Drawing Reading Abbey Church

Ever since I found out there was a Medieval abbey in Reading I have been fascinated with it. Today it stands in ruins, between the nineteenth-century gaol which once famously housed Oscar Wilde, and the Forbury Gardens. The vast, crumbling ruins give some hint at the size of Reading Abbey and its separate rooms, buildings and their functions, although its original scale was certainly much larger than the ruins we see today. Parts of the abbey church alone would have once sprawled onto not only the site of the ruins but also the nursery school next door, Reading Gaol and St James' Church nearby. There is signage on site which also helps us to visualise the building and its community in Medieval Reading, displaying maps, paintings and pointing out various parts of the architecture along with some digital reconstructions shown at different angles. 

Reading Abbey, c1400 by Jo Romero (c)

I visit the abbey a lot, almost every time I go to town, and wanted to convey some of the passion I have for this building as well as capture the imagination for what the abbey once might have looked like. Looking at the incomplete walls that stand today, it's hard to imagine the life it once had as a nationally important place for our Medieval ancestors. Kings and queens came here to hold parliaments, particularly during the threat of plague in London. It was the burial place of Henry I, son of William the Conqueror, Henry founding the abbey in 1121. John of Gaunt and Blanche of Lancaster tied the knot here amid jousting celebrations in 1359. In 1444 Thomas Kerver, a member of the abbey's community, was arrested after uttering treasonous words within its walls. And in September 1464 Edward IV presented his new wife, Elizabeth Woodville, to nobles and lords assembled here. Edward and Elizabeth had secretly married in May of that year, and there was some hostility to the royal couple as it was believed that Edward should have sought advice and married for the benefit of his country rather than wed a knight's daughter he had fallen in love with. This event often appears in the history books, as it poured new fuel onto the Wars of the Roses. It was one of the turning points of Richard Neville Earl of Warwick, who chose to switch sides and fight against Edward, one chronicler writing at the time that the king and earl were never the same with one another after this meeting at Reading. The building also of course witnessed the execution of its last abbot, Hugh Faringdon, who was accused of treason against Henry VIII in 1539 and faced death near the abbey gateway. 

It was Henry VIII who, during his campaign to remove the influence of the Catholic church and seize the wealth of the monasteries, set in motion the abbey's decline. The monks dismissed and the abbey now redundant, it was plundered for materials, some used to repair and rebuild Reading Minster in the 1550s. The English Civil War completed the destruction, when military action was fought out within what was left of its walls. 

Despite all this, it is difficult to visualise the old abbey where Anne Boleyn strolled in the gardens, nobility and royalty assembled for parliaments and where Reading's monks worshipped daily. 

Ruin of part of Reading Abbey Church today, photo my own. 

I set about trying to research for myself what the abbey might have looked like and came across a black and white drawing by Marcus Adams published in Jamieson B. Hurry's book King Henry Beauclerc and Reading Abbey in 1917. Although Hurry admits that the drawing is speculative in some details, he agrees that it gives the impression of the abbey's original church, and how it would once have looked, based on archaeological finds and surviving ruins. All this taken into account, I used an image of Buckfast Abbey in Devon (in the public domain) which had a similar layout to Reading Abbey. I liked the interpretation drawn by Adams and Hurry but felt it needed some updating, and a more dramatic angle to really inspire the imagination. I set about making a few sketches. 

But there were other details. Adams' drawing doesn't depict a roof over the tower. In John Speed's map of Reading, which dates to 1611 when the abbey was beginning to show as a ruin but not yet devastated by the Civil War, a pointed roof at the tower of the church is clearly depicted. Looking at a recent reconstruction of twelfth-century Whitby Abbey using drone lighting, a tall spire was also depicted above the tower. I decided to add a smaller one to the abbey church, mostly going by Speed's depiction. Although it's not clear whether Speed saw the church for himself or just depicted a rough outline of how he thought it would look, he does mark out some areas of the ruined buildings around it, suggesting some accuracy. Seeing as this is (as far as I know) the earliest image of the abbey we have, I went with it. 

John Speed, Reading, 1611. Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain. 

Next, I needed to add colour. After some internet scrolling I found Medieval tiles of all colours, mostly brown, grey and red. However I learned that the earlier buildings used reddish tiles, and slate was used more widely later on, so red tiles went onto the abbey's roof. I also added a secondary roof along the side of the building. Reading Abbey was certainly an important and (in those days) modern building and the idea of the extra roof along the side tied in with other abbeys of a similar age and gave it a fashionable edge (I noticed, on a later visit to Reading, that the signage shows this feature in the digital reconstructions so that was lucky!). I also used St Laurence's Church nearby as a source of inspiration for more details, adding the stone bases of the towers and the large window at the entrance. 

The whole painting was drawn in fineliners, and colour added with vivid watercolour. Although we can piece together the general plan and study fragments of the building, any reconstruction like this is really speculative, as none of us were there in the twelfth century when the monks moved in and there are no surviving drawings which, without any doubt, show us its outer appearance. I'm not a reconstruction expert by any means, and see this painting as part of a discussion about Reading Abbey Church and its appearance rather than any definitive and final conclusion. At the very least I wanted to capture something of the energy of the building and spark imagination over the site where so many historic events happened. 

Liked this? You might also like these other posts on the History of Reading. You can also purchase a print of this painting at the sketcherjoey shop here

Reading Abbey witnessed a number of events of the Wars of the Roses in the fifteenth century. I explore the stories of some local women who were caught up in the conflict including Elizabeth Woodville and Elizabeth Clerk, the wife of a Draper who lived on Friar Street in the town, in my book Forgotten Women of the Wars of the Roses, published by Pen and Sword. Order your copy here. 

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