Essex in Tudor Times

Essex in Tudor Times

During the 15th century, England suffered from weak kings and over-powerful subjects. As the historian I. F Salzman puts it ‘Looking back on England we see, just before the Tudor dynasty begins, the centre of the stage occupied by Dukes and Earls, with a chorus of retainers; in the second Act the great lords have disappeared, and the Sovereign holds the stage supported by his ministers … Parliament, discredited in the eyes of the people, practically abdicated its authority in favour of King Henry …’ It was easier for the humblest peasant to gain an audience of Queen Elizabeth I than it would be for an ordinary citizen to get into the presence of a cabinet minister today. Yet it was Henry VIII who first assumed the title of ‘Majesty’ and made his courtiers bend their knee when addressing him.

We see the history of the county reflected in the development of the County Town of Chelmsford at this time. Its market was bustling with trade and many sought to benefit from the trade it engendered. In 1494 the town had been designated by Parliament as the place in the county where the official brass standard weights and measures were to be held, against which all the weights and measures used in shops and markets throughout the county had to be tried and approved.

John Speede’s decorated map of 1610 showing the county at the end of the Tudor period

Still more taxes were required to run the country. Henry VIII was planning an invasion of France and he needed money and soldiers. The money was to come from yet another poll tax and from it property tax. Each town was ordered to provide a proportionate number of soldiers. The account book of the borough of Maldon for 1513 shows how Baron Fitzwalter, representing the King, ordered the Borough officials to f’ind three troopers to join the royal army and pay the cost of providing them with uniform, weapons and transport. That old book shows how the town, already hard-pressed to provide for its sick and pool’, made the best of a bad job. The uniform for the troopers, a white coat with green facings, had to be bought: there was no avoiding that, but as for weapons, the’ took the old arms and armour off the walls of the Moot Hall, where they had been rusting away for years. They had them scoured with sand to brightness again, renewed the leather laces and relined the helmets. New spurs had to be bought, but they made the poor conscripts manage with old saddles. Heaven knows what condition the horses were in. There is no record surviving to tell us how the three troopers got on in their second-hand gear at the Battle of the Spurs on 13th August 1513.

Henry VIII was a regular visitor to Essex. In 1317 he bought from Sir Thomas Boleyn the house called New Hall at Boreham. It was rebuilt in the grandest style and renamed Beaulieu. He was still married to Catherine of Aragon when he so richly celebrated the Feast of St George in this house in 1524. It passed out of royal ownership in 1573, but not before it had been lived in by Queen Mary before her accession and by Queen Elizabeth, who had her arms carved over the main entrance. She granted it to Thomas Ratcliffe, Earl of Sussex. King Henry also visited the Priory at Blackmore, with such goings-on, parties and performances all at the royal behest. It was only 25 miles from London yet buried in the countryside, where innocent pleasures could be enjoyed away from the gaze of gossips and the criticism of killjoys. Morant, the 18th century historian, says that Henry. ‘. . . when he had a mind to be lost with his courtesans often frequented the Priory.’ It is obvious that he was doing this before the Dissolution of that prior in 1525 for it was here, in 1519 that Elizabeth Blount, one of the ladies in the retinue of Catherine of Aragon, was delivered of a son. Henry acknowledged him as his son and spoiled him thoroughly, but he died when he was 17: some said he was poisoned on the orders of Anne Boleyn. When at Blackmore, Henry made it understood that he was not to be disturbed. Since the house of the former Priory of St Lawrence was known as Jericho House, enquirers in London were simply told that the King had gone to Jericho—and that phrase entered general use in our language. Not many villages can claim such a distinction. The stream that fed the moat all round the priory was nicknamed the Jordan.

