5 Stories from Reading Abbey

The walls of Reading Abbey are now a tumble of mossy stone and disjointed arches. But, centuries ago, it was the centre of a thriving, prosperous town. 

Beautifully constructed and decorated, it saw the burial of a king, treason and murder, among other events. 

Ever wondered what events these grey stone walls have seen? 

You're about to find out. 

Reading Abbey, photo by Jo Romero

Execution of Abbot Cook, 1539
King Henry VIII seemed to have a good relationship with Hugh Cook (also known as Hugh Faringdon), up until the late 1530s. He was one of Henry's royal chaplains, attended at Windsor for Jane Seymour's burial and held a mass at Reading in memory of the Queen the week before. Hugh also wrote to the pope to persuade him to grant Henry's divorce to Catherine of Aragon, even offering up the Abbey's extensive library to the king's advisers in case it was of use in any legal arguments relating to the divorce. On one visit to the Abbey in 1532, Henry gave Hugh a gift of £20 in a leather purse (1) - the equivalent of around £8,800 in today's money.

It came as quite a shock, then, when Hugh - who had been a loyal and certainly helpful subject up until now - was suddenly arrested, charged with treason and imprisoned in the Tower of London in 1539. It was decided that he would be returned to Reading, where he would be executed alongside two other clergymen, in public, at the Abbey gatehouse. 

The reasons for Hugh's fall isn't really crystal clear. He may have caused trouble in sources not  now known to us - there is talk of his treason being charged through his financial support of rebels in the North - or he may have just been one of the unfortunate fatalities of the king's move to obtain the wealth of the monasteries. Standing in the way of the king , and refusing to give up the Abbey to his representatives would only end one way.

Abbot Hugh was indeed hung, drawn and quartered at the Abbey gatehouse on a cool November day in 1539, with John Enyon, a priest from St Giles, Reading - and John Rugg, a clergyman originally from Chichester but who had retired to Reading Abbey. A letter from the French Ambassador to King Francis I tells us that Hugh's grisly remains were left hanging at the gatehouse as a reminder. 

Hugh was the last Abbot at Reading Abbey. The building would, in the next decades, begin to fall into ruin, but not until it was mined for tapestries, expensive cloth and gold plate, which were sent back to the King. The Abbey and its lands were acquired by the crown, where it was valued at a staggering £1,908 per year. In today's money, that's a whopping £539,000. (1) 

Thomas Kerver's Treason of 1444
A workplace grumbling blew wildly out of proportion in the spring of 1444, here at Reading Abbey. 

Thomas Kerver was employed as a bailiff of Thomas Henley, the then Abbot of Reading.  He appears in Pipe Rolls as the Abbot's bailiff during 1441-1444, so had spent some time in the service of the Abbey. But he was about to make a huge mistake.

Thomas was a gentleman in good financial standing and, it seems, wasn't greatly impressed with the inefficient, blundering reign of Henry VI. Henry was seen, by his contemporaries, as a weak king who was crowned at nine months old, very reluctantly took part in the affairs of state and - in his adult years, had bankrupted the crown and allowed court factions to shed blood and wage a civil war within the kingdom as they clawed at power. 

One day, while walking in the Abbey, either just coming out of the church or the Abbot's hall, Thomas Kerver grumbled to two of his colleagues, wondering whether this king was a 'man or a boy' - and, according to the charges, 'falsely and traitorously... schemed, imagined, encompassed, wished and desired the death and destruction of the king and his realm of England and with all his power (traitorously proposed) to kill the king.' 

Realistically, Kerver was of very little threat to the king - with no armies, no vast wealth and social standing. The words he uttered seemed more likely just to be the airing of his disappointment of the sovereign rather than a radical call to arms. But this was still treason. His colleagues snitched, Thomas was imprisoned at the Tower of London and charged. 

The verdict? He would be taken back to Reading to be dragged on the back of a cart through the streets of Reading, Bray and Maidenhead, through the mud, dust and stones - and then hung, drawn and quartered. 

