It is often suggested that the Strood, Mersea's ancient causeway, was built by the Romans. Tales abound of a ghostly Roman centurion, pacing the Strood on stormy nights. However, when Romans first arrived on Mersea in the 1st century AD, sea levels were considerably lower than today. It would have been possible to cross the saltings at most states of the tide, following a track reinforced with a layer of sand and gravel, of which evidence was found in 1978. Similar evidence, found by archaeologists in 1912, points to another Roman ford due north of the Barrow. It is also possible that the present Ray Island was also used as a crossing point.
In the centuries following the departure of the Romans and the settlement of pagan Germanic tribes around the coast, sea levels gradually rose, and overland access to the island would have become more difficult. Little is known about Mersea's earliest Saxon inhabitants. However, the Anglo-Saxon historian, Bede, recorded that, by the late 7th century, Christianity had once again become established in Essex and churches began to be built, often on the site of derelict Roman buildings.
Some time after St Cedd founded St Peter's Minster at Bradwell, a church was constructed among the ruins of West Mersea's Roman villa. Anglo-Saxon wills, dating from the mid 10th century, prove the existence of a minster, or mother-church, at Mersea, dedicated to St Peter. This clearly predates the present building of which the oldest part, the west tower, dates from around 1046. Sadly, no physical evidence of the earlier church survives, apart from one inconspicuous fragment of stone rebuilt into the south wall of the nave. It is carved with an Anglo-Saxon interlace design, widely used in the early 8th century in intricate works of art, ranging from the Lindisfarne Gospels to the Bewcastle churchyard cross.
Sketch of the Anglo-Saxon carved stone from West Mersea Church (H.M Carver)
Interestingly, the likely date of Mersea's first minster church coincides almost exactly with the construction of the Strood causeway, which has now been conclusively dated to between 684 and 702 AD. When a water-main was being laid in 1978, workmen digging a trench for the pipeline discovered two parallel rows of squared timber posts, preserved deep beside the modern causeway. Archaeologists excavated the remains of huge oak piles, driven through the sand and gravel of the Roman ford, stretching for about 60 metres (200 feet) northwards from the island. They speculated that originally there may have been between 3000 and 5000 piles, supporting a timber walkway between Mersea and the mainland.
The discovery of the timber piles caused great excitement, and seven were taken to Sheffield University for dating. Dendrochronology (identifying sequences of tree rings), confirmed by radio carbon analysis, proved that the construction of the causeway had begun around 1,300 years ago. Some of the timber piles had come from fairly young oak trees, while others were over 150 years old when felled. One of these ancient posts, 2.24 metres (7 feet 4 inches) high and shaped with an adze by an Anglo-Saxon labourer, can be seen on display in Mersea Museum.
The highly accurate dating of the Strood timbers has confirmed the major significance of this site. No other causeway datable to the 7th or 8th centuries is known in Britain. Its construction, without modern machinery, would have cost a vast amount in man-hours and materials, with timber transported from woodland over a wide surrounding area. Mersea Island must have been of considerable importance to require such an exceptional undertaking.
In their 1982 article in Essex Archaeology and History, from which the above information is drawn, Philip Crummy, Jennifer Hillam and Carl Crossan conclude that the causeway must have been built to allow the minster 's priests and visitors to cross regularly to and from the mainland. They also suggest that this massive and costly project may have been ordered by the East-Saxon king. Coincidentally, the king of Essex from 665 to 695 was the so-called 'monk-king', Saint Sebbi. He was described by Bede as devoting himself to 'religious exercises, frequent prayer, and acts of mercy,' and one who 'preferred a retired, monastic life to all the riches and honours of a kingdom.' Bede further reports that it was only his wife's refusal to be divorced from him that prevented Sebbi from abdicating and entering a monastery before his final illness.
What can be more likely than that the saintly King Sebbi took a personal interest in the construction of the minster church at Mersea? It is quite possible that, drawn by the beauty and solitude of the island, he hoped to spend time here in prayer and contemplation, and ordered the construction of the causeway to ease his journey. Whatever the reality, it is clear that at the end of the 7th century this island was a significant religious centre, its minster church made easily accessible by the construction of an impressive project of early civil engineering, Mersea's Anglo-Saxon Strood.
Horse and Cart crossing the Strood c1925
Strood pile. The wood pile was excavated from under the Strood by workmen in 1978.
This is one of a number of piles recovered.
This article was published in Museum Piece in Mersea Island Courier, 5 November 2010
A report on the piles, "Mersea Island: the Anglo-Saxon Causeway" by Philip Crummy, Jennifer Hillam and Carl Crossnan is online
or there is hardcopy in the Resource Centre in Essex Archaeology and History, Volume 14.
Preserving Mersea's oldest roads
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