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Making HistoryEdward Augustus Freeman and Victorian Cultural Politics$

G.A. Bremner and Jonathan Conlin

Print publication date: 2015

Print ISBN-13: 9780197265871

Published to British Academy Scholarship Online: May 2016

DOI: 10.5871/bacad/9780197265871.001.0001

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Architecture as Evidence: E. A. Freeman and Harold’s Church

Architecture as Evidence: E. A. Freeman and Harold’s Church

(p.157) 9 Architecture as Evidence: E. A. Freeman and Harold’s Church
Making History

Christine Dade-Robertson

British Academy

Abstract and Keywords

E. A. Freeman maintained that he always sought the truth in his historical research. He asserted that ‘personal theories’ and ‘national prejudices’ had no place in the study of history, but did his actions always match the rhetoric? This essay focuses on Freeman’s hero-worship of Harold, the last Anglo Saxon king, and his quest to prove Harold’s link with Waltham Abbey. This quest became a personal obsession which was to embroil him in a controversy which, many have argued, led him to compromise his academic principles and to allow ‘romantic nationalism’ to get in the way of the objective search for truth.

Keywords:   architecture, historiography, hero worship, national identity, restoration, Victorian medievalism

He was an accurate observer not only of the broad features of a country but of its ancient roads and earthworks, its prehistoric monuments, and its earlier and especially its ecclesiastical buildings. No man was better versed in the distinctive styles of Christian architecture, or had a better general knowledge of the earthworks from the study of which he might hope to correct or corroborate any written records, and by the aid of which he often infused life and reality into otherwise obscure narrations.1

THIS ESSAY FOCUSES ON ONE specific aspect of E. A. Freeman’s study of architectural style: how it can be used to locate buildings in time and place. By using the case study of Waltham Abbey, a building of particular significance for Freeman because of its association with King Harold, some of Freeman’s strengths as a historian are revealed, but more significantly his weaknesses, notably his tendency to allow personal theories and prejudices to colour his interpretation of historical evidence, despite his many protestations to the contrary. The controversy surrounding Waltham Abbey and the dating of the building provides a valuable insight into the way in which Freeman used architectural remains as a source of historic evidence; it also highlights some of the pitfalls inherent in the ‘science’ of architectural chronology.

Freeman was clear on the value of architecture as ‘hard’ evidence in supporting historical research. In 1871, for example, in his lecture to the historical section of the Archaeological Association, he emphasised the importance of architectural buildings and fragments from the past which, when used as a primary source, could enhance and confirm historical knowledge. He warned, however:

Architectural study is a very lame and profitless employment, and one not likely to be followed out with any accurate or profitable result, unless it be studied (p.158) directly as a branch of history, with constant reference to the creeds, the feelings, and the laws of the times and places where successive architectural styles arose.2

In keeping with many of his contemporaries, he also stressed the need to study architectural ‘evidence’ in the context of documentary sources:

Architectural evidence is, after all, nothing but an inference from documentary evidence. From historical evidence we know the dates of certain buildings; we thence infer the dates of others which are like them in style, but of which history tells us nothing. The whole science of architectural chronology has no other foundation than this. Historical evidence must always hold the primary place.3

Freeman maintained that he always sought the truth in his historical research. He firmly believed that ‘personal theories’ and ‘national prejudices’ had no place in the study of history: ‘Historical criticism requires us to give up many beliefs to which we are naturally attached, but it in no way interferes with our artistic enjoyment of romantic stories, and gives us, above all things, the one jewel—truth.’4 Despite his apparent dispassionate focus on rigorous intellectual truth, however, the relationship between romance and truth is rather fluid in Freeman’s writings. He claimed that the myths and legends of early English history usually tended to agree with ‘real history’ and believed that, using the tools of modern research, what had originally been perceived as fiction could now be proved to contain more than a grain of truth.

Freeman had a lifelong interest in the causes and consequences of the Norman Conquest and, during the course of his studies, came to regard Harold Godwineson as one of the nation’s greatest patriotic heroes. His interpretation of Harold’s nine-month reign is set out in detail in the third volume of his History of the Norman Conquest.5 Freeman saw Godwine and his son Harold as the protectors of early English freedoms, which were being threatened by the arrival of the Norman elite, though J. W. Burrow argued that ‘Freeman’s treatment of the house of Godwin, in fact, is peculiar to himself. No other historian had cast them in this heroic role, and it had become customary to blame them for England’s weakness.’6 Harold II was described by Freeman as the ‘last of our native Kings, the hero and the martyr of our (p.159) native freedom’.7 He believed that Harold had inherited from his father, Godwine, ‘those military qualities … that power of speech, that wisdom in council, that knowledge of the laws of the land, which made him the true leader and father of the English people’.8 Harold Godwineson was the perfect English hero whose character Freeman admired and saw as essentially ‘English’.

