Heritage: Hornchurch – a unique name, and maybe 1,400 years old

Hornchurch in about 1913. Picture: Brian Evans

Hornchurch in about 1913. Picture: Brian Evans - Credit: Brian Evans

How did Hornchurch get its name? Prof Ged Martin tries to find out

The name "Hornchurch" reflects something unique in English history.

The east end of St Andrew's parish church is crowned with a bull's head, carved in stone.

Churches are usually topped by a cross, the symbol of Christianity. Anything else would be sacrilege.

A Latin document of 1222 mentions "Monasterium Cornutum", meaning "horned monastery" - there was a priory opposite the church - or possibly "minster" - a special church, like the one at nearby Upminster.

In English, it was called "Hornechurch" in 1233 and "Hornedechirche" in 1291.

Beware! "First written record" does not equal "beginning of story". In earlier centuries, there were few documents. This saga may be much older.

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Nobody knows how the name originated. One legend claimed a king killed a deer nearby while hunting, and stuck its horns on the end of the church - but why?

Some suggested that the horned church was the trademark of the priory, based here from 1159 to 1384. The priory did use a bulls-head seal on official documents, but this was probably a pun on the name. Holy men would never have removed the cross from a church.

Hornchurch was a centre for tanning leather - good reason to name the pubs but not to decorate the sacred church.

We must go back to the beginnings of Christianity in Anglo-Saxon England. One day in 597, Pope Gregory spotted some handsome men being auctioned in Rome's slave market.

He was told they were Angles, from a distant land, where people sacrificed animals to worship fake gods like Woden and Thor, whom we still remember in the names of Wednesday and Thursday.

Angles were heathens, so it was OK to make them slaves.

In a cheerful quip, the Pope remarked that they were not Angles, but angels. He sent his top missionary, Augustine, to convert the English.

Augustine never got beyond Canterbury, still the headquarters of the Anglican Church.

His associate, Mellitus, first Bishop of London, was given the tough job of converting the East Saxons, whose kingdom covered Essex, Middlesex and parts of Herts.

Mellitus asked the Pope for advice on handling the stubborn Essex pagans.

Gregory recommended a softly-softly approach. Don't destroy the old temples. Sprinkle them with holy water, turn them into churches. Encourage the people to attend familiar buildings, and slip quietly into their new religion.

In fact, Londoners soon kicked Mellitus out. Not until St Cedd appeared around 653 did Essex become Christian.

But Pope Gregory's strategy probably explains our local horned church. It's just an updated form of your old religion, locals were told - look, we've even kept the bull's head that you used to worship.

Gregory's letter also throws light on another Hornchurch tradition.

He noted that the Anglo-Saxons sacrificed oxen to their gods. They must be given "some solemnity" in compensation.

A sacred day should be chosen for them to "celebrate with religious feasting", killing cattle to give thanks for their new religion.

On Christmas Day, Hornchurch people gathered in a field beside St Andrew's church for a wrestling competition.

The prize was a roast boar's head, which was carried in procession to a local pub, where the winner shared it with his friends.

The pagan ceremonies honouring Woden and Thor had been turned into a Christmas sports event, with a boar substituted for a bull.

Hornchurch Priory was a branch of the "Hospital" of St Bernard, at Montjoux high in the Alps. Large friendly dogs from Montjoux rescued travellers from the snow.

Montjoux was originally dedicated to the Roman god Jupiter (Jove). The priors turned it into a Christian site. Maybe they were brought to Hornchurch to stamp out a still-persisting pagan culture.

Wrestling for the boar developed into a contest between Hornchurch and Romford. Sad to say, the Romford lads were a rough crowd, and the Christmas ceremony was eventually abolished in 1868.