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Grisly ‘ancient custom’ once held at Upminster church

PUBLISHED: 12:00 14 October 2012

St Mary Magdalene Church, Church Lane, 
North Ockendon,

St Mary Magdalene Church, Church Lane, North Ockendon,

Archant

» North Ockendon church is one of the quietest places in Havering. Yet centuries ago it was a scene of hideous torture.

In 1075, nine years after the battle of Hastings, William the Conqueror wanted to build a fortress on a ridge overlooking the Thames in Berkshire. Today we call it Windsor Castle.

But the land belonged to the monks of Westminster Abbey, so the king ordered a swap for two manors in Essex. One of these was North Ockendon or Wochendona.

The king’s grant included “the church in which the examination of the judgement of fire and water is held by ancient custom”.

Fire and water were still used to try criminal cases until around 1200.

In the ordeal by fire, the accused had to walk holding a red-hot iron. The burns were bandaged for three days. If they were seen healing, you were innocent.

The alternative was to be thrown into water. If innocent, the water would embrace you, but if the water rejected you, you were guilty. In serious cases, you would then have your right foot cut off.

After 1176 your right hand might also be chopped.

Ordeal by water was later used to try suspected witches. It wasn’t much of a choice, you either drowned or suffered amputation.

These ordeals were held at churches because priests were needed to bless the hot iron and sanctify the water.

There is no recorded case of judicial torture in Norman times at North Ockendon. But the water may be a clue. There is a well next to the churchyard.

Local legend associates it with missionary St Cedd, who converted East Saxons to Christianity after 633AD.

He is reputed to have baptised converts here suggesting a tradition of a sacred place.

Gallows

There were 23 families in North Ockendon at the time of the Domesday Book in 1086, so there was never much demand for a church.

It’s likely the well was a sacred site in pagan times.

Pagan sites were often taken over by the church.

There’s another clue in the dedication of North Ockendon church to St Mary Magdalene.

Mary was the woman who bathed the feet of Jesus with her tears. It would be an obvious story to transfer to the sacred well and ease pagan Saxons into the new faith.

The holy well, fed by its constant spring, would be an obvious place for the ordeal by water.

When the 1075 document talked of the ordeal or fire and water at North Ockendon “by ancient custom”, perhaps it had not taken place for centuries – since pagan times.

However, 200 years after that 1075 charter, the Abbot of Westminster claimed the right of gallows on the Abbey’s North Ockendon property – the privilege of hanging his own thieves.

North Ockendon is the only part of Greater London east of the M25. That happened by accident.

Suburban Upminster and Cranham were added to Hornchurch Urban District in 1934, and the next year part of North Ockendon, possibly as it was assumed housing would spread eastward.

Happily, North Ockendon was never built up.

Happily, too, nobody was forced to prove their innocence by carrying a red-hot iron or floating in a well there for a thousand years either.


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