It is notable that Freeman’s views developed against a backdrop of popular fictional accounts of the ‘last of the English’, and in 1850 he and his friend George W. Cox jointly published a volume of original poems. In their introduction to the ‘Songs of the Conquest’, Freeman and Cox acknowledged that they had been influenced by Edward Bulwer Lytton’s (1803–73) ‘Magnificent romance’ and could not resist ‘adding their testimony to its extreme accuracy—altogether wonderful in a work of fiction—as an historical picture, in every point at all essential to the right understanding of the period’.9 Responding to a criticism by Charles Kingsley that they had substituted ‘false sentiment in place of common sense and sober thought’, Cox noted, after Freeman’s death, that Freeman had always believed that ‘our songs of the Norman Conquest were as much part of our political education as the reading of the English Chronicle’.10

There is no doubt that Freeman’s hero worship of the Godwinesons prevented his work on the Norman Conquest from being as objective as it should have been and, to some extent, laid him open to criticism in his own time and since.11 Marjorie Chibnall, for example, describes Freeman’s volumes as an example of ‘Romantic nationalism’.12 At Waltham, Freeman argued, ‘we have a grand scheme, devotional, architectural, and (in the slang of our day) educational’,13 and that such a scheme had been Harold’s (p.160) intention. This view was to embroil Freeman in a heated controversy. His paper on Waltham Abbey, delivered to the Essex Archaeological Society in 1859, subsequently published as a pamphlet and later in the Society’s Transactions, sparked a long debate on the dating of the extant church. In his lecture he posed two questions. Did Harold build the existing church, and did it also serve as his burial place?14 Freeman’s views on the first of these questions are addressed here.15

The Waltham estate was given by Edward the Confessor to his brother-in-law, Harold Godwineson, earl of East Anglia, who proceeded to build a church for his foundation of a new college of 12 secular canons on the site of an earlier church. After 1066, Waltham continued to attract royal attention. In 1177, as a penance for his part in the murder of Thomas Becket, Henry II enlarged the existing building to accommodate his Augustinian priory and, in 1184, this was raised to the status of abbey with 24 canons, an abbot, and a prior. The abbey was finally dedicated in 1242 after a long process of rebuilding. The church continued to function as the parish church; the west front was rebuilt c.1290 and the Lady Chapel and undercroft, both now restored, were built c.1340. Waltham was the last abbey to be dissolved in 1540 and, in 1544, the monastic complex was dismantled by Sir Anthony Denny, who had leased it from Henry VIII; but the nave, roughly a third of the monastic church, survived due to its long use as a parish church.16 Even so, the church we see today gives no hint of the importance it once possessed in royal circles before and after 1066.

Freeman undertook an analysis of the architectural detail of the remains of the nave in order to compile his short history of Waltham Abbey, embodied in the 1859 Essex Archaeological Society paper and lecture. He also used this evidence to date the building. Freeman concluded that the existing fabric was essentially Harold’s building, although he allowed for much debasement and some rebuilding since the 11th century. He believed that much of the original building, founded and built on Harold’s instructions, had survived in the nave and it was therefore, in his opinion, an important example of Anglo-Saxon architecture that had survived the wholesale aggressive rebuilding programmes of the post-Conquest period.

(p.161) In considering Freeman’s methodology in assessing the architectural evidence, therefore, it is interesting to look at two aspects of his approach: first, his use of documentary evidence in conjunction with the physical remains; and, second, his use of ornamentation and building style to date the extant elements of the church.

For his documentary evidence he relied heavily on two detailed, near contemporary, accounts of Waltham’s early history: Vita Haroldi and De inventione sanctae crucis (the Waltham Chronicle).17 Vita Haroldi was viewed by Freeman as partly a romantic account of Harold’s place in English history and partly a credible history of Waltham. Someone local, with local interests at heart, he maintained, would be accurate in detail, and the detail in which he was particularly interested was the chronicler’s description of the fabric of Waltham: the church structure, and whether it had been rebuilt since Harold’s time. He argued that the chronicle could be dated to some time after 1205 because in that year the writer records that he visited Rouen, where Harold purportedly swore the fateful oath. ‘He therefore long survived the latest date to which the Romanesque work at Waltham could possibly be referred’, noted Freeman. He also considered De inventione to be a reliable source although, as with Vita Haroldi, he discounted the miraculous accounts as part of contemporary culture.18 He quoted extensively from the Latin descriptions in both these early chronicles because he believed they were crucial in visualising the form of Harold’s church.

Freeman then turned to the physical evidence, producing a number of sketches, ten of which survive in the Freeman Archive in the John Rylands Library.19 Such sketches were an important tool for Freeman and his (p.162) contemporaries, acting as an aide-mémoire, helping them to understand the buildings, and providing illustrations for talks and publications. As Jonathan Conlin observes, ‘travelling for weeks on end, often on foot, these “church tourists” clocked up hundreds of measurements, sketches and notes’.20 Freeman’s interior and exterior sketches of Waltham church and the surrounding monastic area reveal his limitations as an artist. His friend E. S. Venables said of Freeman’s artistic ability, ‘He worked rapidly and effectively with a broad-nibbed pen and ink … without any pretensions to artistic power … he seized on the salient points’. He also observed that ‘the ornamental details … he completely passed over … He would say “they are not in my line; I know nothing about them”.’21 The basic forms are defined, however, and the proportions are accurate enough for these sketches to serve as visual notes which he often completed during Sunday evenings.22 The sketches help to reveal Freeman’s editorial process (i.e. what he chose to include and to exclude in the interests of clarity).

