Episode 4 – Abbess Roding

Saxon History

The village of Abbess Roding is in the county of Essex, north-east of London. It is among a group of eight hamlets and villages in the area with the name ‘Roding’, and the area as a whole is called ‘The Rodings’. The pronunciation is like the word ‘Road’. The other Rodings are: Aythorpe, Beauchamp, Berners, High, Leaden, Margaret and White.

For a glimpse into the nature and beauty of this area, I can highly recommend this YouTube video walking between White Roding and Chipping Ongar.

The name’s origin reveals the area’s first settlers, a band of Saxons called the Hrođingas (the đ sounds like ‘th’ in ‘than’ – Hrothingas), the people of Hrođa. It seems this Hroda sailed up the river Thames, before turning up a tributary around where the London district of Barking is today. They continued up the river until they found a quiet, fertile area to settle and call their own, forging a small kingdom. As well as the eight settlements, they also gave their name to the river Roding that flows past many of the villages. The Saxons could have used the river as a highway – much easier to travel than muddy paths, especially in winter. [1]

This seems like a good time to investigate why the Saxons would start settling in England, and for that, we need to look at the state of Britain after the Roman Empire left. Without the protection of the Roman Legions, the civilians found themselves vulnerable to invading tribes from Scotland and Ireland. The British struggled to fight back, and invited some Germanic tribes to help them, with a promise of some land.

According to the Anglo-Saxon chronicler, Bede, these first Germans were Jutes called Hengist and Horsa. They landed in Kent, and did what they were asked. But then they found they liked Britain. A lot. So instead of returning to their homeland, they invited more Jutes, Saxons, Angles and others to also come to Britain. The British rebelled against this, but were eventually defeated, and had to accept their new Saxon rulers. [2]

By 1066, the Rodings had been absorbed first into the Saxon kingdom of Essex, then the Danelaw, and finally into England. Wulfmer was lord of the main part of the land, while the remaining part was controlled by the Abbey of Barking – which is where the ‘Abbess’ comes from in the village’s name. The Abbey was a patron of Abbess Roding’s parish church of St. Edmund.

In 1086, the Abbey land is shown as the possession of Geoffrey de Mandeville, first Sheriff of London. However, it is also stated that ‘he who held this land was only the man of Geoffrey’s predecessor, and had no power to put this land in possession of anyone but the abbey’. So even if Geoffrey held the land now, it would be returned to the church on his death. [3]

As for the main part of the village, the lord was Eudo the Steward. [4] Eudo, who is linked to various places in nearby Colchester including Colchester Castle, was a supporter of William the Conqueror. He was not at the Battle of Hastings, but William made him high steward of Normandy. Trusted by the King, he was present at William’s death in 1087 and made sure that William’s son (also called William) became the next king. He served the royal family loyally until his death. [5]

There are a few figures of note who were raised in the village.

Sir Anthony Browne QS

(The ‘QS’ stands for ‘Queens Serjeant’, which is the equivalent of a modern Attorney General.)

The main manor house in the area was Rockwood Hall, and although it is a ruin today, it would have been a display of wealth in the Middle Ages, including a moat and an artificial fish pond. By the 16th Century, the landholders were lawyers by trade, and in 1509 Anthony Browne was born there. His father was Sir Winstan Browne, a lawyer of the Honorable Society of the Middle Temple, which to this day trains advocates and is one of only four institutions who can call their members ‘barristers’. The others are The Honourable Societys of Lincoln’s Inn, Gray’s Inn, and the Inner Temple respectively. Anthony’s mother, Elizabeth, was also born into a legal family. At the time, it would have been normal for a son to follow his father in his profession, so Anthony also became a lawyer of the Middle Temple.

He began his career during the reign of Henry VIII, and rose to enough recognition to be elected an MP in 1545 for Lostwithiel in Cornwall – a place he had no connection to, except perhaps from a fellow member of the Middle Temple. It would not be a position that would be required to take all his time, as Parliament only met at the request of the King, for a few weeks at a time.

Later, he was also elected as MP for Maldon (in Essex) and Preston (in the north-west of England). Yes, it was possible to be elected to two seats at once. Though Essex was his home county, he chose instead to represent Preston, which was probably because of his uncle’s connection to the area. Later he did represent Maldon as an MP. [6]

Now, to understand Anthony’s position at this time, we should note one thing: he was a Catholic. Under Henry VIII, the religion of England had been changed from Catholic to Protestant. But the form of Protestantism that took hold was very unlike the Lutheran and Calvinist sects from Germany. What Henry had done was replace the Pope with himself as head of the church, and take away the monasteries. In other aspects, the church was basically the same. Even today, High Anglican churches in England share much of the look and feel of a Catholic service.

