One of the oldest settlements in the region, the first town dates to the early Saxon period, but the first record of the settlement dates to the reign of Canute. A member of his Royal Court, Tovi the Proud, is said to have brought a stone crucifix from his estates in Somerset which had miraculous powers. It was set up in a wooden church here which was subsequently rebuilt in stone around 1050 on the orders of Harold Godwinsson, soon to be King Harold II.
Harold is considered a benefactor in the town and after his death at the Battle of Hastings he was brought here for burial. The spot of Harolds burial is marked today by a small stone just outside the church.
Harolds church was in a poor condition when Henry II refounded it as an Augustinian Abbey in 1177 as part of his penance for the death of Thomas Becket. At some stage in the mid-medieval period the tower over the east end of the Abbey collapsed and it remained without a tower for some centuries.
The Abbey was the very last one to be Dissolved during the Reformation and thus it was the last Abbey in England (at least until later re-establishments some 200 plus years later).
Mary I built a new tower at the west end of the church (very unusual) using stones from the old Abbey buildings. It was built at the west end in order to shore up the church which had been slowly falling over for some centuries.
Work was undertaken in the 1860s to renovate the Abbey Church and today it dominates the small town and is by far the most satisfying ecclesiastical building in Essex.
Photo - Andrew J. Müller
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