If we compare one of Freeman’s drawings of Waltham Abbey (Figure 9.1) with an engraving from roughly the same time published in The Builder of 1855 (Figure 9.2),23 even a cursory glance reveals the different approaches of the two artists. Their details are so diverse that we could almost be looking at the interiors of two different buildings. John Brown, the artist responsible for the drawings published in The Builder, has produced a technically accurate drawing of a 19th-century church interior. But Freeman’s agenda was different; he focused only on the early architectural details—those that he believed supported his argument that the original structure was built during Harold’s reign. His sketch, therefore, omits all the later additions (pews, pulpit, lighting, and hangings) and gives no impression of scale. As well as omitting extraneous elements, however, he has also added architectural detail and ornamentation which appeared after the restoration and which were contemporary. Amongst the possibly speculative additions by Freeman is the wall shaft between the second and third bays which he shows as extending to the floor, whereas The Builder illustration shows it being cut off below the string course above the main arcade.24

(p.163) Freeman was clearly disappointed in Waltham Abbey’s state of neglect in the 1850s:

The nave of the Romanesque Church is all that remains; the addition of a large Decorated chapel to the south, and of a Debased tower to the west, the destruction of the eastern portion of the church and of the whole converted buildings, have between them converted the once splendid church of Waltham into a patched and mutilated fragment.25

Freeman was bitter at this desecration and the first part of his paper stressed the importance of the building, and the ‘national’ aspect of its history in connection with Harold.26 Here Freeman appears to concentrate solely on the early history of the abbey, ignoring its post-monastic function. He emphasised Waltham’s connection with the last decades of Anglo-Saxon England and outlined two questions: ‘Will architectural evidence allow us to place the existing building so early as the days of Harold?’, and ‘will the documentary evidence allow us to imagine any subsequent re-building between the days of Harold and the conclusion of the twelfth century?’27

From the documentary evidence, Freeman concluded that Harold did indeed build a church at Waltham. But he also knew that no charter or chronicle could actually prove that the existing building was one and the same. Rather, he argued,

the present church, by all the laws of architectural science, cannot possibly be later than the twelfth century. If Harold’s church was replaced by another, it must of course have been during that period, and the time when we should most naturally look for such a change would be when Henry II entirely re-modelled the foundation … in 1177.28

The author of Vita Haroldi described a church, and mentioned new buildings in connection with Henry II’s new foundation, but did not refer to the rebuilding of the church itself. De inventione, for its part, provides no evidence of a rebuilding within the author’s memory whereas Freeman believed that such an event would surely have been worthy of note. The documentary evidence, therefore, in Freeman’s opinion, seemed to confirm that the existing building was Harold’s original church. He then turned to the architectural evidence.

Describing the buildings in front of him—their measurements, the later additions, and the surmised original shape of the church—Freeman provided a written representation of the church as it was in the 19th century, before the restoration that followed. He confidently related specific details of the (p.164)

Architecture as Evidence: E. A. Freeman and Harold’s Church

Figure 9.1 ‘Waltham Abbey’ by E. A. Freeman, c.1853. JRL FA 4/1/415.

Courtesy of the John Rylands Library, University of Manchester.

Architecture as Evidence: E. A. Freeman and Harold’s Church

Figure 9.2 ‘Waltham Abbey Church’, interior, from The Builder (1 September 1855), 415.

(p.166) stonework, all of which, he claimed, confirmed that the building was ‘distinctively English [in] form’.29 In addition to structural elements, Freeman also utilised architectural ornamentation and detail as evidence to support his views. Here he focused on the fluting of the pillars and the chevron detail on the arches, both still much in evidence today. ‘Both these are cut deep and with a sort of squareness quite unlike a common chevron’, he explained.30 Freeman maintained that the decoration of the pillars and arches with plates of gilt brass was described in De inventione. The passage referred to in the Waltham Chronicle was written after the suppression of the secular house in 1177 and the author was probably describing the church before Henry II’s rebuilding, the church he would have known. However, that did not, as Freeman himself acknowledged, make it Harold’s church. Over 100 years separated the two foundations and many architectural modifications could have taken place during this time. Freeman fully recognised that evolutionary change to buildings was inevitable. ‘Did they [the monks] sit altogether still’, he asked, ‘praying in Harold’s choir and dining in Henry’s refectory, but leaving no sort of memorial of their own selves wrought by the hands of the craftsman?’31 He argued, however, that the changes would not necessarily have been made to the existing portion, which he believed was little altered since Harold’s day. Freeman’s admiration for the architectural detail is tangible, and he felt that the church represented a ‘harmonious composition’ and ‘as a pure specimen of Romanesque, with all its small amount of enrichment, confined to surface ornament, Waltham is more valuable even than the later and grander naves of Ely and Peterborough, where the mouldings approximate somewhat more to the next style’.32

Freeman answered the two questions he had posed by concluding that (1) he was able to date the existing building to Harold’s time; and (2) the documentary evidence did not indicate any significant rebuilding between Harold and the end of the 12th century. In fact, he added, ‘in the face of all this, it would require some very strong architectural evidence indeed to establish the fact of a re-building at any date between 1066 and 1205’.33 He did, however, admit that he arrived at these answers after ‘doubt and hesitation’.34 The architectural evidence appeared to justify Freeman’s findings: the building was early Norman, dating from the last years of the Anglo-Saxon period and built by a powerful earl in the new style which established his status. Freeman continued:

(p.167) the ornament at Waltham, though of a very effective kind, is still simple and almost rude; everywhere, except a few details in the transepts, it is quite of the early Norman school; there is something totally different, from the elaboration of ornament, the almost elegance of detail, which might be expected in a building bearing the date of 1177.35

Freeman always argued that Waltham Abbey was a Norman rather than an Anglo-Saxon building, albeit that he extended Norman back into the pre-Conquest period. For a clarification of the difference between the two styles he directed his audience to his History of the Norman Conquest.36 They were, he stated, ‘two separate branches of the great Romanesque family, two independent imitations of the common Roman models’.37 However, the two styles existed for a time side by side, and there was no sudden change after 1066.

