Don't Be Fooled - Reading Abbey is a Big Deal

The pale stone walls of Reading Abbey towered high above the bustling, small cloth-making town of Reading for four hundred years. It was often the hub of national government and a site for royal weddings, visits and burials. The Abbot had a big say in the way the Medieval town was run and powerful nobles came from all over the country to exert their influence here and gain a word in the King's ear. 

But now, the sand-coloured, crumbling ruins of Reading Abbey are tucked away behind lawyers' offices, a restored Victorian gatehouse and leafy nineteenth-century gardens. 

In Reading's town of twinkling, glass-fronted office blocks and shopping centres, it can be easy to lose sight of the abbey, tucked away out of the main part of the town centre. 

Reading Abbey: ©Jo Romero

But we shouldn't forget Reading Abbey's status as an important monument. 

Here are seven reasons why. 

1. It had its fair share of nationally-important scandals 

In the years it was active, Reading Abbey unwittingly hosted a number of shocking events that had an impact on a national - and even international - level. 

In 1464, Edward IV was in talks to marry Bona of Savoy, sister of Charlotte, the French Queen (1).  Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick has been tasked with negotiating the marriage for the king, which would have forged a useful alliance between France and England. Nobles of the realm would have been shocked then, to find English knight's daughter Elizabeth Woodville solemnly conducted - for the first time, publicly - through Reading Abbey to a chair of state as the king's wife and England's new queen. Elizabeth and Edward had secretly married in the spring of that year, and she was crowned queen in May. The influence of Elizabeth and her newly-elevated relatives at court would go on to create animosity between powerful nobles, some of whom felt that the Woodvilles were being married and titled into higher positions than they deserved.  Tension would continue after Edward's death and during the reign of his brother Richard III, who would declare the marriage illegal and their children illegitimate, to seize the throne for himself.

There was another scandal, in 1444, when Thomas Kerver, walking through the abbey grounds with three colleagues, made a comment that King Henry VI was incompetent and more of a 'boy' than a king. The court records show that he "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." (2) Thomas was snitched on and arrested on charges of treason, dragged through the surrounding towns and sentenced to death by hanging. The King had a last minute change of heart, calling off the execution (but not the dragging, apparently) at the last minute. This event contributed - along with others - to the 'cult' of Henry VI in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, where he was considered a saint for his leniency, compassion and ability to perform miracles, even after his death. 

Finally, there's nothing more scandalous than an abbot being charged with high treason, his monks dismissed and then being hung, drawn and quartered in front of townspeople at the gatehouse of his own abbey, right? Well that's exactly what happened to Reading's last abbot, Hugh Faringdon, on a cool November morning in 1539, because he didn't submit to the king as Head of the English Church. 

2. It was the site of at least two Royal Weddings

On 19th May 1359, the fourteen-year old Blanche of Lancaster (a descendant of Henry III and one of the wealthiest heiresses in the country) and nineteen-year old son of Edward III, John of Gaunt, married in the Queen's Chapel at Reading Abbey. The ceremony was followed by feasts, jousting and entertainment. 

And in 1464 (some sources say 1466), the queen's sister Margaret Woodville married the wealthy Thomas Fitzalan, the future Earl of Arundel. Quietly standing within the cool abbey walls beside her groom, Margaret - a knight's daughter - prepared herself for marriage: a rise in social standing (thanks to the influence of her sister Elizabeth Woodville) and the title of Countess. 

Reading Abbey, ©Jo Romero

3. Kings held parliaments here within its walls 
Westminster in London was the centre of government but being densely inhabited, London was susceptible to outbreaks of plague. Reading, still surrounded by rolling fields and sweeter air, then became the alternative choice for many Medieval Kings. Parliament was held here in 1239 and then a number of times during the 1400s. Richard II held council here in 1381 and 1389. Other royal visitors to the abbey on non-parliamentary business included Edward III, Henry IV, Henry VI, Edward IV, Henry VII and Henry VIII. Next time you stand on the abbey's gravelled floor, remember that it wasn't just Westminster where decisions affecting the country were made: some of them were sealed in wax and made legal within Reading Abbey's walls. (3)

4. It was huge
Looking at the abbey now, it's difficult to imagine the scale of the place as it would have been in, say, the early sixteenth-century. What we see now as the abbey ruins is only part of the main building. The original building would have covered some of the Forbury Gardens, Reading Gaol and the nearby Nursery School. Also, in addition to lands in Berkshire, the abbey owned others in Warwickshire, Herefordshire, Leicestershire, Bedfordshire, Oxfordshire, Sussex and Kent as well as a priory off the east coast of Scotland. (4)

5. Reading Abbey was the centre of the town's administration
If you wanted to hold a market in Medieval Reading, you had to ask the Abbot. If you wanted to elect a Mayor, the Abbot had the final say on who that would be. The abbot had influence on the religious, social, financial and political life of Reading's townspeople until its dissolution in 1539. 

