Bloody British History: Chelmsford

Bloody British History: Chelmsford

by Robert Hallmann


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780752471150
Publisher: The History Press
Publication date: 06/01/2012
Series: Bloody History Series
Pages: 96
Product dimensions: 4.60(w) x 9.24(h) x 0.30(d)

About the Author

Robert Hallmann is a writer and professional photographer. His photographs have appeared in magazines, newspapers including the Observer and on the House of Commons’ Christmas card. His previous volumes include Essex: History You Can See and Essex Ghost Stories.

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Bloody British History: Chelmsford

By Robert Hallmann

The History Press

Copyright © 2012 Robert Hallmann
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-7524-8201-9


10,000 BC


The Cursus at Springfield Barnes

Essex has been a home – of a kind – to humans since the Palaeolithic period. The first signs date back to nearly 500,000 BC. Flint artefacts, tools (and waste flakes from their manufacture) have been found in the rich and fertile river valley hunting grounds.

Major ceremonial monuments were built, sacred gathering places where the hunters and foragers could meet annually. Chelmsford had its importance even then. Aerial photography revealed one of these mysterious earthworks, a linear enclosure about 670m long and 40m wide, right on Chelmsford's doorstep – the 'cursus' close by the Chelmer at Springfield Barnes (now Chelmer Village).

All kinds of theories have been advanced in the past to explain their origins and functions. Today, cursus monuments are understood to be Neolithic and therefore probably the oldest monumental structures of the British Isles, older than Stonehenge and the great pyramids of Egypt. With their sometimes massive scale and permanence within the landscape, such monuments have long been shrouded in mystery. Eighteenth-century archaeologists suggested they might be Roman race tracks, based on their shape and size, so they named them 'cursus' – but the Romans came to Britain nigh on 2,000 years ago, only a lifetime or two after the birth of Christ, and cursuses were built some 3,500 years before that.

What was it that happened in those mysterious structures? What was their function? Digging such monuments with the crude implements available – usually the antlers or shoulder blades of large mammals – would need a planned, organised and concerted effort, possibly over several seasons. Investigations between 1979 and 1985 discovered pottery, urn sherds and flint artefacts ranging from the Middle Neolithic era to the early 2nd millennium, 3,500–2,000BC, indicating that a great deal of feasting took place here. The urn sherds denote burials nearby, all evidence of a prolonged period of use. Fire was a part of the ceremonies – small pits in the interior contained charcoal and burnt flints.

So what was the function of these monuments? Recent studies suggest they were in fact sites for ceremonial competitions. Finds of arrowheads point to archery and hunting, and the length of the cursus may reflect its use as a proving ground for young men in races and other tests of prowess in combat with spears and arrows.

Springfield Lyons' Late Bronze Age Enclosure

Much nearer in time, about 1000–700 BC, circular causewayed enclosures were being constructed as ancestral gathering places. They were somewhere that the normally dispersed itinerant groups could meet up, make contact, bury the dead, hold feasts, and exchange information on the movement of herds; quite important for hunter-gatherers who followed wild horses, wild cattle, deer and elk on their annual migration routes.

Such enclosures were large circular earthworks, two of which were constructed at Great Baddow and at Springfield Lyons, the latter overlooking the Chelmer valley. This roughly circular site, about 60m in diameter, included a deep ditch and rampart, impressive gate structures and several post-hole structures. The principal entrance directly faced the Neolithic cursus. A roundhouse once stood in its centre.

During excavation, proof of what must be the earliest Chelmsford industry was found – the largest quantity of clay moulds for casting bronze of any Bronze Age site in Britain. These date from around 850 BC, though bronze manufacture began in about 2000 BC. Bronze Age swords were usually around 75cm long, and were designed to be strong but flexible (so that they would bend in battle, rather than break).

Bronze Age peoples tamed and rode horses, and wove cloth to supplement their fur outfits. Fashion was beginning to be invented. Bronze Age women held their hair together with bone pins and wore crescent-shaped necklaces.

The Iron Age was represented at the site by a 'broken' sword, found in a pit in the centre of the circular area, and a more mysterious find further to the west of the pit: a horse's head with bridle. Just the skull, an iron bit and two studs remained ... An Iron Age Godfather, perhaps?

