Brief History

Tilty is a small, rural hamlet situated midway between Great Dunmow and Thaxted, 20 miles north-west of Chelmsford, and 14 miles north-east of Bishop’s Stortford. A civil parish of Uttlesford, it is grouped with Great Easton Parish Council, but also has its own Parish Meeting. There are some 40 houses in Tilty, scattered widely across the parish, but with significant clusters around Tilty Church, and at Grange Green, Coldarbour Farm and Cherry Street.

Tilty is listed in the Domesday Book and the name has been variously rendered as: Tiltey, Thiletheya, Tileteye and Tylteya. It has been suggested that the name derives from the Saxon word for tilled or cultivated land (Morant, 1768, cited in Clarke, 2011, p.14), or from the tiles that were formerly made in the locality (Heckford, c.1766, ibid.). Another theory is that it derives from the Old English ‘Tila’s enclosure’ –with ‘Tila’ being a personal name, and ‘tēag’ the Old English term for a close or small enclosure (University of Nottingham).

At the time of the Domesday Survey, completed in 1086, the land belonged to Henry de Ferrers, and remained in the possession of the de Ferrers family until an Abbey was founded in Tilty in 1153. Tilty Abbey was a Cistercian house; its ‘family tree’ stemmed from Cîteaux Abbey in Burgundy, through the ‘daughter’ monasteries of Clairvaux, also in Burgundy, Rievaulx in Yorkshire, and Warden in Bedfordshire. The Cistercian Order’s requirement for solitude led them to establish abbeys in places ‘far from the concourse of man’, and Tilty’s remote situation matched this criterion.

Work on the great abbey church began in 1188, and by 1214 Tilty had been transformed ‘from a very poor grange’ to a ‘most beautiful and opulent abbey’ (cited in Clarke, 2011, p.15). It became large enough to attract the unwanted attentions of King John’s army, who attacked the Abbey during Christmas Mass in 1215. Recovering from this ordeal, the Abbey was extremely prosperous during the following centuries; its lands extended as far as The Easters, Waltham, Bardfield, Newport and Duxford. In Tilty itself, the monks and the lay-brothers had much land to cultivate, and vineyards, mills, fish-ponds, sheep and other livestock to tend.

Tilty Abbey reached the height of its prosperity in the late 13th and early 14th centuries, but declined thereafter, in the wake of problems in the wool trade and the aftermath of the Black Death. When Henry VIII began the Dissolution of the Monasteries, Tilty was one of the first houses to be dissolved, in February 1536; at this time only the Abbot and five monks were in residence. The Abbey lands passed into secular ownership thereafter, and the buildings were converted into private dwellings; the Gate House Chapel [capella extra portas] became a private chapel, and eventually the parish church. Eminent residents included Margaret Wotton, Marchioness of Dorset, who lived in the former Guest House at Tilty until her death in 1541; Lady Jane Grey, the ”Nine Days’ Queen”, was one of her many grandchildren, and visited Tilty with her father, the first Duke of Suffolk, at Christmas 1550. Today, only the ruins of a cloister wall remain in the Abbey Field; conservation work is currently in progress, and should be completed in 2013.

However, the former Gate House Chapel survives in full working order; it is now the Parish Church of St. Mary the Virgin at Tilty, and one of the churches serving the Five Parishes of Broxted, Chickney, Tilty, Great Easton and Little Easton. The nave is the oldest part of the church, dating from about 1220; the chancel was added in the early 14th century and its remarkable east window floods the building with light; the bell tower and porch were erected in the 18th century. Tilty Church features in Simon Jenkins’ England’s Thousand Best Churches; he commends particularly the reticulated east window tracery.

Tilty is a small, friendly community situated in a charming part of Essex, which is well worth exploring; there are many interesting walks to be taken in the vicinity, and great views across the Chelmer valley.

Maggie Stevens
Secretary, Tilty Archaeology & Local History Group
Local History Recorder for Tilty



Clarke, Rachel (2011) Tilty Abbey, Essex: detailed survey of a Cistercian abbey and investigation of its wider landscape setting. Project Report. Oxford Archaeological Unit, Bar Hill. (Unpublished)

Domesday Book

Exordium Website

Five Parishes Website

Jenkins, S. (2000) England’s Thousand Best Churches Penguin

University of Nottingham, Key to Place-Names