The church of St. Michael the Archangel was built here in 1563. It is the sole Elizabethan church in Essex and one of only six built in England during Elizabeth's reign. It is not however, the first church to be consecrated in Woodham Walter but the site of its predecessor cannot be exactly determined. Village tradition has it that it was on the site of Falconer's Lodge, formerly Wilderness Cottage. Certainly a church dedicated to St. Michael was usually built on the highest piece of land in the parish so it is possible that here or the fields by the main road to Maldon may hide its foundations. It is likely that it was contained within the grounds of Woodham Walter Manor to which Thomas, Earl of Sussex, succeeded on the death of his father, Henry Fitzwalter, in 1557.
The time of the Reformation had seen violent swings in the religious loyalty of the lords of Woodham Walter Manor. The catholic Robert Fitzwalter became protestant at the time of the dissolution of the monasteries but his son Henry reverted to the catholic faith and was a supporter of Queen Mary, history's Bloody Mary. Before her accession he sheltered her at Woodham Walter Manor and plans were laid to help her sail secretly to Holland. For some reason these never reached fruition and Mary left Woodham Walter for New Hall and eventually St. James's Palace in London.
Henry’s son, Thomas, was a protestant and one of his first acts on succeeding his father was to remove the catholic priest, John Byrte, and replace him with a protestant rector, John Williamson, despite the fact that Queen Mary was still alive. However, Elizabeth I became Queen in 1558 and the young Thomas threw himself ardently into her service. Old Essex histories record that "the church being distant from the inhabitants and very ruinous, Thomas, Earl of Sussex, obtained a licence from Queen Elizabeth dated 26 June, 1562, to build a new church where he should think proper; he accordingly erected the present one and it was consecrated 30 April, 1564."
Possibly the old church was very ruinous, certainly it was distant from the inhabitants of the village, but also if it was within the bounds of the Manor and, in common with his contemporaries, Thomas was extending his house and the park surrounding it, improving the fisheries in the moat, building stables and hawk mews and entertaining the wealthy and favoured friends he made at Court, he would not be best pleased by the gaggle of peasantry which trailed through his grounds for church services. For whatever reason, however, a licence to rebuild was obtained from the Queen and the new church was erected.
Over the door into the vestry is a wooden tablet, painted red, with 1563 JP inscribed on it in black. Obviously 1563 is the date the building was completed but to whom JP refers remains a mystery. The millers at Hoe Mill at this time were surnamed Peare but what connection, if any, they had with the building is unknown. Possibly Lord Thomas went outside the parish for his Master Builder. The exterior brickwork is quite unusual for the period and to be found repeated in an outbuilding at Ingatestone Hall, owned at the time by Sir WIlliam Petre, and at Leighs Priory, built by Lord Rich.
It is certain that much of the interior of the church was removed from its predecessor. The roof structures over the nave and chancel are fourteenth century and the bell frame has been dated from 1297. The span is the same but the chancel wall is slightly thinner and the division is exactly over the centre of the easternmost arch of the arcade. In a church built before the Reformation there would be one or two steps up to the chancel from the nave but at the time of the Reformation this distinction was done away with and here there is a level floor the whole length of the church until the kneeling step before the communion rail.
In 1454 Thomas Hawkyn, a grocer living in London who had been born in Woodham Walter and lived there as a small boy, willed the cost of a "new Ile on the north side of the Church of Wodeham aforesaid, with an honest Chappell on the north side of the Chauncell to be halloweid of our lady and Seint Thomas of Cantbury." Thomas Hawkyn calls it the church of St. Nicholas but it is extremely unlikely he would have written his will himself, nor had he lived in the village for many years, and it would seem the name became confused in either his mind or the writing for the church is dedicated to St. Michael the Archangel and there is no record of Queen Elizabeth being asked to approve a change of name as well as a change of venue. The pillars between the nave and the north aisle are most definitely those from the original building for they have been scrawled on and some of the writing has been positively dated as being between 1450 and 1500. The name William Barton appears, written and rewritten in various letter styles, and this at a time in history when few were able to write. His name is found in an item dated 1471 in the Calendar of Patent Rolls when it appears he paid money and was "pardoned for offences committed before 6 July." What offences? Writing on church pillars? Presumably he would have had to pay again to be pardoned for offences committed after that date! The roof of the north aisle is also fifteenth century which would indicate that Thomas Hawkyn's north aisle was removed to the new site, as was his "honest Chappell," now the vestry. Other motifs scratched on his pillars include drawings of what appear to be pennants. Did a Royalist group make the church a meeting place in the middle 1600s in what was essentially Cromwell's country? The marks are fading now; over succeeding years many have fingered them to try and decipher their meaning and it becomes more and more difficult to trace them with the eye.
