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aerial view of Copped Hall and grounds. Via Copped Hall Trust.

Aerial view of Copped Hall and grounds. Via Copped Hall Trust.

In 1165 Henry II granted two acres of land to the Fitzaucher family in an area known as Waltham. The Fitzaucher family who served the king as royal huntsmen built the first house on the property.

The house which encompassed a timber-framed hall with service rooms became known as ‘La Coppedehalle’ or Copped Hall. The actual name of Copped Hall was first recorded in 1258. There are different views on the name’s meaning; some say it was from the two pinnacles/turrets on the medieval building coped with lead; others that it was because the hall was built on a hill or peak as ‘cop’ or ‘copp’ was the old English word for the top of a summit, and another view is that the ‘cop’ was referring to the height of the house (about 300 feet) above sea level[1].

Example of a 13th Century timber framed hall. Landmark Trust.

Example of a 13th Century timber-framed hall. Landmark Trust.

By 1303 the estate had expanded to include 60 acres of parkland, 100 acres of arable farmland and 20 acres of meadowlands. By 1337 the house had passed into the ownership of Sir John Shardlow who in 1350 gave the hall and its land to the Abbots of Waltham in exchange for other properties.

So began a fascinating history of a hall and the people who owned it. From a refuge of abbots to a Tudor prison to one of the most important houses in Essex to a burnt-out shell to a project of love, Copped Hall has seen many changes and hopefully, its story will continue for many years to come.

“A Mansion of Pleasure and Privacy”[2]

Waltham Abbey was at the time that Copped Hall came into its possession one of the most important Augustinian Houses in England. The first church was a wooden structure of which nothing remains. It was believed to have been built on the site in 610AD during the reign of Saebert, King of the East Saxons.

By JohnArmagh - Own work, Public Domain, via Wikimedia.

Waltham Abbey. By JohnArmagh – Own work, Public Domain, via Wikimedia.

Two ‘events’ had a profound impact on the Abbey and shaped its future. The first was in around 1025 when Tovi (Tofig) the Proud, a loyal follower of Cnut, had a prophetic dream of a large black flint crucifix buried on top of a hill on his Somerset land[3]. The crucifix was found and brought to Waltham which became known from then on as ‘The Abbey Church of Waltham Holy Cross’. The Abbey became a famous centre of healing and both it and the village grew wealthy from the large number of visiting pilgrims. The second was in 1066. Harold II had stopped to pray at the Abbey which he had rebuilt, refounded and patronised before continuing onwards to Hastings. It is claimed that as he lay dying on the battlefield his last request was for his body to be buried at Waltham Abbey[4]. His body has yet to be found.

As the Abbey prospered as a centre of learning, the Forest continued to be a popular royal hunting location. Copped Hall became a retreat or resting place of retirement for Waltham’s abbots which allowed them the privacy they needed to entertain their guests in a suitably luxurious environment. It is claimed that Henry III, Richard II and Henry VIII were among those who took up the abbots’ offers of hospitality.

The Henry VIII Connection

Hans Holbein the Younger [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Hans Holbein the Younger [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

It is believed that Henry VIII visited Copped Hall on a number of occasions whilst it was in the possession of the Waltham abbots in order to discuss religious matters.

Legend has it that on the 19 May 1536, the day of the execution of Anne Boleyn, Henry was at Copped Hall. The story recounts how it was whilst he was taking a walk among the yew trees with his courtiers that he heard the sound of the signalling cannons which heralded her death[5]. Although the story is only that, a story since Henry is clearly documented as being elsewhere at the time, I personally wish it had!

Unfortunately, even the esteem which Henry had for Waltham and despite the best efforts of its last abbot, Robert Fuller who surrendered the abbey to the King in 1537 could not save it. On the 23 March 1540, the Abbey of Waltham became the last abbey in the country to be dissolved.

Although in theory, Copped Hall, now a three-storey brick built building, became a Royal property, Henry VIII never lived there.

A Royal Prison

Queen Mary Tudor, known as Bloody Mary.

Queen Mary Tudor, known as Bloody Mary.

Mary Tudor’s strict adherence to the Catholic religion caused a deep and irreparable rift between her and her brother, Edward VI. During his short reign, January 1547 to July 1553, Mary was banished from Court and a close watch was kept on her actions and movements.

