Saturday, 30 October 2010

Saffron Walden, Essex

The town was originally called Walden then Chipping Walden but its name was changed owing to the fields of saffron crocuses grown here 500 years ago, which provided the dye for the wool upon which the prosperity of the town was based. Saffron was also used for cooking and as a medicine; the saffron crocus will no longer grow in the area.

St Mary the Virgin, which is the largest church in Essex, stands on a hill in the middle of the town witnessing to the glory of God. It is thought that a church stood on this site in Saxon times which was replaced by a Norman church. In about 1250 this was in turn replaced by a cruciform church in the Decorated style of which the lower part of the chancel, the arches into the north and south chapels and the carvings in the north aisle survive from this period. The aisles and nave were rebuilt in the Perpendicular style commencing in 1430 and taking about 100 years to complete.

The later stages of this rebuilding were carried out under the supervision of John Wastell, the Master mason who was engaged in the building of King’s College Chapel in Cambridge. The exterior turrets which stand above the east end of the nave are typical of his work. The size and magnificence of the nave are the church’s more remarkable features.

The church you see today is predominantly the result of work undertaken in the years 1430 to 1525. A great influence in the latter part of this period was the Guild of the Holy Trinity which was partly religious but also had local government-type powers.

A less obvious, but most important influence on the way the church looks today was the major restoration undertaken by the restorer of Audley End House, Sir John Griffin Griffin, 4th Lord Howard de Walden and 1st Lord Braybrooke, between years 1790 and 1793. The church at the time was in a sad state of disrepair but this restoration unfortunately removed many medieval brasses and monuments.

The nave is 54 feet high with tall slender pillars, arches and a clerestory. The carving of the spandrels, the triangular pieces between the arches, some of which contain Tudor roses, are of special note particularly those above the crucifix. These are similar to work in King’s College Chapel and the cross section of the pillars is identical to that in Great St. Mary’s Cambridge, another of John Wastell’s churches. No less than eleven bosses are variations on the Tudor rose reflecting the power of  Henry VIII. Also to be seen are the pomegranate of his Queen, Catherine of Aragon, and the Knot of Henry Bourchier, Earl of Essex.

The lower part of the chancel was built about 1250 but the upper part dates from the early 1500’s after the rebuilding of the nave and aisles had been completed. The roof does not fit very well and by tradition Lord Audley had it brought from another religious house. It is very beautiful and as far as is known nothing quite like it exists in other English churches.

The Sanctuary is raised because it was built on top of a great vault. The Howard vault was sealed in 1860 and holds the bodies of Lord Audley, ten Earls of Suffolk - whose family built Audley End - and Lord Howard de Walden and his two wives.

At the eastern end of the north aisle there are three bays of elaborately carved canopies which are over 600 years old, surviving from the Decorated period of the church. These are worn and damaged, but in the bay nearest the north chapel it is easy to pick out King David with his harp. The brasses attached to the wall were originally on tombs which have disappeared.

The north chapel was rebuilt in 1526 although the wooden carvings of saints below the roof probably date from the fifteenth century. The marble tomb of John Leche was moved from the chancel in the restoration of 1790-93.

The south chapel, now used as the Choir Vestry, is believed to have contained the altar of the Guild of the Holy Trinity. Two monuments on the wall commemorate deaths in the Neville family who took the title in 1797. The elaborate carved tablet tells of the death of two sons of the 3rd Lord Braybrooke killed within a week of each other in 1854 in the Crimea, and the lower one the deaths of the 7th Lord Braybrooke and his two sons both killed in the Second World War. The tomb of black Belgian slate known as touch is that of Lord Chancellor Audley who was granted Walden Abbey on its dissolution in 1537 but is sadly inaccessible to the public. I particularly wanted to photograph this tomb!

The South Porch has a fan vaulted ceiling and by the door is a fragment of an old alabaster reredos above it is the Muniments Room, once the meeting place of the Guild of the Holy Trinity.

The spire reaches a height of 193 feet and the top part of the tower together with the spire were built in 1832 to a design by Thomas Rickman and extensively repaired in 1973-76. The original spire, with a lantern was designed by Henry Winstanley and it is said that he designed this as an experiment for the design of the Eddystone Lighthouse of which he was the architect; he and the lighthouse perished in a storm in 1703.


St Mary the Virgin

St Mary the Virgin (2)

St Mary the Virgin (3)


SAFFRON WALDEN. It is the medieval age living on into our century of change, a delightful little town in the Slade valley with a great roll of fame and 100 houses fit to be preserved as national monuments. Life has been going on here for more than a thousand years, and most of the time a thread has been running through it that has found its place in history.

Hundreds of Saxon graves have been dug in the solid chalk, and on the site of the big Saxon cemetery are traces of ramparts known as Battle Ditches, below which were pits in which ancient pottery was found. Looking down from Bury Hill are the ruined flint walls of the Norman castle. In the medieval days after the Normans a poor Walden boy grew up to be Archbishop of Canterbury, and a King of England died in his arms. In the century after these was born that Thomas Audley who became Lord Chancellor and whose grandson built Walden’s most marvellous house, Audley End; and in his age Walden produced a Provost of Eton and a poet who had the friendship of Edmund Spenser and yet was good-for-nothing. It produced also John Bradford the martyr, and in one century more it gave to the world that wonderful man Henry Winstanley, who built the first Eddystone Lighthouse. A rich dower it has given to us in the lives of men.

And, as we have said, it is rich in old houses. We find them in every street, with massive timbers, carved brackets, overhanging eaves, and plastered fronts with the dolphins, cornucopias, foliage, and portraits fashionable in the 17th century. Inside some of them are rich fireplaces and lovely screens. One of the houses was once the school and has a Latin phrase on its front which warns us either to learn, or to teach, or to depart. There are not many schools in England with a longer tradition than Saffron Walden’s, for it is referred to in the records of 1317, and was endowed in 1522 by Dame Jane Bradbury, widow of a Lord Mayor of London, to support one teacher of grammar "after the ordre and use of teching gramer in the scholes of Wynchester and Eton."

At the corner of Myddleton Place is a 15th century house with closely set timbers in the walls, a richly carved corner-post, and two oriel windows; inside is a magnificent panelled screen. The oak timbers on the house next door come from the house before it, in which the Friends used to meet in the 17th century, a house which came into the history of the town in the year in which the last Stuart king ran away, for we read in the civic accounts that 4d was paid for nailing up the Quaker’s door twice. Their door being nailed up, they met in the street, unperturbed by the fact that some of them were arrested. The town is close to the hearts of the Friends, and their oldest school was transferred here from Croydon towards the end of last century. It stands on the hill called Mount Pleasant, a building costing £30,000, in 20 acres of ground.

Splendid and famous and historic too is the Sun Inn, with its captivating gabled front and its story of exciting days in the Civil War. Here Cromwell stayed with Fairfax when they met the Commissioners of Parliament and tried for two or three days to compose the quarrel with the army, trying in vain. The inn, which is in Castle Street, has projecting wings on each side of the 15th century hall, 14th century timbers in its roof, and a plaster front of the 17th century. A cartway has been cut through one wing, and in the gable above it is a big round sun in plaster relief with men on each side wearing long coats, knee breeches, and high-heeled shoes, one man wielding a club and one with sword and buckler. Next door to this inn is a house with wood tracery in a window 600 years old.

