The Lost Medieval Chapel of Caversham Bridge

If you visit Caversham, walking on the way out of Reading town centre towards TGI Friday's roundabout, and the Gorge café, you'll notice a sign up on the right hand side of Caversham Bridge that says that a chapel used to exist here.

Memorial to The Chapel of St Anne, Caversham Bridge. Photo: Jo Romero

The memorial states:

The Chapel of St Anne stood near this site on the earliest bridge at Caversham. The chapel, visited by pilgrims, contained the famous spear head which an "angel with oon wing browt to Caversham the spere hedde that peicyd our Saviour his syde upon the cross."

St Anne was the mother of the Virgin Mary, and although she had been worshipped in early times, there's evidence for a 'cult of St Anne' in the early twelfth century (1). St Anne was the patron saint of seagoers and she could protect them from storms - interesting then, that her Chapel here was built on a bridge over the river Thames. Could it be that this was one of the first churches built in her memory in this part of England? 

We know that the Chapel of St Anne stood on the bridge by 1231, where it's mentioned in Close Rolls having been founded jointly by Reading Abbey and the famed local knight that helped advise King John on the Magna Carta, Sir William Marshall. (2) With the Abbey and Knight sharing a joint ownership, its thought that the upkeep of the chapel would have been shared between them. This may have been deliberate, to foster a sense of Christian community ties. Reading at this point was largely run by the Abbey, which had been built in 1121, and would have been seen in the distance over the river from the chapel on the bridge.

In 1235, King Henry III asked Reading town to provide 'fifteen oxen and twenty fat sheep' to the royal court. A little earlier, in 1206, King John had given permission to Reading to establish two fairs - in memory of St Philip and St James, which continued to be celebrated throughout the Medieval period.(3) It's tempting to think that the people who worshipped at St Anne on the Bridge would have taken part in these festivities or worked to help provide the king with his cattle.

Like so many other religous houses, the chapel fell into decline after the sixteenth century. A letter from Dr John London in 1538, to Thomas Cromwell, mentions that:

'I have sent upp the principal relik of idolatrie within this realm, an aungell w' oon wyng that browght to Caversham the spere hedde that percyd or Saviours syde upon the crosse. It was conveyd home to Notley butt I sent my Servant purposely for ytt.'(4)

Caversham Bridge today, looking towards the site of Reading Abbey. Photo: Jo Romero

He states that the relic - likely a statue of the angel with one wing - was covered in silver and he also found other religious images there, as well as the dagger that killed Henry VI, part of the material which Judas hung himself and the knife that killed St Edward, among other relics. He adds: 'I have defacyd that chapell inward and have sent home the chanon (cannon) to hys monastery to Notley.' He also talks about being sure to lock up the chapel well before he leaves because thieves might steal the lead inside intended for the king. 

John then went to Reading Abbey, to take an inventory of the relics there, which included two shards of wood from Christ's cross, St James' hand and bones of Mary Magdalene and St Edward the Martyr. (5) It's likely that these relics were not authentic - the Medieval age struck up a steady trade in relics, which were faked 'keepsakes' from the bodies or deaths of Saints all around the world.

Henry VIII was of course making huge changes to the religious foundations of the country, and he was on a mission to destroy idolatry - which gazing at relics and statues of angels encouraged - but the expensive materials they were often made from, along with the decorations at these religious houses were important for the king's purse. 

From the late 1600s the chapel on the bridge had a slow demise. In Views of reading Abbey, written in 1805, the author states that the foundations of the chapel 'are still to be seen under the houses on Caversham Bridge; and one of the arches is likewise remaining.'

Today, there's nothing left to see of the chapel except the memorial, which was replaced from an old one, in 1990. The bridge was repaired and replaced at various times since the 1600s and it seems that the remains of the chapel have been slowly been demolished along the way. I'd love to find out more about this angel with one wing that brought the spearhead to Caversham - but can't find any other trace of the local legend. 

Have you been to the site of the lost chapel on Caversham Bridge? What did you think? Let me know in the comments below!

Interested in Medieval history? I explore the women of the Wars of the Roses who lived during the fifteenth century in my book Forgotten Women of the Wars of the Roses, published by Pen and Sword. Order your copy here. 

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1. JSTOR, Early Evidence for the Cult of St Anne in Twelfth Century England, accessed 28 March 2020. 
2. Caversham Bridge, Thames accessed 28 March 2020
3. British History Online, VCH, Berks, vol 3. pp342-364
4. British History Online, VCH, Berks, vol 2 pp62-73
5. Ibid.
6. Views of Reading Abbey, 1805. Google Books. Accessed 28 March 2020.