Reading Abbey: Ruined Are A Reminder of Medieval Religious Strife

Reading Abbey was erected in 1121 in the town of Reading within in the county of Berkshire, England. It was a royal monastery established by King Henry I to pay homage to his ancestors and his successors and would serve as a burial site for Henry himself in 1136, thus making it a royal mausoleum. Though King Henry I intended it to be built for the entire royal family, he was the only royal confirmed to be buried in the abbey. Another purpose for Reading Abbey was to house dozens of monks. Its first abbot appointed in 1123 was Hugh of Amiens who became the Archbishop of Rouen.

The burial of Henry I in 1136 at Reading Abbey. (Public domain)

The burial of Henry I in 1136 at Reading Abbey. ( Public domain )

No expense was spared to build the stunning abbey. It was one of the largest in the entire country, bigger than both Westminster Abbey and Winchester Cathedral . It also housed the hand of the apostle St. James. Reading Abbey construction was finally completed and sanctified in 1164 by Thomas Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury . It was one of the richest and most important pilgrimage places during medieval England. Many monarchs frequented the abbey, including Henry the VIII, who eventually eliminated it in 1538 when he ordered the Dissolution of the Monasteries . Today, only ruins remain.

The ruins of the monks’ dormitory of Reading Abbey, in the English town of Reading. (Chris Wood / CC BY-SA 4.0 )

Reading Abbey: Brainchild of King Henry I

Henry I, the youngest son of William the Conqueror , became King of England in 1100 after the death of William II, the next in line to be the successor to the throne. William II was emerging as the ruler of England and Normandy; however, his untimely death allowed Henry I to claim the throne and bring about the unification of England and Normandy. Within a few years, Henry I stabilized England and made barons, nobles, and bishops swear homage to his son William as the heir. However, Henry I’s son was killed in a ship accident in 1120 which left Henry I heirless. King Henry I died in 1135, without knowing what would become of his kingdom and his lavish Reading Abbey.

The Henry II and Thomas Becket Intrigue

The abbey was finally completed under Henry I’s grandson, Henry II , and hallowed by the Archbishop Thomas Becket . Although Henry II and Thomas Becket started as friends, a bitter feud between the two over church and state relations strained their friendship. Eventually Henry II ordered that the Archbishop be killed. By the time he retracted his wishes, it was too late. His knights murdered Thomas Becket and set off a scandal throughout the Christian world. There continued to be factionalism long after this tragic event with some monks remaining loyal to Becket’s cause and others loyal to the King. Thomas Becket was canonized in 1173 and Henry was forced to do penance.

Reading Abbey remains in ruins to this day. (Tomasz / Adobe Stock)

Reading Abbey remains in ruins to this day. ( Tomasz / Adobe Stock)

The Abbey’s Importance and Its Dissolution

The Abbey was an integral part of the community for over 400 years. Monks lived, worked, and worshipped there, and lots of royal weddings took place within it. Pilgrims also frequented it to pray. These activities continued until in 1539, King Henry VIII ordered Reading Abbey to close. King Henry VIII took all the valuables from the abbey and its final abbot, Hugh Cook (Farringdon), was executed and quartered in front of Reading Abbey. After this horrendous event, the abandoned abbey was looted for its lead, glass, and facing stones.

After some years, the old gateway to Reading Abbey has now been restored, pictured here in 2018. (Chris Wood / CC BY-SA 4.0)

After some years, the old gateway to Reading Abbey has now been restored, pictured here in 2018.  (Chris Wood / CC BY-SA 4.0 )

Reading Abbey Then and Now

Although Reading Abbey is abandoned today, it would have been a marvelous site to see in its heyday. Had it survived, Reading Abbey would have been one of the most perfect examples of Norman architecture in England. The monastery was built between the two rivers Kennet and the Thames. It would have had an elaborate cloister which had monsters carved into the capitals, known as the “beak heads.” The size of the structure was grand and the abbey would have been painted in vibrant reds, yellows and blues. In 2018, Reading Museum created a digital model of what they believed the Reading Abbey may have looked like before dissolution by King Henry VIII .

Nowadays, the Reading Abbey is just a shell of what it used to be. It is an open air edifice with only the original walls standing. The only part of the abbey that remains wholly intact is the gateway. This section was once was a boarding school which was the home of famous English novelist Jane Austen. Now, it is owned by Reading Museum.

Visiting Reading Abbey

The abbey was closed in 2009 due to fears that the falling stones were unsafe. A recent conservation project called Reading Abbey Revealed has been established and funded to keep the ruins in good condition. It was reopened to the public in 2018. However, the pandemic woes have closed it off once again. Upon reopening, tourists will be able to visit the ruins every day from dawn to dusk. Reading Museum is usually open Tuesday to Saturday from 10 am to 4 pm. The museum offers walking tours of the Abbey Quarter but there are also options for visitors to take self-guided tours.  There is no admission fee into the museum but the suggested donation is £ 5 pounds ($6.86). In 2021, Reading Abbey will be celebrating the 900 th anniversary of its construction in 1121.

Top image: The abbey gateway at the now ruined Reading Abbey in a Paul Sandby oil painting from 1808. Source: Public domain

By ML Childs

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