What on earth is a Seax – Essex Day 2023


The 26th October is the feast day of St Cedd, it is also Essex Day. Over on our social media we have taken you on a treasure trail of where you can find Seaxes here at the Essex Record Office. The three Seaxes will be familiar to many Essex residents as part of the logo for Essex County Council and on a red background, as their Coat of Arms. But what is a Seax and why has Essex taken it as their symbol? Customer Service Team Lead, Edward Harris delves deeper.

Essex County Council was first granted it’s Coat of Arms by the College of Arms on the 15th July 1932 comprising:

Essex Coat of ArmsGules, three Seaxes fessewise in pale Argent, pomels and hilts Or, pointed to the sinister and cutting edges upwards.


The somewhat archaic terms used by the College of Arms can be translated to:

Red, three Seaxes horizontal in pale silver, pommels and hilts gold, pointed to the viewers right with cutting edges upwards.

So now we know what the official Coat of Arms should look like, but we are still not given any clues as to the origin of the name Seax for the bladed weapons shown on the Coat of Arms.

The seax, (or scramasax as it is more usually called by archaeologists) is a weapon used by the Anglo-Saxon people who had displaced, at least culturally the Romano-British inhabitants of the British Isles in the 5th and 6th Centuries. The earliest evidence for the use of a Seax is from the mid 5th Century, though they would still see use in one form or another into the late 13th Century. The term Seax covers a whole family of germanic blades which varied widely in size and shape. The Anglo-Saxons widely used the distinctive broken back seax which varied in length from 30″ to as short as a few inches and, for most, it was probably a utility or defensive knife rather than a weapon of war.

Iron seax, with a straight cutting edge and sharply angled back, the tang offset from the blade.
© The Trustees of the British Museum.

It is from the Saxons that the County of Essex (along with the Ancient County of Middlesex) takes its name. The Boundary of Essex still resembles that of the Saxon Kingdom of Eastseaxe. And it is from this Saxon heritage that Essex adopted the seax as it’s symbol.

The Coat of Arms itself was in regular use well before the grant from the College of Arms in 1932 albeit unofficially. It is likely that the Arms were first assigned to the Saxon Kings of Essex by the more romantic minds of the Late 16th and early 17th Century, as the heraldry in any recognisable sense would not exist until the 12th Century.

One of the earliest mentions of a coat of arms is by Richard Verstegan who writes in 1605 of the East Saxons having two types of weapon, one long and one short. The latter being worn “privately hanging under their long-skirted coats” and “of this kind of hand-seax Erkenwyne King of the East Saxons did bear for his arms, three argent, in a field gules”

Peter Milman’s History of Essex 1771 (LIB/942.67 MUI1-6)

By the 18th Century the use of the Arms seems commonplace, in 1770, Peter Muilman published the first volume of his History of Essex. The frontispiece shows a shield with the three seaxes although with an unfamiliar shape.

The Plans for the building of the Shire Hall in Chelmsford drawn up in 1788 (Q/AS 1/1) clearly show the Seaxes emblazoned on its neo-classical portico. These wouldn’t form a part of the final design though with this space being blank in an engraving from 1795 (I/Mb 74/1/59) shortly after the building’s completion. It now houses a clock.

[You can find about more about the history of Shire Hall on our blog  – ed]

John Johnson plans for Shire Hall 1788 (Q/AS 1/1)

Engraving of Shire Hall shortly after it’s opening 1795 (I/Mb 74/1/59)

The seaxes on a red field would make numerous other appearances, among them: the Essex Equitable Insurance companies fire plate from around 1802; the Essex Local Militia ensign formed in 1809 and the Chelmsford Gazette in 1822. It appears on the cap badge of Essex Police and who remembers the single seax that appeared on the original logo for BBC Essex way back in 1986?

BBC Essex logo from 1986

The shape of the seax on Coats of Arms has led to confusion and myth. As you can see from the examples here, the shape of the Seax changes with use, the notched back of the weapon may simply be to distinguish it from a scimitar for which it is often mistaken. The notch itself has gained a myth all of its own. To many people the notch exists so that the Saxons could hook their Seax over the cap-rail of an enemy longboat to haul it closer.  This sounds rather difficult to achieve, but also to justify, given that the notch doesn’t appear on any of the real world weapons categorised as Seaxes.

