A History of the County of Essex: Volume 2. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1907.
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HOUSES OF BENEDICTINE NUNS
6. THE ABBEY OF BARKING (fn. 1)
The materials for the early history of this famous monastery are very scanty, although the main fact of its foundation is clear and definite. We learn from Bede (fn. 2) and the Nova Legenda Anglie (fn. 3) that Erkenwald, before he became bishop of London, founded two monasteries—one at Chertsey for himself, and another at Barking for his sister Ethelburga. But the question of the date is more difficult. According to the Legenda, Erkenwald and Ethelburga were born at Stallington, in Lindsey, the son and daughter of a heathen king named Offa. Erkenwald was given to Christianity at the time of the coming of St. Augustine (596-7), and founded the monastery thirty-three years later. Ethelburga became a nun to avoid marriage with Eadwine, king of Northumbria, then a pagan (d. 633); and as there was then no nunnery (fn. 4) in England, a nun named Hildelitha was brought from abroad to instruct her in her duties.
So far, this account is intelligible and consistent; but, nevertheless, it can hardly be accepted as a whole. To begin with, Ethelburga is evidently confused with her namesake of Kent, who actually married Eadwine. But the great difficulty is that Erkenwald, according to the generally accepted dates, was consecrated bishop in 675 and died in 693, so that even if he became a Christian in early childhood he must have reached an almost incredible age. A much more likely date for the foundation is 666, as given in the register of Chertsey. (fn. 5) If this is not actually correct, it is probably not more than a few years from the truth.
It appears from the words used by Bede that the monastery was originally double, for men as well as women, as was commonly the case in those times. Erkenwald himself endowed Chertsey, but the chief endowment of Barking came not from him but from the East Saxon princes. A charter of the founder, printed in the Monasticon, is probably spurious. That of Hodilred, (fn. 6) however, appears to be quite genuine, and may be assigned to the date 692 or 693. In it he grants and confirms to Ethelburga and her monastery of Beddanhaam the places called Ricingahaam, Budinhaam, Decanhaam (probably Dagenham, though this does not appear among the possessions of the abbey in Domesday), Angenlabesham, and the field in the wood called Widmundesfelt (Withfield or Wyfield in Barking). These have not yet all been identified.
Erkenwald died at Barking in 693, probably on 30 April, as that is the day given to him in the calendar. It is said that the canons of his church and the monks of Chertsey disputed with the nuns for the possession of his body, the canons being eventually successful. The date of Ethelburga's death is not known, but it was presumably later, as she was alive at the time of Hodilred's charter. She was afterwards canonized, her day being 11 October, and eventually shared with St. Mary the dedication of the abbey. Her successor was her instructress Hildelitha, also afterwards canonized; of whom we only hear that she lived to a great age, and at one time had under her at Barking Cuthburga, daughter of Ina of Wessex and wife of Aldfrith of Northumbria, who was afterwards 'mistress of the rule' at Wimborne Minster (before 705). Then come great gaps in the history. Another abbess Ethelburga, possibly of Barking, is mentioned in a charter of her father Offa, king of Mercia, to Chertsey in 787. The next event we hear of is that at the time when St. Edmund suffered martyrdom (870) the whole congregation of virgins in this church were burnt by the pagans. Apparently, this Danish invasion caused the desertion of the abbey for a century; for then we are told that Edgar, who with his great minister Dunstan did so much for the revival of monasticism, granted it to Wlfhildis, a nun of Wilton, in reparation for violence offered to her, and restored it to its old estate with royal munificence. Wlfhildis long ruled over Barking and the monastery of Horton, founded by herself, until in the reign of Ethelred the priests of Barking quarrelled with her and persuaded the queen-mother Alftrudis to eject her. Alftrudis then was abbess for twenty years, until she was overtaken by disaster and induced by a vision of Ethelburga to recall Wlfhildis from Horton. Wlfhildis lived for seven years more, dying at last on 9 September at London, where she had retired with her flock on account of another invasion. She also was canonized.