A sidelight on the richness of the royal life of those times is seen in the parish church at Rayne. In a glass case can be seen a knight’s helm, but it is only a replica! Sir Giles Capel, Lord of the Manor, was one of the knights led by Henry VIII who, in 1520 challenged the finest knights from the continent to contests over 30 days at the Field of the Cloth of Gold, the plain near Guisnes in France. There Henry met the French king, Francois to discuss political matters on the death of Maximilian. What a grand experience that must have been for Sir Giles. Just before he died in 1556 he willed that ‘my beste helmet and my armvnge Sworde be sett over my funeralls according to the devise of the harrauld.’ That was the custom of the time and as a knight, he wanted them displayed correctly over his tomb, according to the heraldic conventions. They remained there for nearly 300 years. When the church was closed for six years from 1834 while it was thoroughly restored, the Capel tombs were quite unaccountably destroyed and the builder took both sword and helm as his own property! No-one knows now where the sword went but the helm was seen in the builder’s workshop and bought from him for just ten shillings (50p) by a Miss Courtauld, who sent it to a friend who was interested in armour. He saw its value and sold it for a large sum to an American dealer, and so it made its way to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. When that museum learned the story of the helm they presented a replica to Rayne. Without the label set beside the helm, most people would be convinced it was the original.

Great men like Sir Giles were now building houses to match their station in life. There are still more than a hundred houses in this county which began before or during the reign of’ Elizabeth I. It was at this time that the ancient halls, rising clear to the rafters in one large room, were partitioned horizontally and then vertically to make sets of rooms on two storeys. This status symbol of the up-and-coming man was transcended by the richer courtier who could extend his house not only upwards but outwards round one or more courtyards. Such expansion can still be seen at Panfield Hall. Horham Hall and Ingatestone Hall. As Elizabeth’s reign progressed the courtyard house began to go out of’ fashion, supplanted by taller, more compact houses, more conveniently arranged internally, as at Eastbury House. Barking and Spains Hall, Wethersfield.

In Wolsey’s time the churches were as gaudy in images, vestments, communion plate and in general decoration as the clothes which rich people were now affecting, and amongst the clergy, as in the monasteries and nunneries, there was growing laxity. Churches were used as ‘museums’ in which wondrous relics and strange things from foreign lands, like ostrich eggs, were put on show. The authority of the church was being challenged increasingly from the late 14th century by Wycliffe and his followers, the Lollards . Although members were hanged or burned at the stake, the movement gathered momentum as the new century opened and very late in the 13th century the King’s secretary joked in a letter to Erasmus that all this burning was putting up the price of firewood.

William Tyndale’s English translation of the New Testament, smuggled into England from a printing house on the continent in 1526, was ordered by the Bishops to be seized and thrown on the fire: but only twelve years later, after Henry VIII’s break with Rome, he ordered a copy of the Great Bible to be rendered into English by Rogers and Coverdale, and incorporating Tyndale’s work, to be placed in every church for study by the congregation. This was what led to the martyrdom of William Hunter in Queen Mary’s reign.

In 1584 Richard Hakluyt wrote, ‘… through our long peace and seldom sickness (i.e. no visitation of the plague) we are grown more populous than ever heretofore.’ Add to this the rise in prices beginning around 1500, with a big jump in the 1540s, and the rise in the number of beggars is easily understood. They haunted market place, churchyard and highway. One traveller said of them. ‘Ye be affraid to saie naie unto them honestlie lest they take it awaie from you violentlie . . .’ At the other end of the social scale, fashionable dress for men as much as for women was complicated, rich and costly in the extreme. Between these two classes the vast majority of Essex people practised their crafts and their trades, serving long apprenticeships while hoping eventually to set up for themselves. Agricultural labourers found no such hope in their employment. There were no important changes in farming techniques through the 16th century. Even for those humble tenants of the lord of the manor who held their lands in the held strips round the village, the age-old, strict three-year rotation of crops, including a year of fallow, was still observed.

Those who travelled through Essex went on horseback or on foot: coaches in the continental fashion were only just being seen on the streets of London. The famous John Leland., who travelled on his ‘great tour’ for eight years through England and Wales from around 1537, wrote of the ‘foul and noyful slough’ he encountered on the road from Chelmsford to Stock, and of the main street through Thaxted being ‘so gulled with the fall of water that passengers cannot pass.’ Country people Ploughed through the mud and forded the rivers to get to the 72 centres of trade already set up in this county. Colchester was one of the greatest with the Colne its highway for trade from the estuary up to Halstead, though watermills hindered the passage of all but the smallest craft. In the market, fish from the tidal waters, controlled by the Borough under its charter of 1189, reached the stalls in excellent condition. Colchester oysters became world-famous and the rents of the ‘layings’ swelled the Borough’s coffers.

