Among the collection of ancient records relating to Beeleigh Abbey, there is an interesting reference to a legal dispute in 1435 with the then abbot, Stephen Manweden.

It relates to an accusation that he was failing to keep the main highway clear as it passed through abbey lands.

More specifically, it is about overhanging trees.

From the very earliest of times Beeleigh was well known for its trees – so much so that it even gave the place its pre-abbey, Dark Age (East-Saxon) name, literally meaning; “a clearing in the trees where beehives are kept”.

It could even be the same wood that is briefly mentioned in the famous poem ‘The Battle of Maldon’ (991).

One can imagine this section of the great forest of Essex, skirting the River Chelmer and forming a sort of arboricultural crescent beneath ‘Maeldune’, the 10th-century town up on its naturally defended hill.

It would appear that settlers decided to live in that forest below the ‘Burh’ fort, chopping down some of the trees for their housing and managing honey production, no doubt using cavity tree-hives.

When the Premonstratensian, or Norbetine, ‘White Canons’ migrated there from Little Pandon (near Harlow) in 1180, Robert Mantell, the Lord of the Manor of Little Maldon (which included Beeleigh), gave them land in the hamlet to build their new abbey.

This undoubtedly involved further tree clearances and the original building was most probably constructed using timber from the oaks that they removed.

Despite all of these successive waves of felling, there were clearly still plenty of well-established trees in Beeleigh during the Canons’ tenure – so much so that we know from the document mentioned at the beginning, that their growth had encroached on the highway.

As the contemporary account (of 1435) puts it, “the abbot is fined ... and ordered to lop his trees”.

Whether he did or not, the issue occurred again in 1480, when a subsequent abbot, William Kirkeby, was once again “ordered to lop his trees overhanging the highway from Little Winterslade to the park gate”.

‘Winterslade’, literally “boggy ground in bad weather”, has come down to us as ‘Wintersleet’, the hollow rising to the hill where the town cemetery is now located.

The “park gate” refers to the borough boundary at Wood Corner, near today’s traveller site.

From 1237 this was the entrance to the Fitzwalter’s deer park and continues to be referred to as a “gate” in documents as late as the 17th century.

Liability falling to the abbots in this way is especially surprising bearing in mind an incident some seven years later when, in 1487, Fullbridge (at the foot of Market Hill) was in need of repair.

The bailiffs ordered wood to be felled, including “in the lane leading from Woodham Walter park gate to Lymborne brook”.

As it was being cut down the abbot (then Thomas Scarlet) and his canons arrived, claiming it was their property.

However, they were promptly turned away by the woodsmen and left without “a stykk and his carts went home ayeyn idill” (in other words, back idle, or empty).

The argument over ownership went on for the following nine to ten weeks with evidence put forward by both sides (I wonder if those earlier fines were mentioned?)

It was duly proven that the lane “was a bound of the town and common for the town before the abbey was an abbey” and so the trees were not in the ownership of the abbey after all.

At the Dissolution in 1536, Monastic Beeleigh gave way to a secular, residential area, based around the operation of the water corn mill there.

Trees continued to be a special feature of the area and thankfully still are today, but is there any evidence of that earlier forest and, in particular, the old oaks that caused the abbots so much trouble all those years ago?

The surprising answer to that question is “yes”.

Alongside London Road, which runs between Maldon and Woodham Walter, and on one of the bends in that previously mentioned winding byway and near the entrance to Beeleigh Farms, is a real patriarch among oaks.

It looks very well established, squat, dumpy, gnarled and hollow, but how old is it?

There is a way of roughly dating such an oak by measuring its girth.

The Woodland Trust has conveniently provided a ready reckoner which converts the measurement to an estimated age in years.

Based on that method, the Beeleigh Oak (as it is known to many) does indeed date right back to the late-15th century, but to the year 1491.

So while the tree could not possibly be one of those that featured in the disputes of 1435, 1480 and 1487, it is in the same position along the highway and could easily have been a replacement tree planted by the Beeleigh Abbey community.

By a strange coincidence (or is it?) 1491 was the year that an ominous comet was seen in the sky and that the future King Henry VIII was born.

Was that tree planted among others to commemorate the special royal birth?

We will probably never know for sure, but that baby would grow up to ultimately instigate yet another legal process, this time much greater than just about overhanging trees – the complete suppression of the monasteries, Beeleigh Abbey among them.

In that respect, it really makes you think, doesn’t it?