The name Rayleigh is Old English in origin deriving from rǣge (‘female roe-deer or she-goat’) and lēah (‘clearing’). Therefore, the name means overall ‘wood or clearing of the wild she-goats or roe-deer” – there is a pub by the name of the Roebuck as well! The forests around Rayleigh were royal hunting grounds. It is recorded that King Henry III hunted here in 1222, and the three King Edwards also visited Indeed, the area was excellent for hunting and there are many places around and about which claim a link with Henry VIII, such as Rayleigh Lodge and the Bell House – both now restaurants. During Henry VIII’s reign, deer were constantly taken from here to replenish the herds in Greenwich Park. It is known that Edward IV wrote a letter from Rayleigh, probably while in the area to hunt, so perhaps his little brother also hunted here at some time.
Holy Trinity Church
The weather forecast on the day was for intermittent showers, but luckily, when we met up, the weather was bright and warm. The tour of Rayleigh began in the Holy Trinity Church in the High Street.
We were given an excellent talk and tour by Gordon Priest who told us there had probably been a Church on the site for over 1000 years. The surviving building was built between 1380 and 1400 and is mainly in the perpendicular style, but there was a Norman predecessor and probably an even earlier small wooden church. Some parts of it date from later periods. For example, the aisles were not part of the original building.
You can see by the corbels (fifteenth century) and the remains of the clerestory windows in the south aisle that there have been changes made in the slope of the roof on that side. Gordon pointed out that the arches are not the same height, although it isn’t obvious until you really look at it.
The seventy-foot-high tower contains eight bells, the last two added in 1897. It is built from Kentish ragstone. There have been several restoration programmes carried out over the centuries. In 1976, a new church hall was built to replace the old parish room, which is now a separate property and used as a restaurant. In 1995, this new hall was connected to the church and there is now an assortment of rooms used for various purposes.
Gordon showed us some interesting inscriptions dating from the fifteenth century on the pillars in the south aisle. These included sponsors names and are the only such inscriptions in Essex.
There were some intriguing stone shields forming the edging of a window alcove which clearly had some unidentified coats of arms on them. They were not positioned in the upright position and this was because they had originally been taken from the ruins of the old castle and re-used; when they were restored in more modern times, it was found that they would only fit back in place oriented as they were originally put there, because to clean off the uneven back was considered too risky and could have caused them to crumble. These were thought to date from the early thirteenth century.
Gordon pointed out the rood stair, leading to the former rood gallery, and alcove where a figure of Mary would probably have been on display in the times when the church was Catholic.
Records indicate that the church was rich in plate, vestments and stained glass, but these were disposed of:
“No church within the hundred was more splendidly adorned; none were so richly furnished with plate, vestments and other accessories for the celebration of the divine service; none were so rich in painted glass; none have been more mercilessly despoiled”.
The windows would indeed, in mediaeval times, have been of stained glass, but these were destroyed in Cromwell’s time and there remain only tiny fragments of the coloured glass in red and blue.
There is an old, mediaeval bell, dated , which was an original bell, but is now positioned on the floor beneath the bell tower. It is extremely heavy and is therefore safe from theft.
There is also an ancient wooden chest, dating from around 1166.
In the same area, if you look up, you can see an old beam – the remains of the musicians’ gallery, dating from the seventeenth century. On the wall is the Hatchment of Queen Anne (her arms) from the same period.
Leaving the church, we progressed to the windmill, now converted into a museum, although it was unfortunately closed on the day, for a wedding. We walked around the outside and I told the group the information I had about the place which was as follows:
Rayleigh Windmill was built in 1809 for Thomas Higgs, a timber merchant of Rayleigh. Higgs was bankrupt in 1815 and the mill was sold and eventually passed to the Britton brothers, John and Samuel in 1869. £150 was spent putting the mill into repair. The Britton brothers left Rayleigh in 1884 and were bankrupt in 1886. Thomas James Brown was the next miller, and the last to work the mill by wind c1907. The cap and sails were removed c1909 and the mill was worked by a steam engine then an oil engine and latterly by electric motor until at least 1937.
