The History of Essex After 1066

The Conqueror’s Kingdom

The author of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle spoke in what might be termed reluctant admiration of the great Survey: ‘… so very narrowly did he have it investigated that there was no single hide nor virgate of land nor indeed … one ox nor one cow nor one pig which was there left out, and not put down in his record; and all these records were brought to him afterwards.’ A modern commentator on our county, H C Darby, has said: ‘Essex occupies a special place among Domesday counties. On the one hand, it is described in the Little Domesday Book, and it has, therefore, much in common with Norfolk and Suffolk. Its entries are far more detailed than those of the counties described in the main Domesday Book.’

The Book shows that the area of the county of Essex has changed little in more than 900 years; three villages, Great and Little Chishall and Hevdon were transferred to Cambridgeshire in 1895 and Ballingclon and Brundon were transferred to Suffolk in 1905. Domesday includes around 440 places, but that does not allow for all those villages which include the same generic name, like the nine Roding villages, of which there are now eight, and the three Tolleshunt settlements. Some places entered then have disappeared entirely and cannot now be identified. Others only just survive: Thunderley was a proper village with hail and church, but by 1425 it was united with Wimbish as one parish and only the house, Thunderley Hall, preserves the name. Other places are more mysterious – Dagenham was known as early as the 7th century, yet it is not recorded in Domesday and is not mentioned again in official records until 1218. Fingringhoe is also missing.

The Domesday record has been dealt with in great detail by the scholar J Horace Round in the first volume of the Victoria County History. The main purpose of the Survey was to put on an efficient footing the system of land tax originating in the Danegeld arrangements. In its detailed enquiry we read names and conditions of estates before and after the Conquest as they passed from Saxon lords to Norman supporters of the Conqueror, including the classes of ruling people, landowners, farmers and peasants in a great pyramid of human activity. Then there are the remarkably detailed accounts of animals of all kinds from plough oxen right down to the one beehive which provided Springfield with its only source of sweetness, mead, and wax for the church candles.

The most important animal on every manor was the ox, harnessed to the plough in teams of eight; next we might put the pigs, so necessary that the description of the local woodland was based upon the number of pigs it would support on its ‘pannage’ – the acorns, beechmast and roots which made them fat and fit for the spit. In Essex particularly, the sheep was also a very special animal. The amount of pasture for sheep shown in this record indicates an industry of huge proportions. Sheep’s milk, butter, cheese, wool, skins, parchment, meat and bones – all had a use. The use of the word ‘wick’ in so many places, especially round the coast, shows how the ‘dairy’ in those days went to the sheep, out in the pastures, and sometimes became a hamlet in its own right.

Many of the saltpans from pre-Roman days were still used. They are entered under 22 separate places – and not just one apiece: Totham had seven, the three Tolleshunts a total of 13. Salcote, the only parish in England to be named after its salt-making, did not have a saltpan when the Conqueror’s clerks rode in to make their survey. All they would have seen was a wide-spreading Red Hill. It is hard to imagine saltworks at Wanstead but it is there in the record.

Fishing was another industry by which the local people gained a hard-won living. Fishing on the coast and up the rivers related to ‘weirs’ situated on the lord’s land and water, subject to his exploitation. The weirs were made of woven wattle zig-zagging into a bottle-basket end so that tidal ebbing or undamming of the river produced the harvest. Even the village of Springfield had a fishery on the Chelmer.

The mills mentioned were watermills. The earliest references to windmills are found in the last 20 years of the 12th century, while the watermill was invented shortly before the birth of Christ. For 1,000 years the watermill beside or bestriding the stream was a focal point in at least a third of all the Essex settlements shown in Domesday; in the rest, corn still had to be ground by the primitive handmill or quern. While most people were drinking the water from the rivers where fish swam, the Norman lords were quick to plant vineyards on their newly acquired properties to provide the wines they were accustomed to back home. Some of the vines had not reached maturity when the Survey was taken. One that had was at Rayleigh where Suain had raised his castle mound. The entry says there were at that time six ‘arpents’ of vineyard which yielded 20 ‘muids’ of wine ‘in a good season.’ This is the only vineyard in the whole survey to have its yield specifically stated though in foreign terms. Aubrey de Vere had planted a vineyard of the same size at Castle Hedingham and it is claimed that some of those grapes could still be seen, growing wild, some 700 years later. He probably had another house at Beichamp Walter, for there he put in hand an even more extensive vineyard. There was another at Great Waltham which we can presume had been planted by Geoffrey de Mandeville for he had his castle at Pleshey, the adjoining parish.

