ID: WIG_947 / Elaine Barker

TitleWigborough's charter of 947
AbstractWigborough in the dim distant past........

For most of our local villages, the furthest back in time you can get documentary evidence are entries in the Domesday Book which compares the land, owners, men and animals of 1066 with the situation in 1086, the time of the survey. In it, most of Wigborough is recorded as belonging to St. Mary's Abbey, Barking.

Recently, however, an earlier reference to Wigborough - nearly 140 years earlier - has crossed my radar!

The texts of eleven pre-Conquest charters were turned up in a Tudor notebook at Hatfield House in recent years. They shed light on Barking Abbey, which was to own the Manor of Great Wigborough until 1539, and they narrow the time-frame when Wigborough was granted to the abbey.

One of the charters, dated 947, is a grant by King Eadred, a Saxon king who reigned between 946 and 955; he was the son of Edward the Elder and the grandson of Alfred the Great.

In this charter, King Eadred gifted 17 hides* of land at Wigborough to Aelfstan, his faithful thegn. Who Aelfstan was we don't know, except presumably a local Essex landowner and clearly highly thought of by the King.

to my faithful minister named Aelfstan for his fealty and fidelity which he always showed to me in his service of devotion

* The hide is a tax assessment rather than an actual acreage but it is generally accepted it was around 120 acres, so this gift was over 2,000 acres.

So, it would seem, sometime between the charter of 947 and 1066, Wigborough was gifted by Aelfstan, or his descendants, to the abbey, in whose hands it was to stay until the Reformation.  

Barking Abbey had been founded in 666 by Erkenwald, then Abbot of Chertsey and later Bishop of London. He established his sister, Ethelburga, as the first Abbess. However, due to the destruction of the abbey by the Vikings circa 871 it was thought to have been abandoned for close to 100 years while the nuns fled to their City of London Estate; this later became the parish of All Hallows-by-the- Tower, also known as All Hallows Barking.

There has always been a question as to when the abbey got back on its feet and when the Manor of Wigborough was granted to it.

Amongst the 'lost' charters is one dated 950 in which King Eadred granted 8 hides to the monastic community at Barking, proving the abbey was functioning again 80 years after its destruction at the hands of the Vikings.

Clearly, the West Saxon kings were trying to help the abbey re-establish, no more so than Eadred's nephew, Edgar, who ruled between 959 and 975 and became known for his patronage of the monastic revival.

Edgar was the patron of a great monastic revival which owed much to his association with Archbishop Dunstan. New bishoprics were created, Benedictine monasteries were reformed and old monastic sites were re-endowed with royal grants, some of which were of land recovered from the Vikings.

During Edgar's reign, Barking Abbey was re-built as a single-sex Benedictine nunnery (in its earlier days there were two separate buildings housing monks and nuns) and the Crown donated vast estates and revenue to the abbey making it rich and powerful.

A bequest to the abbey in the Anglo-Saxon will of ealdorman Aelfgar, written between 946 and 951, is further confirmation that Barking Abbey was re-established by this time.

Interrupted only by the Danish invasion of the 9th century, the abbey survived from 666 to 1539 when it finally closed, a victim of the Dissolution of the Monasteries.

In 1534, Henry VIII declared himself Supreme Head of the Church of England. This move, triggered by his wish to divorce Catherine of Aragon, was also a means by which the King could get his hands on the vast wealth held by the Church in this country and led to the Reformation and the Dissolution of the Monasteries

At the time of the Dissolution, Barking was the third wealthiest nunnery in England.

After its closure in 1539, the abbey buildings were comprehensively demolished over the next two years. The finest stones were shipped across the river to build a new Manor house for the King at Dartford and the nuns were all pensioned off.

The ownership of Wigborough by Barking Abbey is still reflected in the name Abbots Hall which used to be known as Abbess Hall. Following the Abbey's dissolution, Henry VIII granted the Wigborough estate to Thomas Cromwell before it reverted to the Crown upon Cromwell's execution in 1540.

Not only does the finding of these charters fill in another piece of the jigsaw in researching the history of Great Wigborough and Barking Abbey, it poses the question are there more treasures to be found, as yet unidentified, in libraries and archives throughout the country?

Elaine Barker
Peldon History Project

AuthorElaine Barker
SourceMersea Museum