The mill was taken over for use as a museum by Rayleigh and District Antiquarian and Natural History Society, formally opening on 16 May 1970. The capless mill stood for many years with a crenellated top but in 1972 Rayleigh Urban District Council launched an appeal to restore the mill as a landmark. By the autumn of 1974 a new cap and sails had been made and fitted by millwrights John Lawn and Philip Barrett-Lennard.
In 2005, restoration work costing £340,000 was funded by the Thames Gateway South Essex Partnership.
Rayleigh Windmill is a six-storey tower mill with a Kentish cap winded by a six bladed fantail. The mill had two single Spring sails and two Common sails carried on a cast iron windshaft. The tower is twenty feet in diameter at base level and eleven feet in internal diameter at the curb. The brickwork is four feet six inches thick at base level and at curb level it is thickened out to three feet. The mill is sixty feet high to the top of the cap. The mill drove three pairs of millstones.
We then decided to explore the Mount, the area where the original Norman castle had been located. Like most early Norman castles, Rayleigh was built using timber on top of a motte (earth mound). Standing between the River Crouch and River Thames, the castle was a first line of defence against invading armies marching on London, also helping control the local Saxons. Despite this, Rayleigh was never attacked in its three hundred years of military use and by the 17th-century it was defended by little more than cattle.
The castle was built by Sweyne, Lord of the manor of Rayleigh. As the fourth largest landowner in Essex and Sheriff of Essex and Hertfordshire, Sweyne was a an extremely rich and powerful man. He was responsible for maintaining law and order and collecting the King’s taxes.
Henry, Sweyne’s grandson, built a large, defensive moat and rampart around the motte, creating a three-quarter-acre inner bailey that contained most of the castle buildings, housing soldiers and horses. The new moat was never designed to hold water. Instead, the steepness of its sides prevented soldiers attacking the castle on horseback or using ground assault, which was much less effective. The soil excavated during this work was used to make the motte higher. Ragstone from Kent was used to reinforce the sides of the motte but, despite this, the castle remained largely timber, unlike many castles that survive today. An outer bailey extended the castle perimeter out to Bellingham Lane with a barbican, stout wooden fencing and a bridge guarding access between the two baileys, where the present sensory garden is behind the windmill.
Rayleigh Castle eventually fell into disuse, and in 1394 King Richard II gave permission for the townspeople of Rayleigh to use the foundations as a source of stone. (It is thought that the shield stones in the Holy Trinity church probably came from the gatehouse after it had been demolished). By this time, the site was in royal ownership and used for pasture:
“Know all men of special grace who have the will to repair certain Chapel in the said town and to build a new a certain belfry we have granted them the foundations and to take away and use any stones found theren”. (Decree of Richard II)
Totally abandoned by the 17th-century, it became a farm, conveniently located beside the village. Grazed by sheep and later cattle, who could not reach the steepest slopes, bushes and trees soon grew on the motte.
Today this scrub is managed by coppicing, a traditional Norman method where growth is cut to the ground every few years and allowed to regrow.
Far from its early use, Rayleigh Mount is now a five-acre haven for wildlife and a quiet retreat, full of bird song and flowers. Trees and shrubs on the slopes provide a good habitat for wild creatures and birds whilst the flowering plants attract insects such as bees and butterflies.
The castle motte, now known as a mount, was given to the National Trust by Edward Francis in 1923 and is a scheduled ancient monument. A committee of local people, also formed in 1923, continues to help to look after the site and in 1987 a special fund was created by a member, Frank Todman, to provide money for its upkeep.
Rayleigh Town Museum
After admiring the natural habitat on the Mount and enjoying the superb view, we walked back into the High Street and headed for Rayleigh Museum. This is located on the top floor of 91 High Street, above a pizza restaurant and is accessed by a lift. It is run as a registered charity, supported by Rayleigh Town Council. The building is Grade II listed and is a former timber-framed house dating from at least the sixteenth century, possibly the fourteenth, thus the oldest secular building in the town. The museum received funding of £89,800 in March 2015 from the Heritage Lottery Fund for its “inception, development and sustainability.” It was officially opened by the local MP, Mark Francois, on 9 April 2016.
It is dedicated to the heritage, people, and places of Rayleigh. One of the volunteer helpers told us about how one of Marie Antoinette’s daughters passed by the building in a carriage on her way down Crown Hill, when she came to England as a refugee. There was a display of flags each bearing the name of a monarch of England, from William the Conqueror. It ended with Richard III – very appropriate! It was nice to try to forget what came after him.
The exhibits ranged from photographs of Rayleigh through history to exhibits from the second world war and features on local notable people, including my distant cousin, Ron McEwen, who was a skilful artist in creating Fabergé style eggs. There were lots of books and archives covering various topics such as Speedway and Greyhound racing, which used to happen at Rayleigh Weir, now a shopping complex.
Just outside the museum is a memorial to the Protestant martyrs of the area who were burnt at the stake under Mary I. One, Thomas Causton lived in Thundersley with his friend Thomas Higbed who was arrested with him. Higbed is commemorated with a plaque at the Bell at Horndon, where he was burned.
The Martyrs’ Memorial, the building of which was organised and paid for by 3 devout Protestants from the town, who raised the £85 needed for its construction, was unveiled in front of 2,000 townsfolk on September 23, 1908.
Two of the four men commemorated were said to have been burned to death in the High Street on the very spot of the memorial, while the other pair were executed in Smithfield Market, London.
Causton was denounced as a practicing protestant, arrested with his servant and taken to Colchester Castle dungeons. Bishop Bonner went to Colchester, to attempt to persuade Thomas to recant, but he refused to turn back to Catholicism and so was taken to London.
He was brought to an open examination at St Paul’s on 17th February 1555 and again refused to recant and was imprisoned in Newgate Prison. They tried again on 9th March, but he again refused, with the reported words, “‘No I will not abiure. Ye sayd that the bishops that were lately burned, be Heretickes: But I pray God make me suche an Hereticke as they were’.”
He was sentenced to death at the stake and on 23 March delivered to the Sheriff of Essex and burnt at the stake at Rayleigh.
The Olde Crown
After the Museum, we crossed the road and had lunch in the Olde Crown pub. We were lucky to be able to because it was about to be refurbished – scheduled to start the next day! The Crown dates from the 1700s but grew in importance when the railway came to Rayleigh in 1889. It is timber framed and served the gentry and local wealthy families as a ‘Stout and Spirit House’ as well as being a major staging post for coaches to and from London. The new railway made the Crown into the leading hotel in the town when the narrow lane alongside it, then Crown Lane, was widened. Passengers from the new station needed a less tortuous route up to the town and for a time the new road was called Station Road, while the Crown became known as the Crown and Railway.
After lunch we returned to our cars and drove to Hadleigh Castle, a few miles away. It is free to enter and is maintained by English Heritage.
In 1215 King John gave this area of land, known as the manor of Hadleigh, along with many other gifts, to Hubert de Burgh, his chief minister or justiciar. De Burgh began its construction in 1215.
He was a trusted follower of the king, and was the custodian of two other royal castles at Windsor and Dover. At Dover he was soon to prove his military skill by defending the castle during a fierce siege in 1216.
He was effectively ruler of England during young Henry III’s childhood and built this large turreted castle as a statement of his power. His successful career came to an end after quarrels with the king, and he had to return his lands, including Hadleigh in 1239.
The castle remained in royal hands, but it was not until the time of Edward II, nearly 100 years later, that the king began to use the castle as a royal residence.
Edward III was the first king to see the strategic importance of Hadleigh Castle – it was ideally situated as a base for defending the Thames estuary against French raids during the Hundred Years War.
Edward’s claim to the French throne had led to war with France. He needed a systematic defence of the Thames estuary so he refurbished and extended Hadleigh Castle and built Queenborough Castle on the opposite Kent shore.
Hadleigh became the king’s favourite retreat as he grew older. The excavated foundations of the most important part of the castle – the great hall can still be seen. It had a serving room at the end and beyond it a private solar.
Edward III’s successors took little interest in the castle as a residence.
However, interestingly for Ricardians, in Edward IV’s reign it was owned by Elizabeth Woodville and there is a story (so far unsubstantiated) that her sons, the ‘princes in the Tower’ were housed there after Richard became king, perhaps one of several places the boys were kept.
It was later leased to a succession of tenants, then sold to Lord Riche in 1551, who sold it off for building materials. During the demolition, a tiled hearth was built into the floor of the hall in order to melt down the valuable window leads.
Today it affords a spectacular view of the Thames estuary.