The Beginning of Bow, up to 1311

Icon of St Erkenwald
St Erkenwald, past bishop of London.
Bow Bridge
Bow Bridge
River Lea, Bow Creek, today
River Lea, Bow Creek, today
The 14th-century shrine of St Erkenwald, Old St Paul's Cathedral
The 14th-century shrine of St Erkenwald, Old St Paul's Cathedral

An Ancient Miracle

In the year of our Lord, 693, the saintly Erkenwald, Bishop of London, died whilst visiting the abbey he had founded in Barking.

When news of his death reached St Paul’s Cathedral and the monastery which he had also founded at Chertsey, groups from both sides set out with speed to claim his body for burial.

The Cathedral priests arrived at Barking first and took up the body to bear it to London, followed closely by the angry and grieving nuns of Barking and the monks of Chertsey, who cried out to heaven for a sign in their favour.

Suddenly a most terrible tempest came on them. High winds and torrential rain caused the River Lea to flood, making the old ford impassible, and with no boats or bridge, the cortege was halted.

The good people of Barking and Chertsey saw their sign: the body of their beloved Bishop was not destined to go to London.

But then the priests of St Paul’s began to pray, and as they did, the Lea, like the Red Sea of old, miraculously shrank back, and the body was carried dry-shod across to where Bow Church now stands!

The rain stopped; the dark clouds passed; the sun burst out in splendour and flowers bloomed all around the bier. The Cathedral party saw that God had given them the sign, and the Bishop’s body passed on in triumph to the Cathedral, where a great shrine was set up to the new saint. St Erkenwald became the patron saint of London.

The Building of the Church

It was 400 years after St Erkenwald’s death that Queen Matilda, ‘well wetted with water’ in a similar flood while on her way to Barking Abbey, ordered the building of a bridge – bow-shaped – across the Lea; and 200 more before Bow Chapel was built.

But perhaps the story of Bow Church really begins with the miracle of St Erkenwald at the River Lea…

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