Barking Abbey was founded in c.666 AD as a double house of both monks and nuns led by an abbess. A Viking attack in 871 AD completely destroyed the Abbey and it wasn’t until nearly a century later that it was re-founded under the patronage of King Edgar, this time as a single-sex community of nuns.
Discover more about what life was like in the Abbey by exploring the 3D model below which shows what the Abbey might have looked like c.1500.
For screen reader users:
There is an interactive 3D model of the abbey, with a series of labels showing each part of the site, which follow.
The presumed position of the saints’ chapel at the head of the abbey church can be seen on the above plan. This was dedicated to the three Barking abbesses that were made saints: Ethelburga, Hildelith, and Wulfhilda.
Ethelburga was Barking’s first abbess from its foundation in c.666 to her death in c.693. Her brother Erkenwald had founded the abbey and made her its first abbess overseeing a double community of both monks and nuns. The men’s and women’s communities would have led similar devotional lives but did so apart from one another.
The Venerable Bede recounts the story of a miracle attributed to Ethelburga at Barking in his work The Ecclesiastical History of the English People which was written in the early 8th century. He tells of a time when plague was ravaging the country and had killed a number of monks in the men’s community at Barking. Knowing that it would not be long before the nuns were affected too, Ethelburga asked them where they would like to be buried when the time came. Soon after a sudden light appeared in the sky and lit up a site to the south side of the monastery. This was taken as a sign and the location of the nuns’ cemetery was decided upon.
Miracles like these and Ethelburga’s supposedly saintly lifestyle are what led to here being made a saint by the church. It is quite possible that there is some foundation in the story of this miracle, in the year 684 Halley’s Comet passed and was clearly visible from Earth, could this have been what Ethelburga and the nuns saw that night?
Hildelith followed Ethelburga as abbess until c.720. She had reputedly come over from France at the request of Erkenwald when the abbey was first founded as she was a more experienced nun able to guide Ethelburga in her duties as abbess.
During Hildelith’s time as abbess there was known to be a well established monastic school at Barking and a strong literary tradition. We know that Hildelith was in contact with Aldhelm, Bishop of Sherborne, who also wrote a treatise on virginity, De Virginitate, for the nuns at Barking Abbey.
A now lost book known simply as the ‘Barking Libellus’ is believed to have been written around the time of Hildelith’s leadership too, and it is from this work that Bede gained his information to write the history of Barking Abbey in The Ecclesiastical History of the English People.
Music and the singing of hymns dedicated to specific saints was a very important part of religious life at Barking Abbey as it was in other religious communities. The atmosphere created by a choir of nuns singing in the vast abbey church would have been very impressive and no doubt helped the nuns in their devotion. The nuns could spend several hours a day singing and this activity would bring them together as a unified community.
A fifteenth century manuscript containing the music and lyrics for the hymns sung specifically at Barking Abbey survives and is held at Trinity College, University of Cambridge. It is commonly known as the Barking Abbey Hymnal. The inclusion of three specific hymns dedicated to St Ethelburga, Barking’s first abbess, and one for her brother St Erkenwald, the abbey’s founder, make it unique to Barking.
The pages displayed here contain the three hymns dedicated to St Ethelburga. The entire manuscript is written in Latin and the words to the first verse of each hymn are written underneath the lines of music. Words to the rest of the verses are given below and follow the same tune as the first verse.
The whole of the Barking Abbey Hymnal can be viewed here.
3Nave of the Abbey Church
The abbey church would have been a large imposing stone building. The abbey was re-founded in the late 10th century and the large-scale building work on the grand abbey church began in earnest in the 12th century. A construction project of this scale would have taken many years under the oversight of a number of different abbesses. Over the years repairs and extensions were made, including the addition of chapels. During Mabel de Boseham’s time as abbess from 1215 to 1247, the church was rededicated to St Mary and St Ethelburga and was also extended eastward.
These carved stone blocks all come from the buildings on the Barking Abbey site and all date to the 12th century during the main period of rebuilding. The intricate carvings on these stones are indicative of the kind of decoration that might have been seen on the abbey church and give just a tiny glimpse of how impressive the building might have been in its heyday.