Æfgiva was abbess at the time of the conquest, and William I. confirmed her possession by charter. (fn. 7) This was probably granted in November or December, 1066, as he was then staying at Barking (fn. 8) during the building of the Tower of London, and there received the submission of Eadwine and Morkere. The Essex possessions of the abbey at the time of the Domesday survey have been given elsewhere, (fn. 9) and in addition to these it owned the manors of Tyburn in Middlesex, Slapton in Bucks and Lidlington in Bedfordshire and land in Weston (in Thames Ditton) and in Wallington hundred in Surrey.
Maud, queen of Henry I, built stone bridges over two branches of the Lea at Stratford-byBow and connected them by a causeway, and considering that a religious house was more durable than any family and more likely to fulfil its obligations than laymen bestowed certain lands for the support of these bridges upon the abbey of Barking, which was at that time the nearest monastery to Bow. When afterwards Gilbert Munfitchet founded an abbey at Stratford one of the abbesses transferred the lands with the responsibility for the repairs for the bridges to Stratford Abbey; (fn. 10) and a dispute between the two houses was finally settled in 1315 (fn. 11) by the abbot undertaking the maintenance of the bridges and causeway, for which the abbess paid him £200, and guaranteeing a rent of four marks to her.
Agnes was made abbess by Henry I. Stephen appointed Adeliza the sister of Payn Fitz John. He confirmed the possessions and liberties of the abbey, restoring to them the lands which Henry I had afforested, and in addition granted the hundreds of Becontree and Barstable, offering the latter grant in person at the high altar. Adeliza founded the hospital of Ilford and received confirmation of the liberties of the abbey from Henry II, dying probably in 1173; when Mary, (fn. 12) the sister of Thomas Becket, was made abbess in reparation for the death of her brother.
Until 1214 the abbesses had been nominated by the king, but in that year John, under pressure from the pope, granted the right of free election to the English churches, and from thence till the dissolution we find the elections of the abbesses of Barking, as a royal foundation, recorded on the Patent Rolls. Barking was one of the first houses to exercise the privilege. (fn. 13) The abbey was vacant at the beginning of 1215 by the death of Christiana, and the nuns freely elected, although pressure was put upon them. In January the king requested (fn. 14) them to elect Sarah de Walebar. This was apparently not done, and the king then ordered (fn. 15) the bishop of Winchester to try to obtain the election of one of three persons. The aunt of Robert de Ros was to be chosen if possible, or failing her the sister of John de Bassingeburn, prioress of Elleschirch, and lastly the prioress. Under no circumstances was the election of the sister of Robert Fitz Walter (fn. 16) to be permitted.
Sybil, the prioress, was elected, and on 24 June the king gave his assent and restored the temporalities of the abbey to her. (fn. 17) But she had probably been elected only to keep out the other two royal candidates, and vacated her position almost immediately, when Mabel de Boseham received the temporalities on 31 August. (fn. 18) During her term of office the abbey church, of which no traces now remain, was dedicated. (fn. 19)
In 1253 the abbess was exempted from being charged with converts or others, as she had granted food and vesture for life to Philippa de Rading and her daughter. (fn. 20) This is a rather early record of the claim of the crown to corrodies, which afterwards crystallized into a demand for one at each new creation of an abbess. (fn. 21) The crown also claimed the right to nominate a nun at each accession to the throne. Alice de Belhus was thus nominated in 1307, (fn. 22) Margaret Swinford, afterwards abbess, in 1377, (fn. 23) Maud Kylet in 1404 (fn. 24) and Goda Hampton in 1430. (fn. 25)
The total valuation of the abbey's temporalities given in the Taxation of 1291 amounted to £300 13s. 1¼d., of which £104 8s. 4d., or just over a third, came from the parish of Barking. The bulk of the remainder consisted of £30 14s. 11¾d. in Ingatestone, £22 10s. 11½d. in Wigborough, £21 11s. 5½d. in Tollesbury, £19 3s. 6¼d. in Hockley, £17 12s. 11d. in Lidlington, £16 8s. 10¾d. in Mucking, £16 in Bulphan, £15 11s. 7d. in Slapton, £9 3s. 4½d. in Warley and £8 17s. 4¾d. in Abbess Roding. Smaller contributions came from over a dozen other places, including Stanwell in Middlesex, Thames Ditton in Surrey and Fulbourn in Cambridgeshire.
