Saffron Walden 



Homepage Saffron Walden Contents page


Saffron Walden lies in the north west corner of Essex, on the gentle slopes of the Upper Cam valley. Archaeological evidence suggests that the valley has been inhabited from at least the Neolithic period onwards. Archaeologists believe there was a small Romano-British settlement, including a small Roman fort, garrisoned from the much larger Roman town of Cestreforda, now known as Great Chesterford. The fort was probably located on, or near, the site of a later Anglo-Saxon cemetery in Abbey Lane.

The Romano-British settlement was eventually replaced by Germanic settlers invading from the north and gradually settling the CamValley. The name Walden is said to originate from this period from the Old Englis ‘Weala-denu’, the valley of Britons or serfs, implying the continued existence of a community populated by the indigenous inhabitants rather than Anglo-Saxons.

When Domesday Book was compiled by the Norman conquerors in 1086, it shows that Walden was held before the Conquest by Ansgar, a manor of about 2,200 acres. Ansgar was a powerful and wealthy man, the king’s standard-bearer, who owned land throughout Essex. When he died, his Essex lands were given to Geoffrey de Mandeville (I), first constable of the Tower of London. His grandson, also called Geoffrey (II), transformed the Anglo-Saxon settlement of Waldena into the nucleus of the modern town, building the castle on Bury Hill at some time between 1125 and 1141 and founding the Priory of St James, later the Abbey of Walden, in about 1139.

Geoffrey de Mandeville moved the market then held in Newport to Walden. This market was located inside the castle bailey, roughly on the site of the present High Street, between Church Street and Castle Street, where the old stone Market Cross was discovered in the 1930s.

Walden Abbey was situated at Brookwalden, just outside Walden, at what is now Audley End village. Geoffrey chose this site, so that the monks might provide hospitality to wayfarers, and still be close to his castle. In addition he endowed the priory with tithes and property of the church at Walden, and 19 other churches, a mill at Walden, and woodlands and meadows. The building of the abbey and the granting of a Tuesday market in 1295 resulted in the growth of a small settlement in the vicinity, so that by 1400 a survey of the abbey lands noted that a shop, 51 houses on two streets, with other dwellings nearby, had grown up around the abbey.

At the dissolution of the monasteries, the abbey and its lands were granted to Sir Thomas Audley who converted the abbey buildings into a residence. After Audley’s death the property descended to Thomas Howard, who became Earl of Suffolk in 1603, the same year in which he started to build the palace at Audley End. Little remains of the original abbey apart from the old hostel, now referred to as the stables, and the old abbey hospital at St Mark’s in Audley End village – not the original building, which was demolished and replaced by almshouses, built on the hospital foundations.

The Anglo-Saxon settlement in Abbey Lane continued on the same site, while the new town grew on Bury Hill. The massive but wrongly-named Battle Ditches were constructed between about 1227 and 1240, in order to delineate the boundaries of the town. In 1295 the market expanded to include a Tuesday market, and in about 1300 the town was awarded a charter by the de Bohuns which relieved the inhabitants of heriot. During this period of increasing prosperity, the town was often known as Chepyng Walden, meaning Market Walden. In 1400 the Guild of Our Lady of Pity was formed to provide an almshouse.

During the late 14th and early 15th centuries the town’s wealth derived principally from wool. Eventually the local woolstaplers built their own guild hall in the market place, which survived until it was demolished in 1847 to make way for the Corn Exchange. Wool was soon overtaken by the saffron industry as the main source of local wealth and it is from the autumn-flowering saffron crocus that Walden derives its name. The soils and climate of Walden proved ideal for saffron cultivation.

Walden’s prosperity and influence reached a peak during the Tudor period, but at the end of the 15th century local trade increasingly suffered from tolls. Several leading townspeople including John Leche, vicar of Walden and his sister, a wealthy London widow, Dame Joan Bradbury, determined to establish a new religious guild, to which the king could grant the tolls and other manorial rights. It would operate like a town corporation, but be based on the chantry already envisaged by Katherine Semar, a wealthy widow of the town. The king granted a licence permitting the establishment of the Holy Trinity Guild. The guild met in a room over the south porch of the church, a custom continued by the later Corporation. This ceremony is reflected in the annual ‘churching’ of the mayor.

One of the main achievements of the new guild was the establishment of the town’s Grammar School, established by charter by Dame Joan Bradbury. The school began four years before its 1525 charter in Castle Street, eventually moving to a new building in Ashdon Road in 1881, replaced by a new secondary modern school in the 1950s.

Saffron Walden Parish Church dates from a 15th century rebuilding on the site of an earlier church. Work began in 1470 on such a scale that it took over 50 years to complete. Much of the later work was carried out under the supervision of John Wastell, the master mason who worked on Canterbury Cathedral, Great St Mary’s at Cambridge and King’s College Chapel. Virtually everything was stripped from the church at the Reformation. A lantern spire, supposedly designed by the lighthouse builder, Henry Winstanley, was added in the late 17th century, and replaced in 1832 by the present perpendicular spire designed by Thomas Rickman.

In the 17th century Walden was not as prosperous as in the Elizabethan period. The population declined by 30%, and the economy was suffering. During the Civil War, soldiers were frequently in Walden, and in 1647 General Fairfax made the town the headquarters of the New Model Army. The soldiers were increasingly under the influence of the democratic ideas of the Levellers. Parliament was alarmed by increasing militancy and sent Cromwell to Saffron Walden to hold debates in the church, raising issues of democracy which foreshadowed the Putney Debates.

Walden nonconformity can be traced back to the teachings of John Bradford in Walden Church. After he was burnt at the stake at Smithfield in 1555, the authorities felt so threatened by the number of Bradford’s followers in Saffron Walden that they burnt a traveling preacher, John Newman, at the stake in Walden as an example.

Quakers began meeting here in the 17th century and in spite of persecution opened their first meeting house in 1676. The Independents set up at a barn in Abbey Lane and in 1694 built their own chapel. The Baptists also flourished, and at various times there were three Baptist churches in the town. Methodism was introduced from the 1820s by two lady preachers, who preached in Castle Street. Thus Nonconformism was very strong in Walden.

The late 18th and early 19th century were marked by rural unrest, with food riots in Walden in July 1795, the burning of the workhouse in the 1830s and Swing riots in the countryside. But Walden was transformed in the 19th century, with buildings pulled down and new buildings appearing. The Corn Exchange, the Museum, the Literary & Scientific Institute (now the library) all date from this time. The leading residents were the Quaker Gibsons, with extensive interests in malting, brewing and banking. They brought the railway to the town, and helped set up the Friends School, the Teacher Training College, the British School, the hospital, the gasworks and the new water company.

Many of the buildings were designed by architects of note, and these and the new institutions shaped the town and its character right through until the early 1960s. Even now the Museum, Library and Town Hall continue to provide a focus for cultural life. The challenge now is whether the people of Saffron Walden can retain the identity of the community that has taken over 2,000 years to evolve.

Abridged from Malcolm Everett & Howard Newman, Saffron Walden: a pictorial history (1998), Introduction, pp xi-xxiv.