Essex church dedications: introduction

The main purpose of this paper is to provide an index, as complete as possible, of Essex parish churches and their dedications. The index itself is restricted to facts: listed are the patron saints (in order of relative popularity), the churches (alphabetically, by parish name) and the Ordnance Survey 6-figure grid references to locate them. It is hoped that the compilation of these data in one place will be of some use to those engaged in research on local history, topography or geomancy. No apology need be made for the dryness of the data, but the index is illustrated with a number of distribution maps to aid clarity and add some visual interest.

The index is prefaced with notes on the distribution and possible significance of the most popular dedications, and on the calendar of saints’ days appropriate to those dedications. This material is selective and often speculative, and the reader is invited to discard any conclusion which seems not to relate to the available facts. Nevertheless, it has been thought necessary to preface the index with some sort of general introduction, if only to point out some of the possibilities raised by this kind of research.

The information contained herein is drawn chiefly from the volumes of the Royal Commission on Historical Monuments, aided by a comparison of modern OS maps with Chapman & Andre’s map of Essex (1777). Errors are bound to have crept in, and I would be grateful if users of this index would notify me of any misinformation or other mistakes so that these can be amended. Comments on the usefulness, or otherwise, of the index would also be welcome.

Before the rapid urban growth and consequent administrative changes of the last and present centuries, Essex was a county of about 400 parishes. Except in the cases of Colchester and Maldon, each parish represented the territory of one village, sometimes with one or more hamlets. Each parish was centred on its church and it is these churches, most of them of medieval fabric and pre-Reformation origin, that are the subject of the index and notes. Modern, usually suburban, churches have not been included. In some cases the old churches are no longer standing or have been converted into private dwellings, museums or community centres; all these are included where their sites are known.

The 400-or-so churches listed have between them only about forty dedications. There are only seven instances of a dedication shared by more than ten churches, and these seven popular dedications account for some two-thirds of the total number of Essex churches. They are, in descending order, St. Mary the Virgin, All Saints, St. Peter (with St. Paul), St. Andrew, St. Nicholas, St. Michael and St. Margaret. Some attempt must be made to account for their popularity in overall terms, as well as for the local variations in popularity evidenced by the distribution maps (pages 7 and 8).

{2} In crude terms,the effectiveness of a particular saint must have been judged by his or her power of intercession in worldly affairs. St. Mary’s unique status as special mediator between God and the faithful helps to explain the fact that more than a quarter of all Essex parish churches were (and are) dedicated to her. A similar, though lesser, power rests with the company of ‘All Saints’ and with the first-called of the disciples, Saints Peter and Andrew. The same can hardly be said, however, of the kindly but unhistorical St. Nicholas, the stern archangel St. Michael, or the frankly legendary martyr St. Margaret, who was best remembered for having been swallowed by a dragon. Yet these and other, less likely, saints were very dear to the medieval imagination.

(It is worth comparing the list of the seven most popular saints in Essex with that given by L.E. Jones (Old English Churches, Observer) for the country as a whole. After St. Mary, All Saints, and St.Peter, the order is St. Michael, St. Andrew, St. John the Baptist & St. Nicholas. In Essex, St. Margaret ousts the Baptist while SS. Andrew and Nicholas are both more popular than St. Michael.)

Before going on to consider in greater detail the distribution of the various dedications and the attributes and feast days of some of the saints, the following listAmended from the original edition is given as a summary of the basic information.

St. Mary the Virgin107dedications
All Saints52
St. Peter (& St.Paul)33
St. Andrew31
St. Nicholas21
St. Michael17
St. Margaret12
Holy Trinity9
St. Laurence8
St. Mary Magdalen8
St. John the Baptist8
St. James7
St. John (the Evangelist)6
St. Giles5
St. Katherine4
St. Leonard4
St. Martin4
St. Botolph3
St. Edmund3
St. Barnabas3
17 other saints23

(The 27 joint dedications include many of the saints named in the list)