The image below is a page from the Ordinale and Customary of Barking Abbey which was produced in 1404 having been commissioned by Abbess Sybil de Felton (1393-1419) with direction that it was to be kept in the Abbey’s library for use by future abbesses. It is not clear who actually wrote the manuscript or if it was produced at the Abbey or not. The Ordinale lists all the important feasts and saints’ days and instructions on how to mark these days and other ceremonial events like the election of a new abbess or a nun’s funeral. The page shown here gives instructions on the celebration for the Feast of the Birth of the Blessed Virign Mary, to whom the abbey church was dedicated. It is one of the most intricately decorated pages in the manuscript, which shows how important this day was to the abbey.
Also contained within this manuscript are record of the liturgical dramas that would have been enacted in the nave of the abbey church at Easter. Abbess Katherine of Sutton is credited with having written these plays, which has gained her the epithet of the first female English dramatist. However, we don’t know for sure that she authored the texts herself or if she was just instrumental in introducing them to Barking Abbey – an important feat in itself. It’s also worth noting that there is strong evidence of engagement with literature amongst women in this period and earlier, and so maybe there were earlier female English dramatists, but their work simply does not survive?
Sutton introduced these plays to engage more with the local community and ensure they remained committed to and engaged with their faith. The Ordinale makes several references to the inclusion of local people in processions and abbey events. The Easter plays would have processed through the abbey church with the nuns themselves acting the key roles.
4St Margaret's Parish Church
St Margaret’s Church was originally a chapel built in the grounds of the Abbey during Mabel de Boseham’s time as abbess (1215-1247). It is believed to have been made a parish church around the year 1300 by the abbess Anne de Vere. The first recorded vicar of St Margaret’s in 1315 is a man known only as Martinus; a stone slab bearing his likeness can still be seen in the church today.
Some of the earliest surviving vestry minutes or the Parish of Barking give us more information about some of the individuals associated with the church from the period after the destruction of Barking Abbey. This extract from 1697 tells of the outgoing churchwarden Nicholas Pratt handing over the church plate associated with the office to the new churchwarden Richard Bush. The items listed include a silver flagon, a silver chalice, a damask cloth for the altar, and a fringed purple pulpit cloth. At the end of the list we find ‘one bag of deeds and writing belonging to the parish’, presumably the documents required for the churchwarden to carry out their duties.
The fabric of the building at St Margaret’s give us a glimpse of different periods of the history of the church and surrounding area.
This fragment of a saxon cross was found in the wall of St Margaret’s Churchyard during excavations of the abbey in 1910 and is thought to have it’s origins in the original foundation of Barking Abbey before it was destroyed by the Danes in 871.
The remains of a medieval wall painting can be found on the bracket of a beam over the chancel arch in the church. The portion shown here features a naked woman astride a lion-like creature. This would likely have been part of a much larger piece known as a doom painting, a not uncommon feature in medieval churches depicting the contrast between heaven and hell and acted as a warning to worshippers. This particular image would have come form the side showing hell with the naked woman representative of sins committed by the sinful.
The carved ends of the wooden pews in the church come from a much later period in the building’s history. As you walk through the church you will see that each one is unique and they were reputedly each designed by local apprentices. The one shown here features the heads of two dogs.
The Curfew Tower and St Margaret’s Church are the only surviving buildings on the site from the time of the abbey. The original tower is thought to have been constructed in the 14th century and rebuilt a century later. It would likely have been the main entrance to the abbey with the abbey church rising up behind it as you approached it from the town. The path from the Curfew Tower leads directly into the centre of the town along East Street, showing the importance of the abbey to the town.
The top floor of the tower [rood loft] houses the holy rood, which shows the crucifixion with the Virgin Mary on the left and St John on the right. The rood was an important religious object and attracted many visitors to Barking leading Pope Boniface IX to issue a licence to the abbess in 1400 granting permission to celebrate mass and other services in the rood loft.
Items like the holy rood and other relics which attracted pilgrims from far and wide were very important to the abbey, not just spiritually but also for the economic benefits of having so many visitors passing through the abbey. The rood itself is thought to have been created in the 12th century and would have been kept elsewhere in the abbey before it was housed in the Curfew Tower.
