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The Legend of Waltham Abbey

Waltham Abbey is in the county of Essex, roughly 16 miles north of London. The nearest rail station is in the town of Waltham Cross, accessible from Liverpool Street Station in London.

Bordering London to the northeast are six thousand acres of public land covered by Epping Forest. It is a great place to explore on foot or on horseback, and in spite of its attractions for artists, naturalists, and picnickers one can easily find solitude in its deep woodland glades. Rural villages and old inns lie sheltered among the forest trees.

West of the forest the land descends to the valley of the River Lea which is a flat area, messily industrialized and without obvious interest. Waltham is one of its small towns. The automobile age has dealt harshly with it, but there are still medieval streets near its battered, old abbey, which was once famous among pilgrims for the miracles performed there.

The Holy Rood that was the instrument of those miracles vanished at the Reformation, but the abbey is still much visited for its antiquarian features. After Durham and Norwich it has the finest and most extensive range of Norman architecture in England. Its eastern end has been destroyed, and so have the former monastic buildings to its north. In their place are gardens and a tidy lawn from which bits of old masonry protrude.

The site of the former chancel, to the east of the abbey, is sacred ground to English traditionalists who still resent the imposition of the "Norman yoke," for somewhere there (the exact site is no longer known) Harold, the last king of Saxon England, was buried after his defeat and death at the battle of Hastings.

The Finding of the Miraculous Cross
During the reign of King Canute (also Cnut), between 1017 and 1035, a remarkable discovery was made in Somerset. A man dreamed that on a hilltop at Montacute, about 15 miles south of Glastonbury, a treasure would be found. Excavations were made there, and a large flint cross was dug up. The story is that it was placed on a cart drawn by twelve red and twelve white oxen, the intention being to take the cross to Glastonbury Abbey, but the oxen refused to go in that direction. Instead they made their own way across country until they came to Waltham, where they stopped by the church. Waltham, therefore, became the shrine of the cross, known as the Holy Rood. In 1060 Harold consecrated a large new church in its honor, and miraculous cures and visions took place around it.

The Abbey Church of Waltham Holy Cross
Waltham became so rich from the pilgrims who flocked to the Holy Rood that about sixty years after King Harold consecrated it, the church was rebuilt on a grand scale. It was over twice as long as the present building, which is merely the original nave. Harold founded a college of secular canons to serve in the church; by the end of the twelfth century it was occupied by Augustinian canons, and Waltham had become an abbey.

Waltham was the last of the abbeys to be dissolved by Henry VIII. Most of it was pulled down in 1540. Only the nave was left to serve as the parish church. The original tower to its east fell down in 1552, and a new one, in checkered stone, was built at the west end, supporting the rest of the building which was in danger of collapse.

Inside the abbey one finds a splendid composition of Norman architecture, beautifully restored and maintained. Above the bulky pillars, decorated with zigzags and spirals, is a gallery and clerestory. Guidebooks are sold in the crypt below, and there is an exhibition of the abbey's history and details of excavations which took place in 1986 (foundations of earlier churches were uncovered beneath the abbey while central heating was being installed). The fine state of the abbey interior is largely due to the Victorian architect and designer, William Burges, who was in charge of restorations during the 1860-70's.

He rebuilt the east wall and added many fine furnishings, including the altar and reredos. Carvings around the windows were of his design. His marble pulpit has since been replaced by the old wooden one and is now exhibited in the Epping Forest District Museum in Sun Street.

Contributions were made by other leading Victorian artists. One of the first things one notices is the painted ceiling, executed to Burges's design in 1860 by Edward Poynter, who was later president of the Royal Academy. The paintings, done on canvas, show the four elements and the twelve signs of the zodiac, together with the activities, such as plowing and weaving, appropriate to each of the signs. A notice by the entrance states emphatically that these images have nothing to do with occultism or any such non-Christian practice.

Reproduced from "The Traveller's Guide to Sacred England" with the kind permission of the author, John Michell, and the publisher, Jamie George of Gothic Image Books.


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