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Historic Town Summaries: Braintree


There is evidence for prehistoric activity in and around Braintree, including a Late Iron Age ditched enclosure containing roundhouses on the site of the later Roman town.   A second bank and ditch is known to have run along the southern side of the Coggeshall and Cressing Roads.  It has been suggested that this feature is an Iron Age oppidum enclosing an area of about 50 ha on the northern slope of the Brain valley (Drury, 1976), however this has not been proven.

The Roman Small Town appears to have been confined within a triangular area between the main Roman roads of Stane Street (Rayne Road) and the Sudbury-Chelmsford route (London Road). Within the area of the Roman town there appears to have been two phases of development.  The first century town was concentrated in the area of the modern Pierrefitte Way, and there is some suggestion of deliberate planning in the initial layout of the town with the minor roads and major boundary ditches running at right-angles to London Road, forming blocks approximately 145 m apart.  In the second and third centuries the town expanded into the Rayne Road and George Yard area, and there appear to have been a second phase of road building, which cut across the original layout.  The cemetery was located on the western edge of the built-up area.

There is evidence that there was a Saxon settlement in Braintree, but there is nothing to suggest that it was ever urban in nature.   Occupation remains have been recovered from the area to  the south-west of  St Michael’s Church, and the church itself may have had a Saxon predecessor.  In the later Saxon period the Braintree area formed part of the estates of a Saxon thegn, Aetheric, who willed his Braintree lands to the Bishops of London in  991.  The Bishops of London’s estate at Braintree was probably administered from Chapel Hill, where their manor house was certainly sited in the medieval period.

The early settlement focus for Braintree was probably located in the area of St Michael’s Church, with a second focus around the Bishop’s manor house and St John’s Chapel at Chapel Hill. It has been postulated that St John’s Chapel was the original parish church for Braintree, and St Michael’s was a subsidiary chapel, the roles being reversed at the beginning of the thirteenth century when the ‘new town’ was created.  In 1199 a grant was made to  the Bishop of London of a weekly market and annual fair.  As a consequence of this grant he founded a ‘new town’ at Braintree on Episcopal estate land, on the eastern side of the main road junction.  In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries Braintree became an important cloth centre.

Braintree was still an important cloth town at the beginning of the post-medieval period, specialising in the manufacture of bays and says. However, the woollen cloth industry went into terminal decline in the eighteenth century, and the nineteenth century saw the rise of the silk industry, the principal firms of which were Courtauld and Walters.  The importance of the market and the retail trade also continued to grow.  In addition the first half of the  twentieth century  was dominated by the growth of metal manufacturing firms, notably Crittalls.  In 1939 the parishes of Bocking and Braintree were united to form a single Urban District.