The Abbey in Barking was founded in 666 AD by Saint Erkenwald, Bishop of London. He founded it for his sister, Saint Ethelburga, who was the first Abbess and it was dedicated to the Mother of God (the Virgin Mary).
The Abbey would have been wooden when it was first founded but eventually built in stone. It was eventually dedicated to the Mother of God and Saint Ethelburga. The position was important: it was next to the River Roding, called Barking Creek here, accessible from the River Thames. Travellers from London, Essex or further afield could avoid the sometimes dangerous or difficult roads such as those through Epping Forest by travelling by boat.
Barking Abbey was a renowned centre of spirituality and learning, and even formed a base for William the Conqueror after the Battle of Hastings, until the Tower of London could be completed as his London palace. The Abbey survived until the dissolution of the monasteries under King Henry VIII in 1539 and the ruins of the building survive in a public park in Barking. The only surviving parts of the stone monastery are the Curfew Tower and the parish Church of Saint Margaret of Antioch, alongside the footprint of the large Abbey Church.
Pilgrimage services in the Abbey
In the eleventh century, the ‘translation’ (moving) of the relics of St Ethelburga, St Hildelith and St Wulfhild took place. This was a common occurrence when a new building was needed or when a saint was first recognised. The Abbess at the time, Alviva, asked Jocelyn of Canterbury, a monk, to write some texts at this time, which are preserved in versions in Trinity College, Dublin, and Cardiff.
The Church footprint is still clear in the park in Barking, and although the ground floor is not preserved throughout (the crypt level is mostly seen), the three tombstones in the photograph above are located behind what would have been the high altar in a mediaeval Church, which is the usual location for shrines to saints. The evidence suggests that these three tombstones are therefore those of St Ethelburga, first abbess of Barking; St Hildelith, second abbess of Barking; and St Wulfhild, abbess of Barking in the 10th century.
We have used this area of the Abbey, helpfully paved with flagstones, as our base for any services held outside at the pilgrimages. This has included Mattins (Orthros, the morning service), Moleben (service of thanksgiving to saints), Paraklesis (service of supplication to Mary, Mother of God) and Great Vespers (Evensong, the evening service) on different occasions.
All Hallows by the Tower
Barking Abbey was an important monastery, and had several dependent institutions, Churches and landholdings. All Hallows by the Tower was founded by Barking Abbey in 675 and is thus the oldest Church in the City of London. An arch from the Saxon Church is still preserved in the current Church, next to the Tower of London. In 2014 a group of pilgrims prayed at the Church and then walked to Barking Abbey for the pilgrimage.
Ilford Hospital Chapel
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