Close by the great park of Audley End is a charming group of the 15th century Abbey Farm and Almshouses. It is one of the rarest peeps in Essex. Built of brick with tiled roofs, the almshouses have 20 tenements set round two courtyards, with a kitchen, a hall, and a chapel between them. The chapel has a hammerbeam roof with ornamental work in the spandrels, and the stone-paved kitchen has a great fireplace with an ornamental iron jack. In one of the kitchen windows is a Madonna and Child in glass 600 years old, and in the window of one of the houses is medieval glass with an angel and a pope among other fragments. The town has another group of almshouses which were the gift of Roger Walden in the 14th century, but they have been rebuilt. They stand between Audley Park and the High Street, and preserve from the older building a 15th century brass inscription, two carved corbels of the original windowsills, a Jacobean armchair, and a notice board 200 years old with the rules for tenants.

It should not be forgotten, as we look about at all this ancient beauty, that Walden has a living beauty too. Its name of Saffron comes from the flavouring plant which was once widely grown here, having been brought to England hidden in the staff of a palmer. Today if we come to Walden in carnation time we may see in a nursery a remarkable display of carnations. They are the pride of the town in their season, a riot of colour under one of the widest glass roofs in the world, covering an acre. The town is also rich in trees and in green spaces, for besides the great park it has a wide common and what are called the Bridge End Gardens, with noble cedars. From Audley End runs a double avenue of beeches to Strethall. Walden is perhaps unique among our towns for having two public mazes. One, on the common, is a curious survival of the centuries, a spiral maze cut in the turf. Nobody knows how old it is, but 15s was spent on repairing it in 1699. The other maze is in a corner of Bridge End Gardens, and is a copy of that famous maze at Hampton Court in which ten million people have been lost. As we are visiting it we should peep in at the little picture gallery at the garden gate to see the paintings by Old Masters.

In the castle grounds is the museum, a collection of remarkable interest. The ruins of the castle take us back eight centuries; the contents of the museum go down the ages and across the earth. We see a glove Mary Stuart wore on the morning of her execution, and a grim fragment of human skin which was found nailed to the door of Hadstock church. There are skulls and ornaments from the Saxon cemetery, and the skeleton of an elephant shown in the Great Exhibition of 1851 which was meant to usher in the peace of the world. There is one of the best collections of humming birds to be seen in England. An oak strip has 13th century carving of a mounted knight in mail, a bedstead has 14th century carving, and there is a 14th century altarpiece of alabaster showing Joseph leading the boy Jesus. A Jacobean doll’s chair has a padded back. There are two stone mantelpieces from the home of Gabriel Harvey, the ne’er-do-well poet, one with figures of Justice and Truth and one with a pack-horse, a pig eating acorns, bees about a hive, and flowers of the saffron crocus.

Among the most interesting of all the exhibits is one of those rare feather cloaks worn by the kings of Hawaii, made from the feathers of birds that have long been extinct. There are only a small number of these cloaks left in the world, and they are all known, being highly treasured by the people of Hawaii; this one was worn by a king who came to England, who ruled for five years over Hawaii and was so agreeable to the missionaries that Christianity made great progress, and it became possible to pass a code of laws based on the Ten Commandments. The friendly king, Kamehameha, came to England with his queen and unhappily both caught measles and died.

In the castle grounds outside the museum we found the whipping-post and pillory, brought here from the prison of the neighbouring town of Newport.

The stately and impressive church looks boldly across the town. Its tower has 12 bells and dominates the High Street with a fine spire rising nearly 200 feet. There is only one church in Essex bigger than this noble structure of the 15th century, 184 feet long and 80 feet wide. Cupolas and pinnacles rise above its roofs, its parapets are richly carved, and along the north wall run grotesques among which we noticed a chained monkey, a wild man, a saddled beast, a woman with a cat on her lap. Both porches have vaulted roofs and the south porch has a priest’s chamber above and a 13th century crypt below. In the porch wall is a figure from a 14th century reredos.

The arches of the nave are the solid work of the 15th century mason, the spandrels elaborately carved with familiar devices. Above these arches run 13 clerestory windows in each wall of the nave, filling the church with light. All the roofs are splendid, the chancel roof with the Twelve Apostles and painted bosses 500 years old, the nave roof with angels 400 years old, and the north chapel roof with 16th century saints and angels. Set in the wall of the north aisle are 12 canopied niches 600 years old, with delicate carvings of David playing the harp, St John and the Lamb, the incredulity of Thomas, and Our Lord’s last days.