Originally the church was entered by a door on the south side, now the access to the toilet area. Outside this was a porch where most of the business of the village would have taken place, both ecclesiastical and secular. More writing is decipherable here, scratched on the pillars in the 1600s and 1700s by a succession of doodlers waiting their turn. There is also a south door to the chancel visible from the outside but all traces of it on the inside have been obliterated and it is difficult to fix the date. In 1795 the main south door was blocked up by plasterwork on the inside and the porch dismantled. By this time the Manor House had been pulled down, there was no lord to drive across his park to the door nearest his home, less and less business was being transacted in the porch and the homes of the villagers were on the other side of the church. The tiles from the dismantled porch were sold and it is possible that the actual door itself was moved to the north side where it is still in use today.
Three bells are hung in the church and three appear in the inventory of the original building, dated 1552. Of these only one remains which is said to have been made by Giles Jordon, or his son Henry, in or near 1470. The other two bear the inscriptions "Miles Graye made me 1676" and "Tho. Gardiner Sudbury fecit 1713." To reach them one has to climb a steep ladder at the west end of the church, push open a trap door and climb through into the belfry. The present belfry is relatively new. Before it, probably around 1700, a gallery had been built at the back of the church with a school room below. It was only a small gallery but large enough to accommodate the orchestra co-opted from the village people who played at services during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.
Schooling was held in the room under the gallery, both secular and religious, and adults and children would gather there after Sunday Morning Service. By 1833 ninety-six pupils were on the roll and it is hoped they did not all attend at the same time for the room was only twenty feet by twelve feet six. Their teacher during the first half of the nineteenth century was the Reverend Guy Bryan who was rector for fifty years and whose memorial records that he died in 1870 aged eighty-eight.
The font certainly came from the old church. It is of the Perpendicular period and the noted architect and church historian, Fred Chancellor, dated it as not later than 1400. Its cover, with the elaborate pulley mechanism to raise and lower it, was probably put over it in Victorian times.
On the south wall near the font hangs the painted oak screen found in many churches and which they bought, or had presented to them, at the time of the restoration of the Monarchy in 1660.
In 1768 Thomas Ffytche of Danbury, whose family had bought the Manorship of Woodham Walter in the late 1600s, gave a pulpit to the church and, by his wish, was buried in the vestry in 1777. No further gifts were made until 1867 when the church wardens purchased a harmonium. Presumably the orchestra had fallen into decline.
In 1879 the church was closed for a year while repairs and alterations were carried out. Thomas Ffytche's pulpit was demolished and replaced by the stone Victorian one now in use. The nave, chancel and aisles were tiled, new pews put in, the inner oak porch placed inside the north door, the gallery demolished together with the school room and replaced by the present belfry, and many of the windows reglazed. The only original glass now remaining in the church is easily identified by its colour which is softer and less brilliant than the more modern glass. There is a circular panel in the centre north window of a man reaping and the south windows all have small circular panels of suns, zodiacs and leopards' heads. The east window is an exact copy of the one it replaced but its stone framework and the framework of all the other windows in the church replaced the original Elizabethan ones.
A sketch by Selina Bryan, wife of Guy Bryan who was Rector for fifty years, hangs in the vestry. Dated 1853 it shows the northern aspect of the church, showing stone framed-windows - like their replacements which must have been the originals from the previous church as they are not Elizabethan.
The roof was also stripped and the rafters repaired and replaced before being retiled, almost entirely with the original tiles. It appears that some roof repairs have been necessary every hundred years since the church was built for there are records of money spent on its upkeep in the late 1600s and again in 1774.
In 1880 the organ was given to the church by Clarissa Ann Livermore of Little Baddow in memory of her brother Benjamen. The brass plate commemorating her own death in 1887 is under the East window.
In 1894 Emily Mewburn died and her husband, Chilton Mewburn himself carved the oak screens and panels which line the chancel as a memorial to her. Photographs at the rear of the church show these with elaborately carved canopies, similar to the one remaining on the north wall, but these were removed by the church wardens in the 1960s. The carvings took Chilton Mewburn four years and he has recorded each one of them - 1901, 1902, 1903 and 1904. He died in 1923. His son Francis Chilton Mewburn died six years after their completion at the age of forty-seven in Romford.
The church in 1911
The Great War of 1914 - 1918 claimed many of the village men and inside the north door an oak panel lists the names of those who died. In the early 1920s the church clock was placed on the belfry wall to commemorate all who had served in the war. It was refaced in 1937 but has otherwise remained unaltered. The second World War of 1939 - 1945 has a slightly whimsical memorial and one which now has almost faded completely. To avoid enemy aircraft being guided by lights from the ground towards their bombing targets the whole country was blacked out at night and penalties were enforced on anyone who allowed a light to show. To guide worshippers into the church on dark mornings and for evensong white lines were painted on the trees lining the path from the road to the door.
This then, is a short history of the fabric of St. Michael's church from 1563 to 2004. What of the people who gave life to the fabric? Some of them are buried here and a few of their memorials point to certain aspects of their lives. Their histories are separately written.
"We are such stuff as dreams are made on; and our little life is rounded with a sleep. "
© Daphne Kiddle I977. Revised 2004.
It has since been established that the site of the earlier church is at O.S. Ref TL 8120 0639.
If you have an interest in history you may be interested to read the following:
In August 2007 our then vicar Rev’d Malcolm Pudney received an e-mail from a colleague in the Chelmsford Diocesan Office attaching some correspondence which had recently appeared in The Times. A reader queried which was the first church built in the UK as a Church of England church.
The reply was: “If we date the Church of England from the Elizabethan settlement of 1559, almost certainly its first new church is St Michael’s at Woodham Walter in Essex, built in 1563-4. It is still essentially Gothic, though it lacks a proper chancel, as the worship of the Reformed Church did not need one. If we include the period from 1534 to 1554, when the English Church was separated from Rome, then a few new churches were built at that time, such as, probably, Willington in Bedfordshire.” This letter was from a John Clare of Abingdon. Another letter from a Geoffrey Ellis of Bury St Edmunds claims that the building of St James in Bury, since 1914 the cathedral church, started in the early days of the 16th century. It was incomplete at the time of the Dissolution in 1538, and then finished in 1552 when it was consecrated within the Church of England. He states “It therefore has claims to be the earliest of the new buildings consecrated as a Church of England church.”
Following this our then PCC Secretary Ann Maxwell sent queries to local historians, none of whom could shed any light, then after she had read a letter in the Sunday Times on a related subject by Dr Richard Rex, Reader in Reformation History at Queens College, Cambridge she e-mailed him on 24th September 2007. He replied on 24th September as follows:
“This is certainly a fascinating little problem, though the field of church building is not one in which I can claim any special expertise - indeed not only Roy Strong but even Simon Jenkins probably have better claim to expertise in this precise area than I do.
The claim that St James in Bury was the first church consecrated by the separated Church of England seems plausible enough. However, to claim that church as the first 'built' for the CofE would be tendentious, as it is plain that most of the motivation, finance, and construction took place at a time when, even though now independent of Rome, the people of England were still mainly Catholic in their liturgical practices. Even less could churches consecrated in Henry VIII's latter years plausibly claim, so to speak, a Protestant genesis.
Your church may well be able to make that claim - although I simply could not say for sure that there was no other parish among the thousands in England that had built or rebuilt its church in the first few years of Elizabeth's reign. In seeking to verify the claim, you might try to ascertain the date of consecration of the church, which ought to be recorded in the episcopal register of the Bishop of London. Are there any parish or churchwarden accounts for your parish for that era?
It would also be possible to consult the Essex County Record Office for wills made by parishioners of Woodham Walter in the mid-Tudor period. Some of those wills might possibly include bequests made towards the costs of building the church.
Was the parish church built, or rebuilt? If the former, where had the parishioners worshipped before? Was Woodham Walter a newly established parish? (Again, this should be apparent from the episcopal registers, or the institution registers, of the diocese of London, within which I imagine Woodham Walter was included.)
1563-64 sounds very quick for the construction of a parish church. (This is one reason why looking at a series of wills might help.) Is the church notably small? Does the lack of a chancel seem like planning? Or might the church have been originally conceived, in Catholic times, along traditional lines, but then cut short, literally, in Elizabeth's reign, to save time and money when a radically different theology of ministry and the Eucharist
made the old plan redundant?
More questions than answers, I am afraid, and, as I say, this is not really my specialism. But I may perhaps have been able to offer you some leads.
Ann then wrote to Simon Jenkins, author of A Thousand English Churches, he replied on 22nd October, saying that he could add nothing but it was a fascinating problem. Then she e-mailed Sir Roy Strong and he replied on 28th October “I can’t really help you but I would have thought that you surely must be right!”
Ann then decided to “go to the top” and on 24th October wrote to the Archbishop of Canterbury at Lambeth Palace. On 7th November the Lambeth Palace Librarian Anna James wrote and although regretted that she was not able to state with any certainty the location of the “first” Church of England place of worship, and only able to reiterate what the other correspondents had written: the greatest difficulties lie in deciding whether the Church of England dates from Henry VIII’s break with Rome in the 1530s or the Elizabethan Settlement of 1559, and whether to count a church’s establishment from the laying of the foundations or the consecration of the finished building. Unfortunately these questions can only receive subjective answers, meaning that there can never be a truly definitive answer to our question.
She concludes: “Nevertheless, I believe that your church would be reasonably justified in making a qualified claim such as: ‘This church is believed to be the first consecrated after the Elizabethan settlement, and as such has a claim towards being the oldest purpose-built Church of England place of worship.’