The early Saxon period added a cemetery: corpses were cremated here from AD 425–650, and buried here from AD 450–599 (the first being a pagan tradition and the second a Christian one). The graves contain intricate metal jewellery. A town was then built here in the tenth and eleventh centuries, a small settlement of at least thirteen buildings. The largest feature excavated was a hall, a Saxon longhouse measuring 20m long and 6m wide. Today the site is surrounded by houses and a retail park. Down the road, starting from the Asda car park, lies the Neolithic cursus.

It would have been an impressive sight in its day.

Chelmsford's Woolly Mammoth

It may be difficult to imagine, but this area was once woolly mammoth country. A lower jawbone of the enormous shaggy creature was found right in the middle of Chelmsford, in a brick pit between New London Road and the railway. It is in Chelmsford Museum now.

Britain would have been a less hospitable place then, in a vast, frozen, northern landscape of Arctic tundra that took in much of the North Sea. In the bitter cold the elephant-related mammoths used to roam in large herds, no doubt for warmthand safety in numbers. Humans arrived in England around 500,000 years ago, when they would have wandered over from the Continent before the Channel flooded and separated the land. In the Chelmer valley the earliest tools found date from about 240,000 BC. As woolly mammoths became extinct about 1700 BC, they would have been very familiar to our hardy early ancestors, who would have pursued animals in bogs and dug pits in the approach of wandering herds, trapping the ungainly beasts and hunting them down with their primitive weapons.


AD 43


The Romans had their own name for Chelmsford: Caesaromagus, or 'Caesar's Field'. Historians are divided on the meaning: it could denote the place where Caesar defeated the 'British' army when he seized Colchester. Alternatively, some argue for a translation of 'Caesar's Market', which is much less exciting.

Older names for the river Chelmer include 'beadu', 'baedwe' or 'badw', which means 'battle' or 'war'. Was it the Battle River? There are connections to the word in both Germanic and Old Norse languages, with possible echoes to 'holy river' or even 'war goddess' (though these are uncertain). Both Great and Little Baddow owe their names to the ancient river.

Could it be that these names remember some far-off battle, like that of Romans fighting their way from London to Colchester in AD 43? No archaeological proof has yet been found – though the legions would have passed this way to reach Colchester along the road they called Ealdan stræte.

Seventeen or eighteen years later, the local Trinovantes joined Boudicca, Queen of the Iceni, in her bloody AD 60–61 revolt against the Romans. They began with the ransacking, torching, looting and massacring of Romans and sympathisers at Colchester, where the last survivors fled to the safety of the Claudian temple and perished. The remains of that temple became the base of Colchester Castle. Boudicca and the Trinovantes marched on to London and then Verulamium (St Albans), swelling the rebel army to 100,000 men, women and children before her final defeat, when England's fiery red-haired defender took poison.

Boudicca was responsible for some 7,000 deaths, as official figures by the Roman Tacitus suggest. At Chelmsford at that time there would have been little opportunity for sacking, but she would have pushed her blood-thirsty revenge this way ...

In the aftermath, as Rome secured its hold on this far-flung island, a fort was built on the road between London and Colchester, commanding the strategic river crossing, about a day's march from either Roman town. At first this was protected by a wooden palisade, but it was later reinforced with an earth rampart and ditch. The Chelmsford garrison, with possibly a smaller enclosure for cavalry, did not last long. It became the first road station on the route from London to Carlisle on the Wall.

Caesaromagus lay to the west of the road crossing over the Rivers Can and Chelmer, beneath modern Chelmsford in the Moulsham area, roughly defined by Moulsham Street, Hall Street, Hamlet Road and Mildmay Road. Beneath the Odeon roundabout lie the ruins of an octagonal temple. It would have functioned as a mansio, a road station or staging post with a villa dedicated to the travellers' rest and refreshment, the likes of which were dotted along Roman roads at regular intervals all over their Empire, usually a day's march apart. The Chelmsford version dated to around AD 120, and included a bath-house – a circular laconicum, a kind of sauna. A tessellated pavement discovered in the nineteenth century may have belonged to this.

