History of Barking Abbey

This exhibition explores the history of Barking Abbey, which was founded in 666AD by a priest named Erkenwald for his sister Ethelburga.

The founding of Barking Abbey

Barking Abbey was a ‘double house’, where monks and nuns lived in separate but identical buildings. The abbey buildings were constructed of wood with walls of wattle and daub and foundations of reused Roman tiles. The founders of the abbey and their relatives lived in the Patron House. Archaeology has revealed fragments of extremely rare coloured glass, silver coins and bone combs, which show how affluent the occupants were.

Erkenwald who became the Bishop of London, died while on a visit to Barking Abbey in 693. He was reburied at St. Paul’s Cathedral. Soon after he was declared a saint and his shrine became an object of pilgrimage.

Viking Attack!

In 871, Barking was attacked by Vikings. The abbey was destroyed and the town became part of the Viking controlled Dane Law Territory. It is thought that the nuns fled to their City of London estate, which later became the parish of All Hallows Barking by the Tower.

Royal Patronage

The English regained control of the Dane Law in the 900s and Barking Abbey was rebuilt as a single-sex Benedictine nunnery, under the patronage of King Edgar, who reigned from 955 to 979. The Crown donated vast estates and revenue to the abbey making it rich and powerful. This royal policy made the abbey the second richest in the county. Barking Abbey as a result became a royal foundation where the monarch had the right to choose each new abbess.

Influential and Educated Women

Following the abbey’s establishment as a royal foundation, all the abbesses were appointed by the king. They came from noble and high status families, and were highly educated in Biblical studies, ancient law, history, grammar and spelling.

King Henry I and his successor Stephen both made their wives abbess and Henry II and John appointed their illegitimate daughters. Female relations of the king’s major supporters were also appointed as abbess, such as Adelicia de Burgh, who was related to powerful Northumbrian barons.

More unusual was the appointment of Mary Becket by Henry II as an apology for killing her brother Thomas Beckett, Archbishop of Canterbury.

Royal Visitors

William the Conqueror spent the latter part of December 1066 and the New Year of 1067 at Barking Abbey while the White Tower of the Tower of London was being built. Here he received the surrender of the great Saxon Earls of Mercia and Northumbria and other Saxon lords. William was the first of many monarchs to stay at the abbey. The last would aptly be Henry VIII, its destroyer.

Spiritual Offerings

Belief in the power of prayer was extreme in the medieval period. Barking Abbey played an important religious role in supporting king and county.

The king took his position, his land and his crown from God, and granted land and status to the abbess as his subject. In return the abbess and nuns supported the king by praying for him and the royal family.

The abbess was also responsible of the souls of the people who lived and worked locally. The prayers offered up by the abbey were seen to be of vital importance to everyone’s wellbeing in both the present life and the after-life. Rich and poor alike left money or gifts for the nuns to sing masses after their death.

Charity and good deeds reinforced the abbey’s spiritual power. The Hospital Chapel of St. Mary and St. Thomas of Canterbury at Ilford was founded in 1145 by Abbess Adelicia. It was originally a hospice for aged and infirm men, but later treated lepers. The abbess provided ample funding for its long term upkeep.

St. Margaret’s Church was originally a chapel built in the grounds of the abbey. In 1300, it became a parish church where local people worshipped separately from the nuns. It survived the destruction of the abbey and remains as a parish church of Barking today.

Pilgrims were also attracted to Barking Abbey to view the painted stone carving of the crucifixion. Known as the Holy Rood, it can still be found inside the Curfew Tower.

Lord of the Land

The abbess was given the title of Lord of the Manor. In this role she controlled the lives of most the inhabitants of Barking and Dagenham.

The rules of the manor enforced the social hierarchy of lords and peasants for 500 years. Held in the abbey buildings, the manorial court controlled transfers of land and dealt with the maintenance of roads and bridges in the area. The market place was regulated by the abbess who ensured that correct weights and measures were used.

The remains of two pillories were also found by archaeologists at the site of the abbey. These are the earliest known pillories in Europe, and were used to punish people who had committed minor crimes. With their heads and arms locked in the pillory the criminals were pelted with rotting vegetables by passers-by.

The abbess had total control over her land and the roads, ditches, bridges, woods, windmills and watercourses within it. The River Roding was of vital importance to the people of Barking for transporting goods. The abbess was responsible for maintaining the Town Quay, dredging the river and maintaining many miles of Thames river walls to protect the grazing marshes from flooding.

She also controlled Barking water mill on the River Roding. Strict rules prevented anyone else in the manor from grinding grain into flour, even by hand. All grain had to pass through the mill on the Town Quay, making it a focal point of town life.

What became of Barking Abbey?

In 1536 King Henry Viii began the Dissolution of the Monasteries, closing religious houses and seizing their property.

Barking Abbey survived longer than many because the King’s representative was a close friend of the last abbess, Dorothy Barley. It was eventually surrendered in November 1539, and the nuns retired with large pensions.

Detailed accounts show that the abbey was almost completely destroyed. Demolition work started in 1540 and was completed 18 months later. The finest stone was transported across the River Thames for use in the king’s manor house at Dartford. Lead from the roof was used to repair the royal palace at Greenwich. Small Hearths, used to melt the lead from the window surrounds, have been discovered across the abbey site.

The only buildings to survive were St. Margaret’s Church and two gateways. One was the Curfew Tower, which is still standing today as the entrance to St. Margaret’s Church. The other was the smaller North Street Gate, which has since been demolished.

By the end of the Victorian period most of the abbey site had been built on. In 1910 a new road, Abbey Road, was constructed through part of the site. The remains of the main abbey buildings were excavated the following year and laid out as a small park.

Over the following decades the land enclosed by Abbey Road and the Broadway was cleared. Among the buildings demolished were the Elizabethan Court House, the houses in back Lane and Masters Match Factory. Eventually, in the 1970s, the cleared land became part of the Central Area Open Space, a Conservation Area.