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by Joyce M. Winmill

a talk given to the Henham Conservation Society on January 26th 1970

We know there was a Roman occupation here from finds and diggings which took place in one of the Parsonage Farm fields in 1952 in the field known as Conegar, the second field in from the left going down Hall Road.

But I am starting with the Anglo- Saxon period, a time rich in progress, in literature and the arts, and which also saw our emergence from heathendom. During that time we have the first written mention of Henham, of which I know, as the little clearing on the top of the hill emerged from the dark ages ‘Hean’ meaning ‘high’ and ‘ham’ meaning ‘dwelling’. 

The tribal Hideage, drawn up in 626 AD under King Edwin, gives Henham as possessing 14 hides of land, and Plegdon. A hide was always a debatable measurement, and more so the further we go back. The nearest we can get to the truth was probably, in Essex, about 120 acres. On that basis, Henham and Plegdon together, had cleared land with tremendous effort from the surrounding forests, that would have been about 2408 acres or a little more. 

Before we go on to the next written reference to our very early past, there is a survival before our eyes, every day, of the Danish occupation. The thatched roofs which are turned up at the ridge ends in a curious ‘neck’, are very strange and interesting survivals of the dragon’s head which was used by the Vikings and Danes to frighten away evil spirits from sitting on the roof. Examples here are the Bury, all the cottages at Church End, and near the Church. As one goes about Henham and the surrounding villages, it is interesting to pick them out, relics of a time when Danish and Saxon craftsmanship was much inter-mixed. Edward the Confessor followed three Danish kings, and was himself half a Viking. In his time we get another mention of Henham from the University Library at Cambridge. Henham belonged to Thurston, a great warrior, son of a Saxon earl and a loyal friend to the King. The beginning of his will is particularly nice: - 

‘I, Thurston, Wine’s son, make known to all men the things which God has lent me, for as long as it shall be His will’, and among his bequests, of gold to the king, two war-horses and their trappings and armour, he left to his wife, Aethelgyth, the estate at Henham, ‘except half a hide which is to go to the church’.

We have no knowledge what the church was like probably where it is now and possibly on the site of a pagan temple to the old gods. Perhaps it was a little wooden building perhaps something like Chickney, which is of the pre Conquest period, built of flint and pebble rubble, when the great characteristic of Saxon buildings was their complete irregularity, and indeed, at Chickney, there is hardly a true right angle. 

In a few years Thurston’s royal lord died, and left the succession to the throne in confusion. This resulted in the event which changed the whole pattern of England and the continent the Norman Conquest.

Much of Essex was given to the Conqueror’s brother, Bishop of Bayeaux a thoroughly bad man. Essex, like the rest of England, was ground down. Probably, more than once in its history, Henham has been a deserted village. Essex did escape the awful devastation of the north, which was such a terrible thing, that seventeen years later, in many places, there was still no life, nor any means of supporting it.

Having brought the country to fear and desolation, William instituted the Domesday Survey the book of Doom. Throughout England a description and inventory of the land was wrung from every possible source for the greatest possible tax, and in Henham, from the three manors of Henham, Pledgedon, and the Broom.  It is interesting that the name of Henham Hall comes from that time, and possibly earlier, when the Saxon nobleman’s home was really a Hall, comprising in its high, windowless, rectangular shape, the dwelling for himself and his family: it is still perpetuated in the name of Hall Road. The Domesday Survey reads at first like a lot of dull numbers, but as one disentangles it, a shadowy picture of life emerges, and reveals, for the Hall, a manor of about 1,610acres, worked by 18 villeins, or men who were not serfs, but who were not noble; 5 bordars, or herdsmen, and 8 serfs or slaves, the lowest of the manor of whom it was said, very terribly, ‘A slave is a thing, not a person’. There were four teams or ploughs of 8 oxen, and 8 teams of oxen of the homagers men who would have made the old Saxon oath of fealty to Thurston or his wife Aethelgyth. There were always 16 acres of mead and enough wood for 100 swine pigs were very economical as they fed on acorns and nuts. There were three domestic horses or ponies. Seven ‘beasts’ or cows, non ploughing cattle, cheaper at about 6d each than ploughing oxen. Sixteen hives of bees, providing the only sugar, and much needed wax, for candles and rushlights. The value of the manor in the Confessor’s time was £12 in the Conqueror’s £20. And the sheep. 160 of them in King Edward’s time.