Below this lovely stone carving is a little gallery of brass portraits of people whose names have been lost. They are of the 15th and 16th centuries: a priest of 1430 with a pelican above his head, a woman of 1490, two women in butterfly headdresses leaning gracefully backward, a longhaired civilian and his wife of 1510, a thick-set man in a fur gown of 1530, a woman in a flat cap of the same time, and a 14th century civilian. On a wall are banners and helmets carved in memory of two brothers who died in one week, sons of Lord Braybrooke, one perishing at Inkerman and one at Balaclava. There is a lovely modern window of the Madonna in memory of Lord Braybrooke and his daughter, Augusta Strutt. On one of the screens is a little carving 600 years old. The fine chancel screen was designed by Sir Charles Nicholson, with the gallery above the roodbeam in medieval style. There is a Jacobean altar table, a Jacobean chest, and a plain font of the 15th century. A homely picture of Jerome with the Madonna and Child was above the altar when we called;  it is a copy Matthew Peters made of Correggio’s famous painting at Parma, and was given to this church by Lord Braybrooke in 1793.

But the chief monument in the church is in the south chapel, where on a fine altar tomb lies the man who was largely responsible for the grandeur about him, Thomas Audley, an Essex man born in 1488 who became town clerk of Colchester and rose to be a member of Cardinal Wolsey’s household. On Wolsey’s fall Sir Thomas More became Lord Chancellor and Audley took More’s place as Speaker of the Commons. He advanced rapidly in the king’s favour, and as Speaker allowed himself to transmit to the House one of the most flagrant pieces of royal hypocrisy. He caused two oaths to be read in Parliament to prepare the way for the Act of Supremacy. On Sir Thomas More surrendering to the king his seal as Lord Chancellor, Henry gave it to Audley while he was still Speaker, wishing to retain a Speaker who so well suited his purposes. He helped the king to put away Catherine of Aragon and to marry Anne Boleyn, and then examined Sir Thomas More, whom he could have saved if he would, though he would not. A man of poor character, the willing instrument of his imperious master, he declared that he was glad to have no learning but Aesop’s Fables. Having presided at the trial of Bishop Fisher and Sir Thomas More, behaving shamefully at both, this man who had manoeuvred the marriage of Anne Boleyn now conducted her a prisoner to the Tower. He tried the prisoners for the Pilgrimage of Grace, and for all these services he was allowed to have what Thomas Fuller called the carving for himself of the first cut of the monastic properties. He declared that he was always poor till then, but he now became rich enough to build this magnificent tomb at Walden, the town after which he had called himself Baron Audley of Walden. His name is a stain on the Knighthood of the Garter which the king gave to him. He was a tall and impressive man to look at, and these seem to have been his noblest attributes, except that he was loyal as a tyrant’s slave.

A man who left us a heroic example and an immortal saying, one of the notable figures of the 16th century, comes into Saffron Walden’s story - John Bradford, at one time chaplain to the young King
Edward the Sixth. He preached here for two years, and so endeared the people to him that they were in his thoughts as he sat writing his last letter at Newgate, with the prisoners in tears all round him; he called his letter the Dying Martyr’s Testament to the Faithful at Saffron Walden. His death was one of the bitterest tragedies of Mary Tudor’s reign, and rarely was seen such a crowd as at his burning. Taking a faggot in his hand and kissing it, Bradford looked on the people and cried: "O England, England, repent thee of thy sins; take heed they do not deceive you." It was John Bradford who, seeing a criminal going to execution, used these words which have been quoted a million times since, "But for the grace of God, there goes John Bradford." He was about 45, and a Manchester grammar school boy.