The universal man-made feature, seen in almost every settlement, was the church, yet it gets no mention at all but for 17 sites out of the 440 entries. The simple answer is that few churches provided revenue to the crown. As with worship so with trade. Markets had been established as the concomitant of expanding urban life, yet there is no reference at all to a market in Essex. Round explains: ‘Of the industries and sources of wealth Domesday can tell us little, for these at the date of the great Survey were primitive and few.’

Even Colchester’s entry does not include a reference to its market. It is devoted in the main to the holders of land and houses, from whom none would be forthcoming. The size of the town can be judged from the fact that some 404 houses are recorded. With the addition of those houses listed under their out-of-town owners, the total could come to about 420, which was a big town in those days. The population has been estimated at well over 2.000, with many living in the merest hovels. We know that Colchester still had a mint for it is recorded that the value to the crown was £40, to be divided with Maldon which also had a mint. That town is covered in six separate entries under the various owners of the land, but, once again, without details of its shipping and commercial business. The accent, again, is on the agriculture – eleven ploughs in use, ten acres of meadow, wood for 80 pigs, pasture For 200 sheep and so on. The inhabitants are classified from freemen to bottom-of-the-pile serfs, but adding them together produces only 42 people. The town houses were all owned by the King. It seems they had no land attached. Despite the small number recorded, it has been estimated that the population was really around 1.100, responsible between them for providing a horse for the army and a ship for the navy when required.

Chelmsford’s entry shows that it was wholly in the hands of the Bishop of London. Moulsham was a separate hamlet then owned by the Abbot of Westminster. There was much meadow where the Can and Chelmer Hooded uncontrolled but in the vales of these two rivers there was land good enough to keep seven plough teams at work, two on the Bishop’s own lands and five For the rest of land tilled by the people in co-operative endeavour, paving their rent to the Bishop in labour and other services. The Roman bridges by this time had disintegrated. Wading the ford was the only means of crossing a river and winter flooding simply cut off trade and travel. Moulsham, on the other side of the river, had been where the Romans settled, and it was still more valuable in terms of annual income to the King. Chelmsford rated £8, Moulsham £12, Writtle, a large royal manor, over £100.

Other entries in the great book reveal how might was right in those days, when powerful lords could torture and put to death at their merest whim anyone who offended them. Odo, Bishop of Bayeux, a fighting bishop if ever there was one, benefited greatly from William’s generous gifts of lordships; he also used his influence and the strength of armed retainers to take over other land. But it was his under-tenant Ralf, son of the Turold shown in the Bayeux tapestry, who showed greater greed, seizing whole manors as well as the plots of humble freemen. In East Hanningfield he drove 22 such men from the land they held of Ely Abbey. He took much more from Barking Abbey, driving off the tenants as if he were brushing off flies.

Other landowners, apart from church and crown, included the great barons like Geoffrey de Mandeville and Aubrey de Vere. The Mandevilles ruled 12,000 acres of land around Pleshey Castle. Unusually, their title of Earl of Essex could pass in the female as well as the male line, so when the Earl died in 1189 without male issue, it continued in the female line until 1373. Their lands stretched out through the Leighs, the Chignals, Broomfield, Barnston and as far as the Rodings. His grateful sovereign also granted Geoffrey land at Walden, before it had the prefix ‘Saffron’, where he built another grand house, and endowed a priory which became an Abbey in 1190.

Aubrey de Vere owned estates in Cambridgeshire and Suffolk but made his headquarters at Hedingham, in a castle which is still impressive as a ruin. The greatest land-owning Baron in Essex was Count Eustace of Boulogne, who held court at Witham. Forty years after his properties were detailed in Domesday his heiress married the man who was to be King Stephen, so all these estates passed into royal possession.