Though we talk of the great ‘wool’ churches of medieval East Anglia, perhaps we do not realize the sheep farming of England, and its great wealth, was founded in Saxon times, when there were 7 ½ million sheep, three or four to every man woman and child. And the sheep had to give its maximum return; dung for the land, ewe’s milk to drink, their coats for wool, their flesh to eat, the bones gnawed by the family and the dogs, and finally the skin for vellum for rolls and books. The Survey for Pledgedon or Prison Hall manor, about 580 acres, shows little change under the Conqueror. A greater proportion of meadow land than Henham, always double the number of sheep, and fewer swine, showing less woodland. Obviously a very scarcely populated manor, with only six hives of bees. . But perhaps at this time the 6 villeins and 16 bordars who are listed were piling up the moat and mound of a palisaded stronghold at Prison Hall under Richard of Eudo, who held ‘Plicedana’.

The Survey of the Broom shows it to be small and very poor. ‘Richard, a socman of Angar, held 1 hide, twenty acres in the time of King Edward. Then 1 team, now none. Always 3 bordars, Wood for 20 swine’. In both the larger manors the serfs disappeared under their Norman rulers, and were probably included in the bordars; a fact evident all over Essex, as the new lords depended more and more on wringing the demands for the Conqueror’s tax, not from the peasants, not from the men working their way up a little, but from the lord of the manor, who had to extract the tax from his tenants as best he could. 

Just as the new village organizations were being brought into being, the physical shape of our village was being formed too. More meadow land for grazing sheep was being cut from the surrounding woods; moats dug for defence, and ponds for essential water for man and beast; roads, showing today their origin, were being cut from winding tracks and footpaths through the trees, and common land and strip fields reclaimed according to the turn and width of the plough. 

The new lords of the manor in Henham were the Fitzwalters, living partly in London at Baynard’s Castle, but also, we are fairly certain, in a fortified castle surrounded by a moat in Hall Road, possibly built from some of the brick to hand from the field called Conegar. We have records of several Fitzwalters being born here, and one leaving a request in his will that he should be buried here.

One at least, Walter Fitzwalter, was baptised in the font of our church not the font we know, which is 15th century, but an earlier one. We know this from an Inquisition taken out in Edward III’s reign, when the lands of his inheritance, including Henham, were in the custody of Queen Phillipa. What a sight of panoply it must have been on the Feast of St Petronilla, the last day of May 1365, when the Fitzwalter retinue wended its way across from the Hall to the Church of St Mary the other side of the meadow. And, incidentally, there is an old legend that there is, or was, a subterranean passage from the church to the site of the Hall. 

This seems a good place to take a look at the Church. Doubtless a great deal of Fitzwalter money had gone into its building, re-building, and furnishing; their arms are on the spandrels of the porch. There is no trace of the first, probably, wooden church, but some pieces of carving built into the outside of the south aisle and porch suggest Saxon work of the 10th and11thcenturies, and lead us up to the coming of the Normans and records of rectors dating from 1150. In 1250 the church was given to the Priory of Little Dunmow, and a vicarage instituted.

Part of our chancel dates from about then, with the two 13th century lancet windows and priest’s doorway circa 1300. As mall transept once stood on what is now the east end of the south aisle, as you can see by the semi octagonal column, l Part of our chancel dates from about then, with the two 13th century lancet windows and priest’s doorway circa 1300. As mall transept once stood on what is now the east end of the south aisle, as you can see by the semi octagonal column, leading through by the pulpit, and another half column built into the east wall. This little transept was destroyed when the south aisle was built about 1300. The north aisle is about 25 years later, and so is the battlemented tower. The rebuilding was completed just before the Black Death, when there is a gap in our list of vicars, and the nave and aisles would have been comparatively new when the little Fitzwalter was baptised. 

Heading through by the pulpit, and another half column built into the east wall. This little transept was destroyed when the south aisle was built about 1300. The north aisle is about 25 years later, and so is the battlemented tower. The rebuilding was completed just before the Black Death, when there is a gap in our list of vicars, and the nave and aisles would have been comparatively new when the little Fitzwalter was baptised.