The Coat of Arms of Essex

Either way, the Essex Coat of Arms remains an enigmatic and iconic link to our county’s Saxon past.

I owe much of the information that I have garnered from the excellent pamphlet ‘The Coat of Arms of The County of Essex’ produced by F.W. Steer, an Archivist at Essex Record Office ,in 1949 (LIB/929.6 STE) which is well worth a read on your next visit.

Shire Hall: Past, present and future

Shire Hall is one of Chelmsford’s most significant landmarks, and features heavily in our collections of images of the historic city centre. From its opening in 1791 until 2012, Shire Hall served as the County Court. As the County Council asks residents to submit ideas for the building’s future, we took a look back through the archives to see what they reveal about the Hall’s past. 

Shire Hall replaced two earlier buildings which served as the county’s court rooms. The Tudor Market Cross, or Great Cross, had been built in 1569, replacing an earlier Medieval building, and it served as both market place and court house. The ground floor was open-sided, with enclosed galleries above, as depicted in John Walker’s map below. Despite the fact that it was open to the street and dusty, draughty, and noisy, the county Assizes and Quarter Sessions courts were conducted in the open piazza on the ground floor, and corn merchants conducted their trade there on Friday market days. 

At some point between 1569 and 1660 a second, smaller court building was built, apparently on the west side of the Great Cross, known as the Little Cross. While the Great Cross continued to host the Crown Court, the Little Cross hosted the Nisi Prius (civil) Court.


Extract from John Walker’s 1591 map ofChelmsford, showing the north end of the High Street, with the Tudor Market Cross building in the centre of the market place (D/DM P1)

 In October 1788, the Tudor court houses were condemned by the Quarter Sessions as ‘not in a fit condition for transacting the publick [sic] business of the County’, and the County Surveyor John Johnson was commissioned to build a new ‘Shire House’. 

The authorities quickly settled on a site for the new building at the north end of the High Street, between the market place and the churchyard, which was then occupied by the existing court houses and several private properties. The new building was to be set further back from the market place, offering some relief to the traffic bottleneck at the top of the High Street. 

We are fortunate to have John Johnson’s original plans for the building, including elevations of the south, west and north sides of the buildings, and plans of each of the four storeys, with the plan for the ground floor including internal layouts for the Nisi Prius and Crown Courts. In 1789, a county rate was levied to raise £14,000 to buy the site and construct the new building.

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Plans and elevations for the ‘County Hall of Essex’, 1788 (Q/AS 1/1)

The builders of Shire Hall encountered some of the problems experienced today when working on enclosed sites in built-up areas; the old courts were not demolished straight away as they had to carry on functioning, and the churchyard could not be turned into a builder’s yard, so a field was leased in Duke Street to assemble and store materials and carry out preparative carpentry and masonry work. Contractors complained bitterly about the extra time, effort and monetary cost of transferring materials, and also the interruptions to their work caused by the running of the court, and by the annual fairs in May and November. 

Despite these challenges, the new building was completed in 1791, and the old courts demolished, revealing the impressive Portland Stone façade of the new Shire Hall.

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Shire Hall soon after its opening. Engraving by J. Walker after an original picture by Reinagle, 1795 (I/Mb 74/1/59)

The three central arches of the new building led into a large hall, which replaced the old Market Cross and functioned as market space and corn exchange. Beyond the market hall at the back of the ground floor Nisi Prius and Crown Courts, and a retiring room for judges. A grand staircase lit by a glazed dome led out of the market hall up to the grand jury room and the ‘county room’ or ballroom, which took up the whole of the front of the first floor. There was also a small waiting room for witnesses and an office for the Clerk of the Peace and his records. The building’s façade included three emblematic figures by John Bacon, representing mercy, wisdom and justice.