In 1315 the church of Mucking was appropriated to the abbey, and a vicarage ordained. (fn. 26) The churches of Barking, Dagenham and Horndon on the Hill had already been appropriated at earlier dates; and so were also later those of Tollesbury in 1355, Hockley in 1382, All Hallows by the Tower in 1385, and Lidlington in 1410. (fn. 27) Besides these eight churches the abbey also owned the advowsons of six rectories, viz., Bulphan, Ingatestone, Abbess Roding, Warley, Wigborough and Slapton.
In 1279, after the bishop of London had held a visitation of Barking Abbey and laid certain injunctions upon the convent, Archbishop Peckham wrote to the abbess and nuns confirming the bishop's orders and adding to them. (fn. 28) First he commands that the divine office shall be celebrated fully and without omission and that they shall not cut it short as certain monks had rashly suggested to them; the hour of midnight is the proper time for matins, and complin should be said every day punctually so that chatter may cease and an opportunity occur for prayer and rest. The place set apart for the celebration of the mass of the Blessed Virgin shall be so arranged that the congregation of the nuns shall be separated from other worshippers; also, on Innocents' Day the 'mystery' play shall not be performed by children, lest the praise of God be turned into a game, but shall be performed by the nuns themselves, all outsiders being excluded; moreover, the nuns are to receive the Eucharist on all the chief feasts and on the anniversaries of their own profession. A custom having arisen for the priests after celebrating the service of the dead to pass through the cloister to the common room carrying drinkables and other things, this is strictly forbidden for the future. Anyone who requires refreshment shall have it supplied by the cellaress in the house of the chief priest; also, the sacrist, when making the necessary preparations for the illuminating of the church for the festival of the Purification, may entertain those who are assisting in the work, but no other outsiders; also the wine provided for the altar shall not be sour. Further it appears that some of the priests are in the habit of keeping the host in their own cubicles because they may not pass through the nuns' cloister to obtain it if suddenly required for dying parishioners; this must not occur in future, but the host must be kept in an oratory which shall be always accessible to the priests. Silence is to be observed, and no one, secular or religious, is to go into the parlour to talk after sunset, at which time all gates are to be locked so that none may go out or come in, and to secure the observance of this order two nuns above suspicion shall be bound to see to this every day. The abbess, also, shall not remain in her chamber about sunset, except very occasionally to do honour to guests or on business which cannot wait; she shall always have with her the elder and wiser members of the house, and shall when possible, especially on festivals, dine with the convent. No man, under pain of excommunication, shall ever go into the nuns' rooms, except that in case of illness, when the infirmary is full or the sick person cannot be moved, the doctor or confessor, or even the patient's father or brother, may be admitted, provided they come back speedily; also workmen may enter to do work which cannot be done by women. The confessions of the nuns shall be heard in a public place, and except at confession no nun shall speak alone to a man; as to letting the sisters go out, it shall only be done for very special reasons, as for instance if a parent be dying, 'except which cause we can scarcely think of any grave enough'; they shall never go alone, nor to a distance, and shall especially avoid putting up at any monastery for fear of scandal. Finally, as some of them are reported to be slow to obey and unwilling to do unpleasant work, the archbishop desires the abbess to set a good example by obeying her diocesan, and to see that her nuns obey her; if any refuse hard work she is to keep her from the pleasanter duties and to prevent her going out of the house; while if any be disobedient three times she shall present the offender to the bishop.
The bishop issued (fn. 29) his mandate to the official of the archdeaconry of Essex and to the rural dean of Barking on 7 April, 1308, for the suppression of the tumultuous assemblies and defilements of churches, in violation of the liberties of the Church, that took place in the conventual and parish churches of Barking and in other churches of the immediate neighbourhood each year throughout certain Sundays and holidays near and before the feasts of St. Margaret and St. Ethelburga. This mandate, however, as to the evil keeping of patronal feasts was infringed by Sir John de Massyngburn; and after an inquisition had been held as to the circumstances Sir John was canonically admonished (fn. 30) by the bishop on 8 August, 1311.
