Friday, 22 February 2013

The last abbey: Waltham

Waltham Abbey Church
The dissolution of the monasteries in the reign of Henry VIII saw many religious houses stripped of their goods and the monks/nuns expelled out on to the streets. This led to many social problems in the country as monasteries had acted as hospitals, shelters for travellers and when the monks/nuns were expelled there was a huge increase in the number of beggars roaming the country.

The last abbey to be dissolved was Waltham Abbey, which was dissolved in 1540. Located in Essex, it is thought to have been the last abbey to have been dissolved as it was a favourite of Henry VIII's due to the surrounding hunting parks and his friendship with the abbot, Robert Fuller. Although he had it dissolved Henry still retained some favour for Waltham as he suggested that it be made one of the new Cathedrals  for the Church of England, but this suggestion was never implemented.  

The 14th century gatehouse
Today all that remains of the abbey is the Abbey Church which consists of the nave of the Norman abbey church, the 14th century Lady Chapel and a 16th century west tower which was added after the abbey had been dissolved. These original parts of the abbey were salvaged by the church wardens as the domestic parts of the abbey were demolished so that the stone could be used for other building projects and in 1553 the Norman crossing tower and transepts collapsed due to their lack of maintenance. The ruins of the abbey's 14th century gatehouse and bridge stand in the grounds and give an impression of how impressive the abbey would have been in its prime.

The image on the right shows the 14th century 'Harold's bridge' which crosses Cornmill Stream. The bridge has earned its name as the abbey is the final resting place of the last Anglo-Saxon King of England, Harold II (Harold Godwinson).

The inside of the abbey church provides an excellent example of Norman architecture with the dominant piers and carvings of faces in the stonework and there is a fascinating 15th century Doom painting.

The nave of Waltham Abbey Church
The 15th century doom painting at Waltham Abbey Church, with Christ in the centre and the jaws of hell on the right

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