Roman Catholicism became heresy. That is, until Mary I became Queen of England. Mary was Henry’s first child, and since Henry wanted a male heir, certainly she was one of the reasons he sought to change the church and divorce her mother. Maybe things would have been different if people had understood that gender is determined by the father, not the mother. Henry’s ex-wife Catherine of Aragon raised her daughter in the Catholic faith, and when Mary grew up she married King Philip of Spain.

After Henry died, Mary’s sickly younger brother Edward did not last long on the throne, and when Edward died Mary quickly became Queen. Mary and her husband immediately began to enforce Catholicism on England again, and those who did not recant were either exiled or burned at the stake. Her vicious policies earned her the nickname ‘Bloody Mary’.

For the most part, the ‘Marian Executions’ were carried out in the religious courts, but at least one case came before Anthony Browne in the civil courts. He “had the distinction of being the only recorded lay judge of a heresy case, when he condemned a tailor from Colchester, George Eagles, for clandestine Protestant preaching. Being sentenced under English rather than Roman canon law, Eagles was not burned to death but hanged, drawn and quartered (as Catholics would be under Elizabeth), at Chelmsford on or about 2 August 1557.” [7]

In 1558, Mary appointed Anthony Browne QS as Chief Justice of the Common Pleas, which was the second of three high courts in England – the King/Queen’s Bench, the Common Pleas, and the Exchequer. The Common Pleas was intended to cover civil law, as well as supervising local and manorial courts. This promotion seems to have been due in part to his earlier actions in condemning heresy, and would see him promoted over the heads of pusine (junior) judges who should have been next in line. [6]

When Mary died in late 1558, her sister Elizabeth became queen. Religiously, Elizabeth was entirely unlike Mary. While she brought back Protestantism in a less-Catholic form than her father (she formed the Church of England) she was far less zealous to persecute ‘heretics’ – though as mentioned above many were still executed under her watch. On her accession, Elizabeth initially affirmed Anthony’s position as Chief Justice, but later demoted him to pusine judge. While she respected him enough to keep him as a judge, she could not have liked his earlier actions against Protestants. [8]

He remained in his position for a good while, and even had enough favour with the queen to be offered a higher position, but he refused on the grounds of his religious difference with the state.

Now, in Scotland the reigning monarch was Mary Queen of Scots. She was Elizabeth’s cousin once removed, as her grandmother Margaret Tudor had been Henry VII’s daughter, and Elizabeth’s aunt. This gave Mary a claim to the English throne, and with none of Henry VIII’s children having heirs of their own (Mary tried but failed, and Elizabeth refused), there was some support for her particularly among English Catholics.

I don’t want to go too much into the Scotland situation just now, but in 1567 Mary was forced to abdicate her throne in favour of her one-year-old son James. Mary was captured, but escaped and fled south to seek refuge with Elizabeth. She hoped Elizabeth would support her claim to the Scottish throne. This turned out to be a mistake. After consulting with her council, Elizabeth instead decided to imprison Mary in (you guessed it) the Tower of London.

But even before then, Catholics wanted Mary to rule in England. Anthony Browne was one of her supporters, and even wrote an essay in support of her claim, “A discourse upon certain points touching the inheritance of the crown”. [9]

He died in Southwold, Essex, in 1567, and therefore would not see Mary’s abdication, or later the Protestant James VI of Scotland become James I of England. The Spanish ambassador wrote to Phillip II of Spain that Anthony’s death would be a great loss to Catholics. [6]

John Thurloe

Our next character was a man who became one of the most important figures under Oliver Cromwell’s English Protectorate. John Thurloe was the son of Thomas Thurloe, the rector of Abbess Roding from 1612-33. After his father died in 1633, John went to study law and found himself as a secretary to the Parliamentarians during the English and Scottish Civil Wars.

