Take away its tower and you could be forgiven for thinking that the impossibly quaint stave church at Greensted was a chocolate box cottage, even without a thatched roof. But in fact, this is the oldest wooden church in the world and it’s right here in Essex. A couple of miles from Ongar and within easy reach of the A414, A12 and M25, this historic attraction should be heaving with visitors but during my visit this August, I had the place to myself. The church is open for visitors throughout the week and still functions as a place of worship on Sundays.
Excavations in the chancel of St Andrew’s Greensted – if you’re not familiar with church speak, that’s the part of the church up by the altar – revealed two timber structures dating from the 6th and 7th centuries. That places it in a similar era to St-Peter-on-the-Wall at Bradwell on Sea, though of course the Dengie church was built from stone and not wood. Read about that chapel here:
The 51 timbers visible in the main church today date from 1060, with extensive renovations carried out in 1848/9 and again in 1990. Since then, the church has been maintained carefully, with the oak cladding on the spire replaced in 2005.
The church has hosted a few famous names in its time. England’s first patron saint (before George took over) was Edmund. He was King of East Anglia and martyred at the time of his death in 869AD. His remains were transferred from Bury St Edmunds to London in 1010AD to keep them safe from the Vikings. Three years later they were returned, stopping off at Greensted on the way home. While St Edmund isn’t interred here, a 12th century Crusader is. His is the oldest grave and it’s located right by the front door of the church.
There’s also a connection to Dorset. The Combination Acts banned the coming together of workers in any kind of union, but the acts were repealed in 1824 and 1825. The Tolpuddle Martyrs, a group of 19th century agricultural labourers created a Friendly Society, a legal forerunner to a trades union and one which helped them insist upon a minimum wage. However, in setting up the society, they’d sworn a secret oath, and under another act, the 1797 Unlawful Oaths Act this was illegal. They were convicted and deported to Australia, but pardoned after a groundswell of public opinion demanding justice for the Tolpuddle men. They returned to the UK, but not to Dorset, instead settling in Greensted and High Laver where they worked as tenant farmers. In 1839, a couple of years after his return, one of the martyrs, James Brine, married Elizabeth Standfield, the daughter of another. The church they chose for their wedding was St Andrew’s, Greensted.