Walden has on its roll of fame two men of the 14th century and two of the 16th. One of its 14th century men began life as a poor boy and rose to be Lord Treasurer of England and Archbishop of Canterbury. He was Roger Walden, probably a butcher’s son. He had a curiously adventurous life, advancing rapidly from a rectory to an archdeaconry at Winchester, becoming secretary to Richard the Second, and then Treasurer of England. In 1397 the king banished Archbishop Arundel from Canterbury and gave his office to Walden, but he held it only a little while, for Arundel returned and took the Primacy again. He bore no ill-will against Walden, in spite of the fact that he had removed jewels and six cartloads of goods from Canterbury. During the public miseries of those times Walden suffered with the deposition of the king and was put in the Tower; he was one of those who fell when King Richard gave up his crown and pleaded for a little, little grave on the king’s highway. He came back into favour and was even installed as Bishop of London in the new reign, but he did not long survive this dignity. In spite of his chequered career he is said to have been a gentle character, and even the archbishop whose office he usurped paid high tribute to his qualities.

Thomas Waldensis, who was living at the same time as Roger Walden, is also known as Thomas Netter. He became a monk, and took a great part in the prosecuting of the followers of Wycliffe, being made an inquisitor. He preached against the Lollards at Paul’s Cross, and examined Sir John Oldcastle as to his opinions. He became a favourite with Henry the Fourth, and was with him when he died in Jerusalem Chamber, so that he would see that wondrous scene in Shakespeare. Henry the Fourth lay dying, his conscience uneasy, his physical frame in the grip of disease, and the Prince of Wales was by his bed when the king fell into a deathlike trance, and it seemed to his son that the crown had fallen to his lot. Thinking that the king was not to wake again, the prince took up the crown and put it on, and suddenly the king awoke. His dying heart was broken as he felt that his wild son had seized the crown so soon:

Dost thou so hunger for mine empty chair
That thou wilt needs invest thee with my honours
Before thy hour be ripe?

It is said that Henry the Fourth died actually in the arms of Waldensis, who preached his funeral sermon. He lived through the reign of Henry the Fifth and became confessor of the young Henry the Sixth, with whom he went to Rouen, where he died and was buried, a year before the burning of Joan of Arc in that city.

The two 16th century notables of Saffron Walden were kinsmen, Thomas Smith and Gabriel Harvey. Smith was a Saffron Walden grammar school boy who found favour with Thomas Cromwell, became Public Orator at Cambridge, and had such influence that he was appointed to discuss with Henry the Eighth the point as to whether he should marry an Englishwoman or a foreigner. Smith was a Protestant, and in the reign of the young Edward the Sixth the foul Bishop Bonner was imprisoned in the Tower for his conduct towards Smith. He became Provost of Eton, but lived in retirement during most of Mary Tudor’s reign, being made Ambassador to France by Queen Elizabeth. Holbein painted his portrait. He was upright according to the life of his time, was a classical scholar and a writer, and believed in astrology long before the astrological quacks came pouring into Fleet Street. He lies at Theydon Mount, and his kinsman Gabriel Harvey wrote a poem of praise on his death. Both were grammar school boys, but while Sir Thomas Smith lived in the great house Audley End and entertained Elizabeth there, Harvey was but a ropemaker’s son, though it is suggested that his father was quite a prosperous man.

At Pembroke College Harvey made friends with Edmund Spenser, who has immortalised him in the Shepherd’s Calendar, where he is known as Hobbinol. One of Harvey’s poems is also in the group which introduces Spenser’s Faerie Queene. Apparently a quarrelsome man himself, Harvey shared with Shakespeare the scurrility of Robert Greene, the forgotten dramatist who imagined that he would live when Shakespeare was forgot, and he assailed Harvey with such vehemence that his offensive references were afterwards expunged from his work. Harvey replied to it in the same unworthy style, and today is forgotten with the rest.

Mee then includes a lengthy biography of Henry Winstanley (see Littlebury) and a review of Audley End which I'm omitting as outside of this blog's remit - although Audley End probably merits a post.

Flickr set.

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