It was called "Legra" in the Domesday Book
By the Rev. James Allen (Vicar of Layer de la Haye)
Article from East Anglian Magazine May 1964
The name Layer de la Haye is one of the most romantic and attractive names in the Colchester area and visitors to the
village are very interested in its origin. The original name is to be found in Domesday Book (1086), where it is
found as "Legra." This is probably a Latinized form of the Saxon name. Up to the thirteenth century it appears in
various documents at Legra, Leigre, or Leghere.
The are two theories of the origin of the name; one is that it is associated with the old Norse word leirr or
leger, which means "clay." P.H. Reaney, in his book The Place Names of Essex, says that this theory cannot
be supported etymologically. In any case it is only partly true, geologically speaking, for there is, as well as
clay, a great deal of gravel in the parish.
The second theory is that the answer to the problem is to be found in the existence of the Layer Brook, for this name
Legra or Leger was given to three distinct settlements in the vicinity, namely Layer de la Haye, Layer Marney and
Layer Breton. P.H. Reaney points out that this name Legra or Leger is identical with another river name which gave
us Leicester (Ligeraceaster) and also with the French river Loire. This sounds a most feasible explanation.
The second part of the village's name traces its origin to Normandy. The original family de la Haye most probably
came from the Val de la Haye, twenty-two miles east of Rouen, the home of Maurice de Haia. At this place there was an
establishment of Knights Templars who may have had some connection with the interesting manor of Blind Knights in the
parish of Layer de la Haye.
At the time of the Norman Conquest, a Saxon freeman named Aelric was lord of the manor of Layer de la Haye. He had
cleared 330 acres of forest land. William the Conqueror gave the manor of Aelric to Eustace, Earl of Boulogne, who
was the grandfather of Queen Maud, the wife of King Stephen; thus, the manor became Crown property.
The first account of a tenant of the Earls of Boulogne appears in a charter of 1128 which states that the Benedictine
abbey of St. John the Baptist at Colchester owned the church of Hea (Layer de la Haye) and two thirds of the tithe of
Legra, the demesne of Walter de la Haye. A descendant of Maurice de Haia known as Juliana de Haia held Layer de la
Haye before 1185. Presumably the name of the parish as we know it today was given to it at that time. It appears in
many different forms from the beginning of the thirteenth century. Through many people, including the local
authorities, have added hyphens to the name, there is no historical authority for this. In ancient documents the name
appears without hyphens.
The de la Hayes of Layer were very generous benefactors of the Benedictine abbey of St. John the Baptist at Colchester.
A member of the family, Hugh de la Haye, was abbot from 1130 to 1147. In a charter granted in 1189 by Richard I to
the first priory in England of the Augustinian Canons, at St. Botolph's, Colchester, they held "the church of Legra
and all its emoluments," presumably tithes and lands. The priory also provided a parish priest. There seems to be no
record as to why the property changed hands from the abbey to the priory at this time.
The de la Hayes were lords of the manor until the death of Ralph de la Haye, but the manor remained in the hands of his
widow, Lucia, during her lifetime and then reverted to one William de Munchensi. He had, for some reason, claimed the
property after the death of Ralph, but Lucia laid claim to it as a joint property "wherewith her husband had endowered
her when he espoused her at the church door."
The lands were forfeited to Queen Eleanor in 1291 on account of the misdemeanour of the son of William de Munchensi, but they were restored on condition that he took part in the Crusades.
The arrival of the Black Death wiped out many in Layer de la Haye, including the Munchensi's. After the plague was past the monks of the Augustinian priory began to restore the derelict church. They rebuilt the nave, the tower and
the north porch. Later they rebuilt the chancel arch and placed in the belfry the church's oldest bell. This bell, the second largest, is said to have been cast by a woman, Joanna Sturdy, in 1459. Her husband, John, who died in
1458, was a renowned bellfounder on Sudbury and his widow continued the industry. The bell, which is still used,
bears the Latin inscription In multis annis resonet campana Johannis ("May John's bell ring for many years").