This ancient official record does show some very human aspects. Looking in the Essex telephone directories, you will see that there are a number of people named Godsave, Godsafe or Godsalve – a family name which goes all the way back to the days of the Conqueror. It sounds very religious, but look under Felsted in the Domesday Book and you will see that King William gave to ‘Roger dominus salvaet dominas’ land in that area. Translate that name and you will find it means ‘Roger, God-save-the-ladies.’ Such a naughty Norman knight looked so handsome in all the trappings of war that it is not surprising that he had quite a few descendants!

The Domesday Book gave William full knowledge of the kingdom he had conquered 20 years before. But all that work, carried out so carefully, gave him no pleasure or profit for he died in the same year it was completed – 1086. Bearing in mind the great forest of Essex in which kings and nobles continued hunting through the centuries, the epitaph for William in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is apt:

‘He made great protection for the game

And imposed laws for the same,

That who so slew hart or hind

Should be made blind.


He preserved the harts and boars

And loved the stags as much

As if he were their father.

Moreover, for the hares did he decree that they should go free.

Powerful men complained of it and poor men lamented it,

But so fierce was he that he cared not for the rancour of them all.

But they had to follow out the king’s will entirely

If they wished to live or hold their land,

Property or estate, or his favour great.’


It has been said that ‘There is no county perhaps that bears more clearly than Essex the imprint of the Norman Conquest’ (Round). Two places have French names – Beaumont and Pleshey, the latter showing evidence of occupation by the Ancient British, Romans, Saxons and Normans. Once it was called Tumblestown because of the old entrenchments and the tumuli. The Normans gave it the name that stuck, Plcshev, meaning a fortification made by growing a thick hedge, like the prickly blackthorn, and bending it back on itself by interlacing the branches. Many more places show the hand of the new Norman lord heavy upon them in the prefixes applied to the old names. For example, the wide-spreading parish of Woodham was split amongst the new king’s favourites. First the noble Ferrers and later barons Mortimer and Walter received a share. The Layer villages were similarly divided between king’s men Marnev, Breton and de Ia Haye. Norton Mandeville reflects its ownership by the Earl of Essex.

For the continuing story of the county in the first half of the 12th century we can quote the historian David Coller, writing in 1861, ‘Under Henry I (1100-1135) and the usurper Stephen (1135-1154) Essex lay in the sullen quietude of despotism. In the time of the latter, whose Queen died at Hedingham Castle in 1152, little is recorded of the county.’ In one of the many power struggles between Norman barons and the King, Roger Bigot, owner of much of Norfolk ‘threw himself into the castle of Norwich and did always the worst of all throughout all the country.’ His raids and depredations may well have spread into the northern part of Essex, including Colchester. For years the struggle persisted as baron after baron was besieged in his castle and winkled out by starvation. It all cost money, as the Chronicle reports: ‘… in the course of these proceedings, this country was severely injured by unjust taxes and many other misfortunes.’ Neither side considered the plight of the peasantry. The local barons were despots but when the King and his men arrived to confront them, ‘… there was complete ravaging of his wretched people caused by his court, and in the course often burnings and killings.’

The burden of floods have been endured by Essex ever since it existed, but in 1114 the chronicler reported just the opposite, an ebb tide so far receding that Essex people east of London bridge could actually paddle across to the Kentish bank. In Stephen’s reign, 1135 to 1154, the land-owning barons thought to defend their land and positions by building castles and retaining their own private armies. ‘I have neither the ability nor the power to tell all the horrors nor all the torments they inflicted upon wretched people in this country and that lasted the nineteen years while Stephen was king and it was always going from bad to worse …’ It was said then that if two or three men happened to come riding in to a village all the folk would flee in terror, assuming that they were robbers – from the royal court or from the barons.

The everyday life of these times has been likened by L C Latham to an illuminated initial seen in a medieval manuscript. It showed the three figures typical of this age – the tonsured clerk, the knight in full armour, and the peasant in his humble homespun, leaning on a spade. The three of them represent the deep divisions of feudal society: the monk at his prayers, the knight ruling by his sword and the poor peasant producing the food, shown in the illustration by his shrinking subservient posture as acknowledging his inferior status compared with those men of learning and of power. ‘Although he and his like constituted the broad basis on which society rested in an age when practically every man’s status, whatever his occupation, was derived from his relation to, and from the extent of his possession of land.’

