Reading Abbey

Reading Abbey

Reading Abbey is a large, ruined abbey in the centre of the town of Reading, in the English county of Berkshire. It was founded by Henry I in 1121 "for the salvation of my soul, and the souls of King William, my father, and of King William, my brother, and Queen Maud, my wife, and all my ancestors and successors".*cite book | author=The staff of the Trust for Wessex Archeology and Reading Museum and Art Gallery | title=Reading Abbey Rediscovered, a summary of the Abbey's history and recent archaeological excavations | publisher=Trust for Wessex Archeology | year=1983] King Henry I is buried somewhere in the abbey grounds.


Following its royal foundation, the abbey was established by a party of monks from the French abbey of Cluny, together with monks from the Cluniac priory of St Pancras at Lewes in Sussex. The abbey was dedicated to the Virgin Mary and St John the Evangelist. [Charles Tomkins, "Views of Reading abbey, with those of the churches originally connected with it", 1805] The first abbot, in 1123, was Hugh of Amiens [C. Warren Hollister, "Henry I" (2001), p. 282-3.] who became archbishop of Rouen and was buried in Rouen Cathedral.

According to the twelfth century chronicler William of Malmesbury, the abbey was built on a gravel spur "between the rivers Kennet and Thames, on a spot calculated for the reception of almost all who might have occasion to travel to the more populous cities of England". The adjacent rivers provided convenient transport, and the abbey established wharves on the River Kennet. The Kennet also provided power for the abbey water mills, most of which were established on the Holy Brook, a channel of the Kennet of uncertain origin.*cite book | author=The staff of the Trust for Wessex Archeology and Reading Museum and Art Gallery | title=Reading Abbey Rediscovered, a summary of the Abbey's history and recent archaeological excavations | publisher=Trust for Wessex Archeology | year=1983 ]

When Henry I died in Lyons-la-Forêt, Normandy in 1135 his body was returned to Reading, and was buried in the front of the altar of the then incomplete abbey. Other royal persons buried in the abbey include parts of Empress Matilda, William of Poitiers, and Constance of York.

Because of its royal patronage, the abbey was one of the pilgrimage centres of medieval England, and one of its richest and most important religious houses, with possessions as far away as Herefordshire and Scotland. The abbey also held over 230 relics including the hand of St James. A shriveled human hand was found in the ruins during demolition work in 1786 and is now in St Peter's RC Church, Marlow. The song Sumer is icumen in, which was first written down in the abbey about 1240, is the earliest known four part harmony from Britain. The original document is held in the British Library.

The abbey was largely destroyed in 1538 during Henry VIII's Dissolution of the Monasteries. The last abbot, Hugh Cook Faringdon, was subsequently tried and convicted of high treason and hanged, drawn and quartered in front of the Abbey Church. After this, the buildings of the abbey were extensively robbed, with lead, glass and facing stones removed for reuse elsewhere.*cite book | author=The staff of the Trust for Wessex Archeology and Reading Museum and Art Gallery | title=Reading Abbey Rediscovered, a summary of the Abbey's history and recent archaeological excavations | publisher=Trust for Wessex Archeology | year=1983 | id=No ISBN known]

St James' Roman Catholic Church was built on a portion of the site of the abbey between 1837 and 1840. Its founder was James Whebble, who owned land in the area at that time. Reading Gaol was built in 1844 on the eastern portion of the abbey site, replacing a small county Gaol on the same site. James Whebble sold the rest of his portion of the abbey site to Reading Corporation to create the Forbury Gardens, which were opened in 1861.cite web | url = | title = St James Church - A guide for Visitors | publisher = St James Church | accessdate = 2007-10-24] cite web | url =,15,2,15,625,0 | title = HM Prison Service - Reading | publisher = United Kingdom Ministry of Justice | date = 2004 | accessdate = 2007-10-24] cite web | title = Forbury Gardens | publisher = Reading Borough Council | url = | date = 2000-2007 | accessdate = 2007-10-24]


The inner rubble cores of the walls of the major buildings of the abbey still stand, and in recent years have been conserved and stabilised. They are Grade I listed. These are now freely accessible to the public as part of the Forbury Gardens, a town centre park. Other parts of the former abbey are now buried below Reading Gaol.

The inner gateway of the abbey survives intact, though heavily 'restored' in the Victorian era, and now stands adjoining the Reading crown court and a large commercial office building, overlooking Forbury Gardens. Similarly the abbey's hospitium dormitory survives, and after various uses has now been incorporated into a recent office development. The abbey school, which was founded in 1125, survives as a state grammar school called Reading School, albeit in different buildings on a different site. Some remains of the former Abbey Mill still remain alongside the Holy Brook at the south of the abbey site.

The grave of Henry I is marked by a plaque near its original location but no other graves are marked. Plaques have also now been placed on the walls of the chapter house to cite certain events there.

In 1995, the ruined South Transept was used as the setting for the first Abbey Ruins Open Air Shakespeare production by MDM Productions and Progress Theatre in partnership with Reading Borough Council. In 1996, the outdoor production moved to the ruined chapter house and since 1999 has been staged by Progress Theatre in partnership with Reading Borough Council. This annual event expanded to the "Reading Abbey Ruins Open Air Festival" in 2007.cite web | url = | title = Reading Abbey Ruins Open Air Festival: History | publisher = Progress Theatre| accessdate = 2008-07-14]


External links

* [ Catholic Encyclopedia: Reading Abbey]
* [ Friends of Reading Abbey]
* [ Royal Berkshire History: Reading Abbey]
* [ RBH for Kids: Reading Abbey]
* [ Reading Museum Service: Reading Abbey]

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