Is this the source of an intriguing and persistent folklore tale?
Since I was very small, I have been brought up with the story that the old village of Chrishall was in the fields in front of the church going down towards the main Saffron Walden to Royston Road (known by us as “the bottom brook”). The explanation of why the church now stands, pretty much alone apart from one or two cottages, is rather hazy. There are stories about the village being burnt down after a plague and everyone moving up the hill. The notes to visitors in the church outline this as a possibility, suggesting that it was one of the plagues in the 17th or 18th centuries and the survivors burned the village and moved away.
My grandmother (Irene Cranwell) never believed in the deliberate burning of the village saying that they would not have known how the disease was carried so why would they deliberately burn their houses? If everyone is dying of the plague, to burn down your shelter as well does seem to be taking things to extremes! But somewhere Chrishall was connected with burning.
A name linked to Christianity?
As we have explored in a previous article about the Dove Brooch the possible link of Chrishall’s name with Christianity is interesting but has never really been answered. The village name has been recorded in different ways including Christshall, Cristehale, Cristesshale, Christley-hall and Carshall. Cristehale or Christ’s Hall which can also be translated as Christ’s Nook. You can see a full list of Chrishall’s names at the Survey of English Place Names.
The link with Christianity is obviously not just from the village. A brief search of the web brings up entries such as www.essexviews.uk “Chrishall is said by some to be the first place in Essex where Christianity took hold”.
So we have some possibly early Christian links and a tale of the village being burned.
To come back to the present for a moment, The Archive have recently been researching the families who left the village for Australia in the 1850s around the time of a great agricultural depression. There were at least twenty village families who left at this time and it was this project that I was looking at the other night, while following up some research online.
I drifted onto Google Books, a vast collection of manuscripts and books that have been digitised by Google. I did my regular search for Chrishall, not really expecting to find very much. (There are so many people called Chris Hall who have written books!) But there were quite a few pages that came up so I begin clicking through them. If it hadn’t been late on a Saturday evening, when I was feeling slightly sleepy and lazy, I might have gone to do something else. However, I kept clicking and on page 18 of the results, I came across a research paper about ex-communication. Following the link, I found the following extract in a transcription of an eleventh-century manuscript:
“Among their company, certain ones remaining rebels against holy Christianity, with an insane spirit at the beginning of the holy fast of Lent attacked the land of blessed Mary which is at Christ’s Nook at what is called in other words Ontelawe and burned it; some men were whipped, some they killed, and they carried away with them the property of the inhabitants of that land, and up to this time, persevering in their malice, they scorn to come to penitence.”
Here was mention of our village being burned in the eleventh century, so around the time of the Norman invasion and the Domesday Book. But was it really Chrishall? The search was on.
What was this manuscript and why were researchers interested in it?
The research paper I first found can be seen here: Ritual Excommunication in Medieval France and England, 900-1200. However this is just one of several research papers that use this particular extract. It seems it is of interest because it is one of the first recorded instances of why someone was excommunicated from the church.
The original extract comes from an 11th-century manuscript, Wulfstan’s Commonplace Book. According to Wikipedia, Wulfstan was an English Bishop of London, Bishop of Worcester and Archbishop of York. He became Bishop of London in 996 and died in 1023. Apparently he was one of the most distinguished and effective Old English prose writers and was also a book collector responsible for amassing a large collection of texts pertaining to canon law, the liturgy, and episcopal functions.
Wulfstan’s Commonplace Book is in a collection of Medieval Manuscripts held in the Parker Library at Corpus Christi College in Cambridge. Corpus have an agreement with Stanford and many of these manuscripts have been digitised. You can see this wonderful collection at ‘Parker Library on the web’. Manuscript 265 is Wulfstan’s book and the section quoted above can be seen on page 209.
Where is Ontelawe?
Where this event took place obviously isn’t of so much interest to researchers although several have suggested that it could be Chrishall because of the name Christ’s Halle or Christ’s Nook. But it has been disputed because of the mention of ‘Ontelawe’.
My first thought therefore was to work out where, or what, was Ontelawe. A brief online search – Latin to English translation – seemed to confirm that this was not a Latin word. So was it the name of a place? I searched through our records but could find nothing in field names or local names that might come close to Ontelawe.