The practice of communal agriculture originated far back in the Anglo-Saxon period; from it such labourers had inherited the ‘open field’ system with individual holdings often widely scattered. All the hard-pressed Essex peasants, pawns of warring knights and bishops, had to depend on the lords to whom they were tied from birth by shackles of service and by the need for protection. There must have been terrible tension in the relationship between those peasants of Saxon stock and their new lords from Normandy, who had summarily dispossessed almost all their former Saxon masters.

There is no doubt that Essex must have suffered from the lawlessness of Stephen’s time, yet we can read of one most peaceful corner of the count, tucked away in the forest wilderness of Highwood. The site is still known locally as Bedeman’s Berg. Behind Monk’s and Barrow’s Farm at Highwood is an enclosure in which can be seen the last crumbling remains of an ancient wall, the only remnant of a little chapel attached to a hermitage on a hill where the hermit, the ‘man of prayer’ lived. Bedeman means a man of prayer and Berg is the hill. The site was chosen carefully, with a spring of good water nearby and it is still called Holy Well to this day.

The first hermit, called Robert, petitioned King Stephen for this land from his forest, and for the materials to build his chapel and his dwelling. The King agreed on condition that the hermit prayed every day for whichever king was on the throne, and for the souls of those departed, for ever. Stephen could not know that within 400 years Henry VIII would have all religious houses closed, from Highwood’s humble hermitage to Colchester’s magnificent St John’s Abbey. By 1544 the land had passed into the hands of the Petre family and a little heap of stone is all that is left to remind us of that happy hermit Robert praying daily for his king.

At least 14 castles in Essex were listed. At Pleshey, where there is evidence of continued occupation from prehistoric times, there is a motte and bailey castle which would have had a timber fortification on an elliptical mound some 900 ft in diameter. It was built for Geoffrey de Mandeville shortly after the Conquest. At Saffron Walden he rebuilt the castle on a mound, originally fortified by Anscar, master of horse to Edward the Confessor, adding a keep of flint rubble, only the merest fragments of which survive. Of the castle which gave Hedingham its prefix, Pevsner is very enthusiastic ‘. ., one of the mightiest and most famous of East Anglia, it was built by, and belonged to, one of the most powerful families of Norman England, the de Veres, Earls of Oxford.’ Built about 1135 of Barnack stone, it is the best preserved tower-keep in England. This family also had a timber keep erected on a 45 ft high mound at Great Canfield, soon after 1066. Its moat is still supplied by a tiny tributary of the Roding.

Stansted Mountfitchet’s castle has been reconstructed from the ancient remnants as a tourist attraction. A few original stones indicate the possibility of a stone keel) erected in the 12th century by the Mountfitchet/Gernon family, whose line failed in 1258. It would seem that the castle keep was destroyed in 1215 in accordance with Magna Carta. Chipping Ongar’s castle was built by the de Lucy family in the first half of the 12th century and its last remains were pulled clown in the second half of the 16th century. Clavering castle even a hundred years ago was represented only by its earthen mound and excavations, though its keel) had been built of stone. It is thought that it was erected before the Conquest, with a complicated system of moats and a reservoir designed to drive a mill – an early Essex example of hydraulic engineering.

Rayleigh’s castle mound was raised on a spur of the hills which overlook the fiat land away to the west. The note in the Domesday Book that ‘in this manor Swein built his castle’ suggests that this was one of the earliest castles raised after the Conquest, though it is possible that the earthworks are older and were simply taken over and adapted by the Normans. It must have been an early construction for no stones have been found on the site. In the volume of the Victoria County History published in 1903 a footnote warns: ‘With sorrow we have to advise those who wish to see Rayleigh Castle to do so speedily, for the destroyer is at hand; already roads are marked out on the western slope, and soon the grand view will (thanks to modern vandalism) be changed to a prospect of back premises of villas and cottages.’

The castle at Hadleigh was built for Hubert de Burgh in 1231, but was soon confiscated by the crown when he lost royal favour. The King took the castle over, and appointed a governor, who through several reigns had to entertain royal hunting expeditions to the deep woods all around. It was a ruin even when Constable set up his canvas to paint his famous view of the tallest remaining tower on the south-east side.

