All Saints’ Church is a grade 1 listed building dating back to the 12th century, set in a six acre churchyard. It is well maintained and is the venue for the majority of weddings and funerals held in Brightlingsea. It is right on the borders of the parish and some distance from the majority of housing. It is featured in “England’s thousand best churches” by Simon Jenkins. This parish church is held in much affection by the townspeople and is used regularly for worship throughout the year.
The visitor reaches the church well before reaching the modern town of Brightlingsea. It stands at the high point of the parish where the ancient roads from Alresford and Thorrington meet and then continue to the town and modern waterfront. In all probability this is the ancient meeting place for the scattered agricultural community of the parish and the natural site for its church. Before the sea receded, Alresford Creek provided a sheltered haven for the town, and the meadow below All Saints’ is still called Church Dock.
The present church dates from about 1250 but had several predecessors, stretching back to the coming of Christianity to Essex in 653. You can see St Cedds Minster at Bradwell from the town and it would not have been long before the Gospel was preached in this parish and some kind of worship centre established. The start of the present building seems to be linked with the appointment of the first incumbent in 1237 and this was a time of general prosperity for England. The building consisted of the chancel and two-thirds of the present nave, with two small chapels. A good deal of material from earlier buildings, especially Roman brick, was used. Immediately to the left of the south door, as you come in, you can see a round-headed recess incorporating Roman brickwork. This is probably part of the earlier Norman church.
The fifteenth century saw a revival of England’s wealth and here this was associated with the residence of the Beriffe family of wool merchants at Jacobes Hall.
The great tower, one of the finest in East Anglia, was built to the west of the church. When it had settled on its foundations, it was joined to the rest of the church by the building of two western bays of the nave, which are in perpendicular style. The south chapel and porch were added. The vestry was built in 1518 and the north chapel, where the Beriffes are buried, enlarged at the same time. Finally, the north aisle was reconstructed. A common feature of these additions is the use of knapped flints on the exterior walls.
During the reign of Edward VI, plate, vestments and two of the four original bells were taken into the king’s hands. In the Civil War of 1642-6, Puritans destroyed the statues, removed paintwork and stained glass, hacked away at the beautiful niches, which are a feature of the church, and threw down the stone altar. One broken and headless figure, which may represent St Nicholas, was recovered and may be seen in the north chapel.
The large hatchment is that of Magens Dorrien Magens, the last of his family to own the estates. He died in 1848 and the hatchment is a particularly fine example of tempera painting on canvas. The smaller hatchment is of an inferior quality and relates to his wife, the granddaughter of the Earl of Talbot, who predeceased him in 1829. These were processed in the cortège ahead of the coffin.
The chapel has been completely refurbished for worship in recent years. The modern glass in the east window, by Caroline Swash, represents Mary’s contribution as the Mother of Jesus, together with symbols which have become associated with her. The statue of the Celestial Mary by John Doubleday is carved in walnut.
Registered Charity No 260143. Contact Ray Stollery, Treasurer, 44 Ladysmith Avenue, Brightlingsea, Essex, CO7 0JD.