In 1495 we hear of the first recorded vicar of Layer de la Haye - a Ralph Richardson. We also hear of the theft of a
missal from Layer church by one Thomas Lymenour who, as a debtor, had taken sanctuary at St. John's abbey. He left the abbey on the feast of St. Bartholomew in 1413 and committed his crime at Layer. He was caught by a monk, tried by the abbot and fined forty shillings.
The next important lords of the manor were the Teys who gave their name to the villages of Marks Tey, Great Tey and Little Tey. They were a family of considerable standing in the vicinity and acquired large estates, including that of the manor of Layer de la Haye. The first member of the family to be heard of as the lord of the manor was Sir
Robert Tey, and he was succeeded by his grandson in 1426.
A great-grandson, John Tey, during the Wars of the Roses, was ordered by Henry VI to resist the Earl of Warwick, the
Kingmaker. John, we are told, "was not to be hanged for talking," and placed the motto tais en temps in a window of his manor house, which stood on the site of the present Layer Hall for more than three centuries.
A descendant, Thomas Tey, lived at the time of the dissolution of the monasteries and died in 1543. He was buried in a grey Purbeck marble tomb, with which is combined an Easter Sepulchre, on the north side of the chancel.
A member of the Tey family became vicar in 1569, and it is said it was he who provide the church with its Elizabethan
paten or cover and chalice, which are still among the treasures of the parish. The manor after that time changed
hands frequently and the next interesting owner was a Colonel John Brown, who served under the Duke of Marlborough and
became a general in 1754. In 1756 the general made a will in which he expressed a wish to be buried in Layer de la
Haye churchyard, and he left £100 to the poor of the parish. He eventually died in 1764 and was buried in the gardens
of his house in France. His remains were brought to England and reburied in a "handsome vault" at Layer de la Haye.
Legend has it that the manor of Blind Knights, which lies a mile south-east of the church, was during the times of the
Crusades a kind of hospital for those knights who had lost their limbs and eyesight in battle. A more prosaic
explanation offered by a recent historian is that the manor at one time belonged to a blind man whose name was
Knight! There is, however, no real evidence for either explanation, but the former ones has a more romantic appeal to
the imagination, and is more feasible if only for the reason that surnames as such did not exist in early medieval
days. The name Blind Knights, however, appears in a document of 1364. The house itself is very ancient, with
medieval wooden semi-circular and curved doorway arches. It is possible that a house has existed on this site for
more than eight centuries. Outside the building at the foundations of a former bakery is some ancient brickwork which
incorporates some Caen stone and Roman brick, similar to building material used in the chancel of the church.
In 1289, John, the son of Adam de Ry, gave 166 acres of land at Layer de la Haye to St. John's abbey, and the name is
perpetuated in the name of the manor of Rye, now known as Rye Farm. At the end of the fifteenth century the abbey
built a house on this land, and this is now called "The Greate House." There was originally a toll gate across the
road immediately opposite the house and this probably accounts for the name "Gate House," now corrupted to "Greate
House." After the dissolution of the monasteries in 1536, Sir Thomas Audeley appropriated the manors of Rye and Blind Knights, together with the mill and the patronage of the living, and from that time for nearly 400 years all the former monastic lands and property in Layer de la Haye formed part of the Berechurch Hall estate.
The parish church stands on a prominence overlooking the South Essex reservoir, and beyond can be seen the River
Blackwater and the Bradwell atomic power station. From the church tower can be seen the parish churches of Layer
Breton, Birch, Great Wigborough, Peldon and Abberton. Until recently the church had no dedication, but in 1962 it was
given the dedication of St John the Baptist on account of the association of the parish in the past with the
Benedictine abbey of St. John the Baptist. Strange to say, there can be found no record anywhere of an earlier
dedication, and it is assumed that though the monks cared for the parish the church was regarded as a chapel of ease.
