PILGRIMS IN ESSEX
Essex has an impressive faith history. The county's geography - by the sea with a multitude of rivers, estuaries, inlets, natural harbours and ports along a 350 miles long coastline and its ability to despatch the many and wide spread fleets of sea going vessels and the ability to receive and unload incoming vessels from Britain and from abroad made it one of the most important counties in England for the arrival and departure of British and foreign pilgrims.
Most of the ports on the East Coast and in East Anglia were located in Essex with its important coastal towns with road links to London and farther afield. Those many Essex seaport towns provided safe havens for shipping within the very indented coastline of Essex. Those seaport towns were the stopping off point for ships from around the British Isles and from the ports throughout Europe. Some of those Essex ports are now less used, Vange, Creekmouth, Tollesbury and Salcott are hardly useable and Gunfleet, also called Holland Haven, has disappeared altogether. It was a significant estuary harbour, but sandbanks moved, it silted up and the busy port was lost for ever.
Pilgrims would arrive at the many Essex ports in order to make their way to holy sites in Essex and beyond. People would arrive at Leigh on Sea, Vange, Tilbury, Grays, Purfleet, Creekmouth, Burnham on Crouch, Maldon, Tollesbury, Mersea, Brightlingsea, Wivenhoe, Colchester, Saint Osyth, Gunfleet, Hamford Water, Harwich, Holland Haven, Mistley, Manningtree and other havens, unless they were lucky enough to find another port nearer their intended pilgrimage destination. After arriving at the busy Essex ports, those pilgrims would make their way on foot to the holy sites :
To Colchester for Saint Helen's Chapel first built in 330 AD;
To Colchester, to visit Saint Constantine's home and his Roman capital in Britannia during the 300s AD;
To London to visit the Saint Paul's Cathredral grave and shrine of Saint Mellitus who died in 624 AD;
To Othona near Bradwell to visit Saint Cedd's Church of Saint Peter built in 643 AD;
To Ely to visit the Abbey and shrine of Saint Audrey who died in 679 AD;
To Icanho now called Iken, to visit the monastery and grave of Saint Botolph who died in 680 AD;
To London to visit the Saint Paul's Cathredral grave and shrine of Saint Erkenwald who died in 693 or 697 AD;
To Chich now called St Osyth, to visit the Abbey founded by Saint Osyth who died for her faith in 700 AD;
To the wooden church in Greensted to visit the first burial place of Saint Edmund where he rested for many years after he was killed in 869 AD;
To Bury St Edmunds to visit the shrine and later burial place of Saint Edmund who was re-buried there in either 903 or 1020 AD;
To Walsingham in Norfolk, to visit the Shrines of Our Lady who appeared there in 1061 AD;
SAINT THOMAS A BECKET
To Brentwood and Tilbury to visit the shrines to Thomas a Becket and smaller shrines at South Fambridge and Hullbridge on route to reach Canterbury, the place where Saint Thomas was murdered and was buried in 1170 AD.
SAINT ROGER OF BEELEIGH
To Beeleigh near Maldon and to Saint Paul's Cathedral to visit the shrines to Saint Roger of Beeleigh wo was buried in 1241 AD.
Many pilgrims in England would make a similar journey of pilgrimage to important sites abroad. Many important sea ports in Essex were used as a point of departure to shrines abroad. Some would go to Santiago in Spain, others to The Vatican in Rome and a few would venture further to the Holy Land.
Those British pilgrims on route to Canterbury would follow well trodden routes through Essex to reach the River Thames where they would cross by ferry to reach the holy site of Thomas's life, murder and burial. At least three routes took the pilgrims to the wide and tidal River Crouch, where they would cross the Crouch at or near Burnham on Crouch, at South Fambridge and at Hullbridge, where they would cross over on the ferries and stop to rest, pray and feast at small sanctuary chapels dedicated to their beloved Saint Thomas.
Many of the Pilgrim Fathers set off from Essex on their journey to New England in America on The Mayflower, a ship with its owner's home base at Leigh on Sea in Essex, but the vessel was listed as based at Harwich in Essex. It was also sent on charters from London, Tilbury, other ports in Essex and from many ports inthe British Isles. The owners of The Mayflower and their other ships lived in Cockethurst Hall, a manor house in Eastwoodbury near Rochford in Essex, where the house has ceilings and wall coverings made from ancient sail cloth which are said to have come from The Mayflower. The hall also has a secret priest hole and a tunnel below which runs from there under the road to Saint Laurence's Church, Eastwoodbury, now beside Southend Airport.
The people of Essex, their faith and their welcoming hospitality and compassion have been important qualities from early history until today.