Facing the ‘Low Countries' across the narrow divide of the North Sea, Essex has been influenced by many European cultures. Colchester's Roman remains are some of the earliest and most impressive examples. The town wall, surrounding much of the centre for 1.5 miles is the oldest of its kind in Britain while the foundations of the enormous Temple of Claudius can still be seen beneath the castle. Elsewhere Roman settlements have been found beneath such towns as Chelmsford, Braintree, Great Dunmow and the recently excavated Romano-British town at Heybridge, Maldon.
With the departure of the Roman army, Saxon raiding parties from the Germanic heartlands of Europe became more frequent and eventually settled in the fertile Essex countryside. A famous battle fought at Maldon between Saxons and Vikings was commemorated in a rare piece of Saxon epic poetry.
Little other remains of their influence were to be found in the county until, whilst working on the widening of a road in Southend-on-Sea in 2003, archeologists discovered an undisturbed 7th century chamber grave beneath a mound. The find was described as "the most spectacular discovery of its kind made during the past 60 years". There were indications of Saxon burials but it was not expected that such a significant find could be made. The quality and preservation of the Prittlewell Chamber Tomb has led to inevitable comparisons with the Sutton Hoo Ship Burial and associated graves. The artefacts found were of a quality that it is likely that Prittlewell was a tomb of one of the Kings of Essex and the discovery of golden foil crosses indicates that the inhabitant was an early Christian.
Throughout Essex the consequences of the Norman invasion are still visible. Castles were built, churches reconstructed, towns developed and hunting forests protected. Finest of the Norman castles is that at Hedingham, home of the de Vere family Earls of Oxford, whilst Colchester's vast keep is the largest in Europe. To find out about life in the early castles a visit to Mountfitchet Castle should not be missed.
Waltham Abbey, over on the county's far western boundary, has the most beautiful example of Norman church architecture in the county. Ironically it is also the burial place of King Harold who's claim to the English throne ended at the Battle of Hastings.
Later invasions were generally more peaceful. Harwich, created as a trading port by the Earls of Norfolk in the 13th Century, was one of the key links with the continent. Export of cloth from local weavers was one source of the town's mediæval prosperity. When the fortunes of the declining cloth industry were revived in the 16th century by Flemish weavers escaping persecution in the Low Countries, it was no doubt through Harwich that many of them travelled. With its continental ferries passing in the estuary, Harwich retains the individual character of a seafaring town and some of the excitement of the international travel.
Click here for a list of historic houses and sites in Essex.
Essex Record Office welcomes ancestral tourists, conference centre clients and external users of our specialist professional and technical facilities.
Essex Record Office is home to Essex County Council’s county-wide public archive service, responsible for preserving and making available the documentary heritage of Essex. Many of our visitors and users are from outside the county. Use of the public searchroom on the first floor is without formality but visitors must obtain a County Archive Research Network reader’s ticket from the Public Venue Team first. The Record Office also operates access points at Saffron Walden Library and Harlow Museum.