All Saints' Church has stood at the heart of the ancient manor of Writtle for over 1,000 years, during which generation upon generation has used the same building for Christian worship, baptisms, weddings and funerals. The main part of the church still in use today was built in about 1230, but there is clear historic evidence to show that there was a church either on or near the present site in Saxon times; evidence remains in the present fabric to show that the building of 1230 was in fact a reconstruction and enlargement of a Norman church.
The Norman period displays evidence of the first recorded church at Writtle. The outline showed a single room, which was later, divided into two, the chancel and the nave. The nave was the responsibility of the parishioners. The early history of the church at Writtle is characterised by a series of medieval 'take over bids'. In 1143 King Stephen gave the church together with all its revenues to the Priory of Bermondsey. Then in 1204, King John struck a deal with the Pope and granted the church at Writtle with all its revenues to the Hospital of the Holy Ghost in Rome.
This remains one of the most intriguing aspects of the early church in England: that one of its parishes should 'belong' to a group of people in a foreign land although this was not unique to Writtle. In the year 1200, Pope Innocent III was on friendly terms with King John, and readily agreed to provide a resting place or hostel for English Pilgrims travelling to Italy. This became known as the Hospital of the Holy Ghost in the Church of St. Mary at Rome, or Hospice of Santo Spirito. However, a condition of its establishment was that it should be maintained by the English. Thus it was that King John decided that it should be the Parish of Writtle that would fulfil this role. After all, it was the largest parish in the area.
It seems that negotiations for the transfer of funds came unstuck for it was not until after John's death that the transaction was completed. In the meantime, the King granted 100 marks a year from the Exchequer to keep the hospital going. The term hospital in those days meant a hostel or lodging place.
By the year 1230, a priory was well established on a plot adjoining the church. Agents were installed to administer the income and to channel the funds to Rome. It was at this time that the church was rebuilt to create a chancel, nave and aisles. The contract with Rome was renewed on two further occasions, in 1291 and 1352.
The Seal of the Hospital of the Holy Ghost dating from the 13th century was the symbol of the first link between the Writtle church and the mother foundation in Rome. A replica of the Seal is kept at the church. It bears the inscriptions:
SF (Sandus Pater) - Holy Father AO (Alpha Omega) - The first and the last BM (Beata Maria) - Blessed Mary GD (Genetix Dei) - Mother of God.
The Latin inscription round the edge reads: CAPITUL HOSPITALIS SANCTI SPIRITUS IN SAXIA DE URBE. The Seal bears the heads of the twelve Apostles and at the top is a dove between the Greek letters P and A (Pneuma Agion - Holy Ghost).
Documents of the time confirm that Writtle was a favoured place of the monarch. Two priests were to reside there to pray for the King and for the souls of his predecessors. In return they were to be paid four pence a day and "should have all manor of liberty . . . and be exempt from all toll, of the expeditating of their dogs . . . and should have from the King's forest whatever they wanted, for firing, for pasture, and repairs to their houses, and that they might have their men to gather nuts for as long as the season for gathering nuts shall last'.
All good things were to come to an end. This time it was Richard II who found himself with 'cash flow' problems. In 1391, he seized the priory, the church and all its possessions, along with the neighbouring chapel of Roxwell and sold them as a job lot to William of Wykeham, Bishop of Winchester. This did not go down too well with the Pope who immediately demanded and received the sum of 5000 ducats in compensation. This amounted to practically all the money obtained from the sale. Richard II did not prove to be such a shrewd businessman after all.
Meanwhile, William of Wykeham had plans of his own. He was in the throes of establishing one of the earliest colleges at the University of Oxford. It was to be known as the New College of St. Mary de Winton. In what was to be the final transfer of ownership, the living of Writtle church was handed over in 1399 to the Warden and Fellows of New College Oxford in whose patronage the church has remained to this day.
These somewhat unusual circumstances of its patronage meant that the living at Writtle has been known as a 'Peculiar Living'. This meant it was not subject to the jurisdiction of a Bishop. The Warden and Fellows of New College stood in place of the Bishop and assumed all the Bishop's rights and privileges.
The earliest tower on the church was built during the 14th century. The patrons of New College re-aligned the church from east to west to make better use of the natural light. They added porches on the north and south side of the structure. Further rebuilding work took place in the 15th and 16th centuries. The village priest during the early 16th century was William Carpenter and he was to be commemorated in an extension known as the Carpenter Chapel, built on the south wall of the church.