That ‘native’ architecture before the Conquest was inferior to that of Normandy, he believed, was the reason for Harold choosing Norman for his church at Waltham. Waltham was, he wrote in 1859, a church of ‘unparalleled magnificence’, which was not surprising given that ‘its founder was the first man in the kingdom’.38 Harold was undoubtedly a wealthy landowner who possessed power which rivalled that of the monarch. Moreover, he was aware of Continental advances and was not averse to using foreign expertise and up-to-date techniques. Harold, it seems, used the latest designs as a statement of his pre-eminence and Freeman was convinced that Harold wanted to impress the English people. His primary reason was to secure the support of the king and bring within his reach the possibility of being the favourite to inherit Edward’s throne. Modern scholarship has shown that the Godwinesons were indeed actively pursuing power and status; Harold, in particular, collected many precious relics and gifts for his own foundation at Waltham.39 ‘At any rate’, Freeman concluded, ‘nothing could be more likely to fix the affections of the King and the Clergy than the establishment of a wealthy and magnificent foundation, and the erection with unparalleled speed of a church of unparalleled splendour.’ Freeman’s belief, which explained the new style of architecture being used at this early date, was that ‘Harold had every motive to make Waltham the very glory of England, second not even to his royal brother’s fabric at Westminster’.40

(p.168) At Waltham and elsewhere, Freeman worked closely with contemporary architects, using his expertise to inform the process of restoration while necessarily relying on their skill and experience. His 1859 Essex paper had concluded with a warning directed at the 19th-century restorer, agreeing that the fabric needed some attention due to neglect in previous centuries, but stated that the importance of Waltham’s history must be preserved:

we may safely pronounce the combined historical and artistic interest of Waltham Abbey to be absolutely unique among English buildings. Long may it abide, with its disfigurements swept away, with its dangerous portions strengthened, with its fallen portions, if so be, rebuilt, but still left as a genuine monument of the eleventh century and not of the nineteenth, safe from that worse foe than Norman or Tudor or Puritan, from the ruthless and irreparable destruction of the ‘restorer’.41

The architect chosen for the restoration in the 1860s was William Burges (1827–81),42 and Freeman took a particular interest in Burges’s restoration of the church. Burges saw medieval structures as opportunities for understanding the work of the medieval mason in order to emulate and adapt it for modern use and with modern techniques. He wanted to ensure that, in the future, his work would be recognised as a 19th-century addition. In contrast, Freeman wanted the existing structure preserved as a historical document. However, despite his different focus, Burges was not neglectful of a building’s history and, like many architects of the time, he liaised closely with historians like Freeman.

In 1860, Burges was responsible for the publication of two pamphlets on Waltham Abbey.43 That he delighted in the romantic legends surrounding Harold’s connection with the abbey is evident in the first one. However, although he went along with Freeman’s arguments, he proffered no real views of his own on the controversy concerning the date of the existing nave; Burges merely listed the arguments for and against. He remained neutral in his summing-up:

(p.169) [I]t can scarcely be denied that the architecture of the nave of Waltham more resembles the work of the time of Henry I than that of those very few remains of buildings contemporary with Harold, still it is quite within the range of possibility that Harold might have built it, and there is no distinct proof to the contrary.44

Freeman’s views on the dating of the nave prompted a heated debate, played out in the pages of the Gentleman’s Magazine, between Freeman and an unknown reviewer.45 The original review praised most of Freeman’s reasoning, but disagreed with his argument that an analysis of both the architectural remains and the documentary evidence could be reconciled in order to date the nave. The reviewer pointed out that ‘Mr Freeman in his zeal for the memory of Harold forgets the important fact that the only portion which we have remaining of Waltham Abbey Church is the nave.’46 Furthermore, he maintained that the nave was, in all probability, built after the consecration and after the Conquest because there was insufficient time to build the whole church before the Battle of Hastings. He insisted that the nave remained incomplete for another 50 or 60 years as there was no urgency since it was solely for parishioners’ use. He stated that he had conducted his own inspection and discovered a discrepancy with the early date Freeman attributed to the bays, and he dismissed Freeman’s belief that Edward’s Westminster was of the same date, arguing also that Westminster Abbey’s nave was not finished until the 15th century.47 The reviewer was reluctant to accept the evidence from the local chronicles, which he called ‘historical romances’. It was his belief that their lack of detail regarding the building sequence was not unusual in this type of documentary evidence and that, where the fabric rolls exist, as at York and Exeter, but not at Waltham, these kinds of details could often be verified.48 While accepting that Freeman was a ‘high authority on the subject’, the reviewer nevertheless challenged Freeman’s central conclusion.