There were originally three altars, as can be seen from the three piscinas. The porch is late 15th century, with beautifully carved roof timbers; the windows were blocked up until a few years ago. The pulpit is 15th century, the screen late 15th century; the Rood has gone, and also the loft which sprang as a traceried vault from the supports which have been cut off at the centre arch, and at either side of the four side-lights, but part of the staircase which led to the loft, remains, and was unblocked, and repaired, in 1952. 

You can just see the remains of four acoustic jars under the plaster on the east wall. We have tiny  fragments of early 13th century wall paintings; the whole of the chancel may have been painted at one time, and there seems to have been a border of apostles right round the chancel walls. A large fragment was uncovered in 1946, near the Feake memorial; it has now faded badly.  It has been variously judged by two experts to be a ship in full sail, or the sheet which was let down to St Peter at Joppa. We have small remains of 15th and 16th century glass notably the 15th century shield of the Trinity in the east window. It is interesting to reflect that one of our vicars, the Rev. Bradford Denne Hawkins, who was vicar of Henham and curate of Rivenhall in 1848, purchased the priceless Chenu glass from France, but alas ! put it into Rivenhall. Still we have our lovely clear glass windows, which are one of the glories of our church, and which contribute so much to its light and simplicity. 

From a description of the church written on October 31st. 1890, and published in ‘Essex Transactions’, there was still a three decker arrangement of pulpit, desk, and clerk’s desk, not often met with even then, and the high post Reformation pews remained with their doors and fastenings. The gleaners’ bell rang from 9 to 5; the bells were chimed on Sundays, and the great bell was tolled. 

From Kelly’s Directory for 1917 we learn that in 1897 £ 600 was spent in removing the flat ceiling of the nave, and exposing the old timber roof, which was good, but, unfortunately, the old pews were thrown out, apart from the side aisle ones, and Victorian pews substituted.  I have spoken about our church rather briefly, but it can best be studied by being in it, and from accounts in ‘Historical Monuments’, and Mr. Francis Steer’s excellent account in ‘Essex Review’ in 1947, though he does say that the screen, pulpit, Jacobean altar table and desk, had been barbarously treated with light brown paint, and grained and varnished in the approved Victorian method of restoration, he little knew there were six coats of paint and varnish on the pulpit brown, white and varnish; brown, white and maroon. The altar was scraped in 1953, the screen in the winter of 1965-66, and the pulpit in 1967. 

But now we must go back, over some hundreds of years, to the early Normans, to see the persistence with which they extracted their yearly dues, and it is interesting, too, in that in King John’s reign we have the  first mention of field names in Henham, allied to those of householders. In a suit in 1214 there is a demand from one Sibella, widow of Roger de Henham, for land claimed by the Abbot of Walden. She wanted 10 acres, land left her by her husband. The Abbot granted her 6 acres, parcelled out in minutely described strips the ‘third part of half an acre of land’ is mentioned three times, down in the ‘field towards Brom’, near Broom Hall, ( which vanished so unaccountably by fire one night in March 1965), and another strip ‘in the field called Ho’, which was next to the land of William the Reeve. That might be the field called How Croft at Parsonage Farm, but wherever it was, it was not a little individual field, but a strip in a huge common field, parcelled out in the old open field strip farming. Aerial photographs of Henham show how these strips have persisted right through to today. Some of the old road names remain as we know from the old Quarter Sessions Rolls: Wood End Green: Mill Road - the old Mille Streete: Chickney Spring the old Springe Lane, and Crosted Green, or Crow Street Green, our Crow Street today. 

The most exact, and exciting account of a great Elizabethan house comes in a 1530 survey now in the Public Record Office. When I first came across it, I was amazed at the dignity and importance of Henham in those days, and the wealth of the house owned by Robert Ratcliffe, descendant through marriage from the Fitzwalters. The previous year he had been created Earl of Sussex. He was much in favour with Henry VIII, Lord High Chamberlain, married in turn to the daughter of the Duke of Buckingham, to the daughter of the Earl of Derby, and the daughter of Sir John Arundel. A powerful, ambitious and ruthless man. He was active in the spoilation of the Church, but notwithstanding this, two of our old bells still hung in the tower, and one still hangs there today, having escaped the confiscation order which went out in Edward VI’s reign.