The Stone Heads on Reading Abbey Gateway

As you walk towards the Crown Court, past Carluccio's and the Forbury Hotel on your right, you'll come to a stone gateway with an arch. This was once the abbott's entrance to twelfth-century Reading Abbey, much of which no longer stands but some ruins can still be seen. The abbey was certainly march larger than it looks today. 

The original Abbey Gateway though, was falling down by the mid-nineteenth century and so the Victorians set about building a new one. And for some reason, they decided to adorn it with little stone head carvings, which you can see if you look hard enough.

Squinting up at them early one morning, I decided that each of them must signify someone with links to the town, otherwise they wouldn't be there. After I took the photos I came home and did some Googling. There's a bit of speculation, heads that don't seem to have explanations at all or ones that have been so badly damaged it's impossible to make out any features. There might be a record of the heads and their owners somewhere in the Reading Museum archives but I thought I'd post my interpretations here. If you find anything official about the heads please leave a comment here and I'll check it out. I'll also pop down and make sure I've got them all: if I haven't, I'll update here. 

One article that I found did attempt to decipher who the heads represented - however many of them still remained a mystery. There were some I agreed with and others I didn't, so I wanted to put my own ideas forward, too, and add to the discussion.

Have a look at those interpretations here

In the meantime, here's who I think the heads symbolise based on my own knowledge of the town and the abbey. I'm not sure if there's a definitive list of them, this is just from my own thoughts (and educated guesses!)

I've stuck to the ones that have distinguishing features that I found, there are many whose features have long gone that aren't included here: 

Top row, left to right: 

1. The Empress Matilda 
This lady has an early Medieval head-dress and a crown. For me, it can only be the Empress Matilda, whose father Henry I founded the abbey here. She also brought over the mystical Hand of St James, the relic that was taken from the abbey during the Dissolution of the Monasteries, hidden in a wall and then kept at Marlow church. 

2. Pilgrim of St James
This head wears a scallop shell on his cap and this symbol is associated with the saint. Reading Abbey was aligned with the saint, and pilgrims who came to visit the relic would wear a scallop shell badge as a sign of their devotion. Scallop shells are carved all over Reading; in the town's arms, in the badge held by the angel at St Laurence Church and at the entrance to Forbury Gardens. 

3. Virgin Mary 
So far I agree with the article I linked to above. Christ is depicted and so is his mother. She has a  head-dress but the circle around the top of the head looks like a saintly aura rather than a cap or other headwear. I did wonder whether it could be the head of St Anne - she is represented in the town, with a Medieval chapel that once was on the bridge that linked Reading to Caversham and was the patron saint of sailors (Medieval Reading had a few rivers and river junctions around it). She was also the mother of the Virgin Mary. 

Middle row, left to right: 

4. John of Gaunt
The cap and trailing material that is shown on this head is very similar to an existing portrait of John of Gaunt, son of Edward III, who was married here at Reading Abbey on 19th May 1359. His bride was Blanche of Lancaster, and by all accounts there were a number of events - feasts, jousts, entertainments - that took place in Reading to celebrate the royal marriage. 

5. A Clerk
I originally thought this was a monk until I saw the cowled figure pictured in the second collage below. Then I thought he might be a courtier or a clerk of the town. Or maybe a clothier, with Reading being active in that trade in the Medieval period.  

6. William Marshal
I - one hundred per cent - think this is William Marshal. William grew up as a young child in nearby Newbury, was taken in by the king after a dispute with William's father where the king threatened to fire young William out of a trebuchet and became one of the most successful knights of Medieval England. He was relied upon by King John, helped negotiate terms of Magna Carta and saw in the reign of John's son, Henry III. He was even there when he was crowned in Gloucester, and acted as Henry's regent. He lived in Caversham, just over the bridge, and almost definitely saw the early building of Reading Abbey (work started in 1121 and didn't fully finish until the early fourteenth century, although it was consecrated in 1164). This head looks similar to Marshal's on his tomb in Temple Church, London.

Bottom row, left to right:

7. Henry I
A crown, a suspiciously Victorian moustache and a regal air... it has to be Henry I, who founded Reading Abbey in 1121. He's buried here too, although no one knows exactly where. Odds are pretty good that if his tomb hasn't been destroyed and plundered for grave goods, he's somewhere in the car park of Reading Gaol, just like Richard III was in Leicester. We're looking - but no one's found him yet. 