A portion of the south-east angle of the nave is Norman and the chancel are mainly twelfth-century, but the rest of
the church apart from the south aisle is fourteenth-century. The south aisle was added in the last century [19th]. The
church has a north porch with a fourteenth-century gable, and a tower of the same date with diagonal buttresses and
On the interior walls of the tower can be traced two blocked-up doorways, one of which led to the minstrels' gallery.
The gallery, which was removed in the nineteenth century, also contained a barrel organ which played a limited number
of tunes. This instrument may now be seen in the Colchester museum. The Tey tomb stands in the chancel on the north
side, and on the south side are a fifteenth-century piscina and a blocked door and window.
In 1962 a new window of clear glass, which gives a beautiful view over the reservoir, was placed on the south side of
the chancel in memory of the late Miss Emily Digby.
A great deal of Roman brick was used in the construction of the chancel and tower. One may speculate as to the origin
of these Roman bricks. So far there are no records of Roman habitation in the parish of Layer de la Haye, though it
is conceivable that some important people from the Roman colonia (Colchester) may have built themselves villas in this
area. One the other hand, the builder-monks may have brought a good deal of their building material from the ruined
Roman houses in Colchester.
The tower contains five bells inscribed as follows:
1. "Thomas Mears of London fecit 1792" (30in.)
2. "Thomas Gardiner Sudbury fecit 1724" (32in.)
3. "Miles Graye made me 1673£ (34in.)
4. "In multis Annis Resonet Campana Johnannis" (39in.)
5. "Miles Graye made me 1622" (42in.)
The Miles Graye who made the fifth bell was the father of the maker of the third bell. On bell number two are to
be found very clear impressions of eight coins of the reign of George I. The bells were inspected in 1904 and
declared to be not in ringing order. Since that time the bells have been chimed only by means of ropes which reach to
the floor of the tower. It is pious hope that one may once again hear these bells properly rung? There is a local
tradition of bellringing after a death; three for a man, two for a woman, one for a child. The registers of the
church date from 1752, a former incumbent having burnt the earlier records, which dated at least from 1678.
An interesting incumbent was John Argor, who was vicar in 1632 and who later became a Presbyterian in Cromwell's time,
and was appointed vicar of Braintree. He was ejected from his benefice in 1662 although episcopally ordained, but his
parishioners supported him to the extent of £100 - a goodly sum for those days - as a token of esteem. Under the
Five-mile Act, which forbade ejected ministers to live within five miles of their former parishes, Argor moved to
Copford and was licensed to preach at Copford Hall, the home of one of Cromwell's generals, and at Birch, which were
"places of meeting of the Presbyterian way."
When John Argor died in 1679 at the age of seventy-seven a friend wrote: "He was a very lovely Christian.... When his
livelihood was taken from him, he lived comfortably by faith." When asked by a friend how he would live after being
ejected from his living he answered: "As long as God is my housekeeper, I believe He would provide for me and mine."
By contrast, one of the clergy, who ministered at Layer de la Haye church in the nineteenth century was Charles Hewitt,
who was notorious for his drinking habits and for falling asleep in the pulpit. On one occasion when this happened the
clerk woke him up to inform him that the congregation had gone home, "They're all out sir," said the clerk. Hewitt
replied: "All out? Then fill 'em up again!" He was at one time headmaster of the grammar school at Colchester and was
described as a "gentleman who paid no attention to the duties of a schoolmaster."
During the incumbency of John Heyliger Dewhurst in the middle of the nineteenth century the church was restored and
enlarged. This was necessary because the population had by that time nearly doubled since the beginning of the
century. The number of houses increased from twenty-five to 113. In 1884 the church was considerably shaken by the
same earthquake that caused damage to a number of buildings in the area. Layer de la Haye is still growing and the
population is increasing all the time. Who knows but that in the future if may unfortunately lose its village status
and become a suburb of the spreading university town of Colchester?
An article in Essex Countryside May 1964 pages 316-318. Transcribed by Anne Taylor Aug 2020