The best of all the Essex castles must be that at Colchester. It boasts the largest extant keep in Britain, measuring 151 by 100 ft at the base. It was built to the order of Eudo Dapifer, William the Conqueror’s steward and confidant. He brought William Rufus across from Normandy to succeed his father. For his great help in securing Rufus on the throne he was rewarded with command of Colchester as a fortified borough, and given permission to erect a castle, as well as receiving the grant of 20 Essex manors. Towards the end of the 11th century, he put in hand the building of the castle on the site of the foundations of the great Roman temple. Originally it had at least three storeys, reached by a great spiral staircase. In the two storeys remaining can be seen two of the earliest-known fireplaces. The High Street still bends today to accommodate that ancient rampart and ditch on the south side. From quite early days the castle served as a prison, but it suffered such neglect that by 1683 John Wheeley had bought it to provide hardcore and stone for his riverside development at the Hythe. It was Charles Gray (1696-1782) who acquired it and began its repair and restoration. In 1920 it was vested in the Borough Council and now houses the important Colchester and Essex Museum which since 1860 has expanded from the crypt to fill the whole building.

These castles were a thorn in the side of King Stephen in his ‘civil war’ with Empress Matilda’s supporters which dragged on for 15 years, to the great detriment of the folk of Essex. When Stephen died in October 1154, Henry II’s succession to the throne was undisputed. He ruled an empire stretching from the Scottish border to the Pyrenees. His heart was in the centre of it, at Anjou, his native land. Of his reign of 34 rears. 21 were spent on the continent, but he devoted much energy in bringing England to the royal heel. Castles which had been built by the barons were demolished and firm rule over Scotland and Wales was established. So much absent was he that he set up administrative arrangements to deal with finance, justice and local government on a daily basis. Here we can detect the germination of the seed of county administration. Royally appointed justices began travelling out to county centres. First they chose Writtle, then Brentwood and finally Chelmsford as the most convenient assize town. Here in 1201 the King’s court granted the town its fair. The Justices also had to travel to Colchester because it was written into that borough’s charter that burgesses suspected of a crime must be charged within their borough. Chelmsford was chosen as the only assize town for the county in 1218, when Henry III’s advisers caused a writ to be issued which confirmed a proper circuit of assize, but on rare occasions both Colchester and Rayleigh were visited to settle local cases.

Richard 1 died in 1199 and John succeeded him and reigned until 1216. He got into such trouble with the Pope that all church services were suspended for six years from 1208 and the following year John himself was excommunicated. He made his peace with the Pope but failed to win over his people in the war against Philip of France. Rebels captured London in May 1215. Many of these rebels would have been Essex men whose county adjoined the City. They elected Philip’s son Louis as their anti-king; King John was forced to yield to the Barons’ demands in the Magna Carta signed one year before he died in 1216, and the nine year old Henry III and his advisers had to face a civil war, with London and the south east, including Essex, in rebel hands. With two of his closest supporters, William the Marshal, now an old man, and Hubert de Burgh, he beat the French-led rebellion by land and by sea. From William’s death in 1219 government largely devolved on Hubert until Henry reached his majority in 1227.

In 1231 Hubert saw his castle at Hadleigh completed. A year later King Henry, now ruler in his own right, fell out with Hubert, stripped him of all his properties and forced him to flee persecution. Hubert first claimed sanctuary at Merton Priory, then at the chapel in Brentwood built for his nephew, the Bishop of Norwich in 1216. Here the soldiers caught up with him, but holding the cross in one hand and the host, the holy bread of communion, in the other, he claimed sanctuary. The soldiers laughed at the idea and dragged him out. The local blacksmith was called to make fetters for him, but, so the legend goes, the smith recognised Hubert, threw down his tools and said, ‘As the Lord liveth, I will never make iron shackles for him; but will rather die the worst death there is. God be judge between him and you for using him so unjustly and inhumanly.’ So the soldiers tied Hubert’s legs under his horse’s belly with cords, bound his arms and took him off to imprisonment in the Tower of London. The story is not a total tragedy; some of Hubert’s property was returned to him on his release and he was allowed to live in retirement for the last eleven years of his life.

