S1. Ep 10. The History of Essex

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Essex, my home county for the past decade, has been shaped by a wide variety of cultures, from Ancient Britons, Danes, Saxons, Normans, Vikings and Romans over the centuries. Situated in the south east of England, between London and the North Sea, with an area of 3,670 square kilometres and housing a population of 1.842 million people recorded as of 2019. It consists of 12 districts, with Chelmsford being its capital and two unitary authorities of Southend On Sea and Thurrock.

You can either listen to the audio only on the link above for Spotify or you can watch the video with visual graphics below for Rumble and read along further below.

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Brief History:

The historic county of Essex is low-lying, with a flat coast that has many tidal inlets and islands. The hardwood forest cover on its predominantly clay soils resisted agricultural efforts until the Iron Age, and even today some tracts of land that were never converted to farmland survive as woodland, notably in Epping Forest. The area of Essex was ruled by the Celtic Trinovantes tribe before Romans. But there was a dispute between the Catuvellauni and Trinovantes – which the Romans took advantage of for their invasion attempt in 54 BCE. In 43 CE when Claudius returned to invade from Rome, Trinovantes allied with them, this led to the formation of the first capital of Roman Britain Camulodunum or Colchester. The Trinovantes, however, later fought with the Iceni tribe against Roman rule.

Essex comes from Kingdom of Seaxe or Kingdom of East Saxons or Kingdom of Essex – different iterations of the same name. This was one of the seven kingdoms of the Anglo – Saxons, established after Roman Rule by Erchenwin, listed as the first king of Essex in 527 AD or CE for common era.

Kingdom of Essex covered the territories of modern day, Essex, Hertfordshire, Middlesex and for a short time, Kent. The kingdom was bounded to the north by the River Stour and the Kingdom of East Anglia, to the south by the River Thames and Kent, to the east lay the North Sea and to the west Mercia. The territory included the remains of two provincial Roman capitals, Colchester and London. Colchester which is still in modern day Essex as I mentioned before, is the oldest British town in history first established by the Romans which probably deserves a separate episode of its own. In 825 common era, it became part of the Kingdom of Wessex and was later ceded under the Treaty of Wedmore to the Danelaw under the Kingdom of East Anglia. In 991 CE the Battle of Maldon resulted in complete defeat of the Anglo-Saxons by the Vikings, and is commemorated in the poem The Battle of Maldon.

In 1066 CE, the Normans, from Northern France, invaded England, with William the Conqueror at their helm. Within 20 years of William’s victory, the whole Anglo-Saxon nobility was replaced by the Normans. The Saxon kingdom formed the basis of a county in 1139 under the first Earl of Essex, Geoffrey de Mandeville.

They often changed a village or town’s name to make it easier for them to pronounce, or because they just didn’t like the original. They also disliked saying the letter ‘S’, so Snotingaham (the settlement of Snot) became Nottingham. In Essex, the residents of Fulepet (Filthy Hole) were grateful for the Normans changing it to Beaumont (Fair Hill). Many places also assumed the name of the Norman owners. The Peverel in Hatfield Peverel refers to Ranulph de Peverel. Similarly, what was simply recorded as Udeham in the Little Domesday Book, acquired the latter part of Henry de Ferrers’ name, giving us Woodham Ferrers.

They were great builders, constructing around 500 castles alone. Many, such as the ones at Pleshey and Rayleigh, no longer exist, but in Hedingham and Colchester we have two stone Norman castles in Britain and at Stansted Mountfitchet you’ll find a unique recreation of a wooden motte and bailey, complete with authentic medieval village.

Interesting Facts:

The coat of arms of Essex is three seaxes, which are these three shorts with a sort of hook towards the end. They look more like Scimitars as a seaxe was traditionally a different shape. These were used by Saxons who settled in these lands from the 5th century onward. The hook or notch at the end, it is said, was used to drag the enemy boats closer, and shorter nature of the sword meant it was quicker to deal deadly blows.

Let’s see, some more interesting facts about Essex

At a 1000 years old, St Andrews at Greenstead is believed to be the oldest wooden church in the world built in 1080 CE.

