Saffron Walden is a market town in the Uttlesford district of Essex, England. It is north of Bishop's Stortford, south of Cambridge and north of London. The town retains a rural appearance and has buildings dating from the medieval period onwards. In 2001 the parish had a population of over 14,313.
Archeological evidence suggests a continuous settlement on or near the site of Saffron Walden from at least the Neolithic period. It is believed that a small Romano-British settlement and fort – possibly in the area around Abbey Lane – existed as an outpost of the much larger settlement of Cestreforda to the north.
After the Norman invasion of 1066, a stone church was built. Walden Castle dates from around 1140. It may have been built on a pre-existing fortification. A priory, Walden Abbey, was founded under the patronage of Geoffrey de Mandeville, first Earl of Essex around 1136 on the site of what is now Audley End village. The abbey was separated from the town of Walden by Holywell Field. After the dissolution of the monasteries, Sir Thomas Audley converted the abbey cloisters into a dwelling. Later this would become the site of Audley End House.
The market was moved from nearby Newport to Saffron Walden during de Mandeville's tenure increasing the town's influence and the town's Tuesday market operated from 1295. The town’s first charter was granted in around 1300, when the town was known as Chepyng Walden, meaning Market Walden. The town was largely confined to the castle's outer bailey, but in the 13th century the Battle or Repel Ditches were built or extended to enclose a new larger area to the south. The focus of the town moved southwards to Market Square.
In the medieval period the primary trade was in wool and a guild hall was built by the wool-staplers in the marketplace. It was demolished in 1847 and replaced by a corn exchange. In the 16th and 17th centuries the saffron crocus (crocus sativus) was widely grown, thanks to the town's favourable soil and climate. The flower was precious, as the extract from the stigmas was used in medicines, as a condiment, in perfume, as an aphrodisiac, and as an expensive yellow dye. The industry gave Walden its name.
Puritans and Quakers
The town and surrounding area, like much of East Anglia, was strongly Puritan during the 17th century. The population was influenced by the missionary John Eliot. By 1640, Samuel Bass's family and a number of others had departed for the Massachusetts Bay Colony as part of the wave of emigration that occurred during the Great Migration.
Saffron Walden was at the centre of the Eastern Association during the English Civil War. In spring 1647, while the town was the headquarters of the New Model Army, Lieutenant-General of Horse, Oliver Cromwell was a visitor. During his 19-day stay in May 1647, he participated in debates to seek a settlement between parliament and the army. He is reputed to have stayed at the Sun Inn.
By the end of the 18th century the saffron flower was no longer in demand, and the industry was replaced by malt and barley and more than 40 maltings stood in the town at the end of the century. The trade was not so lucrative as saffron but the town continued to grow throughout the 19th century and had a cattle market, corn exchange and other civic buildings. During this time Quakers became active; the most influential family, the Gibsons – one of the founding families of Barclays Bank – aided the construction of several public buildings that remain today, such as the museum and town hall.
In the 1900s the Saffron Walden branch railway line from Audley End station, on the mainline from London to Cambridge, was extended to Bartlow. The branch closed in the Beeching cuts in the 1960s. Heavy industry arrived following the Second World War. Acrows Ltd, makers of falsework, built premises to the east of the town and became a significant employer and economic influence in the area. For a short time there was a dedicated railway station for the works known as Acrow Halt. Light industry was added to the south of the town at Shire Hill. As the agricultural economy continued to mechanise, the new-found employment opportunities were welcome and a period of migration into the town from surrounding villages led to major expansion of housing estates during the 1970s and 1980s.
Coat of arms and town maces
Saffron Walden's unofficial coat of arms showed the saffron crocus within the walls of the castle in the form of an heraldic pun – as in, "Saffron walled-in". In 1961, a formal coat of arms was granted by the College of Arms and this was adapted in 1974 into its current form.
The town has three ceremonial maces. The large mace was given to Saffron Walden by James II in 1685 and provides an early recording of the unofficial coat of arms. Made of silver gilt, it is approximately long. Two smaller silver maces were bought by the corporation in 1549 to commemorate the granting of a new town charter by Edward VI. This purchase is recorded in the town's Guild of Holy Trinity accounts and reads, "For 2 new maces, weying 18 ownces one quarter and half at 8s. the ownce 7l.7s".