Living with our History

16 February – 12 May 2019

Before the Industrial Revolution of the late 18th century, most people lived villages, hamlets or farms scattered across the countryside. The district of Uttlesford is often portrayed as a traditional rural area of historic villages and small market towns, but now confronts 21st century challenges: the effects of modern motorway and rail links, an international airport, changes in population levels and local economies.

In its latest special exhibition, Living with History, Saffron Walden Museum invites you to take a step back and look at the ancient origins of the district’s main centres, and the influences on their rise or decline, from Roman to Tudor times. Every era has brought its own opportunities and challenges.

If we go back 2,000 years to the Roman period, the most important population centre in north-west Essex was Great Chesterford, a town situated on a strategic junction of roads at a river crossing. Great Dunmow was also a Roman settlement of some significance, like Chesterford benefitting from its location on a main road, the Stane Street.

Early Anglo-Saxon society was not urban. In north-west Essex, an important mid-Saxon manor, or estate centre, was excavated at Wicken Bonhunt in advance of the construction of the M11. Although a rural site, some of the finds indicate it had long-distance trading connections and was probably providing joints of salted meat for the royal household of the kingdom of Essex. It was abandoned in the 9th century, as Viking raids took hold in East Anglia. The nearby site of Newport (literally, ‘new market-town’) became the focus in the late Saxon period; its location, on raised ground near the River Cam, offering a more defensible position in times of conflict with the Vikings, and good north-south communication along the river valley.

Newport could have become the main local town, had it not been for the political manoeuvring of the new Norman aristocrats, such as Geoffrey Il de Mandeville, Earl of Essex. He exploited the instability of the civil war between Stephen and Matilda and in 1141 obtained Matilda’s consent to remove the market from Newport to his new seat at Walden, thereby increasing his revenue through market tolls and rentals. Plain Walden became Chipping Walden, chipping being another word for ‘market’, until its specialisation in the lucrative saffron crop led to another change of name. Many of our local small towns and villages were granted markets in the Middle Ages but only a handful developed and survived as local centres. Thaxted flourished thanks to its cutlery trade in the 14th century. Hatfield Broad Oak was an example of a thriving medieval market which declined due to local economic circumstances and its location away from main routes.

Living with History at Saffron Walden Museum opens on 16th February and closes on 12th May 2019.

Saffron Walden Museum is open to the public from Tuesday to Saturday, 10am – 5pm, and Sundays and Bank Holidays, 2pm-5pm (closing at 4:30pm from November to February). Admissions: £2.50 adults, Discounts £1.25, children FREE.