In 1221 licence was granted to the abbess to take estovers and to hunt hares and foxes in her wood of Hainault. (fn. 31) In 1290 she had a grant of free warren in Lidlington and Hockley. (fn. 32) In 1319 she had licence to fell 300 oaks in Hainault for the repair of her manor house of Loxfordebury, which had been burnt, and the church and other buildings of the abbey, which were ruinous. (fn. 33)
An instance of one of the uses to which a mediæval nunnery might be put is seen in 1322, when Eleanor de Burgh was detained a prisoner (fn. 34) in the abbey under the influence of the Despensers, who extorted from her a transfer of valuable possessions, which, however, she recovered later. (fn. 35)
In 1324 an inquisition (fn. 36) was taken before the justices in eyre of the forest of Essex, and it was found that the abbess and convent had always had free chase within the forest and without to take hares and all other vermin of the forest and free warren in all their demesne lands. They had two carts called 'skynanchours,' each with one horse and one man, carrying firewood for the abbey without view and livery of foresters and verderers through the whole year, except the fence month, and reasonable estover, timber, and fuel for the abbey and its manors in their woods within the forest by view and livery of the ministers of the forest. And they had without the regard at Barking, Warley, Ingatestone, Roding, Tollesbury and Wigborough groves where they could take necessaries for their house and manors without view or livery of the king's ministers, though the king's foresters entered at their will for the supervision and custody of the king's venison. Edward III in 1338 made a grant (fn. 37) to the abbess and nuns for ever of liberty from pleas of the forest and full power of felling and carrying wood for their firing and buildings, either from their own woods or any woods sold or given to them. In 1489 it was found (fn. 38) that the abbess had free chase within the bailiwick of Hainault to hunt all beasts of the forest in season venatione grosse fere bestie excepted, and free chase within the forest and without to hunt hares and rabbits and the fox, badger, cat, and other vermin.
Elizabeth Chaucy became a nun at Barking in 1381, and John of Gaunt paid £51 8s. 2d. for expenses and gifts on the occasion of her admission. (fn. 39) It seems possible from this that she was a sister or other near relative of the poet Chaucer, whose connexion with John of Gaunt is well known.
The oratory called the Rood Loft on the walls of the cemetery, now known as the 'Fire Bell Gate,' and the only portion of the abbey remaining, was probably built towards the end of the fourteenth century. Pope Boniface IX on 22 March, 1400, granted an indult to the abbess to have mass and other divine offices celebrated in the oratory, in which a certain cross was preserved, and to which a great multitude of people resorted; (fn. 40) and on 25 March he granted relaxation of penance to penitents visiting it at certain times. (fn. 41)
On Ascension Day, 1397, Bishop Braybrook received the professions of fourteen nuns. (fn. 42) Bishop Clifford held an ordination in the conventual church of Barking on 17 May, 1410, at which there were seventy-seven candidates. (fn. 43)
Dame Joan de Felton, the mother of Abbess Sybil, who was afterwards buried in the abbey church, (fn. 44) had licence (fn. 45) in 1398 to grant land in London, Barking and Dagenham to the abbey. She founded a chantry of one chaplain to celebrate divine service there at the tomb of St. Ethelburga for the good estate of Sybil de Felton, then abbess, Margaret Sayham, then a nun, Sir John de Felton, John Hermesthorpe and the abbess and nuns and the benefactors of the abbey, and for their souls after death and the souls of John and Agnes Say. (fn. 46)
