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Rivenhall: investigations of a villa, church and village, 1950-1977

W J Rodwell and K A Rodwell

CBA Research Report No 55 (1986)

Chelmsford Archaeological Trust Report 4

ISBN 0-906780-48-9


Title page of report 55

This report traces the development of settlement in the rural parish of Rivenhall, Essex, from the prehistoric era to the present day, and attempts to relate this to the general settlement history of the surrounding area. The methodology involved in the recording and interpretation of the evidence is explained. The approach has involved the seeking of reasons why the various settlement components took the form they did, how buildings were planned and erected, and how they functioned in their contemporary contexts.

The eariest settlement is represented by a scatter of flints of mesolithic to Bronze Age date. Pottery of the mesolithic to early Bronze Ages is sparce, probably on account of adverse conditions for its survival in the soil. Several ring ditches are the only structures so far recorded. The recovery of founders' hoards in the parish testifies to Late Bronze Age activity, as does pottery, including wasters, from the churchyard. They indicate continuing settlement beside the Cressing Brook, a minor tributary of the river Blackwater which runs centrally through the parish.

A ditch system, seen only in fragments, of the Middle pre-Roman Iron Age, probably belongs to the first recognisable field system in the area. This was overlaid in the Late pre-Roman Iron Age by a regular enclosure system which anticipated the layout of the 'modern' landscape. In that landscape lay native farmsteads, one of which was rich enough for its occupants to possess decorated bronze mirrors.

There is no reason to suppose that the ownership was taken over by a Roman settler from the native proprietors, for at the beginning of the 2nd century a villa of Gallo-Roman type, large and sumptuous by contemporary Romano-British standards, was erected on the site later occupied by Rivenhall church. The villa complex was planned as a long trapezoidal precinct, around the edges of which were ranges of buildings. At the west end stood the main house, a lavishly decorated building of winged corridor type, elevated on an earth-filled podium. Close to it on the north side of the precinct lay a second smaller house which was linked by a long tessellated portico to a bath block. Other buildings, including a watermill, are known or suspected, but are unexcavated. The villa was fully integrated with the road and field pattern of the area, and there is clear evidence of careful geometric planning both of the individual buildings and of the complex as a whole. A barrow cemetery formed an integral part of the layout.

After a fire around the beginning of the 3rd century, the villa was remodelled and various alterations took place down to the end of the Roman period; these include reversing the facade of the second house, so that it faced out of the precinct, instead of into it, and the building of a very large aisled barn, ultimately occupied by people using hand-made Anglo-Saxon pottery and glass of 5th century date. In the 5th or 6th century a post-built hall was erected, but in the middle Saxon period the nucleus of settlement shifted slightly to the north and a burial ground was established in the formerly occupied area. A small structure, presumably a shrine or mausoleum, formed the focus of the cemetery. Burial spread southwards and a new focus was established in the 10th century, in the form of a small wooden church. In the late 10th or early 11th century a new two-cell stone-built church was erected alongside, and the timber building removed. The new church was carefully planned and laid out in units and fractions of 'poles' ('northern rods').

By the Norman conquest the church was firmly established, with a defined graveyard and, apparently, a parish. Analysis of the Domesday Survey for the Rivenhall area shows that the principal structural components of the medieval landscape-manors, mills, and churches-existed at that time in a fully developed form. It is suggested that the principal manor of Rivenhall may be equated with the Roman villa estate, and is still delineated to a large extent by parish boundaries.

The development of the church building, the graveyard, and associated priest's house is traced through the medieval and later periods, using a combination of disciplines; these developments are related to the history of the detached rectory and glebe lands. The hall, intimately associated with the church at all periods, and the eventual successor of the Roman villa, had its site moved several times; in the 16th century the final shift took place when the seat of the manor of Rivenhall was established in the park.

The general settlement history of the area is complex, and is closely related to the pattern established in the Roman period. In Rivenhall there were four Domesday manors and sundry other holdings which spawned a multiplicity of medieval farms and tenements, although there never was a nucleated village. The pattern of agriculture was set in the Iron Age by enclosed field systems, which were not superseded by large 'open' fields or affected by consequential enclosure in the post-medieval period. Many changes did, of course, take place over the millennia and these can often be traced in detail: the encroachment of woodland; assarts made and then given up; the processes of emparkment and disparkment; the effect of alterations to roads; the fragmentation of manors and estates; the mushrooming of tenements and smaller holdings; and the amalgamation and subdivision of existing fields.

While the topography, history, and archaeology of the parish and its component parts are traced in outline, the church and its immediate environs are reported upon in detail, since it is here that archaeological investigations, both above and below ground, have been most intensively undertaken.

