There has been a village on or near the site of present day Saffron Walden since before the Roman occupation of Britain when Bronze and Iron Age tribes settled in the area. After the Romans withdrew from the country, a flourishing Anglo-Saxon town was established.
With the Norman invasion of 1066, a stone church was built. The castle was constructed c.1116 A Priory, later to become Walden Abbey, was also founded under the patronage of Geoffrey de Mandeville, first Earl of Essex around 1136. The abbey was separated from the town of Walden by Holywell Field, which was enclosed in the sixteenth century to form part of the park of Audley End, the house of Sir Thomas Audley, who converted the abbey cloisters to a dwelling c. 1538-44 The inner or Little Court of the seventeenth-century house corresponds to one of the cloisters.
In 1141 the area’s market was transferred to the town from nearby Newport, further increasing the area’s influence The town’s first charter was granted in 1300 This early town was known as Chipping Walden. The town was at first 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 in Saffron Walden was in wool However, in the 16th century and 17th century the saffron crocus (crocus sativus) became widely grown in the area. The flower was precious, as extract from the stigmas, the saffron, was used in medicines, as a condiment, as a perfume, as an aphrodisiac, and as an expensive yellow dye. This industry gave its name to the town and Chipping Walden became Saffron Walden.
The town and the surrounding area, like much of East Anglia, was strongly Puritan during the 17th century. This area in particular was one heavily influenced by the Rev. John Eliot. By 1640, the Samuel Bass 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.
Given its theological leanings and geography, seventeenth century Saffron Walden found itself at the center of the Eastern Association during the decade of the English Civil War. In the Spring of 1647, while serving as a New Model Army headquarters, the town was visited by then Lieutenant-General of Horse, Oliver Cromwell. The parliamentarian forces were internally divided at that time and Cromwell asked to see if compromise could be found that would reunify them in purpose and perhaps avoid another flare-up of civil war.
By the end of the 18th century the saffron flower was no longer in such demand, and the flower was replaced by malt and barley. In the 1830s there were more than 30 maltings and breweries running. Although this trade was not so rewarding as the saffron, the town continued to grow throughout the 19th century, having a cattle market and building a corn exchange and other civic buildings. During this time Quakers became very active in Saffron Walden, the most influential family being the Gibsons, who aided in the construction of several buildings that remain today, such as the museum and the Town Hall.
The 1900s saw expansion of the Saffron Walden branch railway line that extended from Audley End, on the mainline from London to Cambridge, to Bartlow. This closed with the Beeching cuts in the 1960s.
Heavy industry arrived in the area following WWII. Acrows Ltd, makers of falsework, created their site to the east of the town and became a significant employer and economic influence in the area. Light industry was also added to the south of the town at Shire Hill. As the local 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.
Today, Saffron Walden is a flourishing and historic town. Because it has never been sacked or destroyed by fire, many of the buildings, streets and features, especially in the centre of town, date back centuries. Although the 1900s brought many changes and expansion, the character of the town and the valley in which it sits remains strongly intact.
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