For at least two of these six years, Mary was kept a virtual prisoner at Copped Hall which she referred to as her “poor howse[6]. Despite the obvious danger and choosing to ignore a warning not to have mass performed either at the Hall or at her other Essex property, New Hall in Boreham, Mary made Copped Hall a centre of Catholicism.

It is also believed that the future Elizabeth I was also briefly imprisoned at the Hall. Eventually, the Hall and the other Essex Mansions did eventually pass to Elizabeth.

Sir Thomas Heneage and a Shakespearean First

Thomas Heneage. Image from Coppend Hall Trust.

Thomas Heneage. Image from Copped Hall Trust.

In August 1564 Elizabeth granted the estate of Copped Hall to one of her favourite and most trusted courtiers, Sir Thomas Heneage.

Heneage began his political career as an MP for Stamford in 1553. He continued his rise to eminence as an MP for a number of other boroughs including Arundel and Essex. He was eventually awarded the position of Gentleman of the Privy Chamber at the Elizabethan Court and knighted in 1577. It was rumoured that Robert Dudley, 1st Earl of Leicester was deeply jealous of Elizabeth and Heange’s flirtatious friendship. Elizabeth was never the easiest monarch to serve and there is evidence that Heneage fell in and out of royal favour but she did honour him with a state visit at Copped Hall in 1568.

When Heneage took ownership of Copped Hall, the building was in a terrible condition and Heneage decided to completely rebuild it, albeit on the same site. He employed the architect John Thorpe to design the new Hall. Thorpe’s design was unusual for the time in that he created a U-shaped building which only partly enclosed the courtyard. The main building was two storeys high with a single storey corridor connecting the main block to the wings. To the south of the main building was a formal garden area. The most impressive feature of Heneage’s Hall was a 174 feet long, 24 feet wide and 23 feet high[7] gallery which occupied the entire top floor of the East Wing (the gallery was destroyed in a hurricane in 1639).

Copped Hall in the time of Thomas Heneage. Image from the Copped Hall Trust.

Copped Hall in the time of Thomas Heneage. Image from the Copped Hall Trust.

Although I have read differing accounts on its location i.e. either the formal garden or gallery, what they do agree on is that the first performance of ‘A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream’ took place at Copped Hall on the occasion of the wedding of Heneage to his second wife, Mary Browne, Countess of Southampton on the 2nd May 1594[8]. The wedding celebration must have been a magnificent event with many influential and wealthy guests attending. Shakespeare more than likely was in attendance and possibly also Francis Walsingham of whom he was a close friend.

Oberon and Titania by William Blake. Image via Wikimedia.

Oberon and Titania by William Blake. Image via Wikimedia.

Heneage died on the 17 October 1595 and he was buried in the Old St Paul’s Cathedral. His grave along with many others were destroyed during the Fire of London. The estate passed to his only daughter Elizabeth by his first wife, Anne Poyntz. Elizabeth divided the estate and sold Copped Hall. In 1623 the Hall became the property of Lionel Cranfield, Earl of Middlesex.

Lord Lionel Cranfield, 1st Earl of Middlesex: A ruthless financier

Lionel Cranfield, 1st Earl of Middlesex. Image via Wikimedia.

Lionel Cranfield, 1st Earl of Middlesex. Image via Wikimedia.

Cranfield was the son of a London merchant. He began his career as a merchant’s apprentice to the importer/exporter Richard Sheppard whose daughter, Elizabeth he married in 1599. The success of his own business enabled him to join the Merchant Adventurers in 1602 and eventually he came to the notice of some powerful men including Henry Howard, Earl of Northampton who became Cranfield’s first patron. Cranfield’s entered royal service in 1605, he rose quickly and in 1621 was made Lord Treasurer[9].

As Treasurer Cranfield had two main aims, to amass as much money for himself as possible and to reform royal finances i.e. to raise revenues and somehow to curb James I flamboyant spending. Cranfield was noted as being ruthless in financial matters[10] and his punitive measures led to him making a number of powerful enemies including another of his patrons, the Duke of Buckingham. Using Cranfield’s opposition to a proposed war with Spain as an excuse, his enemies accused him of “bribery, extortion, oppression and other grievous misdemeanours”[11]. In 1624, Parliament found Cranfield guilty and he was stripped of his office, fined £50,000 and sent to the Tower. Still, in James I good books, Cranfield was finally exonerated and after a year released from the Tower.