Freeman could not ignore this and he responded with a letter dated 15 August 1859, published the following month.49 He answered all the criticisms levelled against him by the reviewer in a careful and studied way, as if he were speaking slowly to a child. Cistercians, he maintained, who built in remote places, may have had no lay people to accommodate, but at Waltham the situation was entirely different because Harold’s foundation was not a monastic establishment:

(p.170) Harold was not planting a colony of religious to look after their own souls by the banks of the Wye or the Honddu; he was building a temple for the great worship of his own time, for that Holy Rood of Waltham which gave England her national warcry … Without the nave the ritual of such a worship would be very imperfect.50

Further, he argued, the reviewer was describing a rebuilding, not an original construction, as in the case of Westminster Abbey, which was much larger, and where existing buildings had to be dismantled before new work could start. Westminster Abbey was ‘the chief glory of his [Edward’s] reign’ and no mere ‘little Norman choir’. Even, he claimed, the Bayeux Tapestry depicts a whole church with a long nave, short choir, and central tower.51 Therefore it followed that, if Edward built a perfect church in so short a time, it could not be argued that Harold was unable to do the same on a smaller scale. In his view, both Westminster and Waltham abbeys shared similar circumstances; both were built near to or over a lesser, probably ruined, old structure which would not have impeded the new building. ‘The poor despoiled English’, after the Conquest, would be in no position to finance the building of a structure such as Waltham church and it is certain, Freeman contended, that the new regime of Norman kings would not have wanted to invest in the infrastructure of their defeated enemy so soon after the event. On the contrary, the ‘College was under the displeasure of the foreign kings, who plundered it very extensively’ and ‘to complete Harold’s church in Harold’s honour, would have been an act of treason which neither the first nor the second William would have endured for a moment’.52 It could be argued, however, that this is exactly how William I may have wished to legitimise his regime, a possible scenario which Freeman ignored.

Freeman also discounted the reviewer’s challenge regarding the value of the local histories, stating that Vita Haroldi was a good local witness’s account and a contemporary witness of Henry II’s foundation. In defence of De inventione, he reiterated that it was a reliable source and it could not be called a ‘romance’, once the miracle stories had been dismissed.53 Both sources, he stressed, were written much closer to Harold’s time than the 200 years later that the reviewer had asserted. As for the style, which the reviewer thought to be ‘Norman’, Freeman admitted it could be termed ‘Norman’, but maintained that constructions before the Conquest could not always be termed ‘Anglo-Saxon’, as if the two styles are always easily identifiable, with 1066 used as a dividing line. We know, Freeman reasoned, that Edward built (p.171) Westminster in the latest Norman style and consequently there is nothing to suggest that Harold did not do the same.

The magazine printed a reply to Freeman’s letter in the October issue where, with the inclusion of a drawing of the elevation of the south side of the nave, the anonymous reviewer continued the argument maintaining that the established pattern of construction suggested that the nave may have taken years to complete.54 Recognising that the foundation of his theory was weakening, Freeman attempted to vindicate himself: ‘in case of such convincing facts appearing, I desire that all blame may be transferred from my shoulders to those of my deceivers, namely, King Edward the Confessor, the writer of De Inventione, and the biographer of Harold’.55 Freeman was beginning to consider a compromise, perhaps unnerved at all the criticism since the publication of his original article. He was willing to admit the possibility of some parts of the existing nave being of a later date, or even that Harold had started the building with foundations and walls high enough to accommodate a temporary roof and that others had finished it. ‘From these two points a very little yielding on each side may perhaps bring us to absolute agreement, even without the help of Mr. Burges’ hewing and pecking.’56 However, he still stated that his own beliefs had not yet changed and blamed the reviewer for not knowing when he was beaten. Referring to the charge that he had been carried away by a ‘preconceived opinion’, Freeman accepted that ‘we all of us, when we are once in for a controversy, had rather win than lose’.57 But he defended his scholarship.

In pursuing this debate, Freeman visited Waltham twice after 1859, first with his great friend the medieval constitutional historian William Stubbs (1825–1901) and, secondly, with the architect George Gilbert Scott (1811–78).58 On both visits he met Burges, who commented in detail on the construction, the materials used, and the sequence of some of the building. At no time, however, did Burges speculate on the precise dating: the older parts he merely defined as ‘Norman work’, which could refer to pre- or post-Conquest.

During Freeman’s visit with Scott, Burges guided them to areas recently uncovered by the stripping of the plaster and took them up the scaffolding to allow them to examine the structure more closely. As a consequence, Freeman revised some of his conclusions. He accepted that the aisles had been vaulted and had not, as he had previously thought, been spanned by arches. Further, (p.172) he admitted that there was no sign of any brass fillings in the flutings of the piers and that an examination of the clerestory suggested an even later date than the reviewer in the Gentleman’s Magazine had proposed, so that it was probably part of Henry II’s rebuilding.

This was a major reversal of opinion on Freeman’s part; he now believed that Henry II had not just planned a new church, but had begun it with some alterations and additions to the existing structure. He had, he said, missed this in his initial examination because he had been looking at the structure from below without the aid of scaffolding. The transepts themselves, he conceded, also dated from 1170, but it was impossible to ascertain whether Harold’s church had had transepts or whether these were a new addition in Henry II’s time.

