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Frank's travels around Britain 2008.

In praise of Copford, Essex.

This was my first trip with bad weather, nevertheless I discovered Copford Church & it was all worth it!

I am building a family tree for my friends the Twins, David & Marilyn. I wanted to get photographs & look for graves in the Essex area and I got a chance to stay at Great Dunmow near Stanstead airport at one of the modern Travel Lodges. Despite broken heating and a smelly bathroom, it was very nice & on offer!

We all met at another Little Chef near Colchester. To put faces to names and places, turned out to to be a delightful experience. Despite days of very heavy showers & short bright interludes we all saw where the original folks came from.

The earliest records up to now, have been as far back as Elizabethan times with an Alexander from about 1565. He was born in the tiny village of Copford. Not the Essex of Ford Cortina's, Chavs & white stiletto heels, but a true village with a church that goes back to 1130 AD the time of King Henry the first & the Second crusade!

It is worth pointing out that in my travels, churches are things that are locked up & sometimes look like they are not exactly cared for. Grave yards gone wild, grave stones lost in long grass, the buildings fastened up & not in the best of repair.

Copford is different! The artistic sumptuousness of its interior is almost certainly due to its proximity to Copford Hall. Gifted to Bishop Elfstan in 995 AD, this was the ancient manor of the bishops of London during the rule of the later Saxon kings of England. It is referred to in the Doomsday Book of 1068 as “Copeforda”. The bishops held the manor until 1559 when the catholic Bishop Bonner was dispossessed of his holdings for refusing to take the oath of allegiance and supremacy to the new protestant Queen Elizabeth I. The style and quality of the church, and above all its decoration, strongly suggest that the early Norman bishops regularly resided in the manor and that the church was built as their chapel. Indeed, Bishop Bonner was apparently buried here in preference to a London resting place.

The Hall is in Copford Green, some way from Copford village. It was obvious that the village was there to service the Hall. Although we don't know what Alexander & his children did, it must have been something that supported the running of the Hall and its estate.

By the fantastic quirks of history, this wonderful church remains as a link to the past. Still an active working church. Not a Sports centre, a carpet warehouse or an Arts centre. This exquisite gem nestles in the countryside & takes your breath away. Not a magnificent Cathedral. Not a wreck that Oliver Cromwell knocked around a bit but a human sized centre of worship linked to the past in such a direct way.

It is the paintings that take your breath away. The church website says; Circa 1130 On completion of the building works, the decoration scheme completely covers all wall and vaulted surfaces with a series of approximately 34 subjects. The paintings may have been the work of a Master Hugo of Bury St Edmonds. It is known that Abbot Anselm’s sacristan, Hervey, commissioned a Master Hugo to oversee the artistic work carried out at Bury in the 1130s, including the Bury Bible. The marked similarity in style between that and the Copford frescoes suggests that Hugo had a hand in both. It was the practice for the master craftsman to execute the outline of murals, leaving his apprentices to fill in details later. This is what happened at Copford. The outlines were drawn on the wet plaster — true fresco — and the details were finished later after the plaster had been re-wetted. (Abbot Anselm was elected bishop by King Stephen and was known to have been aware of and influenced by the Byzantine art tradition that was then prevalent in Rome.) ... 1547 The surviving paintings disappear under a coat of lime wash applied in the increasingly puritanical atmosphere of the reign of Edward VI.... 1871 Canon Wood, recently appointed rector, oversees the removal of the lime wash covering the apse paintings. 1872 Daniel Bell undertakes the over painted ‘restoration’ of the apse paintings, giving a pre-Raphaelite flavour to the angels and a halo to Christ. Unfortunately, he also uses the wrong type of plaster which is now causing serious damage. ... Between 1988 and 1993, the conservation of the wall paintings was undertaken by Wolfgang Gartner and his team from the Canterbury Cathedral Wallpaintings Workshop. Their task was to conserve the paintings of all periods in the state in which they existed. No attempt has been made to remove Victorian over painting or to restore any of the medieval frescoes to their assumed original form.

It is worth reading the history of the paintings, on their site. Its a miracle they are there for us to enjoy today!

The whole of the church looks very attractive, its well kept grave yard & many old stones that can no longer be read. Mind you, to find a grave stone from the 1600s that could still be read, would be astounding! The whole exterior, until the end of the 19th century, was rendered and was believed originally to have been painted. The walls are rubble with substantial amounts of Roman and medieval brick. It has been much restored, although structurally little has changed since two hundred or so years after the present structure was completed.

We knew that the grandchildren of Alexander had moved out to Colchester & became Quakers. James Parnell a young follower of George Fox (the founder of Quakers), preached in Colchester in July 1655. Some of his hearers in this strongly Puritan town were convinced by his words although there was much opposition. Later he spoke in Coggeshall but was arrested for allegedly having caused a disturbance and spoken blasphemy. At his trial he was found not guilty but ordered to pay a fine, which he refused to do. He was returned to jail in Colchester Castle where he was ill treated and eventually died in April 1656.

The search for one of the Quaker grave yards took a loooong time to find, after advice from the current Quaker Meeting House & two for three people, including an Australian sounding policemen! We found it, eventually, in the very attractive "Dutch quarter".

It was easier to find St. Mary's at the Wall, another wonderfully historic church (this one is now an Art Centre). It was right next door to the Quakers. It was here, the origins of the rhyme about Humpty Dumpty began. According to the story, Humpty Dumpty was a powerful cannon used in the Siege of Colchester during the English Civil War. It was mounted on top of the St Mary's at the Wall Church (in the southern part of Colchester's wall) defending the city against siege in the summer of 1648. Although Colchester was a royalist stronghold, it was besieged by the Roundheads for 11 weeks before finally falling. The church tower was hit by enemy cannon fire and the top of the tower was blown off, sending "Humpty" tumbling to the ground. Naturally all the King's horses and all the King's men (royalist cavalry and infantry respectively) tried to mend "him" but in vain. Other reports refer to Humpty Dumpty as being a gunner, known as 'One-Eyed Jack Thompson' who was in charge of the great cannon. Thompson was a battle-hardened soldier, who had fought in many skirmishes. He may have lost vision in one eye but he was still an excellent shot.

It was in 1648 that Alexander's great grandchild John was born in Colchester, to his grandson Jonathon & his wife Mary. A quote about the siege of Colchester says - By August provisions in Colchester had all but run out. Cats, dogs, and horses became the staple food. Fairfax refused to allow the townspeople to leave or even to let supplies into them, despite repeated petitions from outside the town, pleas from Colchester Town council, and even from Lord Norwich. Fairfax's decision was despite the loyalty of the town to Parliament during the First Civil War. Eventually matters became so desperate that the citizens of Colchester were forced to eat soap and candles. When the townswomen and children attempted to beg for food at the town gates, they were turned away with nothing by the besieging soldiers. In a last appeal to the humanity of the besiegers, the Royalist commanders sent 500 starving women to the Parliamentarian lines, hoping that they might acquire food by inspiring sympathy. Colonel Rainsborough undermined this plan by ordering the women stripped naked, to the great amusement of his army. That could have been one stressful birth!

We didn't manage to get to all the rest of the family locations in the villages like Gosfield, Woodham Mortimer & Mundon. If they are as attractive & interesting as Copford & Colchester, they are not to be missed!

Links for information on this page:

Copford Church

Bishop Bonner

The Colchester Quakers

The origins of Humpty Dumpty

The siege of Colchester