Waltham Abbey’s strongest royal connection is King Harold, and he, as the last Saxon King of England, is the person we commemorate today.
Harold may be the best known of the royal connections, but he was not the first. Local legend has it that Queen Boudicca was defeated nearby by the Romans in 61AD, and poisoned herself with hemlock gathered on the banks of Cobbins Brook.
It is believed the settlement of Waltham may have been a hunting lodge of the early Saxon Kings of Essex. The Viking influence was discovered when the remains of a late Viking hall were found, which could have belonged to Tovi the Proud, the owner of the area in the early part of the 11th century. Tovi was Marshal to King Cnut, and he also owned estates at Montacute where he found a crucifix which worked miracles. Tovi brought this “Holy Cross” to Waltham, and built a church where it could be kept. The Miraculous Cross of Waltham became a place of pilgrimage, and its presence led to the establishment of the town.
When Tovi died, the estate returned to King Edward the Confessor, who gave it to Harold Godwinson, Earl of Essex and later Earl of Wessex. Harold was a trusted adviser to the King, and a generous benefactor of the church at Waltham. When he was struck with a form of paralysis, he prayed before the Holy Cross of Waltham and was cured. In thanks, Harold rebuilt the church in about 1057, and founded a secular college of a dean and twelve canons. Harold’s estates reached to Nazeing, where his mistress, Edith Swan-Neck, lived in one of the manor houses.
The death of Edward the Confessor in 1066 without a direct heir led to conflicting claims as to whom the throne had been promised. Harold Godwinson, Earl of Wessex, seized the moment and proclaimed himself King, but fate led to his reign being less than a year. Harold was killed at the Battle of Hastings on 14 October 1066, when Duke William of Normandy defeated the Saxons. Eventually, Harold’s body was identified by Edith Swan-Neck, and was returned to Waltham for burial in his favourite church. It is likely that his two brothers were also buried at Waltham.
Duke William became King William I, and gave the manor of Waltham to the Bishop of Durham. Henry I gave the manor to his successive wives, and carried out building work at the church, including the nave. Henry II rebuilt the church as part of his penance for his involvement in the murder of Thomas a Becket. He founded a priory of Augustinian or Black Canons in 1177 in place of the college established by Harold, and this in turn became an Abbey in 1184. The new Great Abbey was dedicated in 1242. The monastic buildings included a large chapter house and a guest house for visitors, and both of these would have been used by visiting Kings.
Henry III came for spiritual retreat, and Richard II stayed at the end of the Peasants’ Revolt in 1381. The body of Eleanor of Castile rested at Waltham on its way to Westminster for burial in 1290. The body of her husband, Edward I, lay in state at the Abbey for 15 weeks in 1307. Richard I gave the canons the right to hold a market at Waltham, and the right to hold two fairs in May and September was given by Matilda, wife of Henry I, and confirmed by Henry II.
Despite being a frequent visitor to Waltham, Henry VIII was responsible for its destruction. His dissolution order for all monastic houses sealed its fate, although it was the last in England to be dissolved. The monastery buildings and the greater part of the church were destroyed in 1540, but the nave survived, as it was and still is used as the parish church.
Henry VIII leased the Abbey land at Waltham to the Denny family, and then in 1637 it passed through marriage to the Earl of Carlisle. His estates were sequestrated for fighting for King Charles during the Civil War, but he changed sides and got them back! After his death the estate passed through various hands to the family of Wake, and Sir Hereward Wake remains Lord of the Manor to this day.