Over the course of the debate, Freeman was a regular correspondent with Scott and, in 1859, he had asked him for his advice on the date of Waltham’s nave. The architect’s reply focused on the ‘alleged difference of date between the two eastern bays and the remainder of the nave’.59 His conclusions, drawn from a thorough examination, were that the difference in design that he observed did not necessarily indicate a difference in date, since the ‘mode of workmanship’ was the same. Scott believed some of the building dated from Henry II’s time, but the majority of the fabric could well go back to Harold. Further, Scott maintained that the sketches published in the Gentleman’s Magazine were ‘calculated to mislead’ in order to validate the reviewer’s conclusions. However, the final paragraph of the letter displays a certain reticence on Scott’s part to become too embroiled in the matter of dating, providing what amounts to a disclaimer: ‘I wish what I have said to be taken only as applying to this particular question, as I do not see its bearing upon the question of the actual age of the nave, on which I offer no opinion.’60 It is telling that neither Burges nor Scott, as professional architects, were prepared to treat the architectural evidence with as much confidence as that initially exhibited by Freeman.

In a letter from Scott to Freeman dated 20 February 1860, Scott mentioned that Robert Willis had also visited Waltham.61 Freeman had been critical of Willis in relation to his methodology but had inevitably been influenced by him. In his History of Architecture, for example, he stated that ‘[his] writings treat as much of building as of architecture; [his] aim is to exhibit the mechanical rather than the artistic view’.62 In a glowing obituary written in 1875, however, Freeman acknowledged Willis’s contribution to his profession (p.173) stating that ‘the phrase “architectural history” was, as far as we know, one of his own invention’.63 Unlike Burges and Scott, Willis was prepared to disagree openly with Freeman’s analysis, and it is worth noting that Willis was subsequently proved right in relation to the dating of the nave.64

At the Cambridge Architectural Society’s Congress in May 1860,65 a visit to Waltham Abbey was organised; Freeman gave a lecture on the abbey, which included comments on the recent restorations carried out by Burges, who was also present. Freeman began by defending his part in the recent controversy published in the Gentleman’s Magazine, explaining that, although the disputed date of the surviving church buildings had arisen from his paper published in the Essex Transactions, this work had been both historical and architectural, and had contained many more valuable points than just the date. The debate, however, had given rise to several new observations which had caused him to modify his own views. He no longer claimed that the whole nave dated from Harold’s foundation, but conceded that parts of it had been altered during the change of foundation under Henry II from 1177. Freeman attributed this new evidence to the uncovering of various parts during the recent restorations.

Freeman admitted that several sources, especially the pipe rolls of Henry II, showed that repairs were made to the church at the beginning of the monastic period, but, he argued, it was not substantially rebuilt then. He commented that, in the interests of harmony and to put an end to the controversy, he was willing to compromise and agree that the triforium and clerestory were possibly later.66 Freeman was, in a sense, backing down, without actually stating that his original assumptions were wrong. Parts of the church were Harold’s, and with that he had to be content. He magnanimously confessed to his audience that his knowledge was limited, and that he had consulted professional architects: the restorer Burges and his friend Scott.67 He also stated that, even if the existing nave was proved not to be Harold’s, the king’s association with an earlier building was undeniable, and that fact alone was (p.174) of great historical interest. In addition, he argued, Harold had visited it on his way to Senlac (the term Freeman used for the Battle of Hastings) and, in his view, it was now almost certainly his last resting place.

Freeman also spoke on Waltham Abbey at the twenty-first anniversary of the Royal Archaeological Institute in London in 1866, delivering a paper on King Harold and the College of Waltham, an outline of which was included in the Proceedings of that year. In the afternoon, a party of members visited the abbey via the Great Eastern Railway and there Freeman conducted another tour around the structure ‘maintaining that there were more remains of the church built by Harold than Mr. Parker was disposed to admit’.68 J. H. Parker had declared, at the Cambridge Congress of 1860, that the extant church at Waltham dated from the 12th century, and he was not alone.69 The debate, in a sense, continued until the end of the 20th century, particularly with the work of Eric Fernie who, in his paper at the 1998 Battle Conference, proposed the theory that even today we tend to identify ourselves with the Anglo-Saxons rather than the Normans,70 and it is undoubtedly the case that this identification with a particular period in history influenced Freeman’s writings.

More recent surveys of the building works at Waltham Abbey church show that there were five churches on this site. Harold’s church was the third of these, but it was dismantled and only the foundations and fragments remained after a rebuilding at the beginning of the 12th century during the reign of Henry I. Excavations since 1985 concluded that the work began c.1090 and was completed c.1150; late 20th-century excavations have also revealed that there are, indeed, several fragments of Harold’s church within the present church. These include a herringbone-set stone wall on the outside of the east wall of the Lady Chapel, a chamfered base course in the rain water gully under this wall, and a shoulder-height base course of stones and pink mortar above the crypt; inside the tower there are large blocks of stone which could have been reused when the tower was rebuilt c.1558, and in the first two eastern clerestory bays there are some monolithic pillars which may well be from the pre-Conquest building.71

(p.175) The latest archaeological findings may finally have put the Waltham Abbey controversy to rest but the very public 19th-century debate surrounding Waltham Abbey was an important episode in the development of historical thought. Although not alone, Freeman placed great store on bringing together architecture and written evidence in pursuit of ‘historical truth’ and, despite the flaws in his approach associated with nationalistic fervour, his work encouraged a scholarly debate which provided material for generations of future archaeologists and architectural historians. (p.176)


(1) [G. T. Clark], ‘Professor Edward A. Freeman’, Archaeological Journal, 49 (1892), 86–7.

