The Women of Reading Abbey

On a trip to Reading Abbey we learn on the signs there about Henry I who founded the building along with Henry VIII who dissolved it and ruled that poor Abbot Hugh was to be hanged, drawn and quartered close to his own gate. There are a lot of men involved in the abbey's history, but what about its women? We have a look at some of the women whose stories became entwined in the tale of Reading's abbey. 

Marriage of John of Gaunt and Blanche of Lancaster, public domain

Adeliza of Louvain

Adeliza was the second wife of Henry I and she married him in the year he founded Reading Abbey, 1121. She was eighteen years of age at the time, while Henry was in middle age. Many of the facts surrounding Adeliza's life are sparse but it is believed that she was buried in Reading Abbey with her second husband, although her remains and tomb have since been lost. She died in 1151, in her mid-forties.

The Empress Matilda

On Henry I's death in 1135, Matilda was the heir to the throne. However, on her way across Europe to stake her claim, she found her cousin Stephen had got there first. Stephen was much more positively regarded by the royal council, which was strange because the historical record shows Matilda was a more assertive leader, much more outspoken and actively fought for her position. Their battle for the throne resulted in what is now called The Anarchy which only ended when Matilda's son Henry assumed the throne on Stephen's death. We know Matilda travelled to Reading Abbey to visit the tomb of her father and she also brought to the town the Hand of St James, a Medieval relic that was said to cure illness and prevent bad luck. 

Blanche of Lancaster

It was at Reading Abbey that the teenage Blanche married Edward III's son, John of Gaunt. They tied the knot within the walls here in May 1359 amid celebrations and apparently also a joust or two in the Forbury. Blanche would become the matriarch of the Lancaster line of kings, as mother to Henry IV who took the throne from the reigning Richard II. This action would mark the very start of the conflict that would later be known as the Wars of the Roses. Blanche died very young - some reports say she was only in her early twenties.

Constance of York, Countess of Gloucester

Somewhere within the Abbey Church's dusty, ruined boundary lie the remains of Constance of York, Countess of Gloucester. She became tangled up in the deposing of Richard II and the accession of Henry IV, when her husband Thomas was executed in 1400 for trying to restore Richard to the throne and assassinate Henry. Constance would have been heavily pregnant at the time of the execution, with her daughter Isabel. Isabel would go on to birth a daughter, Anne Beauchamp, who was the wife of the 16th Earl of Warwick during the Wars of the Roses.  

Margaret Maltravers

During the fifteenth century and the rises and falls of the Wars of the Roses, one family rose to prominence more than any other: the Woodvilles. Margaret Woodville, the daughter of a knight and a duchess, now found herself sister to the Queen of England and a very attractive bride. A marriage was arranged for her that promised status, influence and financial security, to the heir to the Earl of Arundel, Thomas FitzAlan. The couple solemnly recited their vows in the church of Reading Abbey, its stained glass windows streaming with the sun behind them. She lived into her mid-thirties, and died in 1490. 

Elizabeth Woodville

Elizabeth Woodville walked through the abbey corridors in September 1464 flanked by the Earl of Warwick and George, Duke of Clarence, to be introduced to the waiting nobles. Edward IV, welcoming her to his side, announced to those present that he had secretly married the young and beautiful Elizabeth. The nobles were shocked, with one chronicler writing that they gathered around Reading trying to work out how to have the marriage dissolved. Edward, they believed, should have married to establish a foreign alliance or at least with someone else of royal blood to secure his throne. The drama that unravelled within the abbey walls would eventually prove that Edward had chosen well, however. They remained married until Edward's death in 1483, and they had ten children together. She also worked to secure the safety of her family in his absence and, it is believed, was instrumental in Elizabeth of York's future as Henry Tudor's queen. 

Anne Boleyn 

It's believed that during one progress in 1535, Henry VIII brought Anne Boleyn with him to Reading Abbey from Windsor. She would have prayed in the church, talked with the abbot and walked through the grounds. The abbot that welcomed them would be executed just four years later for refusing to accept Henry's supremacy as head of the church. The abbey was dismantled, with the finest glass, coverings and ornaments saved for the king himself. Anne would never see this, as she was herself executed for (unlikely) charges of treason on 19 May 1536. 

Elizabeth I

The daughter of Anne Boleyn and Henry VIII, Elizabeth I travelled to Reading often. She was said to have worshipped in St Laurence's Church so often the locals threaded her personal seat there with garlands of flowers. She was also said to have converted the old abbot's accommodation into a palace where she could stay while on royal business in the town. Hardly ever away from her side, it's also likely that Sir Robert Dudley Earl of Leicester visited the Abbey, too. Her key advisor, Sir Francis Walsingham, owned a house in Broad Street, on the corner of Minster Street, just a few minutes' walk from the queen's lodgings.

Jane Austen

After the abbey buildings had fallen out of use as royal palaces, stables and, of course, as a religious house, the Abbey Gateway was used as a school. In the 1780s Jane Austen attended classes here as a teenager. She would of course go on to be one of the most influential female writers ever, with her work turned into movies up to the present day. She died in 1817 and is buried in Winchester Cathedral. 

Liked this? You might also like this post with 5 Stories from Reading Abbey, and this one examining the stone heads on the abbey gateway. 

If you're interested in Women's History you might also enjoy my book, Forgotten Women of the Wars of the Roses, which does touch upon a number of women linked to Reading. Order your copy here. 

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