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St Martin's
Home St Martin's History

St Martin's Chipping Ongar

 History of St. Martin’s Church, Chipping Ongar

Chipping Ongar is an ancient market town which first appears in the will of Thursdton son of Wine in 1045.   At the time of the Norman Conquest it came into the hands of Eustace, count of Boulogne and it was about this time that the church was built.   Signs of Norman construction can be seen in the Chancel Roof, the lancet windows in the north wall of the nave, and the flint rubble walls, where traces of the original scaffolding can be seen.   Although it was believed that the thin red bricks seen in the walls were re-used Roman, these have now been scientifically shown to be of 11th century manufacture.

One of the most interesting features of the Church is the remains of an anchorite cell in the north wall of the Sanctuary.   An anchorite was a man or woman who took a vow of stability, that is to remain for the rest of their lives in their cell which was attached (or 'anchored') to the wall of the church.   They would receive food from the village and villagers would come to them for spiritual counsel.   The cell consists of a recess in the outside wall of the church with a small window through which the hermit could take part in worship. 

The appearance of the church has changed over the centuries.   The Norman entrance in the North wall has been blocked up but can be identified by the space for a holy water stoop beside it.   The chancel arch was taken down and rebuilt in about 1350, and the present East window replaced the original arrangement of six windows in two tiers, the remains of which may still be seen in the East wall.   In the South wall of the sanctuary is the piscina, used for cleansing the Communion vessels, which dates from about 1290.  The carved oak pulpit dates from the late 16th century.   In the 19th century the vestry, west porch and south aisle were built - the latter to accommodate the children from the local grammar school. The steeple dates from the 15th century and contains two bells dated 1672 and 1737 and an early 17th century iron bedstead clock which will strike the hours but has no dial.  It is in working order, keeps good time and is brought into use for special events. There are numerous memorials in the floor and on the walls.   At the south end of the altar is a black marble slab marking the grave of Jane Pallavicini, a cousin of Oliver Cromwell, the Lord Protector of England in the 17th century.   The Pallavicinis were Italian bankers who made a fortune in the time of Elizabeth I.      A monument on the south wall of the chancel is by the famous sculptor Nollekens.   Many of the stained glass windows are also memorials.

Outside the church, on the south wall of the chancel, the blocked doorway of the priest's door can be seen, and beside it scratched in the stone jamb is a small sundial.   The churchyard contains some interesting tombs most prominent among them the tomb of the Boodle family which has recently been refurbished.   We are grateful to the Boodle Club in London for a donation which made this work possible. 
Dating St Martins

In January 2008 we were contacted by Ms Sophie Blain, a PhD student with the Department of Archaeology at the Universities of Durham and Bordeaux, who is researching the date of materials used in the building of medieval churches.   The PCC agreed that Sophie should take two or three small samples of the ceramic building materials from St Martin’s (i.e. the red bricks) in order to establish when they were made.     These bricks have often (wrongly) been described as ‘reused Roman’ based on the assumption that, because Roman remains were found in the graveyard in the 18th century, Roman building materials would have been available for the building of the church.   Although they are the wrong size for Roman bricks, previous academic studies have been unable to link our bricks with any other known type from Essex and we have been looking forward to Sophie’s report in the hope that she would be able to throw some light on this matter, and might perhaps also be able to provide a more accurate dating for the building of the church. Using a procedure called Optically Stimulated Luminescence, Sophie has ascertained that the bricks were manufactured somewhere between 947 and 1134 AD, with a mean date of 1038 +/- 32 AD.   This ties in very well with the date usually given of 1070 AD for the building of St Martins.    The fact that the bricks cannot be identified with any known type in Essex, and given the fact that they are in a fragmentary state and of different sizes, Sophie suggests that the bricks were not made in the first instance with the aim of building the church but might perhaps have been brought from Europe for the construction of another building   From 1086 the castle of Ongar was in the hands of the Norman Eustace Count of Boulogne so it doesn’t seem impossible that he might have imported bricks from France or Germany to carry some building project in the castle.   Of course, that’s something we will probably never know! The date of the building material does however help to confirm that our church has stood since late Saxon/early Norman times, and although it bears little resemblance to that first building, it has served the people of this place for nearly 1000 years. If you would like to see a copy of Sophie’s report, please contact the Rector on 01277 362173.  

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