(2) E. A. Freeman, ‘Address to the Historical Section … at Cardiff’, Archaeological Journal, 28 (1871), 178.

(3) Gentleman’s Magazine (January 1860), 60.

(4) E. A. Freeman, ‘The Mythical and Romantic Elements in Early English History’, Historical Essays (London, Macmillan, 1871), p. 38.

(5) E. A. Freeman, The History of the Norman Conquest of England: Its Causes and Its Results, 6 vols, 2nd edn (Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1875). For a more detailed account of Freeman’s work on the Norman Conquest, see Judith A. Green, Chapter 13 and James Kirby, Chapter 2, this volume.

(6) J. W. Burrow, A Liberal Descent: Victorian Historians and the English Past (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1981), p. 207.

(7) E. A. Freeman, The History of the Norman Conquest, 3rd edn (Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1877), vol. 2, p. 37.

(8) Ibid., vol. 2, p. 39.

(9) E. A. Freeman and George W. Cox, Poems, Legendary and Historical (London, Longmans, 1850), p. 167; E. Bulwer Lytton, Harold, the Last of the Saxon Kings (London, R. Bentley, 1848). For evidence of national feeling before and after the Conquest, see Laura Ashe, Fiction and History in England, 1066–1200 (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2007).

(10) W. R. W. Stephens, The Life and Letters of Edward A. Freeman, 2 vols (London, Macmillan, 1895), vol. 1, p. 83.

(11) Freeman’s three articles on Earl Godwine written in 1854–5 provide the most accessible view of Freeman’s beliefs on the Godwines. Godwine was ‘the champion of the national party, the leader of the English movement, first against the Danish, then against the Norman domination’; Harold was the ‘last truly native and elective sovereign’. See E. A. Freeman, ‘On the Life and Death of Earl Godwine’, Archaeological Journal, 11 (1854), 236–52 at 236–7. The second article was published in the same volume (330–44); the third in volume 12 (1855), 47–64.

(12) Marjorie Chibnall, The Debate on the Norman Conquest (Manchester, Manchester University Press, 1999), p. 59.

(13) Gentleman’s Magazine (November 1859), 489–98 at 492.

(14) E. A. Freeman, ‘The Architecture and Early History of Waltham Abbey Church’, Transactions of the Essex Archaeological Society, 2 (1863), 1–40.

(15) For detailed analysis of Freeman’s views on Harold’s burial site, see C. Dade-Robertson, ‘Architecture as Past History and Present Politics: The Architectural Writings of Edward Augustus Freeman’, Ph.D. thesis (Lancaster, 2005).

(16) The history of Waltham Abbey is well served with publications over the last two centuries. The surviving charters are discussed in detail, together with an overview of what life was like for the canons of Waltham, in The Early Charters of the Augustinian Canons of Waltham Abbey, Essex, 1062–1230, ed. Rosalind Ransford (Woodbridge, Boydell Press, 1989): the secular college deans, the canons regular, and the benefactors are listed, and the possessions of the canons, at each stage of its history, are outlined.

(17) Freeman consulted the published version of both these chronicles in Chroniques Anglo-normandes, ed. Francisque Michel, 2 vols (Rouen, 1836). See Vita Haroldi: The Romance of the Life of Harold, King of England, ed. and trans. Walter de Gray Birch (London, Elliot Stock, 1885). Birch translated from the manuscript in the British Library: BL Harley MS 3776. Michael Swanton published the translated text, Three Lives of the Last Englishmen (London, Garland, 1984). See also The Waltham Chronicle: An Account of the Discovery of Our Holy Cross at Montacute and Its Conveyance to Waltham, ed. L. Watkiss and M. Chibnall (Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1994). Later Freeman consulted The Foundation of Waltham Abbey: The Tract ‘De inventione Sanctae Crucis nostrae in Monte Acuto et de ductione ejusdem apud Waltham’, ed. W. Stubbs (Oxford, J. H. & J. Parker, 1861), p. 14; Freeman was probably the anonymous reviewer in Saturday Review, 14 (16 August 1862), 197–8. Stubbs helped Freeman with his researches for Waltham especially the dating of the nave by consulting the original manuscripts as Freeman relied heavily on printed sources, more of which were appearing from 1800 due to a government backed Commission. Freeman had an aversion to working in libraries and possessed many of the published charters himself including John Michell Kemble’s collection of early English charters, Codex diplomaticus (1839). See Life and Letters, vol. 1, p. 114, and vol. 2, pp. 471–2; William Holden Hutton, Letters of William Stubbs (London, 1904).

(19) JRL, FA 4/1/411–20. The archive contains over 6,200 pen-and-ink sketches of mainly ecclesiastical buildings drawn by Freeman during his travels throughout Britain and in Europe.

(20) J. Conlin, ‘Development or Destruction? E. A. Freeman and the Debate on Church Restoration, 1839–51’, Oxoniensia, 77 (2012), 137–51 at 139.

(21) E. S. Venables, ‘Reminiscences of E. A. Freeman’, Fortnightly Review, 51 (1892), 745–6.

(22) Ibid., 745.