Several general conclusions emerge. First, that once the locus of the principal settlement had been established at Rivenhall (certainly by the Iron Age, and possibly several millennia earlier), domestic occupation was maintained down to the present day, with no evidence of discontinuity. As might be expected, there were physical changes in the form of the settlement, and building sites shifted from time to time. Secondly, the exploitation of the landscape was a continuously evolving process, with each era adding its own contribution to the palimpsest. The present landscape is therefore a composite artefact, the earliest components of which may be in excess of three millennia old. Thirdly, and finally, there has probably always been a religious component in the historic settlement form. At first this may simply have been the natural springs, but from the Christian Saxon period there has been a cemetery with associated religious structures. The development of the cemetery and the church offers a microcosmic history of Anglo-Saxon and medieval rural parochial life.


  • Title pages (pp i-iv)
  • Contents (pp v-vi)
  • Illustrations (pp vii-ix)
  • Preface (p x)
  • Acknowledgements (p x)
  • Summary (p xi)
  • 1. General background (p 1)
    • Rivenhall village and its setting (p 1)
      • Modern environment (p 1)
      • Physical environment (p 1)
      • Geology and soils (p 5)
    • The history of archaeological discovery and excavation (p 5)
      • Land draining, 1846 and 1894 (p 5)
      • The Roman Essex Society, 1946-52 (p 7)
      • The Essex Archaeological society, 1971-3 (p 8)
    • The archaeology of Rivenhall: the field evidence (p 8)
      • Surface evidence and aerial photography (p 8)
      • Archaeological investigation and methodology (p 8)
    • Notes (p 10)
  • 2. The Roman villa complex (p 13)
    • Period 1: prehistoric features (p 13)
      • Period 1A: Mesolithic to Bronze Age (p 13)
      • Period 1B: Later Bronze Age (p 14)
      • Period 1C: Middle and Late pre-Roman Iron Age (p 15)
        • Areas C1 and C4 (p 15)
        • Area C2 (p 15)
        • The sewer trench (p 15)
      • Prehistoric occupation in the Rivenhall area (p 17)
    • Period 2: the early Roman building complex (p 21)
      • Building 1 (p 21)
        • The rooms (p 21)
      • Building 2 (p 25)
        • Pre-building features (p 25)
        • Period 2 construction (p 25)
        • The rooms (p 28)
        • The floors (p 31)
        • The exterior (p 31)
      • Building 3 (p 31)
      • Evidence for dating buildings 1, 2, and 3 (p 31)
        • Termini post quos (p 31)
        • Contemporary occupation deposits (p 31)
        • Termini ante quos (p 32)
        • By analogy with other buildings (p 32)
      • The barrow cemetery (p 32)
      • A consideration of the early Roman villa complex and its origins (p 33)
        • The masonry buildings (p 33)
        • Buildings 1 and 2 compared (p 33)
        • Design and planning (p 35)
        • Decorative detail (p 39)
        • Rivenhall and other villas compared (p 41)
        • Architectural reconstructions (p 45)
        • Ownership (p 48)
    • Period 3: later Roman developments (p 49)
      • Building 1 (p 49)
        • Phase A (p 49)
        • Phase B (p 49)
        • Phase C (p 51)
      • Building 2 (p 52)
        • Phase A (p 52)
        • Phase B (p 54)
        • Phase C (p 54)
      • Building 3 (p 55)
        • The rooms (p 55)
      • Building 4 (p 56)
        • Dating (p 57)
    • Miscellaneous structures and features of the Roman period (p 57)
      • Buildings (p 57)
      • Other structural evidence (p 58)
      • The corn drier (p 58)
      • Watercourses (p 59)
      • Roads and paving (p 60)
      • Burials (p 61)
      • Roman features in sewer trench, Area H (p 61)
    • Discussion of the later history of the villa (p 62)
    • The Rivenhall area in the Roman period (p 65)
    • Period 4A: the villa in the early Anglo-Saxon period (p 68)
      • Area D (p 68)
        • Building 4 (p 68)
        • The well (p 68)
      • Area C2 (p 69)
        • Building 5 (p 69)
        • The plan of building 5 (p 72)
        • The superstructure of building 5 (p 72)
        • Dating of period 4A features (p 74)
    • Discussion of the Early Anglo-Saxon occupation (p 74)
    • Notes (p 75)
  • 3. The cemeteries and churches (p 79)
    • Excavation and study (p 79)
    • Period 4B: the earliest burials (Area C2) (p 80)
      • Cemetery 1 (p 80)
      • Structure 1 (p 80)
      • Mode of burial (p 82)
      • Discussion and dating of Cemetery 1 (p 83)
    • Miscellaneous features of Periods 4 to 5 (Area C1E) (p 84)
    • Period 5:the later Anglo-Saxon and Norman churches (p 85)
      • Period 5A: probable timber church, Building 7 (p 85)
        • Interpretation and discussion (p 88)
        • Dating (p 90)
