In the middle of Barking surrounded by a council estate stands a Grade I listed Elizabethan manor house. I have heard people gasp when they first see it, not just because of the beauty of the building but because its sheer existence is so surprising. Its location seems incongruous almost as if it has been dropped from a great height and landed in an alien landscape. In fact, Eastbury Manor is one of the last reminders of a time when Barking was part of one of the most powerful and wealthy institutions in England.
The Most Powerful Abbesses in the Kingdom
The Benedictine monastery of Barking was founded in AD666 by Erkenwald, later Bishop of London. Erkenwald appointed his sister, Ethelburga as the Abbey’s first Abbess. Barking was built originally as a ‘double house’ which meant that monks and nuns lived in separate communities but were both under the control of the Abbess. In 870, the Vikings attacked and the lands surrounding the monastery became part of Dane Law territory until the 900s when the English retook the area. The abbey and nunnery were rebuilt this time as a single-sex institution. Further building work and remodelling took place again in the 12th century.
Over the next 600 years, the abbey grew in both wealth and size as it gained new charters relating to taxation and control of Barking water mill and tolls as well as accruing more and more holdings. The seat of abbess became highly sought after with kings and powerful barons desiring the position for their wives and female relations. Initially, the king had the power of choosing the abbess but later it became an elected seat at the insistence of the pope during the reign of King John.
The abbey was the richest and most powerful institution in the kingdom and the Abbess of Barking the most important religious female role in England with all other abbesses subject to her authority. Unfortunately, its eminence ended with Henry VIII and the dissolution of the monasteries in the 16th century. In 1539 the Abbey surrendered, it was one of the last religious houses to be dissolved as the final abbess, Dorothy Borley was a friend of the King’s Representative.
In 1541 the abbey which had played host to William the Conqueror and had been ruled by some of the most influential women in medieval history including Mary Beckett (who had been promoted as abbess by a guilt-stricken Henry II to atone for the murder of her brother, Thomas Beckett) was dismantled and the reign of the Abbesses of Barking came to an ignoble end. The nuns were given large pensions, the abbey’s treasures confiscated and the lands divided up and sold. Included in the property was the land on which Eastbury Manor House was later built.
The Early Years
There might have already been a house built on the land but no residence is mentioned in the listing of the halls (which included Mucking and Westbury) belonging to the abbey at the time of the dissolution. The land which was primarily marshland was acquired by Sir William Denham who had made his fortune in commerce and had been elected Master of the Ironmongers’ company seven times. He had also served eleven years as Alderman of Coleman Street Ward. On his death, he still owned the lands of Eastbury although there is no evidence that he had ever lived on the property. Eventually, the estate came into the possession of Clement Sysley who was responsible for the building that exists today.
The Building of Eastbury Manor
In the booklet published by the London Borough of Barking and Dagenham, it says that the ‘architectural expert, Sir Nicholas Pevsner believed that various distinctive features were characteristic of the 1550s’. He suggested that based on features such as the lead rainwater hopper head which has been dated to the 1570s the building took many years to complete. The political stability under Elizabeth I is reflected in the changing building styles. Eastbury Manor House was built with large windows on the outside instead of around a central courtyard with windows facing the centre and easily defendable outer walls.
Eastbury Manor House is a handsome timber-framed building with red-brick work ‘enhanced with diaper-work patterns in a grey colour bricks’. The main part of the house has two storeys with an attic above and cellar below. The manor has two wings. The western wing contained the sleeping quarters and the east side the ‘Great Chamber’. On the ground floor was the ‘dining room, vestibule, hall and buttery, plus a parlour and kitchen’. Originally there would have been two octagonal turrets linking the floors but only one has survived.
The house has some interesting features. If you look at the wall of the entrance to the building you can see a blocked slit window. This window ‘once gave light to a hidden space above the porch ceiling but below the floor of the chamber above’ and is believed to have been used by Sysley as a strong room where he kept his valuables and important documents. Upstairs in the two main rooms above the hall, the remains of wall paintings are still visible. These stunning murals depict pastoral and fishing scenes framed by painted columns and archways. The building would have had murals in many of the rooms but unfortunately, the majority of them have been lost.