(23) Freeman sketch, JRL, FA 4/1/415; John Brown’s drawing, engraved by C. W. Sheeres, The Builder (1 September 1855), 415. We know Freeman visited Waltham as early as March 1853 due to a surviving letter to his daughter Margaret: see Life and Letters, vol. 1, p. 166.

(24) An interesting discussion of the use of sketches in relation to ecclesiastical architecture can be found in William Hyde’s article on Bowman’s and Crowther’s pattern books published in The Victorian Society Annual (London, Victorian Society, 1996), pp. 21–6.

(27) Ibid., 2.

(28) Ibid., 11–12.

(30) Ibid., 21.

(31) Ibid., 24.

(32) Ibid., 15.

(33) Ibid., 20.

(34) Ibid., 2.

(35) Ibid., 21.

(38) Ibid., 22.

(39) Christine Senecal, ‘Keeping up with the Godwinesons: In Pursuit of Aristocratic Status in Late Anglo-Saxon England’, Anglo-Norman Studies, 23 (Woodbridge, Boydell Press, 2001), pp. 251–66.

(41) Freeman, ‘The Architecture and Early History of Waltham Abbey Church’, 40. For Freeman’s views, see Dade-Robertson, ‘Architecture as Past History’; C. E. Miele, ‘The Gothic Revival and Gothic Architecture: The Restoration of Medieval Churches in Victorian Britain’, Ph.D. thesis (New York, 1992); Conlin, ‘Development or Destruction?’

(42) J. M. Crook, William Burges and the High Victorian Dream, 2nd edn (London, Frances Lincoln, 2013), pp. 150–6: interior east-end reredos (1861–76) carved by T. Nicholls, stained glass (1860–1) manufactured by Powell, from cartoons by Burne-Jones. Restoration at Waltham was carried out in 1853, 1859–60, 1875–6, 1903–5, and from 1940 onwards to the present day.

(43) W. Burges, The Legend of Waltham Abbey and the History of the Church Founded by King Harold (n.p., 1860), and A Report on the Present Condition of the Abbey Church, Waltham Holy Cross, Essex, Founded by King Harold, 1059–60 together with A Sketch of Its History and Present State, with a View to Its Conservation and Repair: Addressed to the Committee for the Repair of Waltham Abbey Church (n.p., 1860).

(45) Gentleman’s Magazine (August 1859), 168–9. By 1860 the Gentleman’s Magazine had been published for 129 years and was therefore popular and influential.

(46) Ibid., 169.

(47) Ibid., 168.

(48) Ibid., 169.

(49) Gentleman’s Magazine (September 1859), 293–6.

(50) Gentleman’s Magazine (September 1859), 294.

(52) Ibid., 295.

(54) Gentleman’s Magazine (October 1859), 401–3.

(55) Gentleman’s Magazine (November 1859), 497.

(57) Gentleman’s Magazine (January 1860), 56. See also ‘Waltham Abbey’, The Ecclesiologist, 21 (August 1860).

(58) For Freeman’s relationship with Scott, see G. A. Bremner, Chapter 10, this volume.

(59) Scott to Freeman, 6 October 1859, JRL, FA 1/1/132; reprinted in full in Gentleman’s Magazine (January 1860), 73.

(60) JRL, FA 1/1/132.

(61) JRL, FA 1/1/134.

(62) E. A. Freeman, A History of Architecture (London, Joseph Masters, 1849), p. xiii.

(63) [E. A. Freeman], ‘Professor Willis’, Saturday Review, 13 March 1875. Correspondence between Freeman and Willis concerning Waltham can be found in the Willis Papers, Cambridge University Library.

(64) Alexandrina Buchanan, Robert Willis (1800–1875) and the Foundation of Architectural History (Woodbridge, Boydell Press, 2013), pp. 207–8. See also Cambridge University Library MS Add 5029, fols 481–3, as cited by Buchanan.

(65) Report on ‘Architectural Congress at Cambridge, May 28 to 31’, in Antiquarian and Literary Intelligencer (July 1860), 45–52.

(66) Ibid., 48.

(67) The Report concluded: ‘Mr Freeman still held that the strong historical presumption that the present church was entirely Harold’s building had not been set aside by any of the arguments brought against it, though, as it was only a presumption, he freely admitted that it might yet be set aside by some argument yet to be discovered.’ Ibid., 49.

(68) Archaeological Journal, 23 (London, 1866), 310–11.

(70) E. Fernie, ‘Saxons, Normans and Their Buildings’, Anglo-Norman Studies, 21 (Woodbridge, Boydell Press, 1999), p. 3.

(71) P. J. Huggins, ‘The Church at Waltham: An Archaeological and Historical Review’ (n.p., August 2000). This extremely detailed unpublished pamphlet produced by the Waltham Abbey Historical Society outlines the building sequence at Waltham and, in particular, describes the archaeological evidence for the design of the churches. Huggins published the findings from several excavations which he was responsible for in the years 1984–7. See P. J. Huggins, ‘Excavations of the Collegiate and Augustinian Churches, Waltham Abbey, Essex, 1984–87, Archaeological Journal, 146 (1989), 476–537. Bascombe and Huggins published a summary of archaeological findings at Waltham as recently as 1992. See P. J. Huggins and K. N. Bascombe, ‘Excavations at Waltham Abbey, Essex, 1985–1991: Three pre-Conquest Churches and Norman Evidence’, Archaeological Journal, 149 (1992), 282–343.