Just a tower survived in Barking Abbey ruins

The Curfew Tower, with old buildings on what is now open land. Picture: Michael Foley

The Curfew Tower, with old buildings on what is now open land. Picture: Michael Foley - Credit: Archant

Looking around Barking now, so much seems to have changed that much of its history has disappeared.

There is one area though that has a very long history and part of it survives. Barking Abbey dates back into the days before England became a unified nation, and came into being sometime between 665 and 675 AD.

At this time the country was made up of a number of smaller kingdoms, of which Essex was one. When the king of the area appointed Erkenwald the Bishop of London in 685 AD, he built the first Benedictine Abbey in Barking and placed his sister Ethelburga in charge of it. Both names are well remembered in the town many centuries after the abbey has gone.

The abbey lasted for 900 years and although the first abbey may not have been so noticeable, the second one was a large, imposing building which must have been a well-known landmark for miles around. It would have also been visible as most buildings in its early days were single-storey.

As well as being well known, the abbey also owned much of the land surrounding it, as far as Rainham to the east and Ilford to the north-west.

The abbey played its part in the conflicts of England’s history. When the country was being raided and pillaged by Vikings it wasn’t only coastal areas that suffered. The Viking Longboats were ideal for travelling along inland water ways and in 870 they came to Barking and destroyed the abbey and slaughtered its inhabitants.

Little is known of the original abbey and it may not even have stood on the site we know today. It may even have been built of wood which would have made it easier for the raiding Vikings to burn down. When it was rebuilt in 966 it was of stone and there are rumours that some of the material came from old Roman ruins at Uphall in Ilford.

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There are rumours of another connection with Uphall which also has connections to a serious conflict. When William the Conqueror became king he stayed at Barking Abbey while the Tower of London was built. It is thought that while he was there his army stayed at Uphall, which was the site of an old Iron Age fort.

The history of the abbey after William is one of connections with many of the royals of English history.

The queens of King Henry I and King Stephen were both abbesses of Barking. King Stephen is supposed to have stayed at the abbey at some point.

In 1173 Mary, the sister of Thomas Becket, became abbess. Later the daughter of Henry II, and sister of Richard the Lionheart, was the abbess.

The abbey was closed in 1539, due to Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries. The building was demolished and its possessions sold off.

Some of the material was reused in royal buildings. All that remains of the abbey is the Curfew Tower which was one of the abbey gates. It was originally built in 1370 but the surviving tower dates from 1460.

St Margaret’s Church, which stands in what was the abbey grounds, dates back to the 12th century.

It had been added to over the centuries and has, like the abbey before it, had some famous connections. The explorer Captain James Cook was married in the church on December 21, 1762. At the time of his marriage he had a house in Mile End Road which he owned from 1728 to 1779.

The grounds of the abbey now have part of the foundations of the old building showing.

The area is now used for concerts in the summer, but how many of the people walking through the grounds realise they are walking in the footsteps of some of the best-known names from English history?