Then I was recommended to contact a Latin specialist who had been helping with some other research. I sent her the extract and after looking at it she explained that this document was written in Latin and Vernacular (Old) English. The word Ontelawe is old English and if it referred to a person it would mean ‘outlaw’. In this particular case she suggested it might mean ‘confiscated lands’. So the extract could be referring to confiscated lands at the site of the blessed Mary at Christ’s Halle. i.e. it was a description of the land and not a different village. One mark for us I felt!
To further back this up, I have since found an article published by Irene Cranwell in the ‘Reporter and Royston Crow’. Unfortunately it is undated but she wrote several long articles for this paper on Chrishall history. Here is an extract:
“Count Eustace of Boulogne was the greatest lay Barron in Essex and Hertfordshire, and received grants of 100 manors, amongst them being the manors of Chrishall Bury and Crawley Bury. Some of the land was in the possession of a priest named Engleric. This priest was appointed by the Conqueror to be one of his commissioners to take the survey for the Domesday Book. His character of acquiring land was not the best. It is recorded that he annexed 8 acres of land in Chrishall Bury, belonging to a sokeman, and seized from Lefte, a freeman, 30 acres situated in Crawley Bury. The land taken by Engleric was confiscated, and passed on to Count Eustace of Boulogne. This naturally caused friction between the two men.”
The article goes on to say “Engleric was a great benefactor to the church, though his good intentions were tainted by the illegality mentioned in the previous paragraph. Engleric founded the monastery of St Martin le Grand, 1086, and his lands were given to the Canons of this establishment.”
Following details of St Martin Le Grand, I found the following intriguing reference on British History Online:
“To the lands given by Ingelric, viz. Easter, Mashbury, Norton, Stanford, Fobbing, ‘Benedist’ Chrishall, Tolleshunt, Rivenhall, and Ongar, a hide in Benfleet, a hide in Hoddesdon, and 2 hides with the church in Maldon, William added some land and moor outside Cripplegate”
‘Benedist’ Chrishall? Was Chrishall a home to Benedictine monks? St Martin Le Grand was a Benedictine monastery. (This rather nice article also includes a lovely description of London from 1282).
Was it the ‘sokeman’ (‘a freeman enjoying extensive rights especially over his land’ – Collins Dictionary) who attacked the settlement to try to get his land back?
They ‘attacked the land of the Blessed Mary’
Another clue as to where this attack took place is the mention of the land of the Blessed Mary. Researchers have previously made a link with the abbey at Worcester. Wulfstan was Bishop of Worcester so there is a link there but it does seem very far away.
Thomas Wright in his History of the County of Essex states the following about Chrishall Church:
“This church having from a remote period belonged to the abbey of Westminster, was also retained by it when it was made a bishopric; but afterwards its jurisdiction, as to matters ecclesiastical, was given by Edward the sixth to Ridley, bishop of London in 1550…”. However Wright does also say quite clearly, re the church “It is dedicated to the Virgin Mary”.
Irene Cranwell in Chrishall Scrapbook also starts her description of the church as follows: “In the 12th century, the Church was dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary. The dedication to the Holy Trinity was probably done when the present church was built in the 14th century.” Further it seems that there was a ‘cult of the Virgin Mary’ in North Essex from 700-900. Several churches locally remain dedicated to St Mary including Strethall.
They ‘attacked the land of the Blessed Mary’…
It has recently been pointed out to me that there is nothing left in those fields below the church from 17th century buildings when you might at the very least expect to see the odd bit of brick or tile. And we know we have houses up in the current village that date from this time, so there were already people living ‘up the hill’ in the 17th and 18th centuries. This isn’t to say, of course, that they were not still living down below the church but the evidence doesn’t seem to be in the fields there to be easily seen anyway.
Who were they and why were they there?
So what was going on? Who were these people and why were they attacked?
These were turbulent times. The Anglo Saxon Chronicles https://www.bl.uk/learning/timeline/item126532.html say that in the year 1070 Peterborough Monastery was sacked by Hereward the Wake, all the monks’ houses were burned as well as the monastery and any treasures taken to Ely. Hereward used Ely as his base https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hereward_the_Wakewhen leading a rebellion against the Normans in 1071. Would the Normans have passed by Chrishall on their way to Ely to battle?
Or was it all much nearer to home and a battle between local landowners?
There were Roman, Iron Age and Saxon settlements around Chrishall and it has obviously been an area of settlement for hundreds if not thousands of years. But has it also been a place of attack and burning?
 The history and topography of the County of Essex by Thomas Wright, Esq of Trinity College Cambridge, is just one publication among many who list Chrishall’s old names. (Originally published 1831).