About 1377 the abbey met with a great misfortune, from which it seems never to have completely recovered, in the devastation by floods of a large part of its possessions along the Thames. Frequent references to this occur. In 1380, in consideration of their impoverishment and their great expenses in repairing the dykes against the Thames, the king released to the convent their charge of repairing about a mile and a half of the enclosure of Havering park, on condition of their repairing 27 perches immediately and paying a rent of 5 marks yearly. (fn. 47) In 1382, when they had licence to appropriate the church of Hockley, it was stated that their lands were inundated and their income was diminished to the value of 400 marks yearly. (fn. 48) In 1384 they were allowed to impress labourers for their works on Barking marsh, which was unusually flooded and on the point of being quite lost. (fn. 49) At the vacancy in 1393 the temporalities were remitted to them on account of their losses. (fn. 50) In 1392 (fn. 51) and 1462 (fn. 52) various liberties in Becontree hundred were granted to them for similar reasons. In 1409 they were exempted for ten years from payment of tenths (these not exceeding £50 yearly), as it appeared that they had spent over £2,000 in the endeavour to save their lands, and had lost 600 acres of meadow in Dagenham marsh and 120 acres sown with wheat in another marsh. (fn. 53) In 1410, when they had licence to appropriate the church of Lidlington, it was said that none of the nuns had more than 14s. yearly for her habit and vesture from the original foundation of the abbey. (fn. 54) The flooded lands of the abbey were afterwards exempted from the statute 4 Henry VII, cap. 15, extending the jurisdiction of the mayor of London as the conservator of the Thames. (fn. 55)
A curious dispute occurred in 1450 concerning the right of entry and issue through the gate of the parish churchyard of Barking, where Robert Osbern, a clerk of the secret signet, had a house and garden on lease from the abbey. It was brought to a head on Sunday, 8 February, and the abbess complained of having been thrown down in a scuffle about the lock and key. The trouble probably arose from the fact that the abbess sent her servants to hunt in Robert's demesne lands in Barking, where the king had granted him warren. A commission was appointed (fn. 56) on 26 February to inquire into the matter, but the result is not known.
A portion of the register of Abbess Katharine de la Pole is quoted by Lysons. (fn. 57) One entry in it relates to the permission given by her to the parishioners of Barking to put up a new bell over the chapel of the Rood Loft in place of one alleged to be defective, though they were not to interfere with the repairs of the roof. Another tells how in 1462 John Rigby having married Joan Malmeynes, whose family were lords of Cranbrook, dug up and broke the pipes of a conduit leading from Cranbrook to the abbey until the abbess and nuns, for want of water, consented to pay a yearly rent of 24s. to him. Later, however, the abbess discovered a new spring on the lands of the abbey, and caused a new watercourse to be made from it to the abbey. Edmund and Jasper Tudor, the sons of Owen Tudor and Queen Katharine, were at one time sent to the abbess by the council of Henry VI to be brought up in her custody; and it appeared from her petition in 1440 that the sum of £52 12s. was then due to her for their maintenance. (fn. 58)
Bishop Fitz James visited the abbey in March, 1508, and issued injunctions referring to the clashing of the festivals of the Visitation of St. Mary and the octave of SS. Peter and Paul, and also to the due observance as a double feast of the Translation of SS. Ethelburga, Hildelitha and Wilfilda. (fn. 59)
The abbess of Barking had precedence over other abbesses, and she was one of the four who, holding of the king by barony, were summoned (fn. 60) with the bishops and abbots to do military service under Henry III and Edward I. (fn. 61) The chief officer of the convent was the prioress, and the second the high cellaress. Besides these there were also the kitchener, the under-cellaress, two chantresses, two sub-prioresses and two fratresses. All are mentioned in The Charthe (fn. 62) longynge to the Office of the Celeresse of the Monastery of Barkinge, which treats in great detail of the rents set apart for her, her duties, and the allowances of food and money to be made by her to the nuns, both at ordinary times and at special feasts, anniversaries and seasons. Thirty-seven ladies of the convent were to be provided for at the time when it was drawn up, and of these some were to have a double share. The prioress, high cellaress and kitchener were always among the 'doubles'; and on some occasions also other officers, probably in the order of their rank in the abbey.