The house was known as a ‘gentry house’ as despite the wealth of its owner and the expensive materials used i.e. glass in all the windows and red brick in its construction it was still a provincial residence. Time has stood still for this building as it was never extended and so remains a perfect example of Elizabethan architecture
A Confused History
Although the actual structure of the Manor House is pretty simple to understand it is a completely different story when it comes to who was living in the house after Sysley’s death in 1578.
What is clear is that on Sysley’s death his wife Anne gained possession with the proviso that it would be passed onto their son Thomas ‘to him and his heirs forever at Eastbury’, it was not to be. Thomas appears to have had serious money troubles and had to ask his mother’s second husband, Augustine Steward for assistance. So far so good but now things start to go adrift. Some sources state that in 1592 Thomas ‘granted a 500 year lease to his stepbrother, Augustine Steward the younger’ but others imply that Thomas still owned the building at this time. The phrasing used is confusing as it says that Thomas was in possession to ‘just before 1608’ which could mean anytime between 1592 and 1608. If the later date is correct that maybe Steward was living in the property as a tenant. Other possible occupants of Eastbury at this time were the diplomat and tax collector John Moore and his Spanish wife Maria Perez de Recalde. Some researchers believe that they were responsible for the commissioning of the wall paintings in the early 1600s.
Things get clearer later on when in 1628 Martin Steward sells Eastbury to Jacob Price. The house for some reason did not stay with one family for very long. Most of the owners rented the property out to tenant farmers, who worked the land and on occasion housed their animals on the ground floor, rather than live in it themselves. The most well-known purchaser was Sir Thomas Vyner, Lord Mayor of London from 1653-1654 who bought the manor house in 1650.
The chronology for the late 16th and early 17th century of who lived when at Eastbury becomes really important when trying to work out if the most famous legend associated with the manor house has any grounding in truth. This is its connection to the plot to blow up the House of Lords more commonly known as the Gunpowder Plot.
Eastbury Manor and the Gunpowder Plot
To a large extent, the writer Daniel Defoe can be blamed for the longevity of the myth. Around 1770 he wrote in the publication ‘Tour throughout the whole island of Great Britain’
“a little beyond the town, on the road to Dagenham, stood a great house, ancient, and now almost fallen down, where tradition says the Gunpowder Treason Plot was at first contriv’d and that all the first consultations about it were held there”
Aside from the tradition that the conspirators met at Eastbury to discuss the plans for the blowing up of parliament, there was also a story circulating that Lord Monteagle was staying at the manor house when he received the anonymous letter that led to the discovery of the plot. Another tale refers to the plotters plan to return to Eastbury and watch the flash and the ensuing commotion from the top of one of the towers.
There are many holes in these scenarios for one thing Lord Monteagle stated that he received the letter at his town house in Hoxton. The only tenuous connection is a baptism entry from the local parish records that suggests that at some point in Monteagle’s life he may have resided in the area but there is nothing to link him to residing at Eastbury. In addition, the idea of watching the aftermath of the explosion from Eastbury is definitely far-fetched. The only basis for this is that apparently, Fawkes hired a Barking boat to ferry him and another man to Gravelines, northern France.
Those that in the past believed that the conspirators met at Eastbury usually base their supposition on the link between Francis Tresham and John Moore and his wife Maria, the Moores’ supposed presence at Eastbury and the fact they were all recusants. Their theory may go something like this: John and Maria being recusants who harboured ill-feeling toward the king and parliament and wanted the country to return to Catholicism allowed Francis, who was related to them through John’s step-daughter’s marriage to Francis’ younger brother Lewis, and the conspirators to meet at Eastbury.
The problem is that although John and Mary were recusants i.e. they refused to attend services of the Church of England and were likely disappointed that James was not more sympathetic to the Catholic cause, there is no evidence that they ever worked against the crown and indeed John Moore held an important official role.