The buildings were occupied until the fourth century, after which the settlement seems to have been largely abandoned. The defences were levelled during the first quarter of the third century.

The Romans left Britain as the Empire downsized, and by around AD 410 they had gone. Immigration to Britain, however, did not stop. Angles and Saxons arrived, fought and pushed the original Celts westward, settled and put their stamp on the land.


AD 550-1066


Kingdoms were rather smaller in the Dark Ages, more like princely fiefdoms. Leaders were expected to reward bravery and loyalty generously. They also expressed their wealth and position by the gifts they could afford to take with them to the grave. (Contrary to the modern idiom, they could and would take it with them ...)

Some of the deceased's favourite things, they thought, would serve him well in the next world. Only the best would do – swords, intricate gold and garnet jewellery, glass and pottery. They also buried food and drink, blankets and clothes, belts and shoes – and weapons galore. At Sutton Hoo one chief even took his horse with him ...

Such a Saxon burial was accidentally discovered in 1888, in a gravel pit behind Clobb's Row, Broomfield, when workmen found remains of a sword, spear and knife 6–7ft down while digging gravel. 'A tape-like material' bound the sword's wooden sheath, and of a spear only the spearhead survived. A shield boss would once have stood proud at the centre of a wooden shield. More ostentatious, perhaps, were the finds of a gold pyramid and buckle plate, both set with garnets. A bronze pan, and reddish tufts from a 'hairy cloak' were also found. Even inclement weather was obviously catered for in the afterlife. Curiously, the grave walls were covered with soot or charcoal, and there were fragments of wood, parts of flat iron bars, angle irons and rivets from a coffin – but no body. That had been incinerated within the tomb before the grave goods were added. The finds were dated AD 600–700 and have been deposited at the British Museum. Only personages of the highest ranks would have had access to such items.


AD 1066


Chelmsford's name is derived from 'Ceolmaer's ford', which was a site close to the present High Street stone bridge. Who Ceolmaer was has been lost in time, but he gave his name to both the town and the river as it meanders towards the eastern sea. The Domesday Book of 1086 names the town 'Celmeresfort'. There were many derivations, though 100 years later, by 1189, it had settled on 'Chelmsford'. Moulsham was Mulesham and Molesham in 1066, remembering 'Mul's farm'.

At the time of the Norman Conquest of 1066, Chelmsford, on the northern side of the Can, belonged to Bishop William of London, where it remained under the new order. The river Can was the border between the lands of two religious owners: the Moulsham side remained in the hands of the Abbot of St Peter's, Westminster. Chelmsford was but a small settlement with four villagers or households after the conquest – there had been five before. There was a mill and woodland enough for 300 pigs.

After 1066, the old Saxon hierarchy had been swept away and largely replaced by Normans who arrived with the Conqueror. From that time the king owned everything, but he graciously handed estates out to his friends and supporters. They, in turn, were paid by the lower classes in money or more likely in service. Freemen could farm their land or carry out a business, but serfs were beholden to the Manor as villans (villains or villeins), bordars and lowest of all, slaves.

Westminster's Moulsham Lodge had been reduced from eight villagers before the Conquest to three villagers after, but the number of smallholders had grown from four to twenty-one. One mill was registered and there was woodland for 400 pigs.

Moulsham Halls (in the north of the hundred) had been taken from a Saxon called Godric and another called Wolfmer. Both manors were in the hands of Bishop William now. Villagers and smallholders had increased from two to eight, but slaves had been reduced from four to three in one of them. Wulfmer's plot still had one smallholder and two slaves. Between them the hall manors included woodland for 100 pigs. As well as slaves, in 1086 there was still a considerable acreage of the old Essex forest left.

By far the greater communities in the hundred of Chelmsford were Writtle, with some 175 males and (Great and Little) Waltham with 154. (The Domesday Book survey did not bother with women and children.) Writtle had belonged to King Harold before 1066 – the Crown having taken Robert the Bruce's estates – now it was held directly by King William. There was enough woodland to support 1200 pigs, and there were two mills. Writtle also paid the highest taxes.

