Barking Abbey Curfew Tower, Barking, Essex

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Feature Sets (2)


The Curfew Tower (or Fire Bell Gate) formed the E entrance to the abbey precinct, and is the only abbey building remaining. It is a 2-storey gateway of coursed rubble and stone dressings, dating from the period around 1500. It has inner and outer archways with 4-centred arches to the E and W, and an octagonal stair in the NW corner. The upper storey formed the Chapel of the Holy Rood, and it houses the late-12thc stone Rood  described below. The upper storey was largely rebuilt in the late-19thc.


According to Bede, Erkenwald (Bishop of London 675-93) founded Barking Abbey as a nunnery for his sister Ethelburga before he became bishop. The actual foundation date is a complex issue, but the suggestion of 666 argued in VCH is a reasonable one. In 1066 the abbess was Aefgiva, and her status was confirmed by William I. The formal dissolution of the abbey was in November 1539, when the abbess and 30 other nuns were granted pensions.


Loose Sculpture

The Barking Rood

The Barking Rood is a large relief sculpture installed to the N of the E window in the upper chapel of the Curfew Tower. It is carved on a slab made up of nine rectangular blocks, arranged 3x3. All appear sound except for the upper R block which is broken with a horizontal crack across the middle.

The subject is Christ on the cross flanked by standing figures of the Virgin on the L and St John on the R. The cross extends the full width of the composition, with Christ’s arms, both slightly bent down at the elbows, above the heads of the two flanking figures. On the side arms of the cross and at the foot are trimmed side shoots, Christ’s head falls down onto his R shoulder, and he wears a short skirt down to the knees. His feet are slightly separated with the toes turned out, and the are on the same groundline as the flanking figures.

Mary and St John are considerably smaller than Christ (approximately 70% of his height and commensurately slighter in build). They mirror one another in being shown frontally with their heads tilted towards the centre. Mary wears a scarf covering her head and shoulders, over a long dress that terminates in folds around her ankles. The pointed toes of her shoes project at the bottom. She has her hands folded over her breast. John is shown with bare feet and wears voluminous ankle-length draperies covered by a cloak over the shoulders.  He supports his drooping head with the palm of his R hand, and carries a codex in his L hand.

All three figures are badly damaged, especially to the heads. Christ has lost all his head except the lower L portion (from the spectator’s viewpoint); Mary retains the oval outline of her face but no surface detail, and St John has lost the entire upper half of his head and all detail from the lower part. The background is diapered with an overall design of diagonal interlacing trelliswork. The drapery is characterised by parallel folds woth some damp fold, especially on St John’s L leg and R shin.  Garments have neavy borders with concertina folds at the hem.


Maximum depth of carving 0.115m
Overall height at sides 1.33m
Overall height in centre 1.38m
Slab 1 (top L) dimensions (height first) 0.35m x 0.46m
Slab 2 (middle L) 0.47m x 0.46m
Slab 3 (lower L) 0.51m x 0.46m
Slab 4 (top centre) 0.43m x 0.46m
Slab 5 (middlecentre) 0.47m x 0.46m
Slab 6 (lower centre) 0.49m x 0.46m
Slab 7 (top R) 0.33m x 0.455m
Slab 8 (middle R) 0.47m x 0.455m
Slab 9 (lower R) 0.53m x 0.455m


The date of the Barking Rood has long been a matter of dispute. Prior and Gardiner (1912) considered it a pre-Conquest work of c.1000 AD, but Zarnecki’s analysis of 1953 , and his mid-12thc dating have generally been accepted, e.g. by Cherry and O’Brien (2005). Parallels offered are with the more famous Chichester Reliefs (qv) and with manuscript painting, especially the Bury Bible.  Zarnecki himself suggested a metalwork connection, but little survives to confirm this.  The link with the Chichester reliefs is no more than a generic connection between rare large-scale figural reliefs; the Sussex figures are much more theatrical and expressive than these.


  • B. Cherry, C. O’Brien and N. Pevsner, The Buildings of England, London 5 East, New Haven and London 2005, 119.

  • Historic England Listed Building 198236

  • N. Pevsner, The Buildings of England. Essex, Harmondsworth 1954, 63.

  • E. S. Prior and A. Gardner, An Account of Medieval Figure-Sculpture in England. Cambridge 1912, 137, fig. 114.

  • L. Stone, Sculpture in Britain: The Middle Ages.  Pelican History of Art, Harmondsworth 1955, 65.

  • Victoria County History: Essex II (1907), 115-122.

  • G. Zarnecki, Later English Romanesque Sculpture 1140-1210.  London 1953, 31-32, fig. 65.

Exterior from SE
Curfew Tower from E
Curfew Tower from W


Site Location
Barking Abbey Curfew Tower, Barking
National Grid Reference
TQ 441 839 
now: Greater London
pre-1974 traditional (England and Wales): Essex
now: Chelmsford
medieval: London
medieval: St Mary (7thc)
Type of building/monument
Report authors
Isabel Tomlins, Ron Baxter 
Visit Date
20 July 2016