There is a general scatter of prehistoric material across both the town and abbey area, some dating to the Mesolithic and Neolithic periods, but majority being of Bronze Age date. There also appears to have been a Roman settlement in the area, although not appearing on a scale that would indicate anything of an urban density.
Historically Waltham Abbey consisted of the Abbey and the town, which were interdependent. There appears to have been a royal estate at Waltham Abbey, and it was also the hundred meeting-place. The Saxon church also appears to have been a Minster church. The foundations of three successive pre-Norman churches have been identified (Huggins 1992). Church 1 is thought to date to the 7th century, and may possibly date to the period after the East Saxons were converted (in 604) by King Sabert and Bishop Mellitus. Its location on or adjacent to what is thought to be a royal site is certainly suggestive of royal patronage. It was this church which became the centre of the Minster parish whose establishment was confirmed by 673 at the Synod of Hertford. Church 2 has been dated to the 8th century, and it is to this church that legend has it that Tovi brought a miraculous stone cross in about 1030. Harold Godwinson (later King Harold) increased the original foundation by rebuilding and extending the church and creating a college of secular canons in c.1060, legend also has it that he was buried there. Saxon burials have been found within the monastic precinct, and a late 10th to 11th century hall to the north of the church has been excavated.
There is documentary and excavation evidence for a rectangular enclosure (known as the Eldeworth), within which the medieval market-place developed. However the angle of this enclosure in relation to the medieval street-pattern suggests that the enclosure may pre-date the market-place. The line of the ditch has been excavated at several places, revealing finds dating from the Bronze Age to the medieval periods. The dating of this enclosure is therefore obscure, however it is possible that it served as a boundary to the late Saxon/early medieval settlement.
Not much is known about the Saxon settlement, but the Domesday book shows it to have had a sizeable population in 1066. The ‘Viking Hall’ to the north of the church is thought to lie within the area of the royal enclosure, and the excavator suggests that it was the hunting-lodge that Tovi was building when he moved the miraculous cross to Waltham Abbey. The Minster church lay to the south of this enclosure, and to the south of the church was the Saxon village. It has been suggested that the Saxon settlement comprised small nucleated groups along the river, in what is Town Mead, Cob Mead, Padipol, Chingford Mead and Holyfield Mead (R. M. Huggins, 1998)
The Domesday book depicts a sizeable town with a growing population in 1086. In 1177 the secular canons were replaced by the Augustinian priory which in 1184 was upgraded to Abbey statusTwo further successive churches were built on the site. Church 4 was the second collegiate priory church built c.1090-1150. Church 5 was the Augustinian church of 1177. The monastic precinct, following its establishment in 1177, formed the dominant topographical feature in medieval and post-medieval Waltham Abbey (the wall dates to c.1370). Within the precinct were the principal abbey buildings including the church and the canons lodgings.
The monastic grange was located to the north-east of the precinct. It was partially excavated (with adjoining Veresmead) in advance of the construction of a relief-road and car-park. Parchmarks in Veresmead indicate that further buildings were located there. Three water-courses run into Waltham Abbey; from east to west these are the Corn Mill Stream, the Lower Mill Stream and the River Lea. The first two of these are artificial watercourses; the Lower Mill stream is thought to have been constructed to serve the mill that had been present in 1066, whilst the Cornmill Stream may have been built by 1086 to serve the additional mills mentioned in the Domesday Book.
The medieval town lay immediately to the south of the monastic precinct. An excavation at 6, 6A and 7 Church Street showed that the start of the medieval urban sequence in this area may date to the Saxo-Norman period (Clarke, Gardiner and Huggins, 1993). Permission to hold a fair was granted in the early twelfth century, and a market confirmed at the end of that century. Excavation (Huggins, 1988b) in the centre of the Market Square found a building which has been interpreted as the Moot Hall (mentioned in 1456). It was built after 1250 and remained in use until the post-medieval period. A rental of c.1235 also mentions the presence of a number of shops and The Cage (the Abbot’s prison) in the Market Square. Excavation on the ground adjacent to the Crown Inn on the east side of Romeland and at Reformation House on the west side showed that the area had been a swamp until the ground level was raised in the late 12th or early 13th century. Excavations in Sewardstone Street revealed medieval occupation beginning in the 11th century, with the town extent expanding southwards down Sewardstone Street in the 15th century.
The medieval Moot Hall was replaced by the Market House in 1670/80. The livestock market and butchers’ shambles used to take place in the market place and the yards of the inns along Sun Street. This portion of the market was moved to the Romeland area in the 1850’s, thus relieving the central area of the congestion and disturbance caused by the movement of livestock. Some of the buildings on the western and northern sides of the Market Square date to the 16th century. The abbey was dissolved in 1540, and by the 1550’s the demolition of the main portion of the abbey buildings had taken place, with the exception of the nave of the monastic church which was retained as the parish church. In the 1590’s Abbey House was built immediately to the north-east of the church. Some of the medieval farm buildings continued in use until the nineteenth century when they were supplemented by additional post-medieval structures.
One of the major employers in the post-medieval period was the Royal Gunpowder Factory, located to the west of the town. There is documentary evidence that by the mid-1660s gunpowder was being produced in various water-driven mills on North Site. These were purchased by the Government in 1787, and between 1801 and 1806 the factory expanded southwards with the creation of the Lower Island Works. By the 1880s the factory was to expand again with the creation of South Site, a purpose-built guncotton works. This was quickly followed by a nitro-glycerine and guncotton works on North Site. Many technological innovations and developments in working practices took place on the Waltham Abbey site, and when explosive manufacture ended in 1945 it became the most important non-nuclear research centre in Britain. In addition post-medieval Waltham Abbey had the usual collection of small-scale manufacturing sites that were needed to service the requirements of an urban population; these included flour mills, an iron smithy and several breweries. In the 18th century there was also a calico printing works, later silk printing, in the fields to the west of the abbey. By 1935 a substantial chemical factory, the ‘Britannica Works’ had been established on the eastern side of the town.