No event of importance is recorded in connexion with the dissolution. The net value of the abbey is returned in the Valor as £862 12s. 5½d.; another account (fn. 63) giving this as £862 12s. 5¾d. and the gross value as £1,084 6s. 2¼d. It was third in order of wealth among the nunneries; Sion, a foundation of not much more than a century, coming first, Shaftesbury second, and Wilton fourth. Audeley, the chancellor, writing (fn. 64) to Cromwell in September, 1535, asks that the visitation might be postponed that he might speak about it; but neither the purpose nor the result of his request are known. The abbey was finally surrendered (fn. 65) before Dr. William Petre, the royal commissioner, in the chapter-house, on 14 November, 1539. Twelve days later pensions (fn. 66) were granted to the nuns. The abbess received the large allowance of 200 marks yearly, and smaller sums were assigned to thirty other nuns: Thomasina Jenney, Dorothy Fitzlewes, Agnes Townesend, Margaret Scrowpe, Joan Fyncham, Margery Ballard, Martha Fabyan, Ursula Wentworth, Joan Drurye, Elizabeth Wyott, Agnes Horsey, Suzanna Suliarde, Margaret Cotton, Gabriel Shelton, Margery Paston, Elizabeth Badcok, Agnes Buknam, Katharine Pollard, Anne Snowe, Margaret Bramston, Mary Tyrell, Elizabeth Prist, Audrey Mordaunt, Winifred Mordaunt, Elizabeth Banbrik, Margaret Kempe, Alice Hyde, Lucy Long, Matilda Gravell and Margaret Grenehyll. Most of these, including the abbess, were still living and in receipt of their pensions under Philip and Mary. (fn. 67)
The abbey was possessed of considerable wealth, although the inventories taken at the dissolution appear to have been lost. An account (fn. 68) in 1540 records £182 2s. 10d. received as the price of divers goods, grain and cattle sold, £744 for 186 fodders of lead and £122 13s. for 12,912 lb. of bellmetal from eleven bells. Besides this, the jewels and vessels of silver amounted to no less than 3,586 ounces, of which 2,695 were silver-gilt, 471 parcel gilt, and 420 pure. There were also a jewel of 65 ounces called a 'monstraunce,' with a beryl, and some vestments.
The distribution of the possessions of the abbey in 1539 was much the same as in 1291, the Essex manors owned by it being Barking, Cokermouth in Dagenham, Westbury in Barking, Wangey Hall (in Barking), Great Warley, Bulphan, Mucking, Hawkesbury (in Fobbing), Hockley, Tollesbury, Highall (in Tollesbury), Wigborough, Abbes Hall, and Caldecotes in Abbess Roding and Leaden Roding, Ingatestone, Wood Barns (in Ingatestone), Hanley Hall (in Ingatestone) and Down Hall. The site of the monastery, with the conventual house and demesne lands, was granted by Edward VI in 1551 to Edward, Lord Clinton.
Abbesses Of Barking
St. Ethelburga, (fn. 69) circa 666—circa 695.
St. Hildelitha, (fn. 69) circa 695-circa 700.
St. Wlfhildis, (fn. 69) circa 965.
Queen Alftrudis. (fn. 70)
St. Wlfhildis, again. (fn. 71)
Ælfgiva, (fn. 72) circa 1066.
Queen Maud, (fn. 73) wife of Henry I.
Agnes. (fn. 74)
Queen Maud, (fn. 73) wife of Stephen.
Adeliza. (fn. 75)
Mary, (fn. 76) appointed 1173.
Christiana de Valoniis, (fn. 79) occurs 1202, 1205.
Sybil, (fn. 80) elected 1215.
Mabel de Boseham, (fn. 81) elected 1215, died 1247.
Anne de Vere, died 1318. (fn. 94)
The seal of the abbey attached to the deed of surrender (fn. 121) is a pointed oval of red wax measuring about three by two inches when perfect. At the top within a cusping is St. Mary with the infant Jesus, between SS. Peter and Paul. In the middle, under three cusped arches supported by four pillars, are St. Erkenwald, with pastoral staff and book, between SS. Ethelburga and Hildelitha, each with pastoral staff. At the sides are two candlesticks. Below, under a cusped circular archway, is a head of an abbess. Legend: