Waltham Abbey …

Above all else I miss the churches.

There is no God but my word He commissioned some wonderful architecture and some of the finest music ever written. You could listen to this as you read …

Canterbury Cathedral is a triumph of stone in the service of light. It is an extraordinary building but my personal favorites are from the older Norman era. When all the mason could build was a simple arch the choice had to be made – do you want the church well-lit or would you like it to stay up. My all time favorite is Durham Cathedral with Ely in second place. When you enter these buildings you feel his presence, the hairs on your arms stand up. If you’re lucky enough to hear the choir rehearsing you’re already in heaven.

As a kid there was an impressive Norman era church close enough for me to ride to on my bike, Waltham Abbey.

Anno Domini, the year of the Lord. One Dionysius Exiguus  thought it a good idea to start the calendar at the moment of Christ’s incarnation. This was back in AD525 and of doubtful accuracy more than 500 years after the event. The year Mr Exiguus did this would have otherwise been Diocletian 248. He was motivated by the desire to remove Diocletian’s name from the calendar because of Diocletian’s persecution of Christians. His main interest in the calendar was in calculating the timing of Easter, no simple matter.

Diocletian became Emperor of a declining empire in Diocletian 1 totally unaware that it was really AD284 . Besides his tireless work for the nutrition of lions he raised the personality cult to a state of perfection, introduced the most bureaucratic government the Empire had ever seen and divided it into four parts which he ruled with three junior co-emperors. He made Rome great again. He retired after 21 years and managed, eventually, to die of natural causes. All in all a remarkable achievement.

After his retirement chaos resumed.

In AD306 Constantine the Great, son of Constantius one of those junior co-emperors, emerged victorious from the civil wars and became Emperor. During Diocletian’s time Christianity was the dangerous obsession of a small minority. Constantine was tolerant of Christianity and at some point  converted (after a fashion) and Christianity became the state religion. There were some Christians living dangerously in that corner of the empire known as Britannia. Now they could come into the open.

And so Christianity flourished throughout the land for the next century.

Around AD410 rule from Rome came to an end. The Angles and Saxons were invading Britain, the Visigoths were besieging Rome. Paganism was the new thing. Except in Ireland where the Celts had proven quite resistant to Roman rule but had adopted Christianity.

The reintroduction was two-pronged. Pope Gregory sent Augustine to spread the word to King Æthelberht of Kent, whose wife was a Christian from the continent. Augustine became the first Archbishop of Canterbury in 597. The good news spread northwards.

Edwin King of Northumbria heard it, converted to Christianity and established Roman practice in his realm. After his death and a year of political instability, Oswald gained the throne. He had learned Christian practice and to speak Irish from the monks of Iona during a period of political exile. He encouraged Ionan missionaries to preach in Northumbria, making St. Aidan bishop of Northumbria in 635 with the seat of his diocese on Lindisfarne.

The two schools of Christianity had different ways to determine the date of Easter. Problems arose at the Northumbrian court with King Oswiu, Oswald’s successor, observing Easter on a different day than the good Queen Eanfled. While one royal faction was celebrating Easter, the other would be fasting for Lent. After Aidan’s death matters became so serious that the issue had to be debated at the highest level. It was decided at the Synod of Whitby AD664 to follow the method devised by our friend Dionysius Exiguus, the Roman way.

So far I’ve mentioned a whole bunch of places that deserve another visit but with so little time the best I could do was to visit The Church of the Holy Cross and St Lawrence aka Waltham Abbey.

Until the Norman’s popularised the practice of building with stone, churches in Britain had been mainly timber and thatch affairs. None has survived to the present day. So 1066 marks the beginning of church architecture in Britain and the end of King Harold. Guess where he’s buried.

The first church on the site dates back to about AD610. It was wooden. It was followed by a partially stone church built in the eighth century.

Cnut King of Denmark defeated Edmund Ironside at Assandun, Essex, in 1016, and became king of all England on Edmund’s death. During his reign the manor of Waltham was held by his friend Tofig who also held another in Somerset. According to a twelfth century source, De Inventione Sanctœ Crucis Nostrœ  (The Discovery of our Holy Cross) a blacksmith on the Somerset estate had a dream that led him to discover a crucifix buried on a hill top. Said crucifix might have been made of flint. Tofig had the cross loaded onto an ox-cart suggesting it was of some considerable size. The oxen would only go in one direction and continued every day until by a striking coincidence they reached Tofig’s Waltham estate, 150 miles away. The Holy Cross was installed in the church and soon became an object worthy of pilgrimage.

Such were its powers that when Harold Godwinson became ill, Wulstan, Bishop of Worcestor sent him to pray before it. Harold, then Earl of East Anglia made a miraculous recovery. In gratitude he had the church rebuilt on a grander scale and donated considerable wealth to it.

Subsequently Harold became the last Anglo-Saxon King of England. It was a brief reign. Crowned in January 1066 dead in October. Harold took his army north to defeat an invasion by Harald Hardrade King of Norway aided and abetted by Harold’s own brother and rival for the throne, Tostig. He won a crushing victory at Stamford Bridge on September 25th.  Then it was a race south to meet William of Normandy stopping en route to pray again to the Holy Cross at Waltham. The Battle of Hastings on October 14th ended in his death.

The subsequent disposition of his remains are shrouded in mystery. One version, by far the most appealing in my biased opinion, has his body identified by his mistress Edith Swanneck and taken to Waltham for burial under the high altar of his own church.

In 1090 Harold’s church was torn down and a new one in the Norman style erected. What you see today is mostly from that  fourth incarnation.

History hadn’t finished with it though. In 1184, Henry ll, as part of his penance for the murder of Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, raised the status of the church to an abbey. Part of the Norman church was demolished and a grand extension built in its place. Cloisters were added.

The Holy Cross continued to attract pilgrims that included the noble and famous. Henry Vlll and Anne Boleyn stayed for five days during their summer progress of 1532.

Then came the reformation. In 1540 it was the last abbey in England to close. The extensions made after 1184  were demolished although the tower on the west end was built in 1556. The interior continued to evolve.

Although only a shadow of its former glory, it is still a very impressive church.

The ceiling was part of restoration work completed in 1876 under the direction of William Burgess.

One of the workers put out of a job when the Abbey closed was Thomas Tallys, one of my favorite composers. He’d been on the staff for about two years at that time. His redundancy payment was quite generous and he soon found work at Canterbury Cathedral. The Holy Cross disappeared at the same time but we’ve already established that it was too big to fit in his pocket.

Best heard at full volume before getting out of bed on a Sunday morning … which is exactly the way my neighbours were introduced to it when I lived in a flat in Melbourne.

 

 

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