Paradoxplace BRITISH ABBEYS AND CATHEDRALS

WALTHAM (ELEANOR) CROSS

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Waltham Abbey

 

Back in the early 1000s a blacksmith in Somerset had a vision which led to the digging up of a big stone which had split - revealing a large crucifix carving which became known later as the Holy Cross of Montacute.  Tovi the Proud, senior marshal to the Viking English King Cnut (aka Canute), was the owner of Montacute and also had a hunting shack in the forest which covered the present area around the village of Waltham and the River Lee.  It was here that the cart carrying the huge stone,  drawn by 12 red oxen and 12 white cows, came to a grinding and final halt  at a spot that became the location of a church then an abbey.

 

Ownership of the Waltham land passed to the future King Harold, who founded a college of 12 Augustinian Canons to look after a new church, and it was here, in 1066, that Harold was buried after the battle of Hastings in a spot (right) that was then behind the high altar.  Whether it was Harold's body in the tomb is in fact doubtful.  Apart from the fact that it is pretty certain that the king's body ended the battle in several scattered bits, it is also unlikely that William would have allowed him to have an identifiable grave. 

 

Later, Plantagenet King Henry I gave the manor to his Queens as a dowery, and it was at this time in the first half of the 1100s that the present church nave was built (see below) - probably using stone imported from Caen in Normandy.  Visitors to Durham Cathedral will see the same Norman designs but not such pure white stone.

 

Just over 100 years later Thomas Becket was murdered in Canterbury Cathedral on 29 December 1170.  Long serving Sienese Pope Alexander III  (Pope 1159 - 1181, during which time he saw off no less than four antipopes put up by Emperor Frederick Barbarossa, whom he in turn excommunicated),  ordered England's King Henry II  to found three new monastic houses as penance for his implied part in the Becket affair.  Henry chose to expand Waltham into an Augustinian Abbey with Abbot, Prior and 24 Canons Regular, and also established a convent at  Amesbury and  England's first Charterhouse at Witham in Somerset.  At Waltham a huge extension with two towers and transepts was built, and it is probable that the nave of the old church (the rest was demolished to make way for the abbey buildings) then became the parish church that it still is today.

 

The lady chapel on the south side was added to the (by now) parish church in the 1300s.

 

In March 1540, Waltham hit the historical headlines again by becoming the last abbey to be closed down by Henry VIII.  Interestingly, the abbey organist at the time was Thomas Tallis (c1505 - 1585 (80)) who went on to bigger and better things through Catholic and Church of England regimes, and who is now considered the father of English cathedral music.

 

After the abbey's closure its buildings, including the church, were destroyed.  Subsequently the west end of the surviving parish church started to "tilt" and the present tower was put up to stabilize it.

 

Today the 1100s Norman nave is as beautiful and pure as Norman naves get, as it escaped the major Victorian makeover in 1860 which replaced the ceiling and east end and much other stuff.  Hidden by the Victorian ceiling is one of the few surviving medieval roof beam structures of its type, but you will just have to imagine this!

 

The church's Green Man is to be found at the top of a column inside and high above the inner west door.

Another little fella peers out from the foliage on the capital of a column outside the west door.

The Norman masons leave their moustachioed monicas for posterity  at the bases of the blind columns.

A recently revealed medieval painting on the east wall of the Lady Chapel.  Sad to think that English churches were once nearly all completely painted out and virtually nothing has survived.

Waltham Abbey is a small village, yet this memorial commemorates nearly 200 men who died in WWI,  including many family groups.

Nearby is Waltham Cross, which has the least attractively situated and least original of the three remaining Eleanor Crosses in England.

 

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