Church of Waltham Abbey', Journal of the British Archaeological Association 138 (1985), 48-78.

E. Fernie, The Architecture of Norman England, Oxford 2000, 184,.

N. Pevsner, The Buildings of England. Essex, Harmondsworth 1954, 367-72.

Victoria County History: Essex V (1966), 151-54, 170-80.

G. Welch and D. Dean, A Guide to the Abbey Church, Waltham Abbey, Peterborough 2017.