Waltham Abbey

Waltham Abbey, or Holy Cross, is situated on the eastern bank of the river Lea, at the distance of twelve miles and a half from London; the latter name is derived from a holy cross, asserted to have been brought hither by miraculous means during the reign of Canute. Tovi, standard-bearer to Canute, founded here a religious house for two priests, to whose charge the sacred relic was committed. After the death of Athelstan, the son and successor of Tovi, the estate, it appears, reverted to the crown. The lordship was then given by the monarch (Edward the Confessor) to Harold, on condition that he should build a college, and furnish it with all necessaries, relics, dresses, and ornaments, in memory of Edward and his spouse Editha. Harold in consequence rebuilt the church, increased the number of priests to twelve, one of whom was the governor, under the title of dean, gave it ample endowments, and, so far as the time permitted, made it an excellent school of learning. No less than seventeen manors were granted on this occasion by Harold, and confirmed to the establishment by the charter granted by Edward. Previous to the fatal battle of Hastings, Harold here offered up his vows; and he afterwards was brought here for interment with his two brothers, by their unhappy mother Githa, who with great difficulty obtained Harold’s remains from the Conqueror. The canons on Harold’s favourite foundation also experienced William’s resentment. It is said that he despoiled them of all their movable wealth; their lands, however, he left nearly entire. Waltham continued a college until 1177, when it was dissolved on the alleged account of the debauchery of the members, by Henry II., and an abbey for regular canons founded in its stead, whose number, according to Farmer, in his ‘History of Waltham Abbey,’ amounted to twenty-four. The Conqueror’s charter was confirmed, as were also various subsequent additional grants, and two new manors were granted.

In 1191 Waltham was made a mitred abbey.

A mitred abbey is one presided over by a bishop or abbot who gets to wear a mitre (a sort of special hat) and who, before the Reformation, had a seat and vote in the House of Lords.


Richard I. gave to the abbey the whole manor of Waltham, with great woods and park called Harold’s park, and other lands, as well as the market of Waltham. Henry III. frequently resided here, and, as a mark of his favour, granted the Abbey a fair, to be held annually for seven days. During this reign the church was again solemnly dedicated in the presence of the king and many of the principal nobles. The body of Edward I. was brought here in 1307, with great pomp, where it remained for no less than fifteen weeks, during which time six religious men were chosen weekly from the neighbouring monasteries to attend it night and day. The abbey was surrendered to Henry VIII. at the dissolution, on the 23rd of March, in the thirty-first year of his reign, by Robert Fuller, the last abbot, who had previously made a vain effort to avert the impending ruin by presenting the king with the magnificent seat of Copt Hall. The net annual income at this period was 900l. 4s. 3d.

The only remains of the monastery are, a portion of the conventual church, which now forms the parish church, an entrance gateway and bridge across an arm of the Lea, some vaulted arches forming a kind of dark passage of two divisions, and some broken walls. The church must have been a magnificent specimen of Norman architecture, if it were only from its great size. An idea of the extent may be conveyed by stating that the site of Harold’s tomb, which stood either in the east end of the choir or in a chapel beyond, is no less than one hundred and twenty feet distant from the termination of the present edifice. The original church consisted of nave, transept, choir, and chapels. There was also a large tower rising from the intersection of the transept, containing “five great tunable bells.” Part of this tower having fallen, the remainder was undermined and blown up, the choir, tower, transept, and east chapel at once demolished. The nave and some adjacent chapels alone remained; the nave, as before stated, with its side aisles, forms the body of the present church. (Figs. 604, 605.) This is about ninety feet in length, and in breadth, including the side aisles, forty-eight feet; it is in the Norman style, with round massive piers dividing the nave from the aisles, semicircular arch, and zigzag enrichments. One of these piers on each side is decorated with spiral and another with very bold and rude zigzag indentations, which, it is supposed, were formerly filled up with brass or other metal. Above the first range of arches, supported on the piers we have mentioned, are two other tiers of arches: those of the second tier corresponding in width with those of the first, but being lower in height; the arches of the third tier are three to each arch of the lower tiers, with a window pierced in the middle one. The roof is modern and plain. At the west end of the church is a heavy square embattled tower, eighty-six feet high, bearing date 1558. From the south side of the church projects the Lady-chapel, now used as a vestry and school-room, under which is a fine arched crypt, “the fairest,” says Fuller, who was the incumbent from 1648 to 1658, “I ever saw.” Another little chapel, at the south-east end, is now a repository for rubbish. These chapels have some beautiful portions in the decorated English style. The windows in the south aisle have been but little altered. There is a fine wooden screen, bearing the arms of Philip and Mary, and a font, which appears to be very ancient. Near the screen there was formerly a painting on glass of Harold; this was destroyed by the Puritans during the reign of Charles I. Farmer observes that the church “is observed by all artists, and the most curious, to stand the exactest east and west of any other in Great Britain.” The abbey refectory is reported to have stood eastward of the church, and the stables on the spot now known as the Abbey farm. The gateway we have mentioned is in a much later style of architecture than the church. Two stone coffins have been found at different periods, each of which was at first thought to be Harold’s, but there appears to have been no proof of the correctness of the supposition.

Near the Abbey mills is a wide space of ground called the Bramblings, but formerly known by the name of Rome-land; owing, it is supposed, to the rents having been appropriated to the see of Rome. On this spot Henry VIII. had a small pleasure-house, which he occasionally occupied in his visits to Waltham. One of these visits led to an important event—the introduction of Cranmer to Henry, and his consequent elevation to influence and authority.