The great power gained by the Church by the 12th century is shown in the catalogue of its possessions in the Domesday survey. When vicarages were established, largely from the 13th century, the incumbents were given the benefit of all the small tithes, which excluded corn. This meant that of all goods, food and related products grown or made in the parish one tenth was to be yielded up to the vicar, who used them as he thought best for the benefit of his living and of the church. The system of paying tithes was commuted to a money payment in the years either side of 1840. It resulted in the preparation of extremely detailed maps and ‘awards’ which are still in the Essex Record Office.

There were some unusual incidents to enliven the story of the developing Church. Some time in the first decade of the 14th century Bishop Baldock had to enquire into the happenings at Ashingdon church. There were rumours that an image, probably of the Virgin, had power to work miracles, especially in the case of barren women, and crowds of people came from far and near, hoping to gain relief from all kinds of sickness, as well as to ensure conception. The rector was making a good income from the pilgrims much to the disgruntlement of neighbou ring clergy whose own takings were falling away. At almost the same time a similar superstition gre\ Up at Rayne, where another image of the Virgin was held to work miracles for expectant mothers. Even a century later, pregnant women were still making their pilgrimage to the church to pray for their own successful pregnancy and prompt delivery.

The story of the religious houses from foundation to final closure during the Reformation is comprehensively set out in one of the early volumes of the continuing Victoria County History. A D Bayne has counted them thus: 2 mitred abbeys. 6 common abbeys. 22 priories. 3 nunneries, 3 colleges. 2 preceptories of Templar knights and 9 leper hospitals. It was in the last-named, at Colchester, Bocking, Brook Street, South Weald, Castle Heclingham, Hornchurch, Ilford, Newport and Maldon, that the monks and nuns followed most closely the ideals of their various Orders in their care for the sick.

Of course monks were only human, and there were times when differences between monks and townsmen escalated into violence. At Colchester’s Midsummer Fair in 1272 they dashed in a bloody confrontation. The abbot was much aggrieved: on the following day he showed the coroner a dead man in St John’s Field who the monks said had been killed by the townsmen. Further questioning showed it was the corpse of a thief which had been cut down from the gallows by the monks to provide false evidence in their dispute.

It was monks and priests who first introduced education into the county, albeit for the fortunate few. Colchester Grammar School was founded before 1206. In 1464 its master was in trouble for throwing school rubbish over the town wall by the postern gate. Braintree’s school began in the chantry of St John in the parish church in 1364. Here was taught John Ray, the naturalist who founded the study of botany as we know it today. He was born in 1627, and after his transfer to St Catharine Hall, Cambridge in 1644 the little school is heard of no more. Chelmsford’s King Edward VI Grammar School can trace its lineage back to the foundation of a chantry ‘in the chapel of our ladie in Chemysford churche yarde’ in 1375, but it was in the middle of the 13th century that the first school had been established here by the Dominicans, the Black Friars, at their house in the parish of Moulsham. The King himself was interested in their work, and in 1277 he sent the large sum of ten shillings to them whilst staying at Havering. It was enough to provide a good day’s food for the 30 or so brothers. It was refounded in 1551 during Edward VI’s reign. Even a small place like Great Baddow had a school taught by the priest from as early as 1392, the same year in which Coggeshall’s school was set up in a chantry of the church. John Jegon, Bishop of Norwich from 1602, received his pre-university education there. Maldon Grammar School is thought to have started in St Peter’s church in 1388 and Saffron Walden’s school was in full swing before 1423 when two chaplains were taken to court for teaching without a licence. It is possible that a small school used the chantry founded in Harlow church in 1324, and a similar foundation existed in Writtle from 1392 in ‘Savall Bromefeldes alias our Ladyes Chantry.’

Henry III’s battles with Simon de Montfort in 1264-65 led to the proper representation of the people in Parliament. Henry’s son and heir Edward saw that this was a time for change, that the King was the stronger in the country when he ruled with the agreement of Parliament, even though it was far removed from the democratic body we know today. It was simply a King’s Council where the barons could talk in general terms with the King’s representatives about national matters. Henry III occasionally summoned to such meetings two or more knights elected by the Shire Court in each county to represent the county gentlemen. It was Simon de Montfort in his brief year of glory who, in 1265, summoned to London not only the representatives of the knights of the shire but also two delegates from each of the boroughs of England. The names of the Essex representatives are known only as far back as Edward’s Parliament of 1290, which John le Breton and John Filiol attended.