The small stone or pebble pictured below was found during archaeological excavations at Barking Abbey. It is from a much later period than the holy rood, but shares the same symbolism associated with the Catholic faith thus demonstrating its continued importance to many people, even after the reformation. It’s small size indicates that this was a personal possession easily carried in a pocket, allowing committed Catholics to continue to demonstrate their faith at a time when it was very dangerous to do so publicly.
The chapter house was a meeting room of sorts where the nuns could assemble to discuss the rules of the abbey and where official business could be dealt with. The Abbess of Barking held the rank of Baron and was lord of the manor overseeing the management of her vast landholdings. This involved dealing with tenants’ disputes, hosting the manorial court within the abbey buildings, responsibility for maintaining the town quay, management of Barking water mill, and administering marketplace regulations. The abbess was assisted in her administrative duties by another nun who took on the role of ‘prioress’, who was elected to this position for life. A lot of of abbey’s administrative work would have been carried out here in the chapter house.
One of the most notable parts of the abbey’s history would have likely played out here on 14th November 1539 when the last abbess, Dorothy Barley, officially surrendered to Henry VIII’s men bringing they abbey’s nearly 900 year history to an end. The dissolution of the monasteries and reclamation of their lands first began in 1536, but Barking Abbey was a large, wealthy institution and the king’s representative was a close friend of Dorothy Barley, allowing the abbey to survive a few extra years. The physical destruction of Barking Abbey began in 1540 and would have been bad news for many residents of the town who relied on the abbey for work.
At the time there were 30 nuns in addition to the abbess and all received pensions of varying sizes depending on their age and their importance. Dorothy Barley was 49 at the time and lived for many more years. Evidence from her will showing that she left items to some of her fellow Barking nuns suggests that some of them retained a close relationship. It has even been suggested that they may have continued to live together, but there is not definitive evidence for this.
The frater, or refectory, was the nun’s dining room where they would have eaten together daily. The abbess, however, is known to have had her own private kitchen and was only required to dine with the rest of the nuns five times a year. One of the nuns would have taken on the role of ‘cellaress’, which involved making sure there were adequate food provisions for all the nuns and sourcing specific food items for feast days and celebrations such as Easter and Christmas. She would also have overseen some of the activities of the nearby farms owned by the abbey. The kitchens would have been in a building nearby, and the cellaress was assisted in the provision of food for the abbey by others including a nun kitchener, a yeoman cook, and a pudding wife.
A written account of the duties of the cellaress from the early 16th century gives us some interesting details about the kind of food the nuns of Barking Abbey might have eaten. We know that on Maundy Thursday, the Thursday before Easter, the nuns were given baked eels and red wine. On Shrove Tuesday the nuns were given what was described as ‘cripsis and crumkakes’. Recipes for cripsis in other surviving manuscripts show it to be a batter similar to pancakes suggesting the nuns of Barking Abbey may have enjoyed pancakes at this time of year in a similar way to we do today.
The image featured here shows a waffle mould that was uncovered during archaeological excavations at Barking Abbey showing that the nuns were making various pastries and treats including the familiar waffle shape.
Other foods referenced in the account of the cellaress of Barking Abbey include figs, almonds, chickens, herring, and salmon.
The abbey’s cloisters were a central open courtyard where the nuns would have spent a large amount of their time. It was a quiet space where they could study, read, and write. Education and writing were of great importance at Barking Abbey, as they would have been in many religious communities. Archaeological evidence from the Saxon period shows that this was the case from the very early days of the abbey. The two styli pictured here were found at Barking Abbey and date to the 7th century.
Most ordinary people in the medieval period would not have been able to read and write, and opportunities for women to get an education were even smaller. However, we know that many of the abbesses and nuns at Barking came from very wealthy backgrounds and life at the abbey provided a unique opportunity for them to receive a strong education. The writings from Barking Abbey show us that many of the nuns were able to read and write in English, French, and Latin.
A number of manuscripts originating from Barking Abbey survive, but these are likely only a small proportion of the Abbey’s literary outputs. The survival of a number of manuscripts authored by women from the late 12th century, in which Barking Abbey played a central role, has led to this period being referred to by some as the ‘Barking Renaissance’. At this time a life of Edward the Confessor was written by an anonymous nun at Barking, known only as ‘the nun of Barking’, and a life of St Catherine was authored by another nun at Barking called Clemence.