Despite being pardoned he never returned to politics and instead retired to his country estate and political obscurity, living at Copped Hall until his death on the 6th August 1645. The Hall passed to his sons and eventually to his daughter, Frances’ son, Charles Sackwell, 6th Earl of Dorset in 1674.

Charles Sackwell: A rapier wit and forgivable rogue

Charles, 6 Earl of Dorset by Kneller. Image via Wikimedia.

Charles, 6 Earl of Dorset by Kneller. Image via Wikimedia.

Sackwell was a renown Royal courtier and wit and a close friend of Lord Rochester and Sir Charles Sedley. Sackwell’s antics often got him into trouble, for instance, Charles and his brother, Edward along with thirteen others were arrested for the robbery and murder of a tanner by the name of Hoppy[12]. Charles and his friends were acquitted on the grounds of mistaken identity i.e. they had thought Hoppy was a highwayman. In general, he was popular and well-liked despite his behaviour, Rochester remarked to Charles II that “he did not know how it was my Lord Dorset might do anything, yet was never to blame[13]. Sackwell was also credited by Pepys of having been responsible for taking Nell Gwyn away from the theatre and the two having “kept merry house at Epson[14] before she became the mistress of Charles II. Although a favourite of Charles II, Sackwell was never popular with James II whose mistress Catherine Sedley, Countess of Dorchester he lampooned. On James II ascension Sackwell retired from court spending more time at his country properties including Copped Hall.

Nell Gwyn by Peter Lely. Image via Wikimedia.

Nell Gwyn by Peter Lely. Image via Wikimedia.

Copped Hall continued during Sackwell’s ownership to play host to royal guests including Charles II and James II. The Hall also acted as a shelter for royalty. For instance, in 1688 Anne’s support for the proposed overthrow of her father, James II and the plan to replace him with her sister Mary and Mary’s husband William of Orange led her in fear to flee Whitehall. Copped Hall was one of the stops she made on her way to Oxford “On the following morning she set out to Epping Forest. In that wild track Dorset possessed a venerable mansion, which has long since been destroy’d. In his hospitable dwelling, the favourite resort of wits and poets, the fugitives made a short stay[15]. On another occasion, after a failed Jacobite kidnap plot in 1696 was thwarted, William of Orange came to the Hall for a rest and refuge.

A New Era: The Conyers Family


Edward Conyers. Image via Copped Hall Trust.

By the time Copped Hall passed into the ownership of Edward Conyers in 1739, it was in a terrible condition due to storm damage and the neglect of the previous occupier, Thomas Webster. Conyers, a wealthy MP and landowner, already owned the Manor of Epping and by buying Copped Hall he reunited the estate which had been previously split up by Heneage’s daughter. Unfortunately, Edward Conyers did not live long enough to enjoy his purchase as he died only three years later.

His son, John decided to abandon the old Hall and build a completely new house in a slightly different position. In the mid-1740s, he hired the architect John Sanderson to make the necessary plans and in 1758 the new Georgian mansion was completed. There is a record that shortly after John Conyers’ death, the Hall was burgled and a quantity of plate was stolen. The stolen goods were traced to Brick Lane in Shoreditch and the thief, Lambert Reading was caught and sentenced to death [16].

John Conyers II inherited the house from his father and added his own mark by refurbishing the rooms with the help of the architect James Wyatt. It is not completely certain if it was under John Conyers II or his father (more likely the latter) but at some point, the great Lancelot Brown was hired to redesign the grounds and gardens. The new garden plan included an impressive four-metre walled garden in which fruit, vegetables and flowers were grown.

Under the Conyers, the hall earned the title of the premier house of Essex and was “celebrated as one of the principal ornaments of the country[17]. The Conyers also turned their attention to the Hall’s estate which had long been neglected by building small tenant cottages, each of which had a small portion of garden allocated to them and also by providing the tenants with a supply of firewood. According to reports this had a civilizing effect on the barbarians and cleared the surrounding forest of an infestation of deer and wood stealers[18].

