History of St. Giles
There is no doubt that the St. Giles Masonic Centre is steeped in history. Although not the oldest church or building in Colchester, it forms an integral part of its history. The following sections should help to enlighten anyone researching the building, at least as a starting point for further study.
St. Giles’, occasionally called St. Sepulchre’s in the 17th or the early 18th century, had an urban parish which was the largest of those serving the population of this ancient borough, with 1501 acres recorded under its administration, whose pre– Domesday boundaries probably belonged to a Saxon Thane.
The church itself was probably built soon after the foundation of Eudo FitzHubert’s (a.k.a. de Rie or the Steward) abbey in 1097 and may have replaced a wooden Anglo-Saxon church, ministered by Siric(us) and dedicated to St. John the Evangelist which stood, as suggested by ancient texts, c. 100 yards away on the site of a Roman cemetery . St. Giles’ was recorded between 1165 and 1171 when the bishop of London confirmed it to St. John’s Abbey and it is believed to have been built to cater for the tenants and staff of this nearby abbey. Unfortunately, the only remains of the Abbey today is the spectacular but heavily restored Abbey Gate, now leading to the Officer’s Club of Colchester Garrison.
It was named after a 7th-8th century Christian hermit saint and originated from the Rhône region of France who became listed as one of the 14 Holy Helpers. One can easily make a connection that the French invasion post 1066 was the link to the name, but there is no documentary evidence to suggest why the name was coined. It is more than likely that Hugh of York or Gilbert, the first two Abbots, were key to preserving the memory of this highly venerated saint out of popularity at the time more than anything else.
The Roman Catholic Church exercised a great deal of power over the people in this period where legacies, tithes and obits were a chief source of income into the coffers, perpetuating ecclesiastical control in this feudal system. Throughout the 13th—15th & early part of 16th century, arguments constantly flared up between the hub of the church in Rome and the Monarchy. These came to a head and all the way up to the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1538 and the advent of Anglican control by King Henry VIII.
During the 14th Century ‘Black Death’ reduced the population of Europe by up to two-thirds and as recorded in Colchester in particular 1000 of the 4000 strong population were lost in 1348. This must have been a serious blow to the Catholic Church and economic progression all the way up to the latter stages of the 17th Century.
In the 16th Century a group of exiles from Flanders, escaping the tyrannical persecution of the Duke of Alva, were given the use of St. Giles’. These people had provided renewed impetus and upturn in the town’s fortunes establishing the cloth trade. It was not uncommon that the cloth was traded on St. John’s Green, and a fair was held annually at Midsummer.
Religious turmoil still prevailed throughout the latter stages of the 16th century, changing direction with the change of monarchs and this is seen reflected in the various conformism or non-conformism of the curates, rectors and pastors of the time. The church escaped near total destruction in 1648 unlike the remaining parts of St. John’s Abbey under Lucas ownership. Post Civil War St. Giles’ sat badly damaged, only a small part of it being used for over 100 years as recorded by the Rev. Phillip Morant in his surveys of Colchester circa 1748.
As is the case everywhere the upkeep in the church is reflected in the wealth of the people. Strong trade breeds wealth, and legacies meant that restoration of the church could be undertaken. Extensive restoration took place in 1819, and further fund raising in 1886 was started to restore the old church or build a new one. The former was chosen and in 1907 restoration of the Chancel, North Chapel and erection of a South Vestry was achieved.
In 1952 the growing need to reduce the number of these churches needing regular upkeep by local congregations led to 5 of the church buildings being passed over to secular hands. Two of them, All Saints in the High Street and Holy Trinity with its Saxon Tower, were successfully converted into museums of Natural History and Country Life respectively. Another, St. Nicholas, a fine Victorian Gothic building by the well-known architect Sir George Gilbert Scott, was demolished in 1955 – to make way for commercial development; whilst a fourth, St. Martin’s survived as a hall for plays but now subsequently has fallen into disuse. In 1950 St. Barnabas’s became the church for a new parish taken from St. Giles’s, East Donyland, and St. Botolph’s. Already in 1942 St. Giles’s was regarded by many as redundant, too close to more attractive churches, and it was closed on the reorganisation of Colchester parishes. The church was closed in 1953, and was for around 20 years used as a store by St. John’s Ambulance Brigade. In 1972 it was sold and converted into a Masonic hall.
The only bell, of 1627 by the bell foundry “Miles Gray”, was cracked in 1881 and became unusable by 1954. The bell was recast into a smaller version - about half the size, the remaining metal having been sold to cover costs. This new bell is now in use in St. Peter’s Church, Goldhanger, near Maldon and rings as the A Flat Treble in a peal of eight.
On 24th February 1950, the building was given a Grade II listed status affording it some protection under English Law and statutory planning control under guidance given by English Heritage, and by definition declares it a site of special interest. The present day St. Giles’ is not a church. In modern terms it would be considered to be a converted ancient church adapted to its present day use. Whilst the exterior is still much the same, the interior is dual purpose and serves as a centre for Freemasonry and also serves the wider community as a banqueting suite and heritage site.
It is heartening to think that although secular activity is to the fore, that it is not in the bounds of ungodliness and therefore really still in character with its original purpose and construction.