The building is the second church in the village to be dedicated to St Michael and is one of the most important buildings in the village of Woodham Walter standing as it does on high ground  overlooking the village to the north. Most in the village pass it regularly either on foot, bicycle or by car on their way to Maldon, Chelmsford or other places.  It is Listed Grade II* (one of only 5.8% [2021] of Listed buildings that are Grade II*) and is inextricable from the history of Woodham Walter itself. There is a regular congregation and many others attend for Festivals. Christenings, weddings and funerals.

The development of this building is a 16th-century story falling into several parts that are intricately intertwined. One part being history and one part affecting the plan form and its use. Each part reflects the complexity of the religious and political changes that were spreading throughout Europe  at the time of its construction. St Michael’s today is a direct manifestation of these influences certainly in the County of Essex but ostensibly in the country as it is, according to the Lambeth Palace Librarian, believed to be the first church consecrated after the Elizabethan settlement, and as such has a claim towards being the oldest purpose-built Church of England place of worship.

Although ‘Wdeham’ is believed to be of Saxon origin, the earliest known documentary evidence of Woodham Walter to be found in the Domesday Book where the settlement of Woodham is recorded. It had a Tenant in Chief (holding lands directly from the Crown) named as Ralph Baynard, a Norman Nobleman, who was a follower of William the Conqueror and became the High Sheriff of Essex.  Baynard was also responsible for rebuilding Baynard Castle on the southwestern corner of the City of London where the River Fleet meets the River Thames. Due to intrigue and plotting against Henry I by Baynard’s grandson William Baynard, the lands were forfeited early in the reign of Henry I (1100–1135) for having supported Henry’s brother in his claim to the throne. These confiscated lands were transferred to Robert FitzWalter, a leader of the baronial opposition to King John and a surety for the Magna Carta.

Included within the estates given into the FitzWalter family’s custodianship and forming part of  the Royal Forest of Essex was a deer park, an essential for any aspiring Lord of the Manor. This deer park spread from Woodham Walter Common in the west to the boundary with Maldon in the east and the boundary with Mortimer in the south to Blue Mill in the North.  It was in the middle of the deer park that the moated Manor House was located – about 503m SE of the current Church and known as Woodham Walter [Old] Hall or Place – the remains of which are listed as an ancient monument.  From brick sizing it is suggested that the construction was late 14th/early 15th century and therefore likely that the builder was Robert Radcliffe.

The deer park and manor passed from the FitzWalter family in 1431 to the Radcliffe family by marriage. In 1529 Robert Radcliffe, courtier and loyal servant to Henry VIII, was granted the title of Earl of Sussex; he died in 1542 and was succeeded by his son, Henry, with the family seat moving from Woodham Walter to New Hall, Boreham.  Henry was in turn succeeded by his son, Thomas who became the 3rd Earl of Sussex, English lord lieutenant of Ireland, suppressed a rebellion of the Roman Catholics in the far north of England in 1569. He was the first governor of Ireland to attempt, to any considerable extent, enforcement of English authority beyond the Pale (comprising parts of the modern counties of Dublin, Louth, Meath, and Kildare). He was also an adversary of Robert Dudley, Elizabeth’s favourite.

Most manorial seats had an associated church under the patronage of wealthy local families. The degree to which this has an effect on the architecture can differ greatly. It may entail the design and construction of the entire building having been financed and influenced by a particular patron. On the other hand, the evidence of patronage may be apparent only in accretion of chantry chapels, tombs, memorials, fittings, stained glass, and other decorations. In the case of Woodham Walter Hall (or sometimes Place) The church was believed to have been located near the north-west side of the building, as was customary of the time and was likely to have been a modest structure, which can be seen in the crop marks to this day.  At that time Roman Catholicism was the principal religion.

Following the Act of Supremacy in 1534, which declared that Henry was the Supreme Head on earth of the Church of England“, final authority in doctrinal and legal disputes became rested with the monarch; the papacy was consequently deprived of revenue and the final say on the appointment of bishops. The monarchy therefore gained greater power and enhanced revenue.  This did little to appease those practicing Roman Catholics.

The theology and liturgy of the Church of England became markedly Protestant during the reign of Henry’s son Edward VI.  This was partially due to the European influence but largely along lines laid down by Archbishop Thomas Cranmer. It was reversed under Mary I to bring the country back under Papal jurisdiction.  The ensuing confusion inherited by Elizabeth I on her succession to the Throne in 1558 left an air of uncertainty as to how and in what form religion would survive.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 Hall 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 Fitzwalter’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.