On 3 June 1791 the Chelmsford Chronicle gave its verdict the transformation to the town centre. The new building ‘…exhibits a splendid object to all persons coming up the town; this elegant building when completely finished will not only do credit to the taste and spirit of the magistrates of this opulent county, and honour to the architect, but will be of the greatest service and accommodation to every person frequenting the public meetings.’ 

Hundreds of thousands of cases have since been heard in the court rooms of Shire Hall since that time, including witchcraft trials in which women were sentenced to be burned alive, and trials which sentenced people to transportation for what would now be considered minor offences.

Shire Hall has also been the focal point of many grand occasions inChelmsford. Not least of these were the judges’ processions which opened the Assizes each year (where the most serious cases were heard). This was a tradition that continued until the late nineteenth century; prolific photographer and Mayor of Chelmsford Fred Spalding, reminisced in the 1930s:

‘Even the coming of the Judge to open the Assize has altered. It was a great event in my young days – the High Sheriff with his carriage and four horses, trumpeters, marshals, footmen with powdered wigs. I can remember the late Mr. John Joliffe Tufnell ofLangleys, Gt Waltham was Sheriff. A procession of tradesmen, farmers and others from the town and surrounding villages of nearly a mile long, went out to Broomfield to meet him and accompany him to Church with the Judge.’ (D/Z 206/1/93)


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Engraving by J. Ryland showing the judges’ procession through Chelmsford High Street before the opening of the Assizes, attended by the High Sheriff and his officers. Pre-1788 (I/Mb 74/1/109)

Shire Hall has also been the iconic backdrop to the many large gatherings of Chelmsford residents in Tindal Square which have accompanied momentous occasions such as pronouncements of new monarchs and election campaigns, as well as social gatherings. 

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George V is proclaimed King from the steps of Shire Hall by the High Sheriff of Essex, Ralph Bury, 1910. Photograph by Fred Spalding (SCN 1445)


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Election of 29 October 1924, candidates addressing the public in front of Shire Hall. Photograph by Fred Spalding (SCN 3396)


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 Dance in the ballroom, c. 1924. Photograph by Fred Spalding (SCN 4476)

The exterior of the building is little changed today; the west side was extended in 1851, and the east side remodelled in 1903-06. 


Shire Hall in 1895, with addition on the west side, and the clock added to the pediment (I/LS/CFD/00011)

The interior, however, underwent more radical changes in 1935-6, when the lobby, courts, picture room and stairwell were substantially reconstructed by the County Architect J. Stuart, bringing in Art Deco aspects. These features are today considered to be an essential part of the building’s architectural character, but they were not universally accepted at the time. Fred Spalding, who took a particular interest in Shire Hall, was dismayed by the changes:

 ‘…alas!, what of the interior? During 1936, the architects of the present day, have altered it to such an extent that those who knew it, now fail to recognise it. The vestibule has had all its stately columns removed and now looks more like the entrance of a modern cinema. The Crown Court and Nisi Prius Court have been strip[p]ed of all their old solemnity…The whole atmosphere is changed.’ (D/Z 206/1/93)

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Photograph of the Crown Court room in Shire Hall, taken by Fred Spalding before the alterations in 1936 (D/Z 206/1/89)

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Court room after the 1930s alterations (SCN 4191)

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The vestibule before 1936 alterations. Photograph by Fred Spalding (D/Z 206/1/89)

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The vestibule after the 1930s alterations (SCN 4211)

 Shire Hall is an important focal point in Chelmsford’s history, and in the present cityscape. Listed at Grade II*, it is recognised as a building of great significance.

If you would like to find out more about this Chelmsfordian icon, you can search for Shire Hall on Seax, or see Hilda Grieve’s magnificent history of Chelmsford The Sleepers and the Shadows, available in the ERO Searchroom and libraries across the county. To find out more about Shire Hall’s architect, see John Johnson, 1732-1814: Georgian Architect and County Surveyor of Essex, by Nancy Briggs, again available in libraries around the county and the ERO Searchroom (in the ERO library and also for sale).

To take part in the future use of Shire Hall consultation visit www.theshirehall.com or email shire.hallconsultation@essex.gov.uk.

The closing date for comments and expressions of interest is Friday 15 February 2013.