Distributions and origins

Some of the popular dedications show distinct regional groupings, the clearest being in the case of St. Mary’s churches. Although the average density of these over the county is about one in four, the proportion rises to one in two towards the western boundary. In the Hundreds of Clavering, Uttlesford, Dunmow and Harlow, there are altogether 33 St. Mary’s churches in a total of 64. The proportion is correspondingly lower elsewhere with a marked lack in such areas as the coastal Dengie hundred, the Liberty of Havering (now in Greater London) and the Colne Valley. The reasons for this can only be guessed at, but it is clear that different influences have been at work on the church-builders in the respective areas.

The map of All Saints’ churches suggests a concentration away from the county’s margins, with the highest incidence around the valley of the Blackwater. There is, however, an isolated group of four in the extreme north-east and here, as elsewhere, All Saints dedications appear closely associated with those to St. Michael. There are grounds for supposing that the coincidence of All Saints’ Day, November 1st, with the Celtic new year festival of Samhain would have made this dedication popular with the Celtic element among the people; but this does not help us to determine whether there were ever predominantly ‘Celtic’ or ‘Saxon’ areas of settlement.

The churches of St. Peter (and of SS. Peter & Paul and, in one case, of SS. Mary & Peter) are found all over the county, but there is a bias towards the east coast and the Thames estuary. St. Peter was, and remains, the chief patron of those who get their living by fishing, and would therefore be the obvious protector of seaboard communities. In places such as Maldon, Goldhanger and Paglesham the logic is clear, but what can be said of such high-and-dry villages as Stambourne and Ugley? As chief of the apostles and ‘rock’ of the early Church, St. Peter was often chosen as an exemplar by the earliest Christian communities, and he has always been a popular figure in the canon of saints. This is probably enough to explain a dedication to him anywhere, and accounts for the name of St. Cedd’s 7th century church at Bradwell-on-sea – St. Peter on the Wall. But it is also rumoured that St. Peter’s keys are a disguise of the hammer of the Germanic thunder-god, Thunor (Thor), and that in the period of conversion the old god’s mantle settled easily on the apostle’s shoulders. In this context it is perhaps worth noting that St. Peter has a church at Thundersley, a name meaning Thunor’s Grove: the church must stand on or near a site once sacred to the Anglo-Saxon deity.

Peter’s brother St. Andrew, called to discipleship at the same time, is now the patron saint of Scotland and it is thought that he was regarded with special favour by the early missionaries from the Celtic sanctuaries of Iona and Lindisfarne. It was a monk of the latter place, St. Cedd, who spread the gospel in Essex, and it may be that some of the St. Andrew’s churches in the county received their dedications in his time. Half of them are to be found distributed {4} along the line of the Colne between Helions Bumpstead and Langenhoe (where the church has disappeared from modern maps). Three of the four villages called Colne share this dedication, and it was perhaps from the minster at Earls Colne that the mission carried St. Andrew’s name up and down the river. The other St. Andrew’s churches tend to lie towards the coast, except for a scatter across the centre of the county. The coastal churches will have been named for the saint in his role as fisherman; the others were perhaps influenced by the dedication of the famous timber church at Greensted, dating in its present form from the Late Saxon period and connected with the legend of St. Edmund.

St. Nicholas’s churches tend to be grouped with those of St. Peter, perhaps because the care of this many-sided saint extended to sea travellers. The historical St. Nicholas was a 4th century bishop at Myra (in modern Turkey), but to the saint’s legend have been grafted several elements of folk-tale and pagan custom. Some like to see him as a benevolent form of the Germanic high god Woden (Odin), while it has recently been suggested that his antecedents include the shamans (ecstatic priest-magicians) of Siberia. In his role as gift-bringer around Midwinter, there is certainly something not quite appropriate to an early Christian patriarch, and it is this enigmatic background that holds the key to his great popularity in the Middle Ages. Of his churches in Essex, that at Canewdon with its dramatic hill-top situation and rumoured association with the ‘old religion’ seems most evocative of this complex figure.