When religious refugees from the Low Countries crossed the North Sea in the 14th century they brought the secrets and inventions of weaving with them and formed a separate colony in Colchester, echoing the settlement of those superannuated Romans 1,000 years before. They formed a ‘staple’ – an association of merchants dealing in wool – and Colchester was declared by royal edict the ‘staple town’ for the cloth industry in north-east Essex. The importance of this Essex industry was reduced by the depredations of the Civil War and the siege of 1648. Though the weavers and the clothiers struggled on, they could not compete with the centres in the north which, by the early 19th century, had taken over completely.

The state of education from the reign of Henry VIII to Elizabeth I was summed up by Thomas Tusser, the famous agricultural poet born at Rivenhall around 1520. He put his memories of his education at Eton into verse:


‘O painful time, for every crime!

What towsed ears, like baited bears!

What bobbed lips, what jerks, what nips!

What hellish toys!

What robes how bare, what college fare!

What bread how stale, what penny ale!


That life for the scholar in Essex was very hard is shown in the written complaint made by Richard Broadway, head of Chelmsford Grammar School, from 1594 to 1608, against his assistant master who, he said, was guilty of ‘In the Schoole hearinge the Children negligently, carelessly construinge theire lessons to them … not trayninge them up in the declininge of nownes, Conjugatinge of verbes nor in writinge as in former times they have bin by others.’ Broadway accused him of ‘Dispightfully callinge me Jew bidding me kisse his arse, a tord in my teeth and this in the presence and hearing of all the Schollers.’ And as to his treatment of the poor boys – ‘In the Scholle the dayly whippinge of Richard Younge till he had whipped him forth of the Schoole. Also John Stane driving him out of the Schoole with the blood aboute his eares, breaking his head Twice and severe usinge others as rending piteously the eare of John Sweeting and daily beatinge him.’

Retained by Sim’ Andrew Paschall to teach his son at home, this man struck the boy so hard on the eye that ‘blood gushed forth of his mouth.’ He also beat ‘… a gentleman’s daughter that was his Scholler untill all the skin was flayed from her buttocks.’ Life was hard for Essex schoolchildren. It was not much better for the youth who had no schooling. He would be bound apprentice to a tradesman or craftsman, would most likely live in his master’s house, and for seven long years would be at his beck and call night and day. Books were now being printed in greater numbers, so that self-education of a sort could be achieved. Wvnkvn dc Worde. Caxton’s apprentice, succeeded to that famous first English printer’s stock-in-trade in 1491, and one of the books he printed whilst working with Caxton was the first edition of Dame Juliana Berners’ extraordinary manuscript on the arts of hunting, hawking, fishing and heraldry. She was the daughter of Sir James Berners, who had been executed in 1388 for remaining loyal to Richard II. His fimily had held the manor of Rothinges and Berwyk for over a century and gave the settlement its name – Berners Roding.

Juliana grew up in this wild and beautiful river valley and in the woods where game gave sport and food. She went on to the royal court where these sports were so popular. Later she was appointed Prioress of the nunnery at Sopwell in Herts and in the peace of that place she compiled her manuscript, and gave the tiny village a niche in Essex history. Another Essex author who has received little credit for his work is Joseph Strutt. He wrote, drew and engraved all the illustrations for Spoils and Pastimes of the People of England, first published in 1801. He quotes Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy (1660) which gives a good general view of the games played in Essex through the generations:


‘Hunting and hawking are honest recreations, and fit for some great men, but not for every base inferior person, who, while they maintain their Faulkner, and dogs, and hunting nags, their wealth runs away with their hounds, and their fortunes fly away with their hawks.’


Strutt goes on to list the games which were popular in these swashbuckling days of the Tudors:


‘Ringing, bowling, shooting, playing with keel-pins, tronks, coits, pitching of bars, hurling, wrestling, leaping, running, fencing, mustering, swimming, playing with wasters, foils, footballs, balowns, running at the quintain, and the like, are common recreations of country folks.’ He considers ‘bull-baitings and bear-baitings, in which our citizens greatly delight’ and, ‘dancers on ropes, jugglers, comedies, tragedies, artillery gardens and cock-fighting’ as common in both town and country. Winter pastimes, by the light of the candle, included cards, table dice, shove-ha’penny, billiards, music, dancing and ‘merry tales of errant knights, queens, lovers, lords, ladies, giants, dwarfs, thieves, witches, fairies and so on.’