Kerver received the punishment up until the hanging. His battered and bruised body was lifted up and the rope tied around his neck. And then, suddenly, he was let go. Likely confused, semi-conscious and in a huge amount of pain, Thomas was taken by two royal officials and taken away to prison, at nearby Wallingford Castle. 

King Henry VI, in a display of compassion, had intervened in the execution and stopped it. For Henry, it was a PR exercise that demonstrated he was a sympathetic, pious and just king - and for Kerver, it was a lucky escape. He was imprisoned for a few years and then released. 

Burial of Henry I, 1135
The abbey was founded in 1121, by Henry I, possibly on the site of a derelict Saxon church (1). It seemed right then, that on his death, the Abbey's founding king would be buried here. 

Henry died in Normandy in the cold December of 1135. His body (minus his heart and intestines - they stayed in Notre Dame su Pre) was brought to England and buried at the High Altar of Reading Abbey. Sources say that a large monument was also added to commemorate the burial, and subsequent kings (including Richard II) made provision that the monument and tomb be kept in good repair as a mark of respect.

The burial service was conducted by The Archbishop of Canterbury, the Bishops of Winchester and Salisbury and the Abbot of Reading.  (2)

There has been much talk about finding the tomb of Henry I. However, much has been built around the area since the twelfth century, including a school, a jail and the Abbey contents have been robbed and pillaged over the years. The best guess of where Henry's tomb lies, if it still lies there at all, is actually somewhere near or underneath the car park of the prison nearby, which was built in the nineteenth century. (2)

The Fake Seals, 1290
The curious case of the fake seals is mentioned in the Victoria County Histories for the Abbey. In 1290 the Abbot discovered that the two seals of Reading Abbey (the mould where wax would be impressed on a document to show it came from the Abbey) had been forged and copied. Letters had been stamped with this counterfeited seal involving large amounts of money. Medieval Reading though, found their suspects. They were named as Jonas de Newbury and Isaac de Pulet. They were charged and sent to the Tower of London (1). There seems to be no more evidence about this pair and what they were up to, and perhaps the writer of the Victoria County History is relying on evidence not available to us today. There's also the chance that they were made the scapegoats of the crime, while the real perpetrators went free. 

In any case, it makes for an exciting thirteenth-century version of Ocean's Eleven. Kind of. 

Visit of Henry VIII, 1521 and 1535
In January 1521, Henry VIII made a visit to Reading Abbey, as the guest of the man he had created Abbot only a few months before, in September 1520 - Hugh Faringdon (or Hugh Cook). He arrived as Hugh's guest and presumably stayed over in the lush apartments. An inventory taken by Cromwell's men at the time of the Abbey's fall in 1539 included masses of gold plate, rich tapestries (one of them was coldly picked out for one of Henry's palace rooms) and beds with silk hangings. It gives us a glimpse into the sumptuous decoration in the Abbey's best rooms, presumably where Henry would have stayed as Hugh's guest (1)

In 1535, Henry returned. He came through Reading from Windsor with his new Queen, Anne Boleyn, on their Royal Progress. Their itinerary tells us they visited the Abbey on the 8th July of that year (3). The meeting seems to have been amicable and pleasurable - as well as short - as there is very little evidence of drama as very little in the way of official documents survive  - and they had moved on a few days later, by the 12th. Anne Boleyn can be imagined taking a gentle walk around the sunny gardens of the Abbey with her ladies and being present at the services held inside. 

It is haunting to know that soon these two people currently in Henry's favour would fall. Within a year Queen Anne would be executed with a sword in the Tower of London, and the Abbot would follow in her footsteps by being executed at his own gatehouse here at the Abbey within five years. 

Do you know any other stories of Reading Abbey? Let me know in the comments below if I've missed any! 

I explore many of the stories of women impacted by the Wars of the Roses conflict in the fifteenth century in my book Forgotten Women of the Wars of the Roses, published by Pen and Sword. I also discuss some Reading women, and scenes that unravelled within the abbey gates.  Order your copy here. 

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2. Reading Museum, Burial of Henry I, accessed 19 March 2020