THE SAINTS OF ESSEX COUNTY
There are at least 15 Essex Saints who were devout souls who either came from, or served in, or worshipped in, or who died in Essex. They span 1,300 years from Saint Helen in the 3rd century, 1,700 years ago until Saint John Payne in the 16th century.
The oldest church in Britain which is still standing is Saint Helen's Chapel in Colchester which is over 1,600 years old - it was first built during the Roman period and although its foundations and lower walls are original, it has been rebuilt many times during those 1,600 years. It was built in about 330 AD under the instructions of Saint Helen. She was the mother of Saint Constantine, the Roman Emperor who encouraged the practice of Christianity and made it permissble and legal to worship God in the Roman Empire. Saint Helen's is a very small church in Colchester located near the Colchester Castle which is built onto the foundations of the Roman Temple and used many of the Roman bricks, stones and materials found on site by the Normans. Saint Helen was married to Constantius, the Roman Governor of Britannia. She was a British princess, the daughter of King Coel, a local British ruler famous in the "Old King Cole" nursery rhyme. Helen decided to visit the Holy Land to search for the Holy Cross of Jesus and in 325 AD she found it and also found the other two thieves' crosses and the nails and remnents of garments possibly worn by Jesus. They were all found partially buried at the site of Jesus' execution which took place in 33 AD. Saint Helen immediately started the construction of a church - The Church of the Holy Sepulchre on the site of the Crucifixion at Golgotha, also called Calvary. At about the same time, Saint Helen also commissioned the construction of the small church near her home in Colchester. That small church built on the instructions of Saint Helen has for a very long time been a Greek Orthodox church serving Colchester. It is located near the Roman Temple which today is Colchester Castle.
Another even earlier church was found in Colchester near the Maldon Road roundabout in grounds off Butt Road, the road to the Army Garrison. The long narrow building angled west to east interpreted as and believed to be a Roman church with 371 Roman graves surrounding it, was found while digging the foundations for the new police station in the early 1980s. It was determined that the church was first built between 320 AD and no later than 340 AD. That makes that Roman church possibly earlier than the origins of Saint Helen's in Colchester. The foundations and its 4 walls are preserved and still clearly visible in place beside the police station. The curved sanctuary east wall is shaped like an alcove for the altar, oriented east towards the Holy Land. That must be the oldest church in Britain and possibly the oldest in Europe because it was General Constantine - later Emperor Constantine who was encouraged by his mother Saint Helen, to become a Christian and to permit the worship of God in the Christian faith while Constantine was serving here as the Roman governor of Britannia. He later took his faith with him to Rome where he ruled as Emperor of Rome and issued and promoted his Edict of Milan.
Another of Britain's first churches is located at Bradwell-on-Sea near Maldon, Essex. It has been a place of worship from about 650 AD when it was made into one of Britain's first Christian churches by Saint Cedd who used the still standing ruins of a large Roman building and he rebuilt it as a church using bricks and other materials recovered from the Roman Fort of Othona or Ithanchester located on the same site. During World War II, pilots, airmen and soldiers from Great Britain, Ireland, Poland, Czechoslovakia and Canada would walk the 1 mile from the air base to the small, simple and charming 1,300 years old church for worship and uplifting during the worst horrors of the world war.
Essex county's geography, being by the sea, with over 350 miles of coastline has made it an important place of arrival and departure for pilgrims.
Essex has an impressive faith history. The people of Essex, their faith and their welcoming hospitality, compassion and honesty have been important qualities from early history until today.