It would seem that Essex Elizabethans filled what little time they had for recreation with a wide variety of imaginative self-amusement.


Football in Essex was already claiming casualties. On 10th March 1567 when a match was played in Branton Mead. Hatfield Broad Oak. Henry Ingold of White Roding collided with Thomas Paviott in a challenge for the ball. Henry did not get up again. By midnight he was dead. In 1582 John Pye, keeping goal for Gosfield men against Bocking, was knocked down by Richard Elye and later died. So did John Warde in a match between East and West Ham in the same year. An even greater tragedy occurred when the village lads were larking about in the millpond at St Osyth in 1376. One youth had procured two pig’s bladders and tied them round his body as water wings. They leaked, he began to sink and shouted out, ‘I’m drowning, for the love of God save me!’ Two boys stretched out their hands to pull him to the side, their feet slipped, they fell in and all three were drowned.

One recreation then enjoyed by people of all ages was the theatre. It had its roots deeply set in the church ‘miracle plays’ which told the stories of the Bible, of creation and of man’s journey through life to heaven or hell, according to his merits. From these tableaux with their moral tales developed the secular drama of Shakespeare. One of the centres for such plays was Chelmsford. Even today the Cathedral, formerly the humble parish church, preserves a unique feature of those days. In the great stone piers which take the weight of the tower there are two huge cupboards: these are where all the props were stored for the miracle plays which made Chelmsford an important centre of 16th century drama. They are the largest lockers of this kind to he found anywhere in England.

It is still possible to read the accounts kept by the churchwardens of materials bought, work done and income received from hiring out costumes belonging to Chelmsford church. In 1564, for example we read. ‘Recayved of Coulchester men for our garments for the use of there playe – 43s. 3d.’ In that year alone the costumes were borrowed by Saffron Walden, Billericay, Badclow and Bishop’s Stortford. In 1562 the Chelmsford actors took their play and costumes to Braintree, it is strange to think that one essential in an actor’s repertory then was the ability to ride a horse. They took their play to Maldon as well. Both performances show the importance of the Chelmsford plays, for these two towns had players of their own. It is a pity that no text of their plays has survived.

In 1573 an inventory of all the costume and props was made, and the following year there appeared in the accounts: ‘… soulde unto George Studlye and others, all the ropes, vestments, … players coats, jerkens, gownes, heares, cappes, bercis, jornetts, mantells and capes mentioned in the Inventorve of the last Churchwardens …’ The ending of church plays was in sight and the citizens at large, increasingly puritanical, showed their displeasure at these gaudy goings-on by breaking the church windows of beautiful stained glass. That was in 1576, and the plays stopped abruptly.

The changing of religious attitudes by successive rulers throughout the 16th century, from Henry VIII through the reigns of Edward VI. Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth, brought sad and shameful times for Essex. The newly formed English nation began slowly to turn away from the age-old belief introduced to the Saxons and confirmed with enthusiasm by the Normans. The pomp and circumstance of the Roman form of Christianity contrasted with the hardships of ordinary Essex people’s daily life. The veiling of the holy books, written in Latin, from the eves and understanding of common folk, was another cause of dissension. Pilgrimages to sacred places in Essex had taken on a thoroughly commercial air. When Henry VIII came to the throne there was a strong movement against corruption within the Church, fostered in Essex h’ the so-called ‘heretics’ fleeing from the Low Countries into Colchester and northern Essex to escape persecution, torture and death.

The priors and abbots of religious foundations had long been envied for their self-indulgent, lazy way of life. It was Parliament as much as Henry, the Head of the Church, which brought about the Reformation. In 1524 the closure of the smallest monasteries began, and gathered momentum after Wolsev’s fall from grace in 1529. The Abbot of St Johns Abbey, Colchester, John Beche, was present at the Parliament of 1539 when the Act of conveyance of monastery property to the crown was passed. He publicly declared ‘The King shall never have my house but against my will and against my heart …’  According to local tradition, ‘The magistrates asked him to a feast and then showed him the warrant and went and hanged him without further warning or ceremony, on December 1st. 1539.’ By 1340 the Reformation was complete.

