Waltham Abbey Gardens
Waltham Abbey Gardens was once one of the largest Augustinian abbeys in the country, and is part of the Lee Valley Regional Park Authority. The Abbey of Waltham was one of the most important houses in England until dissolved by Henry VIII in 1540. The Church is one of the earliest built-in Anglo-Saxon England dating to the 7thC and argued as the most probable location for Harold II’s burial following the battle of Hastings. The remains of the 13thC cloistral passage is the only surviving remnant of what the gothic architecture of the ‘Great Church’ would have looked like. Several local partners have a key interest in the site and this has bought a partnership together including Epping Forest District Council, Lee Valley Park and English Heritage.
History of the site
Waltham Abbey Gardens is a site with a rich history and has been in use as a monastic complex, private residence, a farm and now a public park. It is a nationally important heritage asset.
The site has a history dating back some 8,000 years, with evidence of Mesolithic hunter gatherers being found on the site.
The heritage of the site largely relates to the story of the church of the Holy Cross and St. Lawrence which is adjacent to the Abbey gardens. The church was founded in the 7C AD at a time when Christianity was being established in Anglo Saxon England. Over time five successive churches were built, including the huge fifth church of the medieval Abbey.
The Abbey gardens contain a scheduled monument with an extensive area of standing and buried archaeology. The scheduled ancient monument within the abbey gardens holds evidence of the development and decline of the church over the centuries, a story which is closely linked to events that have shaped English national history.
In 1060 the church was redeveloped for the third time by the then Earl Harold Godwinson, part of a church endowment programme linked to Edward the Confessors foundation at Westminster. Waltham is recognised through documentary and other evidence as the burial place of King Harold II following his death at the battle of Hastings in 1066.
Following the Norman conquest Bishop Odo of Bayeux rebuilt the church in the Romanesque style similar to St. Albans Abbey and Durham Cathedral and extensive royal patronage was given to the site.
In 1177 Henry II refounded and enlarged the church, establishing a monastery of Augustinian canons on the site, as part of his penance for his involvement in the murder of Thomas Becket. The extended monastic church was built in the Gothic style. The building was very large, stretching over 400 feet. The plan was unusual, having two crossing towers and sets of transepts. On the north side of the church was the cloister, around which was situated the Chapter House, refectory, dormitory, kitchens, storerooms, the Abbot’s house, brewhouse, bakehouse and a school.
The Abbey controlled extensive lands and was lord of the manor of territories over a wide area. It received extensive royal patronage throughout the medieval period and the Abbey was the richest in Essex.
Waltham Abbey was a particular favourite of Henry VIII, used for accommodation and hospitality when he hunted in Waltham (now Epping) forest. It was here that Thomas Cranmer met with Henry and proposed the solution to allow the king’s divorce. It was not until 1540 that Waltham was one of the last monasteries to be dissolved. Another important figure at this time, is Thomas Tallis who was employed at the Abbey between 1538 – 1540.
While the older 11C part of the church survived to serve the parish, the monastic site was acquired by Sir Anthony Deny, who built a country house on the site, which was in existence by 1600 until 1770, when it was pulled down, and later replaced by a farm on the site.
As well as the built heritage the Abbey gardens contains important natural heritage assets, which have been created over the centuries on the site, including the cornmill stream, the moat which surrounds the orchard and the fishponds, which once served the Abbey’s kitchens.
For the community and visitors, the Abbey church and gardens are at the heart of Waltham Abbey and provide the backdrop for all major events in the town. The gardens also provide an access route to the Lee Valley Regional Park, and are well used by families, providing a freely accessible recreational green space.
In late 2021 discussions started on a potential project to re awake the site. Epping Forest District Council, the Authority and English Heritage formed a partnership and started to work on a Lottery bid to fund an ambitious project to restore, activate and interpret the site. An expression of interest was sent to the National Lottery Heritage Fund and we were invited to submit a bid for development funding.
This seeks to:
Conserve and repair the sites-built heritage, notably the Cloistral Passage, Abbey Gatehouse, Stoney Bridge and sluices.
Make the Cloistral Passage accessible to all visitors.
Restore the natural heritage elements, notably the Abbey Fishponds, Cornmill Stream and moat.
Improve interpretation including marking out the historic phases of the Church, digital interpretation via artistic or VR reconstruction, updated site interpretation panels, community artwork improving the underpass between the fishponds and former monastery, development of an accredited guiding scheme, education resources for local schools, and an exhibition at EFDM.
Provide events for people to learn about and celebrate the site, leading to greater civic pride within Waltham Abbey.
Undertake a specialist review of the monastic stonework and archaeological collections held by EFDM.
Recruit new staff and volunteers to support project delivery.
Undertake a strong marketing and evaluation campaign promoting the enhanced site for residents and tourists to the area.
As well as through the formal partnership we will be working with other groups including the Waltham Abbey Church and Historical Society, The Town Partnership and Town Council, Epping Forest District Councils Economic Development team, New City College, local schools, residents and volunteers.
Head of Projects and Funding Delivery Lee Valley Regional Park Authority said:
“We are very excited to be developing this project and pleased to be working in partnership with Epping Forest District Council and English Heritage to develop a project which will breath new life into the site.”