8. A Clothier
This guy is dressed in what looks like fourteenth or fifteenth century clothing. I wondered if it might be another pilgrim as it's similar to the pilgrim of St James - but why would we have two, and also there's not a scallop shell in sight. Reading was primarily involved in the cloth trade coming into these centuries so I'm guessing it might be this. He looks like a civilian in any case. 

Top row, left to right: 

9. St Laurence
If you stand in front of the gateway and turn around to face the town, you'll see the crenellated tower of St Laurence Church. The church was founded in the early Medieval period, at about the same time as the abbey. The two establishments would have worked together and certainly St Laurence had its fair share of royal visitors - Henry VII, Mary Tudor and Elizabeth I are just a few. The main gate to the abbey grounds was next to the wall of St Laurence's church. He also was martyred at a young age and isn't usually depicted with a beard, and neither is this sculpture. He also has the religious aura similar to (who I think is) the Virgin Mary/St Anne. 

10. Blanche of Lancaster
A fancy lady here, in a head-dress with those bun-like cups near the ears. This dates her to around the fourteenth century. First I thought it was Margaret Woodville, who also married here in 1466. Or maybe her sister Elizabeth who was famous for being introduced to the court here as Edward IV's secret wife in 1464. But the fashion doesn't fit. I'm not sure if the Victorian stone masons did their homework about styles of dress or just went with a 'Medieval' theme, but if they did I'm going with Blanche of Lancaster, John of Gaunt's bride, who married here in 1359. 

11. A Bishop
No more certain than that, I'm afraid. I've tried to think of a bishop who was somehow linked to Reading's history or that of the Abbey but I can't think of one. Maybe this is a Victorian depiction of Abbot Faringdon? In which case why would we get another one made? If you have any ideas let me know in the comments. *shrugs*

Middle row, left to right: 

12. Queen Adeliza or a Nun
This lady wears headgear that would be right at home between the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. So I first thought she was Queen Adeliza, the wife that Henry built the abbey for her soul, and may even be buried here. But then wouldn't she be wearing a crown? Maybe she's a nun, but I don't think there were nuns at Reading Abbey, only monks. She might represent a holy woman in the town, or one of the Saxon nuns that lived on the site of St Mary's Minster in St Mary's Butts, but that was before the founding of the abbey. 

13. A Monk
Definitely a monk, representing the many monks that lived here at the abbey over three hundred years.  

14. A King 
I squinted up at this one for ages. It's badly eroded, and the central features of his face have been worn away. It's almost certainly a man, as women had their hair covered back in the day. It looks like he's wearing a crown, although it might be a cap of some sort, and he does look similar to the head (that I think is) Henry I. If he is a king I'm going for Henry VII, who gave the go ahead to found the grammar school here by the abbey in the late 1400s. Or maybe Edward IV, Henry VI or Richard III who conducted state business here at the abbey - actually saying that, it could have been any of the Medieval kings, including Edward III who held events and parliaments here. It  does look much older, more worn and of a different material than the other newer heads, so it might even be a Medieval depiction of Henry I, the abbey's founder. It's pretty safe to say it probably isn't Henry VIII. For obvious reasons.

Bottom row, left to right:

15. Hugh Faringdon
So this is definitely Hugh Faringdon, the last abbot of Reading Abbey. This is a modern head, and was added in 2021 after a public vote which included nominations for Jane Austen (who went to school here), and Queen Elizabeth I (who supported the town and stayed here). Hugh Faringdon won the vote. 

16. Dragon
There are a couple of these, which are also badly corroded, but they're in a different style to the other carvings and look older. I wonder if this could be a dragon, which seems a bit random. It would be cool if it was an original carving from the abbey and re-used by the Victorians, but I don't know for sure. 

17. Christ
Definitely Jesus Christ, with his pointed beard and aura. 

What do you think? Have you had a look at the many heads around the Abbey Gateway? 
Let me know what you think in the comments below... 

Enjoyed this? You might also enjoy my other posts about Reading's history

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