People have lived in Finchingfield for thousands of years, living in the valley carved by the melting ice-age glaciers, which formed the village pond and deposited a boulder of Northumbrian dolerite (near Street Farm Barns). The oldest flint tool found in Finchingfield dates from around 12,000 years ago but the finest discovery is a Neolithic polished axe head, 3,000 years old. Archaeologists have excavated two Roman settlements in the parish revealing tiles, pottery, oyster shells and deer horns. A bee-hive quern for grinding corn was discovered in the garden of Cabbaches, thought to date to the period AD 50-150.
In Anglo-Saxon times, around AD 500, the Kingdom of Essex was founded – East Seaxe – East Saxons. Finchingfield’s Saxon name was Phincinghefelda, which suggests that its early origin was ‘land cleared by the people of Phinc’.
In 1086, Finchingfield was recorded as a settlement in the Domesday Book. Finchingfield’s population was listed as having 124 households, which places the village in the largest 20% of settlements recorded. Before the Norman conquest in 1066, Finchingfield was the property of Earl Aelfgar, the Queen and other Anglo Saxons. After 1066, Finchingfield’s land, livestock, woodland, homes and slaves became the property of the Normans, including King William 1, Count Eustace of Boulogne, Count Alan of Brittany and Hervy de Ispania. It was Hervy de Ispania who first built the house known as Spains Hall. Originally a moated wooden building, in 1585 it was built into a brick Elizabethan country house, home of the Kempe family and later Samuel Ruggles and his descendants, the Ruggles-Brise family.
The oldest building in Finchingfield, built of stone, is the Church of St John the Baptist. The large Norman tower dates from 1170 with other parts constructed in the late 13th and 14th centuries. The Guildhall dates from 1470, housing a priest, with shops and workshops on the ground floor and a large hall for Guild meetings, later used as a school for boys and almshouses. Throughout the village there are superbly preserved houses that date from around 1500, some with large flamboyant chimney stacks indicating a period of wealth which reveal a glimpse into pre-industrial England. Life was difficult for some Finchingfield residents though. The Parish Overseer, elected annually, made money and goods available to the poor and a Workhouse opened in 1767 to house the needy.
The 1851 census records the population of Finchingfield as 2,594 people. Many of these villagers would have been farm workers, living in cottages ‘tied’ to the Spains Hall estate. Farming was labour intensive then and there were eight windmills in the parish. Only one windmill remains, which ceased working in 1890. It is a Post Mill and is the smallest one of its kind in Essex. An important local industry was straw plaiting, undertaken by women and children in the village to supplement incomes. The plaited straw was bought by merchants for weaving into bonnets and hats. In 1922, the village boasted: a Doctor, a Thatcher, a Plumber, a Carpenter, a Carrier, two Butchers, two Bakers, two Blacksmiths, two Boot Repairers, five Pubs, six Grocers, a Post Office, a Clothier/Furniture/Hardware dealer, a Fire Engine and Fire Station and a Garage for petrol and car repairs.
All this and more of Finchingfield’s history can be explored in the Guildhall which includes interactive exhibits and some unique Finchingfield gems.
Information courtesy of Finchingfield Guildhall.
Exhibits at the Guildhall.