All Saints' Church has stood at the heart of the ancient manor of
Writtle for over 1,000 years, during which generation upon generation
has used the same building for Christian worship, baptisms, weddings and
funerals. The main part of the church still in use today was built
in about 1230, but there is clear historic evidence to show that there
was a church either on or near the present site in Saxon times; evidence
remains in the present fabric to show that the building of 1230 was in
fact a reconstruction and enlargement of a Norman church.
is built mainly of stone and rubble with stone dressings. It also contains a few Roman
bricks in its outer walls.
The Norman period displays
evidence of the first recorded church at Writtle. The outline showed a
single room, which was later, divided into two, the chancel and the
nave. The nave was the responsibility of the parishioners. The
early history of the church at Writtle is characterised by a series of
medieval 'take over bids'. In 1143 King Stephen gave the church together
with all its revenues to the Priory of Bermondsey. Then in 1204, King
John struck a deal with the Pope and granted the church at Writtle with
all its revenues to the Hospital of the Holy Ghost in Rome.
This remains one of the most intriguing aspects of
the early church in England: that one of its parishes should 'belong' to
a group of people in a foreign land although this was not unique to
Writtle. In the year 1200, Pope Innocent III was on friendly terms with
King John, and readily agreed to provide a resting place or hostel for
English Pilgrims travelling to Italy. This became known as the Hospital
of the Holy Ghost in the Church of St. Mary at Rome, or Hospice of Santo
Spirito. However, a condition of its establishment was that it should be
maintained by the English. Thus it was that King John decided that it
should be the Parish of Writtle that would fulfil this role. After all,
it was the largest parish in the area.
It seems that negotiations for the transfer of
funds came unstuck for it was not until after John's death that the
transaction was completed. In the meantime, the King granted 100 marks a
year from the Exchequer to keep the hospital going. The term hospital in
those days meant a hostel or lodging place.
By the year 1230, a priory was well established on
a plot adjoining the church. Agents were installed to administer the
income and to channel the funds to Rome. It was at this time that the
church was rebuilt to create a chancel, nave and aisles. The contract
with Rome was renewed on two further occasions, in 1291 and 1352.
The Seal of the Hospital of the Holy Ghost dating
from the 13th century was the symbol of the first link between the
Writtle church and the mother foundation in Rome. A replica of the Seal
is kept at the church. It bears the inscriptions:
(Sandus Pater) - Holy Father
(Alpha Omega) - The first and the last
(Beata Maria) - Blessed Mary
(Genetix Dei) - Mother of God.
The Latin inscription round the edge reads:
CAPITUL HOSPITALIS SANCTI SPIRITUS IN SAXIA DE
The Seal bears the heads of the twelve Apostles and at the top is a dove
between the Greek letters P and A (Pneuma Agion - Holy Ghost).
Documents of the time confirm that Writtle was a
favoured place of the monarch. Two priests were to reside there to pray
for the King and for the souls of his predecessors. In return they were
to be paid four pence a day and
"should have all manor of liberty . . . and
be exempt from all toll, of the expeditating of their dogs . . . and
should have from the King's forest whatever they wanted, for firing,
for pasture, and repairs to their houses, and that they might have
their men to gather nuts for as long as the season for gathering nuts
All good things were to come to an end. This time
it was Richard II who found himself with 'cash flow' problems. In 1391,
he seized the priory, the church and all its possessions, along with the
neighbouring chapel of Roxwell and sold them as a job lot to William of
Wykeham, Bishop of Winchester. This did not go down too well with the
Pope who immediately demanded and received the sum of 5000 ducats in
compensation. This amounted to practically all the money obtained from
the sale. Richard II did not prove to be such a shrewd businessman after
Meanwhile, William of Wykeham had plans of his own.
He was in the throes of establishing one of the earliest colleges at the
University of Oxford. It was to be known as the New College of St. Mary
de Winton. In what was to be the final transfer of ownership, the living
of Writtle church was handed over in 1399 to the Warden and Fellows of
New College Oxford in whose patronage the church has remained to this
These somewhat unusual circumstances of its
patronage meant that the living at Writtle has been known as a 'Peculiar
Living'. This meant it was not subject to the jurisdiction of a Bishop.
The Warden and Fellows of New College stood in place of the Bishop and
assumed all the Bishop's rights and privileges.
The earliest tower on the church was built during
the 14th century. The patrons of New College re-aligned the church from
east to west to make better use of the natural light. They added porches
on the north and south side of the structure. Further rebuilding work
took place in the 15th and 16th centuries. The village priest during the
early 16th century was William Carpenter and he was to be commemorated
in an extension known as the Carpenter Chapel, built on the south wall
of the church.
It was at this time that the original bells were
hung and a new chancel screen was put up in 1602. As with most churches
of the period, tablets and monuments commemorating notable local people
of the day were erected. Included among these are:-
John Comyns, Knight, Lord Chief Baron of the Exchequer, died 13th
Eliott, Esq., of Newland, husband of Margaret Gedge of Shenfield,
and father of their four sons and six daughters.
Colonel Pooth, and his wife Eliza 1834.
Brasses inscribed in the church include:
Bowland 1609, and his wife Joan 1616.
Brooke, wife of Thomas Brooke, 1658.
un-named parishioner reportedly having four wives and twenty-one
In 1800, the people of Writtle witnessed an
alarming and frightening occurrence which some took to denote the
Almighty's displeasure. The event is eloquently recorded in the
"Gentleman's Magazine" of April 4th, that year:
"This day at noon, the north west
comer of the venerable tower of Writtle Church, Essex, which had shown
for some time past, evident marks of decay, and had been at different
times very injudiciously repaired, came down with a most tremendous
crash. The humble residents of a cottage near the church very
reluctantly quitted their dwelling ten minutes before the fall of the
ruin which levelled it to the ground”
This time the tower was re-constructed in a far
more judicious manner. Buckler's "The Churches of Essex"
published in 1856 notes that the walls of the new tower are four feet
six inches thick, leaving internal measurements of nineteen feet square.
The survey itself hardly inspires further investigation of the church,
despite its many interesting antiquities. It notes:
- The Warden and Fellows of New College Oxford
Value - £718
church, distant from Chelmsford about one mile and a half comprises
Chancel and Nave with Aisles, a West Tower, North and South Porches,
Sacristy and two small Transcripts or Oratories.
remains of the ancient structure is rubble built.
tower, its bands, windows and buttresses of brick, possess no
Sculptures and lead gargoyles decorated the
parapets and cornices of the roof. The large east window is of a
'Perpendicular' style and dates from 1885. A large stately marble
monument to the left of the Altar is to the memory of Edward and Dorothy
Pinchon and complements that on the right to Sir John Comyns.
The earlier church tower housed a ring of five
bells dating from the sixteenth century. Following the re-building
of the tower a new ring of eight bells cast by Messrs. Mears and
Stainbank in London, was hung in 1811.
The church clock, such a vital feature of the tower
was installed in 1881, the gift of Henry Hardcastle, owner of Writtle
The chapel to the south of the chancel is dedicated
to the Lord of the Manor of Writtle, Lord Petre.
Buckler's report goes to great lengths in describing the
dimensions, appearance and detail of every part of the church at that
time, 1856. However, much of what was recorded then was to be changed
later beginning with a major restoration in 1869 under the direction of
the vicar, Andrew Stacpole. All the rotten timbers were removed and the
timber from the 'superbly carved and formidable pews' was used to line
the church walls. The timber for the new pews was kauri wood from New
Zealand. The floor was re-laid and the pulpit re-modelled. At the same
time, a boiler was installed to supply the heating system.
The church was well restored and was to survive
without much alteration until another dramatic occurrence in 1974 when a
major fire caused extensive damage and destroyed much of the roof. It
transpired that the fire was a deliberate arson attack by a youth though
no clear motive was established. To raise money for the repairs,
numerous events were organised. One such event was a sponsored squash
match between the people of the village and the students of the college.
Casting around through the embers of the burnt out church, one striking
piece of charred timber caught the eye of an astute parishioner. Only
about a foot in length it had two roofing nails projecting across a neat
hole, the exact dimension of a squash ball. So the "Cinders
Trophy" was created and regular competitions have been held ever
since. Another fund raising event was a spectacular 'Son et Lumiere’
staged by the Writtle Society.
Although lightning may not strike in the same place
twice, tragically fire did, and a second serious fire, again caused by
an arsonist, caused further extensive damage in the early hours of April
3rd 1991. Once again the generosity of the parish was sought to add to
the value of the insurance claim.
Nowadays the biggest problems to the fabric of Church are caused by the ravages of time.
Much needed fundraising is being undertaken by the Friends of Writtle Church and others in
order to help pay for the necessary work to maintain this beautiful building.