Essex is home to Britain’s first ever town, smallest town and biggest village. The first ever town as we mentioned before being Colchester, built by the Romans with old Roman walls in the city still there over 2000 years old. Smallest town being Manningtree, with only a population of 900. More of a village but technically by the old letter of the law, it is regarded as a town. And biggest village of Britain being Tiptree with a population of 9000 but being technically classified as a village. Also home to the all famous Tiptree jams.

One of the most famous doctors in history must be Queen Elizabeth I’s personal physician, William Gilbert, who was born in Colchester. After practising medicine for many years in London, he became the physician to the Queen during her final years. After her death, he was appointed to King James I, although the doctor’s own death quickly followed, likely due to the plague. Gilbert is also credited by many to be one of the earliest founders of electricity and magnetism and is likely to have originated the word ‘electricity’.

The Great Dunmow Flitch Trials, dating all the way back to 1104, is the oldest recorded competition in Britain. Happening every 4 years, married couples have to compete to prove their love and devotion to each other in a series of events. The winner of the prize gets a flitch of bacon, which is half a pig.

The modern Trials take the form of a court presided over by a Judge, with Counsel representing the claimants and Opposing Counsel representing the donors of the Flitch of Bacon, together with a Jury of 6 maidens and 6 bachelors, a Clerk of the Court to record the proceedings and an Usher to maintain order.

The court is held in a marquee erected on Talberds Ley especially for the occasion and couples (claimants) married for at least a year and a day come from far and wide to try and claim the Flitch. It is not a competition between the couples. All the couples could be successful in their claim, which is vigorously defended by Counsel employed on behalf of the donors of the bacon, whose job is to test their evidence and to try and persuade the jury not to grant them the Flitch.

Successful couples are then carried shoulder-high by bearers (humble folk) in the ancient Flitch Chair to the Market Place, where they take the oath (similar to pre-Reformation marriage vows) kneeling on pointed stones. Unsuccessful couples have to walk behind the empty chair to the Market Place, consoled with a prize of gammon.

You do swear by custom of confession
That you ne'er made nuptual transgression
Nor since you were married man and wife
By household brawls or contentious strife
Or otherwise in bed or at board
Offended each other in deed or in word
Or in a twelve months time and a day
Repented not in thought in any way
Or since the church clerk said amen
Wish't yourselves unmarried again
But continue true and desire
As when you joined hands in holy quire.

Southend on Sea, has the world’s longest pleasure pier, measuring 1.34 miles. Work started on it in 1829 and it has been open ever since. The pier is so big it’s home to its own train track, along with cafes, shops, rides, mini golf and more!

Following on from that, the Essex coastline is over 350 miles long. That’s the equivalent of driving from London to the Alps to give you an idea of distance. Also, the Essex coastline is the second longest of any English country – only Cornwall has a longer coastline than Essex.

The first ever radio broadcast in the world was made in June 1920. This took place in a studio in Chelmsford making them pioneers of international radiowaves. The New Street Works was a manufacturing plant built for the Marconi Company in Chelmsford, in 1912. It is credited as being the first purpose-built radio factory in the world.

Now a somewhat weird fact, Greyhound racing is popular all over Essex, but once Romford Greyhound racetrack hosted a cheetah race in an attempt to draw in the crowds and make more money. Obviously, it was banned soon after the race!

Saffron Walden turf maze is the largest of its kind in the world and is one of just eight surviving turf mazes in England? Turf mazes were once quite a common sight in Europe and at least 60 others were known to exist. The maze is first mentioned in 1699 when the council accounts records that the sum of 15 shillings was paid to cut the grass! Although the maze itself is believed to be 800 years old.

Robert the Bruce, one of scotland’s famous sons was born at Montpelier’s Farm in Writtle near Chelmsford in 1274 in Essex. Bruce’s father was in Westminster for the coronation of King Edward I in the summer of 1274, and his son was born in July, so the dates match up. His father also owned parts of Chelmsford at the time, so he was born on his estate.

And finally,

It is believed that five of the past US presidents were direct descendants from people in Essex. There are claims that the Mayflower (which was built in Harwich), which famously made the transatlantic voyage to North America in 1620, had a crew that mostly came from Essex. The crew eventually settled in America and 5 of their descendants became presidents. There are believed to be George Washington, John Adams, John Quincy Adams, George H. W. Bush and George W. Bush.