Reading Abbey, ©Jo Romero

6. It had a royal burial or three
You'd never know by looking at it today, but Reading Abbey contains the graves of a king, a princess and a prince - and maybe also a queen. 

Henry I, who founded the abbey in 1121 stated that he wanted to be buried here, minus his heart, which was to remain in Notre Dame su Pré in Normandy. Research is ongoing to try to discover the site of the king's burial in Reading in 1136, although there's a theory that the grave was looted after the Dissolution.

A few years earlier, in 1118, it was said that Henry's queen and first wife Matilda of Scotland was also buried in the abbey, although Westminster Abbey claims she is buried there. Could there have been a memorial to Matilda in Reading? Or perhaps she was moved from Westminster after Reading Abbey was finished and placed here - Henry does specify in his founding charter that the abbey was for the salvation of his and Matilda's souls, but that doesn't necessarily mean a burial. (5)

Constance of York, Countess of Gloucester - also referred to as 'Princess of York' - was also buried at Reading Abbey in 1416. She was a grand-daughter of Edward III and King Peter of Castile. 

And then there's the two-year old Prince William, Count of Poitiers: Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine's first son. He tragically died suddenly in 1156 and was buried near his great-grandfather Henry's tomb. 

No trace of any of these graves survive and they may be either buried deep under the ground or lost to looters after the mid-sixteenth-century. 

7. Its current state is a reminder of the brutality of the Tudor regime

The charter sealed by Henry I in 1121 bears a stark warning:

 "I grant and confirm for ever to this monastery of Reading, and to whatever belongs in it, these liberties and immunities, which I commend in God's name to all Kings of England who shall reign after me to keep, so that God may preserve them for ever. If any person shall wittingly presume to infringe, diminish, or alter this our decree, may the great Judge of all punish and root him out with his posterity, so that he may be left without inheritance in misery and hunger." (5)

With hindsight, it's almost as if he knew that one day Henry VIII would be crowned king.  

The open, pitted walls of today's abbey are not exclusive to Reading: the view is familiar around the country with Rievaulx, Fountains, Netley and Tynemouth other examples. When Henry VIII dissolved and closed the monasteries to capture their wealth and obliterate any remaining symbols of Rome,  buildings were often left to ruin and locals took what remained. Bricks, stone, lead and decorations were taken by locals for other building projects. Henry himself swiped gold, silver, glass and tapestries from these dissolved abbeys: it was greedily reported in 1539 that Reading Abbey contained a "metely good tapestry, which do well for hanging some mean little chamber in his majesty's house". The ruins of Reading Abbey serve as a reminder of Henry VIII's brutality, his newfound wealth and the suppression of papal control. It's thought that the Dissolution of the Monasteries pocketed Henry around one and a half million pounds - estimated at around £600m today. (6)

Enjoyed this? You might also like a tour around the ancient pubs of Reading or a post I wrote about Where Reading's Castle Once Stood. You can find more of my Reading-related posts here

Among others, I explore some of the women with links to Reading who lived during the Wars of the Roses in my book Forgotten Women of the Wars of the Roses, published by Pen and Sword. Order your copy here. 

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Notes and Sources

1. Brown, A. L., and Bruce Webster. "The Movements of the Earl of Warwick in the Summer of 1464 - A Correction." The English Historical Review 81, no. 318 (1966): 80-82. Accessed July 10, 2021.

2. C.A.F. MEEKINGS, Thomas Kerver's Case,14441The English Historical Review, Volume XC, Issue CCCLV, April 1975, Pages 331–346. Accessed July 10, 2021.

3. David Nash Ford's Berkshire Royal History. Reading Abbey: Events in the Late Middle Ages. Accessed 10 July 2021.

4. Reading Abbey Quarter. Chapter House. Accessed 10 July 2021.

5. Reading Abbey Quarter. Who Was Henry I? Accessed 10 July 2021.

6.Historic UK, Dissolution of the Monasteries. Accessed 10 July 2021. - currency estimate based on the calculator at the National Archives: