The abbey church of Waltham Holy Cross owes its site, according to legend, to Tovi le Prude, the local lord and landowner who was standard-bearer to King Canute (AD1017-35). The story has it that a blackflint stone crucifix was discovered on his land in Somerset and he was then guided by 'divine inspiration' to this site in Essex, on the edge of Epping Forest, whereupon he erected the stone cross. Reputedly, blood flowed from the flint image of Christ persuading Tovi to found communities of the Holy Cross at Waltham and elsewhere. Various miracles were said to be performed through its agency. This strange account of the founding of Waltham Abbey was committed to parchment more than 800 yrs ago, and the precious document now resides in the British Museum.
Before claiming the English throne in 1066, Harold prayed before this cross and was cured of his paralysis. In gratitude, he paid for the rebuilding of the church that housed the cross, dedicated it to the Holy Cross and had it consecrated on Holy Cross Day, 3rd May, 1057; Harold, subsequently built a religious college there, endowing it with riches. The length of the present day church, in its entirety, occupies merely the length of nave in Harold's church. After success at Stamford Bridge on 25th September his good fortune deserted him less than three weeks later at Hastings, where he was slain on the 14th October 1066; his body is buried at Waltham.
Henry II (1154-89) founded an Augustinian monastery here in 1177, a majestic offering to God to expiate the murder of Thomas a Becket. The east end of the church, where Harold was buried, was pulled down so that it may be incorporated in the new buildings, which ranked as an abbey from 1184. In the following century the raising of a low wall between nave and choir separated the parish church from the monastic. The wall saved the ancient nave when other parts of the church, deemed to belong to the abbey, were demolished during the Dissolution of the Monasteries (1536-9)
In 1552 the tower collapsed, bringing down the choir and much of the rest of the church. The bells were subsequently housed in a 'cage' in the churchyard while reconstruction of the tower commenced; unfortunately, the ancient bells had to be sold to pay for the completion of the bell-tower. Thirteen new bells were eventually assembled and are now regarded as having one of the most distinctive peals in England.
The abbey windows are mostly Norman in design although some are in a later medieval style. Despite many of the windows now containing plain glass, because the original stained glass was shattered by wartime bombs, good fortune has permitted some beautiful examples of the original work to survive. The Rose or Wheel Window located at the east end of the church, together with the three lights beneath it, still retain the radiant stained glass designed almost 150 yrs ago by Sir Edward Burne-Jones, in 1860.
The reredos, carved in stone in 1872, depicts the events attending upon Christ's birth. There are old brasses, memorials in alabaster, marble and stone, a wall-painting of the Last Judgement and details of medieval trace work on the capitals of the Norman columns and arches of the nave. The great Norman nave, in which stand some fine monuments, has been compared favourably with Durham Cathedral. Of interest, the local medieval pillory and whipping post are kept in the south chapel.
Outside, in the abbey churchyard, where the east end of Harold's church is marked out, there lies a black stone indicating the reputed site of his burial place. Sadly, the miraculous black flint cross disappeared long ago.