On the other hand, Francis Tresham did know about the plot against the government and had previously been imprisoned for plotting against the crown. He had also been involved in what was called the ‘Spanish Treason’ in which he travelled to Spain with Thomas Wintour and more suspiciously Guido (Guy) Fawkes. By 1605 he had seemingly renounced his treasonous activities and even sworn loyalty to James. Francis was also related by marriage to both Edward, 10th Baron Stourten and William Parker, 4th Baron Monteagle (whose father was also a recusant).
The fly in this ointment is that Tresham did not learn of the plot until the 14 October 1605 only three weeks before the planned attack. All details on the how and the when would have already been decided on. Maybe Robert Catesby, the plot’s chief instigator and the others were concerned that Tresham was a liability due to his reputation as a hot-headed and his family connections. Indeed when Tresham raised concerns about the safety of Monteagle and Stourton he was told that unfortunately the innocent must also suffer for the greater good. This has led to many historians believing that Francis Tresham was the author of the anonymous letter warning Monteagle not to attend the opening of the House of Lords. The letter once deciphered was shown to Robert Cecil, 1st Earl of Sainsbury and the King. Monteagle joined the search of the House of Lords’s undercroft where Fawkes was found with a match and the gunpowder. On being tortured Fawkes revealed the names of his co-conspirators including Tresham. The men were arrested and taken to the Tower. Tresham died of a urinary tract infection before he could be charged with treason. Despite not being formally charged his head was removed and displayed alongside Robert Catesby at Northampton and his body thrown into a hole at Tower Hill.
So unless Moore and his wife were involved themselves in the plot without Tresham’s knowledge and were without question living in Eastbury at the time, the legend does not really hold water. As a child I grew up hearing the story and believing in it and so was really disappointed when I learnt it was a myth, I would have loved it to be true!
The manor house preserved for posterity
By the beginning of the last century, the house was in ruins. The Great Tower staircase was demolished in 1814, the wooden flooring and fireplaces had been removed and only the west wing was liveable. Luckily it came to the notice of Octavia Hill and C.R. Ashbee and they began a campaign to buy the house from its then owners. Eventually, the manor house was taken under the guardianship and protection in 1917 of the National Trust and restored with the London Borough of Barking and Dagenham later managing it on their behalf. It is now a popular wedding venue as well as holding cultural and educational events. So although the gunpowder plot connection is debunked, Eastbury is still a wonderful place to visit and we are so lucky to have it.
And of course…
…there are the resident ghosts, roughly about five of them including one of a young girl who has been sighted in the upper rooms but who can only be seen by women and children!
Tour throughout the whole island of Great Britain, Daniel Defoe
The ancient parish of Barking: Manors, https://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/essex/vol5/pp190-214
Gentleman’s Magazine and Historical Review, Volume 7, Sylvanus Urban, https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=RaE3AAAAYAAJ&pg=PA664&dq=eastbury+manor&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwi1zPnbprDdAhUqK8AKHc1pBcg4RhDoAQhMMAg#v=onepage&q=eastbury%20manor&f=false
House of Benedictine nuns, https://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/essex/vol2/pp115-122
At Eastbury Manor, http://spitalfieldslife.com/2018/07/01/at-eastbury-manor/
Eastbury Manor House: Historical notes, https://www.british-history.ac.uk/survey-london/bk11/pp13-18
Eastbury Manor House, Upney, https://lostcityoflondon.co.uk/tag/lord-monteagle/
William Parker, 4th Baron Monteagle, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Parker,_4th_Baron_Monteagle
Connections to the Gunpowder Plot, https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/lists/connections-to-the-gunpowder-plot
Francis Tresham, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Francis_Tresham
Tresham baronets, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tresham_baronets
A guide to Eastbury House, Susan Curtis
British Express: Eastbury Manor House, https://www.britainexpress.com/attractions.htm?attraction=1431
 Barking Abbey (Valence House)
 Barking Abbey – Historic England
 Barking Abbey (Valence House)
 Eastbury Manor House: Historical notes
 A Guide to Eastbury House
 Eastbury House
 British Express: Eastbury Manor House
 At Eastbury Manor
 The ancient parish of Barking: Manors
 Eastbury Manor House: Historical notes
 Eastbury Manor House: Historical notes
 Eastbury Manor House, Upney
 Francis Tresham