It was Henry’s quarrel with Pope Clement VII, in his attempt to get his marriage with Catherine of Aragon dissolved that brought the final break with Rome. Ordinary Essex men and women were little affected by this change. They saw their local monastery or nunnery taken over by some wealthy, time-serving courtier or knocked down out of hand. Where they had used part of the building as their parish church, the king granted permission for its retention. Examples of pre-Reformation buildings which have survived can be seen at Hatfield Peverel (Prior). Tilty (Abbey), Little Dunmow (Priory), which sponsored the famous Dunnmow Flitch trials of wedded bliss, at Barking (Abbey) and in other Essex parishes. Considerable hostility was shown in Essex against the parish priests of the day, who had grown lax and uncaring. The holding of many benefices by one rich priest who put in underlings as curates on starvation wages, a system known as ‘pluralism’, was very common. The fundamentalist teaching of Luther had been brought across the sea by refugee weavers who settled over a wide region of north Essex. They had already suffered persecution in Essex for their faith; over a hundred of them were arrested for heresy before Henry V111’s battle with Rome diverted attention from them.

Under Edward VI when clerical marriage was first allowed, and again under Elizabeth, war was declared on the rich and gaudy decoration of the old Church. Images of saints, altar pieces, stained glass windows and wall paintings were all attacked. The paintings were whitewashed and replaced with printed texts. It can truly be said that the Reformation struck a blow at the beauty of worship. Between these two reigns there was a revival of Catholic splendour when Mary ruled from 1533 for just five years. She brought back the old religion but the furious persecution of Protestants, instituted by her specially appointed Archbishop of Canterbury, Reginald Pole, earned her the sobriquet ‘Bloody Mary’. Of the 300 or so ‘heretics’ tortured and then killed and burned at the stake, 73 came from Essex.

George Eagles was a tailor. A wandering tailor, because George’s faith came before his work, and he trudged from place to place preaching the Protestant faith. He became well-known in the market places of Essex, gaining the nickname ‘Trudge-over-the-world Eagles’, affectionately shortened to ‘Trudgeover’. His persistence came to the ears of the Queen’s advisers. A royal proclamation sent out through Essex and three counties bordering it, offered a reward of £20 for information leading to his capture. One market day he preached at Colchester to an admiring crowd, but was recognised by the authorities and had to run for his life out of town. He hid in the middle of a cornfield. One of his pursuers saw the corn sway as Trudgeover wriggled away and sounded the alarm. He was caught and that informer got his reward.

George Eagles was taken to London, examined, and sentenced to death. He was brought back to the Crown Inn at Chelmsford, which then served as the county prison. Then he was brought out, tied to a hurdle and dragged down the High Street by a horse to the Stone Bridge, where a gibbet had been set up. There he was hanged, but the rope did not strangle him. It was cut as he struggled and he fell to the ground. He was then dragged to the hurdle and his head was propped up on it whilst a man took an ordinary kitchen chopper from a house nearby. With this he struck at poor Trudgeover’s head repeatedly without severing it cleanly, killing the man cruelly in cold blood. His head was stuck on a spike on the market cross and his body, disembowelled, was cut in quarters, each part to be displayed in a different market place in the counts’, as a warning to others.

Thomas Haukes of Coggeshall was not an upstart or a rabble-rouser. He was the son of a gentleman and was employed in the service of the Earl of Oxford in the time of Edward VI. When Queen Mary reintroduced the Roman Catholic form of Christianity the Earl of Oxford found it expedient to follow the royal faith, but Thomas Haukes stayed faithful to the old beliefs, left the court and returned to quiet home life with his wife and their new baby. But he made the fateful decision to delay the baby’s baptism – a sure sign of his Protestant belief – and people who were once his friends denounced him to his old master. The Earl did not want to get embroiled in this religious controversy so he sent Thomas on to the wicked Bonner, Bishop of London, accompanied by a guard with a letter stating the case.

Bonner challenged Thomas straight away by asking why he had left his child unbaptised for so long. Over days of intensive questioning Thomas stuck fast to his faith, so his fate was sealed. On 10th June. 1555, he was sent in Lord Rich’s custody to Coggeshall, where he was chained to a stake on top of a heap of faggots. A flaming brand was shoved into the pyre, and a very brave man died agonisingly for his faith. William Hunter, the 19 year old Brentwood martyr, went to the stake in the same year. His story is told in Foxe’s Book of Martyrs.