As has been stated, St. Michael’s churches tend to share the distribution pattern of All Saints’, and there is a notable group of five in the extreme north-east corner of the county. As elsewhere in Britain, an elevated site has sometimes been chosen for the churches of this saint: Pitsea and Theydon Mount are fair examples. It is worth noting that the churches of two of the ‘Sokens’ – Kirby and Thorpe – share this dedication, as do those of two of the rural ‘Liberties’ of Colchester – Berechurch and Mile End, both now ruined. Leader of the angelic host (with whom he shares the churches of Copford and Leaden Roding), Michael was a popular saint because of his role as dragon-killer. The dragon is shown in a carving at his church at Fobbing, and the image of the battle was powerfully exploited in medieval iconography. Some would see this conflict as symbolic of the foundation of Christian shrines in the places once sacred to the serpentine Earth-spirit, and St. Michael is now popularly associated with ‘ley-lines’. His churches in Essex do not provide clear evidence for this association.

Another dragon-saint, and locally next to St. Michael in popularity, was the semi-legendary St. Margaret, whose dozen churches are widely scattered across Essex. In two cases, at Margaretting and Margaret Roding, she has given her name to parishes (to help distinguish the respective villages from the other ‘Ings’ and Rodings). She is also present at both Stanford Rivers, near Ongar, and Stanford-le-Hope, on the Thames, but the coincidence of names here is probably meaningless. In the Middle Ages, St. Margaret was apparently invoked together with St. Katherine, and they share a dedication at Aldham.

{5} Three of St. Laurence’s churches occur close together in the Dengie peninsula, at Asheldham, Newland (St.Laurence) and Steeple. This suggests a local cult of the martyr, who was traditionally roasted to death on a gridiron. Otherwise his churches seem randomly placed, but it is worth noting that his name is appended to other dedications in five instances; again, this is suggestive of a cult, perhaps among the cutlers who counted the saint as their special patron.

The nine Essex churches of the Holy Trinity are widely scattered, and only in one instance can the reason for the dedication be stated. Southchurch was a manor in the possession of Canterbury, listed in Domesday Book under the ‘lands of the Holy Trinity’; the 11th century church has retained the dedication ever since.

St. John the Baptist was another saint popular in the early Celtic church, partly because he was the ideal hermit of the desert and partly because his major feast was celebrated at Midsummer (June 24th). Five of his nine Essex churches are grouped with those of St. Andrew in and around the Colne Valley, and again it can be supposed that the dedications owe something to the Celtic missions of the earliest Christian period. Another of the Baptist’s churches, that at Danbury, stands within the ramparts of an Iron Age (Celtic) hill fort, and continuity of worship here from the pagan period cannot be ruled out. Danbury is close to a small group of St. Andrew’s churches around the lower Chelmer.

The remaining popular dedications include St. Mary Magdalen, St. John, St. Giles, St. James, St. Katherine, St. Edmund, St. Leonard, St. Martin, St. Botolph, St. Clement and the Holy Cross. Of these, the only notable geographical bias is in the case of St. Leonard’s churches, which are all in the eastern part of the county.

There is, however, one remaining area of Essex where the church dedications are decidedly anomalous, and this is in the Stour valley on the Suffolk border. No dedication at all is recorded for the churches of Alphamstone, Little Henny (now destroyed?), Borley and Liston, neighbouring villages near Sudbury. In the same area occur four singular dedications: to the Holy Innocents at Lamarsh, to St. Gregory at Pentlow, to St. Augustine of Canterbury at Ashen, and to the other (?)No, also St. Augustine of Canterbury St. Augustine at Birdbrook. In addition, two of only half-a-dozen round towers in Essex can be found at Lamarsh and Pentlow. It seems evident that this portion of the Stour valley has kept an individual character and did not share the common influences which determined the dedication of churches elsewhere.

These brief notes have done no more than raise some interesting and perhaps unanswerable questions. The origin of most church dedications lies so far back, in a time for which there is no adequate documentation, that it will usually be impossible to conclude with any certainty the reasons that a particular saint was honoured by any church-builder or congregation. What does remain, though, is that the naming of a parish church for a saint was not always a matter of chance or whim, even though the motivation may not be clear to us now. This is something that really needs detailed local research.