It was at this time that the original bells were hung and a new chancel screen was put up in 1602. As with most churches of the period, tablets and monuments commemorating notable local people of the day were erected. Included among these are:-
Sir John Comyns, Knight, Lord Chief Baron of the Exchequer, died 13th November 1740. Edward Eliott, Esq., of Newland, husband of Margaret Gedge of Shenfield, and father of their four sons and six daughters. Lieutenant Colonel Pooth, and his wife Eliza 1834. Brasses inscribed in the church include: Edward Bowland 1609, and his wife Joan 1616. Elizabeth Brooke, wife of Thomas Brooke, 1658. An un-named parishioner reportedly having four wives and twenty-one children.
In 1800, the people of Writtle witnessed an alarming and frightening occurrence which some took to denote the Almighty's displeasure. The event is eloquently recorded in the "Gentleman's Magazine" of April 4th, that year:
"This day at noon, the north west comer of the venerable tower of Writtle Church, Essex, which had shown for some time past, evident marks of decay, and had been at different times very injudiciously repaired, came down with a most tremendous crash. The humble residents of a cottage near the church very reluctantly quitted their dwelling ten minutes before the fall of the ruin which levelled it to the ground”
This time the tower was re-constructed in a far more judicious manner. Buckler's "The Churches of Essex" published in 1856 notes that the walls of the new tower are four feet six inches thick, leaving internal measurements of nineteen feet square. The survey itself hardly inspires further investigation of the church, despite its many interesting antiquities. It notes:
Writtle Church (All Saints) Chelmsford Hundred Diocese – Rochester Patrons - The Warden and Fellows of New College Oxford Annual Value - £718
"This church, distant from Chelmsford about one mile and a half comprises Chancel and Nave with Aisles, a West Tower, North and South Porches, Sacristy and two small Transcripts or Oratories".
"…what remains of the ancient structure is rubble built. …the tower, its bands, windows and buttresses of brick, possess no interest".
Sculptures and lead gargoyles decorated the parapets and cornices of the roof. The large east window is of a 'Perpendicular' style and dates from 1885. A large stately marble monument to the left of the Altar is to the memory of Edward and Dorothy Pinchon and complements that on the right to Sir John Comyns.
The earlier church tower housed a ring of five bells dating from the sixteenth century. Following the re-building of the tower a new ring of eight bells cast by Messrs. Mears and Stainbank in London, was hung in 1811.
The church clock, such a vital feature of the tower was installed in 1881, the gift of Henry Hardcastle, owner of Writtle Brewery.
The chapel to the south of the chancel is dedicated to the Lord of the Manor of Writtle, Lord Petre. Buckler's report goes to great lengths in describing the dimensions, appearance and detail of every part of the church at that time, 1856. However, much of what was recorded then was to be changed later beginning with a major restoration in 1869 under the direction of the vicar, Andrew Stacpole. All the rotten timbers were removed and the timber from the 'superbly carved and formidable pews' was used to line the church walls. The timber for the new pews was kauri wood from New Zealand. The floor was re-laid and the pulpit re-modelled. At the same time, a boiler was installed to supply the heating system.
The church was well restored and was to survive without much alteration until another dramatic occurrence in 1974 when a major fire caused extensive damage and destroyed much of the roof. It transpired that the fire was a deliberate arson attack by a youth though no clear motive was established. To raise money for the repairs, numerous events were organised. One such event was a sponsored squash match between the people of the village and the students of the college. Casting around through the embers of the burnt out church, one striking piece of charred timber caught the eye of an astute parishioner. Only about a foot in length it had two roofing nails projecting across a neat hole, the exact dimension of a squash ball. So the "Cinders Trophy" was created and regular competitions have been held ever since. Another fund raising event was a spectacular 'Son et Lumiere’ staged by the Writtle Society.
Although lightning may not strike in the same place twice, tragically fire did, and a second serious fire, again caused by an arsonist, caused further extensive damage in the early hours of April 3rd 1991. Once again the generosity of the parish was sought to add to the value of the insurance claim.
Nowadays the biggest problems to the fabric of Church are caused by the ravages of time. Much needed fundraising is being undertaken by the Friends of Writtle Church and others in order to help pay for the necessary work to maintain this beautiful building.