It is at this point that the story evolves more directly with the church building itself. Philip Morant  in his book ‘History and Antiquities of Essex vol.1’ records 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 demolish what was left of the existing structure and to build a new church where he should think proper; he accordingly erected the present one and it was consecrated 30 April, 1564.”

The existing church without a doubt was outside of the centre of the then village and reasons for the church being in such a ruinous state is not known.  It can perhaps be surmised that the religious turmoil being experienced both in this country and in Europe at this time had an influence, hence the possible lack of maintenance and ‘hedging bets’.  

In 1559, the government conducted a royal visitation of the dioceses. The visitation was conducted according to injunctions based on the Royal Injunctions of 1547. These new royal injunctions were meant to fill in the details of the settlement and were to be enforced nationwide. Accordingly, church images that were superstitiously abused were condemned as idolatry and the destruction of all pictures and images was required.  Parishes paid to have roods, images and altar tabernacles removed, which they had only recently paid to restore under Queen Mary. They were required to buy Bibles and Prayer Books and replace chalices with communion cups (a chalice was designed for the priest alone whereas a communion cup was larger and to be used by the whole congregation).  Communion tables had to replace stone altars. Clergy were to wear the surplice rather than cope or chasuble for services. In 1560, this was changed and bishops specified that the cope should be worn when administering the Lord’s Supper and the surplice at all other times.

Despite this confusion, moderation became the Queen’s keynote preferring pragmatism in dealing with religious matters.  The Elizabethan Settlement, otherwise known as the Revolution of 1559, was an attempt to end this religious turmoil by reintroducing the Protestant religion but in a more moderate manner. The structure and theology of the church was a matter of fierce dispute for generations and came to a head during the English Civil War.

Another factor indicating that a rebuild was appropriate was that the Earl, in common with his contemporaries, 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 that he had made at Court, was not be best pleased by the commoners who trailed through his grounds for church services.

It is therefore against this background that a license to demolish the remains of the old church and the building of a new one was granted to Thomas, 3rd Earl of Sussex, the eldest son of Henry.  Construction commenced circa 1562/3 with consecration in 1564 on this site in the form that exists today. It is important in the grand scheme of things as it is the sole Elizabethan church in Essex and one of only six built in England during Elizabeth’s reign.  The idea of a rebuild may have been kindling for a while because in the 1454 will of Thomas Hawkyn,  who had been born in Woodham Walter and lived there as a small boy, money was left for the construction of a new north aisle and chapel but this does not appear as part of the crop marks and therefore may have been carried forward to the new build.

Hawkyn (Hawkins/Hawkinz) was a Grocer in London and as such was a member of the ‘The Company of Grossers’ of London (the term ‘grosser’, referring to a particular type of merchant who traded in ‘all manner of merchandise vendible’) attaining the office of Warden in 1441.  He and his father Austin were clearly wealthy and presumably a successful trader as not only did he leave money in his will to build a new aisle but also, from the Grocers’ Company accounts of 1455/6,  two pots of silver amounting to 16 marks and 6oz to the Company.  Latter transpositions suggest that this might have been a 2 gallon pot. This, in today’s currency, amounts to some £266,020 or the then  equivalent of 560 houses, 1065 cows, 3,043 stones of wool, 1151 quarters of wheat or 14,201 days work for a skilled craftsman.  Clearly a very wealthy man and hence the construction of the north aisle known as Hawkyn’s Aisle.

The builder of the new church is unknown but over the door to the vestry is a wooden tablet, painted red, with 1563 JP inscribed on it in black. It is believed that 1563 is the date the building was completed but to whom JP refers is a mystery. Although the Hoe Mill millers were named Peare, it could have been that the Earl of Sussex used a builder from outside of the parish recommended by one of his contemporaries as the exterior brickwork is quite unusual for the period and similar to an outbuilding at Ingatestone Hall owned at the time by Sir WIlliam Petre, and at Leighs Priory, built by Lord Rich.

The church in 1911

In August 2007 the 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 the  PCC Secretary sent enquiries  to local historians, none of whom could shed any light on the matter. Following a letter in the Sunday Times on a related subject by Dr Richard Rex, Reader in Reformation History at Queens College Cambridge, contact was made in 2007 to which a response was received 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.

Yours sincerely,
Richard Rex

Contact with Simon Jenkins, author of A Thousand English Churches, illicited a response, saying that he could add nothing but it was a fascinating problem and subsequently Sir Roy Strong responded “I can’t really help you but I would have thought that you surely must be right!”

Finally the Archbishop of Canterbury was contacted 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.