Elizabeth’s accession in 1558 brought relief to Protestants. She followed a middle way. Everybody was required to attend church regularly under pain of a shilling fine. Extremists in both directions were held to be guilty of treason for challenging the declared belief of the Queen herself. There were still some rotten apples in the barrel of the reformed religion. The Register of parish clergy compiled at this time lists a Mr Goldring, parson of Langdon Hills as being convicted of fornication and being a drunkard; and ‘Mr Durden, parson of Mashbury, a careless man, a gamester, an alehouse haunter, a company keeper with drunkards, and he himself sometimes drunk.’

As religious persecution was the terror of Mary’s reign, so witchcraft was of Elizabeth’s, and Essex was very much involved. An Act against the practice of witchcraft had been passed in Henry VIII’s reign. In 1563 a further Act was passed which distinguished between different kinds of sorcery. For all attempts to conjure up evil spirits and for murder by witchcraft the penalty was death, by banging or burning. In lesser cases the penalty for a first offence was a year’s imprisonment; subsequent offences brought life imprisonment or death. James I was so convinced of’ the reality of witchcraft that he wrote a book on the subject, called Daemonology, published in 1597, and he introduced a harsher law in 1604. He believed in the proof of guilt obtained by ‘swimming’ a witch, a superstition which persisted in Essex right clown to the 19th century.

Although it was the Roman church which first persecuted heretics as so-called witches, under Elizabeth and James it was the turn of extreme Protestants to use the accusation of witchcraft for their own ends. Bishop Jewel reported to Queen Elizabeth. ‘… witches and sorcerers have marvellously increased within your Grace’s realm. Your Grace’s subjects pine away unto death. Their colour fadeth, their flesh rotteth, their speech is benumbed, their senses are bereft.’ Witches were supposed to have ‘imps or familiars’, devils who carried out their wicked commands. These creatures could be of all shapes and sizes and were said to be suckled in some mysterious manner by the witches themselves.

A major trial of witches took place at the Assize held in Chelmsford in 1566. A transcript of the proceedings still exists. One of the accused. Elizabeth Francis of Hatfield Peverel, is said to have learned the art of witchcraft when she was twelve, from her grandmother Eve. ‘When she taught it her, she counselled her to renounce God and his word and to give of her blood to Satan (as she termed it) which she delivered her in the likeness of a white spotted cat . . , also she taught her to call it by the name of Satan and to keel) it in a basket.’ When her husband and child died she was accused of bewitching them.

In 1582 no fewer than 13 women from the Tendring area were put on trial at Chelmsford. Elizabeth Byett was hanged. So was Ursula Kemp, who said that she had once consulted with a witch because of her lameness. She was given the following recipe: Dog’s dung mixed with charnel must be pricked with a knife three times and then thrown into the fire. The knife must be stuck three times into the table and left sticking there. Then she was to drink sage and herb grace in her ale and her health would improve. It worked so well that Ursula set up on her own account, issuing that one recipe to all sufferers, whatever their ailment. Her own illegitimate child of eight years old was put forward as a witness against her. She was hanged. Her skeleton, buried in unconsecrated ground, was discovered under the floor of a cottage in Mill Street, St Osyth, around 1921. From then until the cottage was destroyed by fire in 1931 these sad remains were put on exhibition. People paid a fee, a trapdoor was opened, and there were the pathetic remains of Ursula Kemp, with iron spikes pinning the body down through hips, elbows and knees. The Elizabethans believed that this would prevent a witch’s resurrection.

In 1589 four out of’ nine women and one man put on trial were hanged. They had all been brought down to Chelmsford from Elmstead and Great Oakley. In the Boreham parish burial register for 1593 there is the entry ‘Mother Haven suffered at Boreham for witchcraft.’ It says much for the persistence of’ superstition in Essex that, when the Americans were building Boreham airfield in the Second World War and dug up human bones, villagers declared that a disease among cattle at that time could be put down to the witches anger at the disturbance of her grave!

The Elizabethan working man led a very hard life. Infant mortality was high and whole communities were carried off by frightful plagues. Their attitude to death was pragmatic – it happened so frequently. That is why public hangings became as much a spectacle as the baiting of a bull or bear.

The connection between Elizabeth I and Essex was emphasised by the various Progresses she made through the eastern counties. Take, for example the tours she made of Essex over the period 1561 to 1588, visiting 24 of the houses of courtiers and gentry who lived in Essex. In July 1561 she set out for her own royal palace at Havering-atte-Bower. In a couple of days she moved on to Wanstead House where she was received by the Earl of Leicester. Then it was on to Loughton Hall, John Stonard’s house. By the end of July she had spent a few days at Ingatestone Hall with Sir William Petre, when his house, built in 1540, was still a wonder of the age. After a short stay at New Hall. Boreham, a royal palace built for Henry VIII, the Queen and her large entourage went on to Felix Hall at Kelvedon where they were entertained by the Cecils. (The present house was not built until 1760 or thereabouts.) On 26th July. Elizabeth, with typical vigour, rallied her retainers and set forth for St John’s Abbey. Colchester, the mansion of the Lucas family. At the end of the month she was safely ensconced in Lord Darcy’s palatial residence in the former St Osyth’s Priory, granted to him in 1553 and converted in the grand manner. Gosfield Hall was the next stop. It had been built by Sir John Wentworth and was then occupied by his daughter. Lady Mautravers.

By 21st August the ‘progress’ was on its return journey via Leez Priory at Little Leighs, home of Lord Rich, former Chancellor and his son Robert, 2nd Lord Rich, who had been created a Knight of the Bath at Elizabeth’s coronation. The actual Priory had been demolished in order to raise their new, prestigious house with its impressive gatehouse. The royal party left on 25th August and arrived on the same day at Hallingbury Place on the other side of the county, owned by Henry, 11th Lord Morley. In September the Queen’s host was the 16th Earl of Oxford at Hedingham Castle. Less than 40 years later all but the stone keep of that castle had been destroyed.

Three progresses through Essex in the 1570s included other great houses. Evidence of the vibrant life of these times under a vital, able Queen is shown in the fact that most of these substantial homes were built during her reign. Some of the owners, like Sir Thomas Mildmay, rather rued the expense involved in providing food and entertainment for the large retinue. He had to dip deep into his pocket when Moulsham Hall was selected for the honour of Her Majesty’s presence in September 1579. The shortest and most important ‘progress’ Queen Elizabeth made was in 1588 when she stayed at Arden Hall, Horndon-on-the-Hill, home Thomas Rich, on the way to the Camp Royal at Tilbury where an army was being assembled to resist the threat of the Spanish Armada. Here she addressed her troops with the famous words: ‘… I am come amongst you, as you see, at this time, not for my recreation or disport, but being resolved, in the midst and heat of the battle, to live and die amongst you all, to lay down for my God, for my kingdom and for my people, my honour and my blood, even in the dust. I know I have but the body of a weak and feeble woman, but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and a King of England too …’

We cannot close this chapter without reference to a man who lived in Essex for 34 years and is described by a modern scholar in these words: ‘Too limited to rise above his age, he mirrors it almost perfectly. He not only describes the Elizabethan scene, he thinks and speaks as an ordinary Elizabethan. In Harrison we come exceptionally close to that elusive aspect in the study of the past, what the common people thought about common things.’ These are the closing words of Georges Edeben’s Introduction to William Harrison’s, The Description of England., published in 1577 with a second edition in 1587.

William Harrison was Rector of Radwinter for 34 years until his death in 1593. In that rectory he wrote this amazing work on all aspects of the life of his age; so detailed, so vigorous, so enthusiastic – typically Elizabethan. ‘I would wish that I might live no longer than to see four things in this land reformed, that is: the want of discipline in the church; the covetous dealings of most of our merchants in the preferment of the commodities of other countries and the hindrance of their own: the holding of fairs and markets upon the Sunday to be abolished and referred to Wednesdays: and that every man in whatsoever part of the champaign [country] who enjoyeth forty acres of land and upwards, after that rate, either by free deed, copyhold, or fee farm, might plant one acre of wood with oak mast, hazel, beech, and sufficient provision be made and kept. But I fear me that I should then live too long …’