We may not associate London’s East End with the posher side of the city, but at one point in history, it really was the place to be. The Abbey of St Mary’s, or as it is more commonly known, Stratford Langthorne Abbey was one of the most impressive buildings in the area for many centuries, playing host to kings and being involved in some major historical events.
The founding of Stratford Langthorne Abbey.
The abbey was founded in Stratford in 1135. At the time, Stratford was then part of Essex. This Cistercian monastery was also often called West Ham Abbey after the parish in which it was located. The abbey was built after a local lord, William de Montfichet, gave land to monks to establish an abbey. He also donated two mills, woods in Buckhurst in Essex and his rights of pannage. Pannage gave the monks the right to allow their pigs to graze and forage freely on de Montfichet’s lands.
The early history of Stratford Langthorne Abbey
It is thought that the abbey was initially relatively small, although it expanded over time to become a significant monastery, adding to its original land holdings as it expanded. By the 13th century, for example, its church was expanded to incorporate a number of side chapels and a presbytery. William de Montfichet had originally given the monks of the abbey eleven acres of land to build on.
The Cistercian monks worked the land, drained marshland and grew crops, expanding as they went along. Ultimately, the main site of the abbey and its buildings was to spread across 20 acres, taking over most of the local area and quite a bit of Essex into the bargain.
Historical East London – Stratford Langthorne Abbey
As with all monastic houses of the time, this was a working and self-sufficient community. The abbey was surrounded by various farm buildings. It also had a range of workshops close by that covered industries such as brewing, tanning, weaving and shearing. The abbey also owned a number of mills on the Bow Back rivers in the area.
By the middle of the 13th century, Stratford Langhorne was also popular with England’s royals. In 1267, for example, Henry III set up his court in the abbey during a visit from papal representatives from Rome. During the Barons’ War in the 1260s, Henry used the abbey as a base for his peace talks with his barons. Its quiet location, close to but not too near London, also made this a popular retreat for the nobility. After a visit in 1467, Edward IV donated two casks of wine a year to have masses said on his behalf.
The dissolution of the monasteries
Not all of the experiences in and around the abbey were so positive, however. In the 1380s, it was ransacked during the Peasants’ Revolt and, in the late 14th century, it was so badly flooded that it had to be restored on the orders of Richard II. By the times of Henry VIII, Stratford Langthorne was reputed to be the fifth largest abbey in the entire country, making it a prime target during the dissolution of the monasteries.
During this period, the abbey was closed down and stripped of anything of value. Its monks moved out of the site to a smaller and less valuable monastery. The lands were ultimately given to Sir Peter Meautas and some of the buildings around the abbey were taken over by local businesses, the best known of which was the Adam and Eve alehouse, which was situated on the site in the 1700s. Over time, the abbey and its buildings were pulled down or fell into disrepair.
Stratford Langthorne Abbey today
Over the years, the abbey buildings were dismantled and their materials used to build other structures in the area. You can therefore only see some remains of the 12th century abbey gatehouse in West Ham at Abbey Gardens. The gardens surround part of the abbey ruins. The Victorians used the site for part of the North Woolwich railway track and built factories on the free space.
Since the 1970s, there have been periodic archaeological digs on the site, usually during redevelopment projects in the area. These digs have helped archaeologists better understand the layout of the abbey. A series of over 600 burial excavations at Stratford Langthorne is thought to be the largest example from a Cistercian monastery in all of Europe.
This has been a valuable source of information for archaeologists and historians, teaching them a lot about burial customs, medical care and the people who lived at the abbey.
If you want to see what is left of the once magnificent abbey, you have to visit All Saints West Ham Parish Church – this displays a stone window and a carving from the original monastery. You can also see an example of the abbey’s coat of arms in Stratford on the Old Court House doorway.