In addition to this the abbey was able to provide an education not only for its own nuns and novices but for others who were sent there to be educated by the nuns. The most notable example is the case of brothers Edmund and Jasper Tudor who stayed at Barking from 1437 to 1442 under the care of the then abbess, Katherine de la Pole. Both were the half-brothers of King Henry VI and Edmund went on to father the future King Henry VII.
The dorter is the shared dormitory where the nun’s would have slept. There were others associated with the community at Barking who would have been accommodated in buildings elsewhere in the abbey precinct. This would include the male clergy who were there to lead church services, children present at the abbey to receive an education, and those visiting for official business.
The rule of Saint Benedict by which the nuns of Barking lived, prohibited personal possessions. However, the archaeological finds from the site d suggest that the nuns had a few treasured items. The Barking Ordinale of 1404 not only sets out the liturgical calendar but assigned each nun a book to read each year. Other evidence suggests that some nuns owned one or two books of their own. The items pictured above include a toilet set, a bone comb, and some gold thread, all of which were found during excavations at Barking Abbey. These all date from the earlier Anglo-Saxon period but hint at what life might have been like for an individual nun at Barking.
Some of the nuns who shared this space in Barking’s history include well known names with links to prestigious families. These include Eleanor de Bohun, Duchess of Gloucester who joined the abbey following the arrest and murder of her husband and Elizabeth Chaucy, thought to be the sister of the writer Geoffrey Chaucer.
The reredorter was the nuns’ communal lavatory, conveniently situated close to their dormitory and at the rear of the abbey site away from the other buildings. This part of the site also lay close to the river, which meant there was a readily available source of flowing water to run through the sewers under the reredorter. A sophisticated sanitation system such as this is demonstrative of the high quality of living the community at Barking enjoyed.
During archaeological excavations of Barking Abbey, a large number of salmon bones were found in this area, indicating that the nuns consumed a large amount of salmon. The fact that they ate salmon is reinforced by the surviving manuscript copy of the ‘Account of the Cellaress’ from the early 16th century that makes reference to salmon. Given the large quantity of bones we may also assume that salmon was readily available from the river Roding at this time.
Archaeological excavations of the drain at Barking Abbey, 1985/6
The infirmary building within main abbey buildings would have been a place for sick and aged nuns unable to partake in the full rigours of monastic life. Whilst the abbey did provide assistance the sick in the wider community, just as they provided other services like education and assistance to the poor, it is unlikely that ordinary people would have used the same infirmary building alongside the nuns.
It is important to remember that the abbey infirmary would have been very different to a hospital as we would see it today. Without the advances of modern medicine or professional practitioners to deliver treatment, the infirmary would have relied on rest, hygiene, and diet to relieve the nuns’ ailments. These three things were undoubtedly very important to general health, and a nun in the infirmary may enjoy such luxuries as red meat as part of her diet. If you explore the ‘reredorter’ in this exhibition, you’ll see that Barking Abbey had a sophisticated drainage system, which would have contributed to the standard of hygiene in the infirmary.
During the middle ages there was a very close relationship between health and religion, as many believed that serious illnesses were caused by the devil and resulted from sinfulness. Consequently, people would seek spiritual guidance alongside physical remedies when they were sick. In the abbey infirmary the nuns would be able to benefit from both these things, and it is quite likely that any plants used for medicinal purposes would have been grown in the abbey’s grounds.
12North Street Gate
Up until 1881 there was another old entrance to the abbey still standing, known as the North Street Gate. The images here show it to have been a simple one storey archway, however, earlier drawings suggest that it once had two stories and battlements similar to the Curfew Tower as we see it today. It has also been suggested that the upper storey of this gateway housed the Chapel of St Nicholas.
Local historian William Holmes Frogley, writing in the early 20th century, also recounts how there used to be a pond in front of the wall that was filled in not long before the gateway was demolished and was known as the ‘horse pond’. A horse pond would have been relatively shallow and used for the welfare of working horses, allowing them to drink from it and wash their legs as they passed through it. It is not clear how long the horse pond was in this location at Barking.