He is first noted during the Treaty of Uxbridge, which occurred in the year 1645. The English Parliamentarians and the Scottish Covenanters had allied at the start of the English Civil Wars, seeing common cause against Charles I, but it was not the strongest alliance. The English wanted rid of the king altogether, while the Scottish wanted a peace settlement with King Charles. It was the Scottish who insisted on starting negotiations at Uxbridge. So, all three parties – Royalists, Parliamentarians and Covenanters – sat down at the table to try and hash out an agreement. [10]

But the terms of the agreement were only really in favour of the Covenanters: the King wouldn’t accept the abolition of the Episcopal church within Britain, and he still thought he could win the war; the more war-like of the Parliamentarians wanted to fight the war to the bitter end. It was no surprise, then, that the agreement fell apart. [11]

As the Civil War carried on, John reached the peak of his career, and in April 1652 he was made secretary to the council of state. Upon Cromwell’s victory in 1653, he was appointed secretary of state, and in 1655, he became postmaster, which meant ‘he had the care and charge of the postage, both foreign and inland, committed to him by the protector’. An ideal position for a spymaster. Today, government agencies want to be able to identify threats to their country through snooping on emails and other messaging services. In those days, the government would snoop on letters.

Letters were often written in code to attempt to evade the snoopers, but John knew what he was doing and caught many plots against Cromwell. [12] I highly recommend listening to the 22 December 2015 episode of the BBC’s The Long View which talks about what 17th Century spying was like, as well as issues of privacy in the current era. [13]

John held many positions of esteem in Britain, including Chancellor of Glasgow University [14] (Scotland was under English control at the time). He was elected MP for the University of Cambridge in 1658 with 120 votes (that was a lot in those days, because only male landowners could vote) and also for two other places at the same time. He was apparently very popular. It was around this time that Oliver Cromwell’s son Richard came to a decision to cease being the Protector of England, and only Thurloe and one other tried to dissuade him.

Once Charles II had been restored to the England and Scottish thrones, John was arrested for treason following a vote in parliament, but it was decided not to execute him.

“15 May, 1660


That secretary Thurloe being accused of high treason, be secured; and that the serjeant at arms attending this house do forthwith put this order in execution.

“The question being put, that the door being locked, it passed in the negative.


That the first four, and the three last of those, whose names are taken to be the committee for to take the examination of Mr. secretary Thurloe, viz.

“That, Col. King,

Lord president Annesley,

Mr. Prynn,

Mr. Earnley,

Col. Bowyer,

Mr. Trevor,

Mr. Weston,

or any three of them, be a committee to take the examination of Mr. secretary Thurloe to the accusation given against him, with power to send for persons, papers, and witnesses, and are to meet to–morrow at three o’clock in the afternoon, in the inner court of wards.”

On 29 June 1660, John was given his freedom, and despite his position under Cromwell, was still asked for advice by Charles II from time to time. John was not the most happy about this, as he had preferred Parliamentary rule, and said Cromwell would “…seek out men for places, and not places for men.” [12]

That would have been a very meaningful statement for John, having gone from being a humble rector’s son to one of the most powerful men in Britain by dint of his ability. Even today, these words remind us of the United States Declaration of Independence, and in some ways the English Civil War was a precursor to the War of Independence. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” [15]

Next time, we’re off to Herefordshire, and the village of Abbey Dore, founded by Cistercian monks in the 12th Century.


[1] River Roding, Flyfield Parish Council

[2] Hengist and Horsa, English Monarchs

[3] Abbess Roding: Manors, British History Online

[4] Abbess Roding, Open Domesday

[5] Eudo de Rie, Norman Connections

[6] BROWNE, Anthony II (1509/10-67) of South Weald, Essex, History of Parliament Online

[7] Archbishop Pole, John Edwards (2016)

[8] A Catalogue of Notable Middle Templars: With Brief Biographical Notices, John Hutchison, The Lawbook Exchange Ltd (2003)

[9] The General Biographical Dictionary Containing an Historical and Critical Account of the Lives and Writings of the Most Eminent Persons; … a New Ed. by Alex. Chalmers. – London, J. Nichols 1812-1817

[10] Historical Collections: The treaty at Uxbridge, 1645, British History Online, Originally published by D Browne, London, 1721

[11] The Uxbridge Treaty, 1645 British Civil War project

[12] The life of John Thurloe Esq., Secretary of State, British History Online, Originally published by Fletcher Gyles, London, 1742.

[13] The Long View: The BBC website or your favourite podcast provider

[14] John Thurloe, University of Glasgow

[15] Declaration of Independence: A Transcription, National Archives


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