Plague Tales: The Light of Barking Abbey

Some historians say that there isn’t enough information on the first plague pandemic in northern Europe to do anything with; I don’t agree. The material is diffuse and of uneven historical quality. It needs to be gathered up and assessed. Toward that end I’m just going to begin gathering 6th-8th century plague tales here on Heavenfield. Some will be fairly mundane slices of life, some fantastic, some gory, gruesome or just depressing. Some tales might be better considered fairy tales. Most of these tales will be quite short so perfect for blog posts. So lets start with an unusual tale from Barking Abbey near London in the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Essex.

The Double Monastery of Barking

Double monasteries were a temporary resolution to the lack of infrastructure to support all female monasteries. In the first several centuries of Christianity in northern Europe, monasteries had to be almost completely self-sufficient and all female monasteries simply couldn’t survive. A double monastery has two houses, one for males and one for females all under the rule of an abbess. Double monasteries began to appear in the 6th century with Kildare in Ireland being one of the earliest and most famous. Double monasteries were usually founded with royal patronage for royal women.  They were at their peak in the 7th-8th century and were probably all gone by the 10th century. These monasteries and their abbesses wielded a surprising amount of influence and power within the ecclesiastical establishment of Britain and Ireland. Kildare was a rival of Patrick’s Armagh for leadership of the Irish church and Whitby in Northumbria was the site of the most politically important synod in early medieval Britain. Abbess Hild of Whitby was one of the most politically powerful figures (male or female) in 7th century Britain.

Barking Abbey was founded by Bishop Erconwald of London for his sister Æthelburgh before he became bishop in 675. It has been speculated that Erconwald and his sister were relatives of the kings of Kent (and therefore probably more distant relatives to the royal families of Essex, East Anglia and Mercia). Barking was one of the best known double monasteries in southern Britain with a reputation for holiness rather than political clout. It exerted a more quiet, subtle influence, important enough for Bede to refer to Barking as famous. He clearly had a history of Barking or hagiography of Æthelburgh available when he wrote his Ecclesiastical History. Bede calls her a “mother and nurse of a company of women devoted to God” who “proved herself worthy in all things of her brother the bishop, both by her holy life and by her sound and devoted care for those under her rule; and of this heavenly miracles were witness” (Bede, HE IV.6).

The Light of Barking

When the plague reached Barking (680s?), it struck at the  house of brothers first. For some time it carried away the brothers, while the abbess anxiously made preparations for it to reach the female house. Abbess Æthelburgh consulted with the sisters as to where they would like their final resting place to be when the plague carried them off as it was currently taking the brothers. The anxious sisters discussed where to put their cemetery but could not give the abbess a clear answer. As the days when on, the sisters continued their work saying the daily office. One night as they came out of the chapel and went to the brother’s cemetery to pray for the dead, suddenly a great light lite up the whole area “striking such terror in them that they broke off the chant they were singing in alarm” (Bede, HE IV.7). It was so bright that two brothers in the oratory declared that the light coming in through the windows and cracks lite up the oratory as though it was daylight. Eventually the light concentrated and moved from over the nuns to the west side of the oratory on the south side of the monastery where it hovered for a while before withdrawing into the heavens. This time the sisters were all in agreement that the miraculous light was a guide to carry their souls to heaven but also pointed to the place where their bodies were rest. Soon the plague did indeed reach the sister’s house and the some of them saw the light again.


Bede, Ecclesiastical History of the English People (HE), Book IV: chapters 6-7, finished c. 731. All quotes from Judith McClure and Roger Collins, eds. Bede: The Ecclesiastical History of the English People, the Greater Chronicle, Bede’s Letter to Egbert, Oxford University Press, 1994.


8 thoughts on “Plague Tales: The Light of Barking Abbey

  1. The notes in McClure & Collins refer to ‘recent excavations’ at Barking Abbey. I wonder if the nuns’ cemetery was identified?

  2. I haven’t heard anything about excavations at Barking. There should be plenty of places in Anglo-Saxon England to look for plague cemeteries (like Bamburgh!!). For that matter, Whithorn would be another cemetery of the right age.

  3. I’m not sure what to conclude about that light pointing out the cemetary! I’m glad someone’s looking into those early plagues, because I’ve seen nothing but fleeting references. You’d think there’d be more on it, or perhaps I’m just assuming it was as devasting as the 14th-century one, and it wasn’t.

    Michelle, I need to look into Whithorn, obviously!

    1. The plague came in waves between 541 and about 750 so I think that is the right range for Whithorn. It probably would have been nearly all in the British period.

  4. Look into Roberta Gilchrist’s works on monastic burial and archaeology. I’m not sure, but she may have done work on Barking.

    I’m currently writing a thesis chapter about plague references in books iii and iv of the Ecclesiastical History, particularly plague and prophesy.

      1. I’m looking at the different ways in which plague is used as a literary device. Chapter 1 is on the Lives of St. Aethelthryth in Bede and Aelfric of Eynsham’s work and how the plague’s role changes in the intervening 300 years. Chapter 2 is on medical texts and Chapter 3 is on Chaucer’s Pardoner’s Tale.

        1. Sounds interesting. The Lives of Cuthbert are another where plague has a changing role. I talked about plague in Bede’s Life of Cuthbert at Kalamzoo last spring. Hopefully it will be out in print sometime soon.

          I haven’t actually surveyed the Ecclesiastical History but it seems to me from my recollections that all of Bede’s deathbed prophecies are plague related. Is that true? Casting Oswald as a plague saint is also interesting…

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