THE SAINTS OF ESSEX COUNTY
There are more than 20 Essex Saints who were devout souls who either came from, or served in, or worshipped in, died in, or had a shrine in Essex. Those Essex saints started with Saint Helen in the 3rd century, followed by her son Constantine in the early 4th century, 1700 years ago and thus, they spanned 1300 years of saintly devotion until the deaths of the Reformation Martyrs in the mid 1500s to 1601 AD with Saint John Payne and Saint Anne Line being amongst the last few.
The oldest church in Britain which is still standing is Saint Helen's Chapel in Colchester which is over 1,600 years old - it is believed that 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 permissible 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 was 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 who ruled Britain from Colchester. Helen was said to be 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, rope 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, only about 290 years ealier than Helen's visit to Calvary, known locally as Golgotha. 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. During that same period of time, Saint Helen also commissioned the construction of other churches including the small church near her home in Colchester. That small church said to be 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 is today Colchester Castle.
St Constantine & St Helen
Another even earlier Christian 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 are still clearly visible in place beside the police station. The east wall of the chancel behind the altar is curved and shaped like an alcove for the altar and it is oriented east towards the Holy Land. This Butt Road Church 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 in Roman Britain while Constantine was serving here as the Roman governor of Britannia. Later, Constantine took his faith with him to Rome where he ruled as Emperor of Rome and issued and promoted his Edict of Milan throughout the Roman Empire.
Another of Britain's first churches is located at Bradwell-on-Sea near Maldon, Essex. It has been a place of worship from about 643 AD when Cedd came to Essex and failthfully pursued the expansion of Christian faith during the pagan times of the Saxons, Angles, Jutes and Vikings. Saint Cedd made a Roman ruin building into a chapel to become one of Britain's first Christian churches. Saint Cedd used the still standing ruins of a large Roman building located on the West Gate of the fortified town of Othona or Ithanchester. He rebuilt it as a church using bricks and other materials recovered from the ruins of the Roman fort 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 and a multitude of ports, harbours and landing places 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.
© This entire website is Copyright Glen Dryhurst 2011