A Victorian Palladian Mansion

Unfortunately, the Hall’s golden age did not last long. Under John Conyers II son, Henry John Conyers the house again fell into disrepair. Henry was obsessed with hunting spending over £100,000 on his hobby[19] but had no interest in the house and gardens. On his death, the estate passed to his eldest daughter, Julia who continued to live at the Hall with her husband until his death. She eventually sold the Hall to George Wythes, a wealthy railway magnate in 1869.

Foxhunting. Image via George Glazer Gallery.

Foxhunting. Image via George Glazer Gallery.

Wythes younger grandson, Ernest James Wythes who had raised his social position by marrying into the aristocracy inherited the house in 1887. He felt he needed a house which was grander and more suitable to his new status. So he commissioned the architect Charles Eamer Kempe to extend and embellish the house, build a huge conservatory and create a new Italianate architectural garden full of statues, temples, gates and ornate fountains. The estate was so wealthy that in 1900 Wythes employed a huge staff which included 27 house servants and 31 gardeners despite the house only being occupied part of the year[20].

Copped Hall in its Victorian Heyday. Image via Copped Hall Trust.

Copped Hall in its Victorian Heyday. Image via Copped Hall Trust.

An unfortunate accident

During World War I many of the Hall’s male servants went off to war and sadly did not return. In order to keep the estate going, Land Girls were recruited to farm the land and to help produce the much-needed food for the war effort. The Hall itself was handed over to the Army and was used as a barracks for wounded soldiers.

Accounts on how the fire started, differ. Some say it was a staff member who accidentally dropped a lighted cigarette whilst on the roof of the Hall watching Zeppelins being destroyed over Grays in Essex and others that it was started by a careless soldier. The most probable explanation is that the fire was a result of an electrical fault[21]. Whatever the cause, the fire started on a Sunday morning in 1917 in the south-west corner of the Hall. Gardeners and house staff tried to put out the fire by passing buckets of water through the open windows and using hoses but the situation was extremely tricky due to the windy conditions which helped the fire spread. Rare books were thrown out of the windows into buckets, paintings were grabbed and Ernest concentrated on saving his valuables from the wall safe[22]. Even with the assistance of the Loughton Fire Brigade, the fire continued to burn until late on Monday evening.

Detail of stately home on fire c1940s. Image source unknown.

Detail of stately home on fire c1940s. Image source unknown.

By the time the fire was extinguished the house was no longer safe to be lived in. The Wythes moved to Wood House, a small lodging on the estate where they continued to entertain influential and powerful figures such as Winston Churchill. Although the Wythes maintained the gardens the house was left to decay. The move which was supposed to be temporary eventually became the Wythes permanent home and they lived there until Ernest Wythes’ widow Aline died in 1952. The estate was then sold and what was left of the building stripped of its timberwork; the staircases were removed; and railings, gates, statues, steps sold and dispersed to other stately homes both in England and abroad. Even some of the ancient trees were uprooted and the conservatory dynamited[23]. With the M25’s construction which cut off part of the estate, the fate of Copped Hall seemed sealed.

Copped Hall Reborn

In the 1950s, 60s and 70s the house remained largely forgotten, an architectural skeleton in the Essex countryside. Some of the only visitors were groups of local teenagers (my mother being one of them) who would visit the house at night looking for ghosts.

Copped Hall today. Image via Copped Hall Trust.

Copped Hall today. Image via Copped Hall Trust.

It was Alan Cox, an architect who had grown up in the area, who became the house’s saviour. In an interview with the Telegraph, he said he recollects that Copped Hall was hauntingly wonderful, a “poignant statement. It is the height of a particular cultural period, yet it transcends the era in which it was built[24]. In the 80s, Cox began a nine-year campaign to save the house and gardens, a difficult task since the land was a developer’s dream being close to the M25, London and Stanstead Airport. In 1986 Cox set up a group including influential people which successfully lobbied organisations such as Save Britain’s Heritage and the Georgian Group to prevent a proposed development, the first of three. In 1992 the Conservators of Epping Forest bought the parkland and in 1995 the Copped Hall Trust purchased the mansion, stables, outbuildings and gardens. For full details on the Trust, the Friends work and the restoration project you can visit the Copped Hall Trust website http://www.coppedhalltrust.org.uk/.

