Sir Francis Walsingham's Lost Reading Town House

For nearly a decade I've been sipping cups of tea and tucking into bacon and eggs for the odd breakfast at Patisserie Valerie on the corner of Reading's Broad Street and Minster Street. What I only discovered last week though, was that local legend says that this was once the site of the house of a very famous Tudor. 

The man who had spy networks all over Europe securing intelligence about Philip II's attempted invasion in 1588 and who unravelled plots against Elizabeth I, including the one that hoped to put the Catholic Mary, Queen of Scots on the English throne. His findings directly led to her execution in 1587. 

He was Elizabeth I's right hand man, her senior secretary and the man she knighted in 1577. 

Sir Francis Walsingham. 

Nowadays, there's no plaque, no trace of the house that Sir Francis once owned, just a wispy, sepia photograph in the Reading Borough Library archives. 

Walton Adams, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The photograph, taken shortly before the building's demolition in around 1905, shows us that it was a four-storey timber-framed building with gabled roof and a diamond-shaped plaque on the wall at the front. David Nash Ford says that the plaque noted a visit to the house by Elizabeth I, but this isn't visible from the photos that I've seen. (1) I'd love to see that inscription up close. 

I've searched for some physical evidence that reinforces this as being Walsingham's town house but I can't find anything concrete. Local legends don't just spring from nowhere - just look at the histories of most of our street names. The house is Elizabethan, definitely very grand and would have been owned by someone wealthy and influential, which also points to Walsingham. A Tudor clothier's house - at this time a very lucrative business in Reading - survives in Castle Street but Walsingham House is larger and more grand than this.  

It does makes sense that the main secretary of state of Elizabeth's kingdom would have a house in Reading. It was a handy stopping-off point, being between London and the west - and somewhere for him to stay while the queen visited the town. Elizabeth visited Reading regularly and was known to worship in St Laurence's Church. She stayed in her royal lodgings at Reading Abbey, just around the corner from Broad Street and a few minutes' walk from the house. Walsingham would have therefore always been within reach when needed for official business. 

One Minster Street today. Photo: (c) Jo Romero

If he lived here, the Reading that Walsingham would have known was a bustle of butcher's stalls, shoe shops, cheesemongers and fishmongers. Boats would have unloaded produce from the river running through the town and over into the Market Place, and women washing laundry and cloth in the Holybrook River in Yield Hall Lane gossiped and loudly beat their washing with a 'battledore' - a wooden paddle designed to help get the dirt out of the cloth. The chequered St Mary's Minster church - rebuilt in its present state in 1555 - was behind the house, not far away, in St Mary's Butts. 

Weary travellers could stay at one of the many inns in the town, including The George across the road to the left - there would have been an alehouse opposite the house on the other side of Broad Street, and others in Minster Street, Market Place and Friar Street. I can imagine Walsingham being summoned to the queen at the Abbey, strolling past the timber-framed alehouses that reeked with malty ale, through the busy market place with the smell of fresh meat, the sound of barking dogs and dodging the pickpockets. He would have looked up at the tower of St Laurence and its grimacing gargoyles as he made his way towards the abbey gateway, no doubt nodded in quickly by the queen's guards. 

Today, people meet for coffee and buy cakes on the site of the demolished Walsingham's House, in a building that dates from around 1905 and now adjoins part of the Oracle Shopping Centre. 

It took me a long time to discover this legend about the site, and although it's far from the puzzle being solved, an influential Elizabethan definitely lived here. It was possibly Walsingham - the plaque marking a visit by the queen, the size and grandeur of the house and its convenient location within the town and in Reading itself all point to him. Hopefully one day a deed will turn up in an archive and we'll know for sure.  

I'll never think of coffee there the same way again. 


(1) David Nash Ford's Berkshire History Walsingham House, accessed 6 June 2021. 

Like the Tudors? You might also like my post on The Murky World of Elizabeth's Pirates and another one where I wonder if she was the cleverest PR person of all time

If you're interested in the history of Reading, you can find more posts to browse here

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