The northern side of the Can was owned by the more active of the two religious houses. In about the year 1100 Bishop Maurice had bridges rebuilt over the rivers Can and Chelmer, a sound commercial venture resulting in the re-direction of traffic from Writtle to the old Roman road through Chelmsford along Moulsham Street.

The former fording place on the river Can at Ceolmaer's Ford was a natural site for trade. In 1199 the overlord was Bishop William of Sainte-Mère-Eglise. The Norman was granted a Royal Charter by King John with the right to hold a weekly market near the bridge. This was followed in 1201 with the right to hold an annual fair in Chelmsford, also not necessarily for altruistic reasons. The Bishop held the prebend of Ealdstreet, i.e. the revenues, among his portfolio. When King Richard I was captured in Sicily on his return from the Third Crusade, it was this Bishop William, together with Hubert Walter, bishop of Salisbury, who found the King where he was being held captive at Ochsenfurt in Germany. William of Sainte-Mère-Eglise was the guardian of the amounts due to be collected for Richard's ransom in the south of England, a story well known from the exploits of Robin Hood.

The bishop's local innovations were the beginning of the growth of the modern town of Chelmsford. An under-cover market is still an important part of the town centre more than 800 years later. The central position in Essex, in addition, fostered the establishment as the County Town with the Assizes.

Sometime before 1277 a Dominican Friary (Black Friars) was founded here in the vicinity of what is now Friar's Walk. The Dominican order has produced many prominent theologians since their founding in 1216. Archaeological excavations in the 1960s and '70s established the former sites of the dorter undercroft, parts of the north range, reredorter, cloister walk and north-east corner of the chapter house. Also, in the late thirteenth century a leper hostel was established at Moulsham.

The Friary was dissolved again in Henry VIII's purge of 1538. Where once learned monks walked the floor of the chapter house, the new order after the plunder of the Dissolution of Monasteries saw fit to replace their legacy with a more down-to-earth lime kiln. Another result of the Dissolution was the closure of many hospitals and the dispersal of the monks and/or nuns that had attended the sick and ailing.

Moulsham, while remaining a distinct and separate hamlet, became the poor relation to go-ahead Chelmsford, later receiving a gaol and a workhouse.

In its position on a main road, medieval Chelmsford prospered. A leather industry developed with skinners and tanners, as well as a wool industry with weavers and fullers and drapers and mercers, the dealers in fine cloth.


Excerpted from Bloody British History: Chelmsford by Robert Hallmann. Copyright © 2012 Robert Hallmann. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


Title Page,
10,000 BC Mysteries of Pre-History,
AD 43 Roman Armies in Caesar's Field,
AD 550–1066 Saxon Tombs,
AD 1066 The Birth of Chelmsford,
AD 1274 Robert the Bruce in Chelmsford,
AD 1349 The Black Death Strikes!,
AD 1381 The Robber and the Hangman,
AD 1516–1558 Bloody Mary,
AD 1430–1582 The Terrifying True Story of Trudgeover Eagle,
AD 1537 Treasures of the Church The Secret History of Moulsham,
AD 1566–1589 Attack of the Witches!,
AD 1500–1600 Forbidden Pleasures of the Sixteenth Century,
AD 1566–1694 Rough Justice,
AD 1648 Foul Crimes During the Civil War,
AD 1645 The Witches Return, or Death by Imp!,
AD 1665 Return of the Black Death!,
AD 1735–1767 Burning, Hanging and Pressing in the Eighteenth Century,
AD 1754–1790 Secrets of the Bodysnatchers! Crimes and Misdemeanours in Georgian Chelmsford,
AD 1789–1815 Waiting for Napoleon,
1830–1875 Abolitionists and Slaves,
AD 1776–1846 Even Queen Victoria Complained ...,
AD 1851–1911 Wicked Murderers Hanged at Chelmsford!,
AD 1879 Zulus Rout Lord Chelmsford, or the Massacre at Lion Mountain!,
AD 1880 The Great Flood,
AD 1903 The Dastardly Moat Farm Murder, or the Missing Miss Holland!,
AD 1914–1944 The Explorer and the SAS,
AD 1939–1945 Chelmsford in the Second World War,

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