The aim of the Trust is to restore the house and gardens to their former Georgian grandeur and create an educational and community centre for the local area. On my first visit to Copped Hall, I was lucky to see the roof which had just recently been installed as well as the first few steps of the marbled staircase. I also explored the fantastic cellars and strolled through the gardens which had once been the preserve of royalty and the wealthy, had an encounter with bees in the incredible walled garden and saw the site of the first Hall. The house and gardens are stunning and have a wonderfully warm and positive feeling about them. I really hope that I will see the complete restoration of the mansion but a house which originally took only six years to build will take many more years to rebuild. Luckily the love, dedication, determination and sheer hard work of the volunteers and Friends will ensure that Copped Hall will one day rise fully formed from the ashes and this house with its incredible history will once more claim its rightful status as one of the premier houses in Essex.

Copped Hall. Image via Diamond Geezer blog.

Copped Hall. Image via Diamond Geezer blog.


  1. The history of Waltham Abbey http://www.walthamabbeychurch.co.uk/history.htm
  2. Waltham Abbey Church, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Waltham_Abbey_Church
  3. Waltham Abbey Church, http://www.britainexpress.com/counties/essex/churches/waltham-abbey.htm
  4. Copped Hall Trust, http://coppedhalltrust.org.uk/
  5. Copped Hall, https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1000384
  6. Copped Hall, http://www.britainexpress.com/counties/essex/houses/Copped-Hall.htm
  7. Copped Hall, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Copped_Hall
  8. Copped Hall, Epping, http://www.derelictplaces.co.uk/main/residential-sites/18398-copped-hall-epping-essex-april-2011-a.html
  9. Folklore of Essex, Sylvia Kent, January 2009
  10. Nicholas Hagger, A view of Epping Forest
  11. Jennifer Potter, Past Historic, Future Perfect, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/gardening/gardenprojects/3318465/Past-historic-future-perfect.html
  12. St Albans & Hertfordshire Architectural and Archaeological Society, http://www.stalbanshistory.org/page_id__286.aspx?path=0p3p164p125p130p
  13. Excursions in the County of Essex, Thomas .Kitson Cromwell, 1819
  14. Sir William Petre, Secretary of State http://tudorplace.com.ar/Bios/WilliamPetre(Sir).htm
  15. The Conyers Family of Walthamstow and Copped Hall http://www.weag.org.uk/CoppedHallConyersLinkFinal3.pdf
  16. Old Bailey Online, https://www.oldbaileyonline.org/
  17. Jacobite assassination plot 1696, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jacobite_assassination_plot_1696
  18. Thomas Heneage, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thomas_Heneage
  19. Charles Sackville, 6th Earl of Dorset https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charles_Sackville,_6th_Earl_of_Dorset
  20. Lionel Cranfield, http://www.historylearningsite.co.uk/stuart-england/lionel-cranfield/


[1]  Nicholas Hagger, A view of Epping Forest

[2] Waltham Abbey Church, http://www.britainexpress.com/counties/essex/churches/waltham-abbey.htm

[3] Waltham Abbey Church, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Waltham_Abbey_Church

[4] Waltham Abbey Church, http://www.britainexpress.com/counties/essex/churches/waltham-abbey.htm

[5] A view of Epping Forest, Nicholas Hagger
[6] ibid
[7] Waltham Abbey Church, http://www.britainexpress.com/counties/essex/churches/waltham-abbey.htm
[8] Excursions in the County of Essex, Thomas .Kitson Cromwell, 1819
[9] Lionel Cranfield, http://www.historylearningsite.co.uk/stuart-england/lionel-cranfield/
[10] ibid
[11] ibid
[12] Charles Sackville, 6th Earl of Dorset https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charles_Sackville,_6th_Earl_of_Dorset
[13] ibid
[14] ibid
[15] Nicholas Hagger, A view of Epping Forest
[16] The Conyers Family of Walthamstow and Copped Hall http://www.weag.org.uk/CoppedHallConyersLinkFinal3.pdf
[17] Excursions in the County of Essex, Thomas .Kitson Cromwell, 1819
[18] ibid
[19] The Conyers Family of Walthamstow and Copped Hall http://www.weag.org.uk/CoppedHallConyersLinkFinal3.pdf
[20] Copped Hall, https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1000384
[21] Copped Hall, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Copped_Hall
[22] Nicholas Hagger, A view of Epping Forest
[24] Jennifer Potter, Past Historic, Future Perfect, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/gardening/gardenprojects/3318465/Past-historic-future-perfect.html