William de MONTFICHET founded the ‘Abbey of Stratford Langthorne’ in 1135, this Abbey was known locally as the ‘WEST HAM ABBEY’.
This ancient monastery stood in the marshes on a branch of the Lea, the Channelsea River, which was one of the artificial channels cut by Alfred the Great.
It was a monastery dedicated to the religious quiet of hooded monks, whose chants trembled and echoed through the lofty arches of its cloisters. Here the monks dwelt in absolute seclusion from the world, amidst the orchards and gardens, and passed their lives in devotional exercises and the worship of God.
The West Ham Abbey was founded for brethren of the Cistercian Order, and like all Cistercian monasteries was dedicated to “the Blessed Virgin Mary and Al Saints.” It was richly endowed by its founder and other benefactors, and possessed in the days of its splendour, 1,500 acres of land in this district alone, besides many manors and estates both in Essex and other counties.
The West Ham Abbey was a busy hive of industry. Everything that was eaten, drunk or used by the inmates was produced on the spot. The monks grew their own corn on their own land, and ground it in their mills. Their clothes were made from the wool of their own sheep, of which they are known to have possessed at least 800. They had their own tailors and shoemakers, carpenters and blacksmiths, butchers and bakers.
In 1267 the West Ham Abbey had the honour of becoming for a while the residence of Henry HI, and the scene of important historical transactions.
The West Ham Abbey stood low among the marshes and was therefore liable to frequent flooding from the river. In the fourteenth century a terrible calamity overtook the monks of the Abbey. They were routed by the floods and compelled to move to their property at Great Burstead, near Billericay in Essex. There they remained until Richard II took the Abbey under his protection and made extensive repairs, alterations and additions to it. From that time the Abbey appears to have gone on prosperously.
During 1411 and 1412 – King Henry IV was entertained at the Abbey times. King Edward IV was also entertained at the Abbey in 1467. and in the following year he made what turned out to be an annual gift to the Abbott of 2 casks of wine for the celebration of masses.
Ladies of rank and distinction occasionally resided withm the Abbey, among them were Lady Margaret de Vere and the Counter of Salisbury – a niece of Edward IV – who was later beheaded at the Tower of London. Not only did the great and nobles of the land occasionally reside at the Abbey, of them were also anxious to procure a resting place within the Monasteries were generally the places of internment for the great Lords and Kings. It was not unnatural weakness to think that some advantage might be derived from lying in holy places amongst holy persons.
John de Bohun, Earl of Hereford and Essex, and High Constable of England desired to be buried in West Ham Abbey, and when he died in 1335 in Westmoreland, his body was brought to the Abbey for burial.
In the 12th, 13th and 14th centuries, monasteries were centres of civilisation and refinement, and seats of learning and literature. Many valuable books and national records were preserved in their libraries. We also owe a great debt of gratitude to the monks, for it is through them mostly, that the Holy Scriptures have been handed down to us.
Leland, an eminent antiquarian of the 16th century found in the library of West Ham Abbey almost all the works of Stephen Langton, Archbishop of Canterbury.
DISSOLUTION OF WEST HAM ABBEY
In 1535, during the reign of Henry VIII. the first steps towards the suppression of all the monastic houses throughout the Kingdom took place. In 1538 the West Ham Abbey, after an existence of 4 centuries was resigned into the hands of Henry VIII. The wealth of the Abbey was very considerable, and at the time of its dissolution its yearly income was estimated at £652.00.
The deed of surrender of the Abbey, which still exists in the “Public Record Office” in London, was executed in the Chapter House of the Abbey on the 18th March 1538, it was signed by William Huddleston, the last of the Abbotts, the Chanter, the Sacrist and eleven monks.
After the surrender of the Abbey, the monks were permitted to retire to a mansion in Plaistow – one of their former possessions.
King Henry VIII. then granted the Abbey – with all its estates – to Sir Peter Meautas and Johanna his wife “for their true and faithful service.”
REMAINS OF WEST HAM ABBEY
Not one stone upon another remains to tell the tale, or mark the outline of this once noble house of prayer. The foundations were dug up and it would be difficult for the most inquisitive antiquarian to discover a relic of the ancient Abbey. Even the very site of the conventual church is now unknown. The graves and monuments of the Abbotts, and the resting places of the great and noble persons are desecrated and forgotten.
Nearly the whole site of the old Abbey is now covered with ranges of factories, warehouses and yards, which make it difficult to picture that it was once a place of rest and prayer for the monks, or a quiet and pleasant retreat for Kings and nobles.
The badge of the West Ham Abbey Lodge and Chapter depicts the “Entrance Gate” of the Abbey. It was a fine brick building with a double entrance, one for horses and vehicles, and a smaller one for foot passengers.