      • Period 5B: the first stone-built church, Building 8 (p 90)
        • Dating (p 91)
      • Period 5C: the church, building 8 (p 93)
        • Dating (p 93)
    • Period 6: the medieval church (p 93)
      • Period 6B: the church, Building 8 (p 93)
        • Dating (p 93)
    • Structures of Period 6B-C at the west end of the church (p 93)
      • Features of period 6 in area C1 West (p 93)
      • Structure 4 (p 95)
      • The west tower, Period 6C (p 95)
    • Period 7: post-medieval features (p 96)
      • Structures of period 7 in area C1 (p 96)
        • Period 7A, Structure 5 (p 96)
        • Period 7B, west tower (p 96)
        • Period 7C, first restoration (p 96)
        • Period 7D, second resoration (p 99)
    • Cemetery 2 (Periods 5A to 7D) (p 99)
    • The development of the churchyards (p 104)
      • The boundaries (p 104)
      • The churchyard ditch, Area C2 (p 104)
    • Notes (p 106)
  • 4. Secular structures associated with the church and graveyard (p 108)
    • Excavated evidence (p 108)
      • Periods 5-7: Area C2 (p 108)
        • Period 5C: Building 6 and its enclosure (p 108)
        • Period 6A: Building 10 (p 111)
        • Period 6B, Building 9 (p 113)
        • Period 6C-7: miscellaneous features (p 114)
      • Periods 5 and 6: Areas D and H (sewer trench) (p 115)
      • The identification of buildings in Area C2 (p 118)
      • Discussion of buildings 6, 9, and 10 (p 118)
    • Documented evidence (p 119)
      • The 'herring house' (p 119)
      • The Carrington chapel of Our Lady (p 120)
      • The Sexton's house (Building 11) (p 120)
      • The development of the graveyard and its environs (p 121)
        • Period 3C-4A (early) (p 121)
        • Period 4A (later) (p 121)
        • Period 4B (p 121)
        • Period 5A (p 122)
        • Period 5B (p 122)
        • Period 5C (p 124)
        • Period 6A (p 124)
        • Period 6B (p 124)
        • Period 6C (p 124)
        • Period 7A (p 124)
        • Period 7B (p 124)
        • Period 7C (p 126)
        • Period 7D (p 126)
        • Period 7E (p 126)
    • A note on the trees in Rivenhall churchyard by Oliver Rackham (p126)
    • Notes (p126)
  • 5. The fabric and furnishings of the church (p 129)
    • The recording of the structure (p 129)
    • The Ango-Saxon church (Period 5B) (p 130)
      • Doorways (p 131)
      • Windows (p 133)
      • Discussion and dating (p 133)
    • The Saxo-Norman sanctuary (Period 5C) (p 138)
    • The Early English windows (Period 6A) (p 138)
      • Dating (p 139)
    • The 14th century church (Period 6B) (p 139)
      • Butresses (p 140)
      • Doorways (p 140)
      • Windows (p 140)
      • Chancel arch and rood loft (p 142)
      • Sedilia (p 142)
      • Font (p 143)
      • Discussion and dating (p 143)
    • The 15th century church (Period 6C) (p 144)
      • West tower (p 145)
      • Doorways (p 146)
      • Windows (p 146)
      • Discussion and dating(p 147)
    • The church in the 16th and 17th centuries (Period 7A) (p 152)
    • The Georgian church (Period 7B) (p 153)
      • The tower (p 154)
      • The timberwork of the belfry (p 155)
      • Furnishings (p 156)
    • Lord Western's restoration (Period 7C) (p 156)
      • The problem of the architect and his identity (p 160)
      • The fabric of the neo-Gothic church (p 160)
    • The later Victorian restoration (Period 7D) (p 162)
      • Viewpoints on the restorations (p 164)
    • The church in the early 20th century (Period 7E) (p 166)
    • Summary of the development of the church (p 166)
    • The dedication: St. Mary and All Saints (p 168)
    • Notes (p 168)
  • 6. The archaeology of Rivenhall village and parish (p 171)
    • Topographical study and analysis (p 171)
    • The Rivenhall area in the Domesday survey (p 171)
      • Probems of identification (p 171)
        • Manors (p 172)
        • Mills (p 175)
        • Churches (p 175)
      • Summary of the Domesday evidence (p 176)
    • Reconstruction of the 11th century landscape (p 176)
      • Arable and pasture (p 178)
      • Meadow (p 178)
      • Woodland (p 178)
      • Waste and common (p 178)
      • Church land (p 178)
      • Other lands (p 178)
    • Rivenhall in the Anglo-Saxon period (p 178)
      • Rivenhall 'Burgate' (p 180)
    • The pattern and development of medieval and later settlement (p 182)
      • The agricultural landscape (p 182)
      • The botanical landscape (p 182)
      • Rivenhall Park (p 183)
      • The architectural landscape (p 183)
    • Notes (p 186)
    • Appendices (p 187)
      • Appendix 1: the sections (p 187)
      • Appendix 2: inventory of observations in the vicinity of Rivenhall church, 1839-1976 (Figs 3, 6) (p 187)
  • References (p 195)
  • Abbreviations (p 195)
  • List of manuscript maps (p 195)
  • Bibliography (p 195)

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